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« The Day Job Calls | Main | Revision to My Systems Science Slides »

March 04, 2012


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I especially like your front page graphic of human eye connecting to human brain.

What you should add is that the human eye has limited (finite) capabilities, for example able to see only in 400-700nm range and only at limited resolution with naked eye.

Similarly, the human brain has limited (finite) capabilities, for example able to think only in a few simultaneous dimensions (i.e. x, y, z, t) and often only over short time horizons (how will system behave and evolve over next few years).

Finally, note that the eye often sees only what the brain tells it too see.

Aboc Zed


I liked the graphic too.

I will review the presentations and if I have long coments will e-mail you directly.


I'vee seen you called "generic doomer" elswhere. I hope you do not take it personally - that person must be very bitter and hurt and that clouds his judgement. But you as always continue to put it well and the people there properly give you credit.

Good Job!


Gail Tverberg

Interesting presentations!

What books do you recommend on the topic?

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@Gail, what a fascinating question ("What books do you recommend on the topic?")

I would have thought that since the time of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, surely hundreds of books must have been written about how the whole Universe is no more than a "model" (of it, or 'shadows' of it) appearing inside our brains and how everybody models the world differently; "System Thinking" being just one of many possible ways to model the Universe.

To my surprise, I could not easily find on Google a single concise treatise on the topic of modeling and of "System Thinking" being just one of many possible ways to do so.

I would recommend just the first few chapters of Roger Penrose's "Road to Reality" as a starter.

But the problem with Penrose is that he presumes "System Thinking" as being the only way to think. This is not so. Many people model the Universe as being controlled almost entirely by people-to-people interactions.

Consider for example this web piece:
"Peter Gleick Confesses ..."
which, behind the scenes is really a story about models within models. Peter Gleick, who is/was chair of the American Geophysical Union's Task Force probably models "Climate Change" using "System Thinking". But the people attacking him (and thus indirectly attacking his models) choose to model the word as "who is lying, who is unethical and who is left behind to own The True Truth". That's their way of seeing the Universe.


OK. here's my thoughts - as a retired high school teacher - on the above.
1. GREAT idea to have a course like this as part of a "core" curriculum. A hundred years ago, when i was at the UW in Seattle, the UW physics department there developed a "Physics for Non-science Majors" course. It was developed by the then chair of the physics program - Ronald Geballe (sp?) and their cosmic ray man - Dr. Clark - whose first name I don't recall. They brought in some of the top guys in the department to conduct the labs, AND THEY WERE VERY CAREFUL TO KEEP THE MATH AND LANGUAGE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE. It was a WONDERFUL three quarter course that I've NEVER forgotten, in part because they were DETERMINED to communicate effectively with us in the Great Unwashed. For me, success crowned their efforts.

2. My recommendation based on the peek I took at your first "site" on this proposed course would be to involve your students, as much as possible, in deriving for themselves the development of your rather complex "graphs" and images. I wouldn't present them with power points of these things, but instead, for example, I'd divide the class(es) into groups - one group is the transportation group, another group is the industrial group, another group is the housing-urban design group, etc. etc. etc., and their first task is to come up with detailed understandings of The Way Things Currently Are in each of these sectors, and to be prepared to defend the "logic" - "thinking" - that brought that particular element of the system to where is is today. Then the class gets back together and puts all their information together to develop for themselves the interactive connections that your power-point dispay shows. THEY develop these connections for themselves, and thus, I'm betting, they understand the interconnections within the system, because they've put them together themselves.

And I'm gonna keep on thinking about all of this and see what else comes to mind, but right now the old man is saying it's time to hit the bicycles BEFORE the wind down here reaches its predicted 30 mph for today!


PS I LOVE Plato's Cave tale. I ALWAYS started my world history course with The Cave, because it seemed to SO perfectly illustrate the limitations of what we think we "know." The kids always responded positively, and I think they were drawn to the notion that they'd understood something that the GREAT PLATO had written. So yes, DO use The Cave. It's perfect.

step back

As a student, I never did like Plato's Cave because it seemed so counter to what my lying eyes and deceitful ears told me.

Only now, when I'm much older (and realize how unwise I was) do I see that Plato (or was it Socrates pretending to be Plato?) was oh so close to the truth about how our brains deceive us.

You might instead want to try a gambit like this one:
False Colors
where the idea is that aliens come to this planet, but their sensory organs don't operate the way ours do, and all our delusional rantings about the beauty of a scene or the loveliness of a musical piece make no sense to them whatsoever --because they are perceiving the Universe in different audio and visual frequency ranges and their alien brains are processing those shadows of Plato;s Cave in ways different from (alien to) how our brains process our sightings of the shadows.

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p.s It may seem that we have digressed from the course topic, "Systems Thinking". But not really. Systems thinking starts with a given Point of View (PoV) or model of how we think the Universe is put together and then, based on that axiomatic model, we start drawing the linkages between system components (even if those components are merely shadows on Plato's Cave wall --they seem real to us).

George Mobus


Details, details...!


Who is Dave???

Hi Gail.

I am working on a bibliography that will accompany the course materials. I'll be posting that when it is done. Meanwhile there is Donella Meadow's book, "Thinking in Systems", as a primer. Charlie Hall's mentor, Howard T. Odum was the father of systems ecology. "A Prosperous Way Down", with his wife, Elizabeth, links systems thinking with the energy decline. More "techincal" books will be on the bibliography.

Step (2),

Systems thinking is a form of modeling, mental/conceptual, and so dependent on the brain apparatus to encode objects and processes in the world with some kind of fidelity. And, of course, it is subject to limitations in modeling resolution - as are all simulations. But the systemness which I describe is that in the world, not just that in the head. The point of my leading graphic is that there are real systems with principled attributes in the world, and that our brains attempt to construct models that are reasonable approximations of what is in the world. So it is not just about the models.

Science is the method for examining systems in the world and then constructing models (mathematical, computer, mental) based on higher resolution of the details.

Neither pure observation and thinking nor science will ever get the model to be a full representation of the system in the world, but the latter helps us get better and better approximations. Ultimately even our best computer models must be contextualized in the world as a whole and that seems possible only by the facilities of the human brain (sapience). Perhaps one day another kind of mind (e.g. Watson on steroids) might be capable of contextualizing all sorts of models. But in the meantime we are stuck with the human brain.

WRT: system thinking being just one of many ways to model, in my research into thinking methods actually employed by humans I came to the conclusion (and it is written up in my sapience work) that we humans are hardwired to think systemically. All of the principles I've listed are actually part of the cognition of things happening and being in the world. But most people do this subconsciously and only later try to rationalize that they are arriving at different perspectives, especially if they want the world to be run by a supreme intelligence.

What I am proposing is simply boosting the more formal and explicit aspects of systems thinking so that people who learn it are more capable of seeing and connecting the dots, especially in the system in which they are embedded.

The Allegory of the Cave is not just about the failures of the mind to perceive THE objective reality, it is also about the notion that there IS an objective reality.


Great observations.

The material I've posted is a kind of core concepts. I will tone it down for non-science majors while trying to maintain the qualitative perspective on systemness. My textbook is designed to be used by non-science/math types by focusing on the qualitative aspects, but adds "Quant Boxes" for the more mathematically inclined. These sit there as a tease to those who want to try to follow the mathematical arguments, but the text does not rely on them.

Your second idea is a great one. Several years ago I ran a course called "Maps of the World and Maps in the Mind". It was a global honors introductory course in which I sneaked systems science in through the backdoor, so to speak. In that course I had several exercises in which we did exactly what you described. So recalling that (and thanks for triggering my memory) I intend to follow your advice. Thanks.


Aboc Zed


I finally got the time to review the slides.

Excellent work!

I am glad you put the slides together - together they have a lot of "systemness"!

And now I can better understand your essays - I have your "language" spelled out.

Now all we need is enough "system scientists" to get to the helm of homo sapiens and _devolve_ unsustainable complexity that has run its course under conditions of nort knowing (lack of system science in government, ignorance) into sustainable complexity of adaptive system designed on the principals of system science.

And the mantra that will get us there is "Least Population with Least Environment/Resource Corruption"


PS. There is a typo on the slide in part 2; the slide is "Mental Models" - the one beofere the picture of the dog and and the schematics of brain as system modeler. The typo is in third bullet point in first subpoint. I amy be wrong but I think "metal" should be "mental".

Thanks again for the pleasure of reading the slides: keep on gret work and expand it into textbook

Joseph Ormond

I often read your blog. I don't think I have ever commented before. I don't have the time at this moment to absorb all of this but I'll be back. I would not use the phrase "global warming" it has become too much of a hot button. Years ago I was offered by the director of the social service agency were I had been employed for 15 years what I would like to do for the remainder of my career and my response was that I wanted to supervise a unit of systems analysts. I picked then it was called the system unit. Reading this I am remind of my insistence on use of flowcharts.

George Mobus


Thanks for the alert re: typo. You are right, should be mental not metal!


Thanks for commenting.

You are right about the "hot button"(ness) of global warming. I have taught about it before and have generally had a "warmer" reaction to it from the majority of students (not to make a pun, but...) Students between the ages of 18 and 25 are more likely to accept the science than are some of their parents it seems.

OTOH, I am thinking about something a little smaller now, thanks to the comments here, on the Oil Drum, and in personal e-mails. My original thought was to use a global predicament as a motivator for learning about system science and systems thinking. As several commentators have pointed out, that scale might require too much for the average student, and I think this may be right. So I will shoot for something a bit more manageable. There are certainly plenty of examples to choose from!

Ah flow charts. My computer science students have to be brow beaten to get them to use flow charts for program design. Most want to just sit at the keyboard and start experimenting with code they imagine will produce the functionality required. I can't remember a time when I didn't use systems diagrams and flow charts to work out the architecture before actually trying to implement something. Kids today, right?


Aboc Zed


Since you are planning to scale down from global warming as a case for system science I thought of an idea.

Would you think about man/woman relationship; family unit; marriage; etc. as a case?

Your friend Jack Alpert has an example in his book on "temporal blindness".

He had a woman that was thinking to go into a medica school but was weary of possible toll on the relationship with her fiance/husnband as she learned the statistics of high instances of divorce/break-ups for those who go thru medical school

There is a discussion of feedback loops - I think that maybea short enough example students may understand.

And at that age one way or another the topic and theme of love and relationship never leaves the mind - you may instantly connect to some most active part of neocortex

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