Sunday, February 28, 2010

Complexly Adapting Commentators

I read Niall Ferguson's article in Foreign Affairs (subscription required) the other night in dead-tree version, after I had turned my computer off. It looked like shooting fish in a barrel, so I thought about blogging it, but a number of things intervened, and my general feeling of bummed-outness at the level of Ferguson's argument kept me from doing it.

But Ferguson has a short version of the article in today's Los Angeles Times, and David Ignatius likes it. DougJ and the Balloon Juice crowd have said most of what I would have. I'd like to add one thing, though.

When we physical scientists work up a hypothesis, one of the things we have to show is that it's the best hypothesis. We have to look around to see if other hypotheses fit the evidence. And there's another hypothesis beyond Ferguson's extremely flawed one that predicts societal crashes.

If you have a finite amount of investment to support yourself, say your savings for retirement, and if you spend faster than the investment produces income, things will look pretty good for a while, and then will rapidly crash. It's the inverse of the compound interest effect: you're using mostly interest for a while, but as you start using capital, you get less interest, and you use more capital, and you fall off a cliff. The money disappears in no time at all.

That model implies different causes and remedies than does Ferguson's, so it would be useful to test both of them against the facts and against whatever they are supposed to be. And, as the Balloon Juice crowd shows, Ferguson doesn't know what he's talking about.

We're bound, unfortunately, to hear more stuff like this on complex adaptive systems; they're part of today's intellectual hit parade and can be made to explain or support pretty much anything. As we see, the phrase and the excitement Ferguson produces from it appeal to Ignatius.

Several of the spot-on BJ comments:

Scott Alloway:
Ask them to expand on it. If they can’t, it’s just simple BS. These people need to be called on their crap. Making shit up as if one has a real vision (idea/concept) is game playing. Attach a name tag to it and expect us to buy into it? It’s not 1984 anymore.
Ooookay, as an engineer for whom this phrase has actual real meaning: if you have systems that are difficult to characterize and very sensitive to inputs, you stabilize them and treat them gently. In the climate case, you stop throwing megatons of crap into the system and don’t get any ideas about half-assed compensating effects. In the economic case, you reduce financial leverage to stop overdriving the system and regulate the crap out of it to prevent actors in the system from pushing it strongly into unusual states. And if an airplane is getting out of control, you try to place it back into a known stable state, not throw up your hands, call it a complex system, and let is corkscrew into the ground.
Doctor Science:
Basically, in biology a system which is both “complex” and “adaptive” is going to be stable, not fragile, which is pretty much the opposite of what Ferguson is saying.
Complex does not mean opaque, and adaptive does not mean immune to change. CAS is a catch-all term for any network of interdependent operators where all operators are changed whenever one operator changes. An economy, a culture, an ecosystem, a colony of insects, an immune system, etc.


J. said...

I've seen some talk in the defense world about Iraq/Afghanistan being a "complex environment." And some older military gents cried BS on that. They said, hell, it's war, it's always been complex. Nothing's really changed... It does sound like bullshit philosophy.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Didn't Clausewitz say "war is a complex adaptive system?"

Sorry...there actually is a meaning to this phrase, and people at the Santa Fe Institute, for example, are doing some useful things with the concept and all the math that flows from it.

But using a new phrase to describe something, particularly without understanding that phrase or adding anything to the conventional understanding by deriving something from the concept that that phrase stands for, is, yes, BS.