Monday, November 14, 2011

On Meddling (Part 1 of 2) by Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas was a well known biologist and essayist who wrote the following piece in 1974.  In this essay, he reflects on the unintended consequences of trying to affect (or "meddle" with) any part of a complex system without first understanding the whole (as best you can).  Introduced to me by David Peter Stroh, it's a highly readable piece on systems thinking with indirect application to homelessness policy.

When you are confronted by any complex social system, such as an urban center or a hamster, with things about it that you're dissatisfied with and anxious to fix, you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping. This realization is one of the sore discouragements of our century. Jay Forrester has demonstrated it mathematically, with his computer models of cities in which he makes clear that whatever you propose to do, based on common sense, will almost inevitably make matters worse rather than better. You cannot meddle with one part of a complex system from the outside without the almost certain risk of setting off disastrous events that you hadn't counted on in other, remote parts. If you want to fix something you are first obliged to understand, in detail the whole system, and for every large systems you can't do this without a very large computer. Even then, the safest course seems to be to stand by and wring hands, but not to touch.

Intervening is a way of causing trouble.

If this is true, it suggests a new approach to the problems of cities, from the point of view of experimental pathology: maybe some of the things that have gone wrong are the result of someone's efforts to be helpful.
It makes a much simpler kind of puzzle. Instead of trying to move in and change things around, try to reach in gingerly and simply extract the intervener.

The identification and extraction of isolated meddlers is the business of modern medicine, at least for the fixing of diseases caused by identifiable microorganisms. The analogy between a city undergoing disintegration and a diseased organism does not stretch the imagination too far. Take syphilis, for instance. In the old days of medicine, before the recognition of microbial disease mechanisms, a patient with advanced syphilis was a complex system gone wrong without any single, isolatable cause, and medicine's approach was, essentially, to meddle. The analogy becomes more spectacular if you begin imagining what would happen if we knew everything else about modern medicine with the single exception of microbial infection and the spirochete. We would be doing all sorts of things to intervene: new modifications of group psychotherapy to correct the flawed thinking of general paresis, transplanting hearts and aortas attached for cardiovascular lues, administering immunosuppressant drugs to reserve the autoimmune reactions in tabes, enucleating gummas from the liver, that sort of effort. We might even be wondering about the role of stress in this peculiar, "multifactorial," chronic disease, and there would be all kinds of suggestions for "holistic" approaches, ranging from their changes in the home environment to White House commissions on the role of air pollution. At an earlier time we would have been busy with bleeding, cupping, and purging, as indeed we once were. Or incantations, or shamanist fits of public ecstasy. Anything, in the hope of bringing about a change for the better in the whole body.

The "Meddling" image at top is by Mark Wilson.  If interested in T-shirts or hoodies with this design click here.

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