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A Systemic Revolution, or, the Need for a Post-Scientific Approach - Andy Novocin

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

I remember learning about the scientific method through an example in a textbook. The example was that of spontaneous generation in which someone tested the statement that rotting meat generates flies. They did this by placing rotting meat in a sealed jar and directly observing that flies never emerged from the meat. From this example we were supposed to learn about attacking a problem through the process of observing, questioning, isolating out a testable hypothesis, experimenting, and finally concluding the validity of the hypothesis. The aspect that I want to focus on in this piece is the separation of aspects of a problem. I believe that the scientific approach of analyzing a problem by breaking it down into manageable chunks is very pervasive in our world, and exists in many aspects of our culture. I see ripples of this divide and conquer approach in many facets of industrialized modern life: in the production world via the separation of labor, in the academic world with the near-infinite specialization of fields, the artistic realm in which the separation of elements in a viewing experience are abstracted into various components (think the chain from impressionists through cubists through object-less art into formless art and beyond), we analyze food in terms of its constituent nutrients, and we educate students in specific and separated subject matters from a young age right on through to post-graduate work. This cultural shift formed a type of revolution, in the sense that a new mode of seeing the world emerged to challenge the old and then traditional modality of knowledge. This new scientific modality allowed better predictive models which could be generated, tested, and improved. A working predictive model leads to confidence in the approach that generated the model and this helps to fuel these generational changes and slowly replace the old models.

In the future that we deserve I envision a dethroning of the divide-and-conquer approach by a more systemic mode of thought. We are witnessing real-time worldwide inter-connectedness and its impacts. I suspect that this connectedness will be echoed in a new language and paradigm for combining previously separate parts of scientific models for problem solving. The systemic approach to problem solving will be to see and model the inter-relationships of aspects that science/abstraction/industry has separated. We are discovering just how connected and complex things really are, and new models must be formed in light of this. Such new models will require more synthesis as opposed to separation. Just walk into the mathematics section of any university library and see hundreds of books which are only readable by a handful of experts in a highly specific field. I suspect the same is true in many core sciences. We are producing specialists who are becoming increasingly marginalized, what we don't have are people to glue together the disparate parts.

Many important and interesting problems are not attackable by a divide-and-conquer approach. For instance the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the over-usage of our planet's non-renewable resources, inter-nation and inter-cultural conflicts, or appropriate and adaptive education. We are just now beginning to develop the language infrastructure to even describe the extent of these problems largely as a matter of necessity. As we address more complex problems via synthesis and system thinking we will form the way for new approaches and paradigms by which inter-connectedness is understood, modeled, and more accurate predictions are made. Such models could bring confidence and such confidence could fuel the new modality by which future generations see knowledge. This modality would of course be echoed in many aspects of life and culture in unforeseeable ways, leading to better insights and thus wider or more refined approaches and the positive feedback loop of new ideas would carry the process. View your problem as the top level, view it as the bottom level, think about how to see and describe interconnected aspects of related problems and you'll be working towards solving the systematic problems we face and unlocking new insights into the world that the old approach is unequipped for.