Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Meddling (Part 2 of 2) by Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas was a well known biologist and essayist who wrote the following piece on meddling with complex systems in 1974. This essay is divided into 2 blogs.  To read part 1 click here.

These were the classical examples of medical intervention in the prescientific days, and there can be no doubt that most of them did more harm than good, excepting perhaps the incantations.

With syphilis, of course, the problem now turns out to be simple. All you have to do, armed with the sure knowledge that the spirochete is the intervener, is to reach in carefully and eliminate this microorganism. If you do this quickly enough, before the whole system has been shaken to pieces, it will put itself right and the problem solves itself.

Things are undoubtedly more complicated in pathological social systems. There may be more than one meddler involved, maybe a whole host of them, maybe even a system of meddlers infiltrating all parts of the system you're trying to fix. If this is so, then the problem is that much harder, but it is still approachable, and soluble, once you've identified the fact of intervention.

It will be protested that I am setting up a new sort of straw demonology, postulating external causes for pathological events that are intrinsic. It is not in the nature of complex social systems to go wrong, all by themselves, without external cause? Look at overpopulation. Look at Calhoun's famous model, those crowded colonies of rats and their malignant social pathology, all due to their own skewed behavior. Not at all, is my answer. All you have to do is find the meddler, in this case Professor Calhoun himself, and the system will put itself right. The trouble with those rats is not the innate tendency of crowded rats to go wrong, but the scientists who took them out of the world at large and put them into too small a box.

I do not know who the Calhouns of New York City may be, but it seems to me a modest enough proposal that they be looked for, identified, and then neatly lifted out. Without them and their intervening, the system will work nicely. Not perfectly, perhaps, but livably enough.

We have a roster of diseases which medicine calls "idiopathic" meaning that we do not know what causes them. The list is much shorter than it used to be; a century ago, common infections like typhus fever and tuberculous meningitis were classed as idiopathic illnesses. Originally, when it first came into the language of medicine, the term had a different, highly theoretical meaning. It was assumed that most human diseases were intrinsic, due to inbuilt failures of one sort or another, things gone wrong with various internal humors. The word "idiopathic" was intended to mean, literally, a disease having its own origin, a primary disease without any external cause. The list of such disorders has become progressively shorter as medical science has advanced, especially within this century, and the meaning of the term has lost its doctrinal flavor; we use "idiopathic" now to indicate simply that the cause of a particular disease is unknown. Very likely, before we are finished with medical science, and with luck, we will have found that all varieties of disease are the result of one or another sort of meddling, and there will be no more idiopathic illness.

With time, and a lot more luck, things could turn out this way for the social sciences as well.

To view part 1 of this 2 part essay from 1974 click here.

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