6/7/10

Operationalizing metaphor

This post extends a conversation I began on 19 May 2010, titled testing the validity of complex systems.


I my last two posts I've argued that one should have a way to determine empirically if the topic one is studying is actually a complex system. Related, I've argued that the definitions complexity scientists use to identify a topic as a complex system should likewise be empirically grounded and tested. In this post, I want to comment further why I think doing such things is important.

Two words: operationalizing metaphor. I have read far too many articles and books in the last couple years that are little more than undisciplined, metaphorical labyrinths verging on the same sort of nonsense that took place at the high point of the postmodern movement in the 1990s. I've read articles talking about turning one's business firm or one's educational system into a self-organizing, emergent, agent-based network in order to optimize profits or learning, as if one could make a social system self-organize. Is that not contradictory? How does one make a system self-organize, given that a self-organizing system is one where there is no guiding external force controlling the systems's organization? Or, how about pushing one's business to the edge of chaos in order to profit from its nonlinear dynamics? What does something like this mean? Do these writers really understand what nonlinear (which, last I looked is a mathematical term) means? Related, what is nonlinear management? Or, how about talking about any and all social change as if they were the product of tipping points? When I hear such discussions I am reminded of the first time I heard a politician talk about "deconstructing" some political process to get to the bottom of things. Worse, when I hear such complexity science nonsense, I fear the next Sokal Hoax. Remember how the physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted his completely nonsensical postmodern text to the periodical, Social Text, and got it accepted, only to reveal later that the entire text was garbage. Sokal's hoax was done with complete seriousness. He was not trying to say that postmodernism was useless. Instead, he felt that postmodernism had some important things to offer, but only by increasing its rigor. I'm not saying that some of the complexity science literature has reached this point. But, it is close. If complexity science is going to make important inroads into mainstreet science, many of its new practitioners need to be more empirically rigorous and discerning in the definitions they use and the topics they call complex systems.

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