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Written by Dr Penny Mealy

Seeking Clarity in a Complex World

In her second post on the research project Practical Wisdom in a Complex World, Dr Penny Mealy explores ways to overcome the challenges involved in understanding our world.

Camera lens

Alfred North Whitehead famously said,

“the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity on the far side of complexity”

As much of our thinking, public discourse and decision making tends to be either too simple to appropriately account for the complexity of challenges we face, or too complicated to be easily understood, perhaps it isn’t any wonder that trust in politicians, economists and leaders is currently so low.

As our socio-economic systems become more complex and technologically sophisticated, being able to understand the likely consequences of individual and societal actions is both more critical – and more challenging. Recent political events have shown how important it is for the public to understand and meaningfully engage with things they are entitled to vote about. But the difficulty that experts face in communicating complicated things to broader audiences has also become blatantly apparent.

Part of the problem is that as humans, we have limited attention spans and cognitive processing power. Our capacity to make practically wise decisions about the many possible courses of action open to us at any point in time will always run up against cognitive constraints. We know that dumbing down discourse or seeking superficially simplistic solutions rarely results in good outcomes. So how might we achieve more clarity in a complex - and cognitively constrained - world? 

Not more thinking… different thinking

The secret to more effective and efficient thinking could lie in alternative representation systems. Remember the Roman numeral system? Counting and adding things up is relatively easy with Roman numerals. But try doing long division. Unlike the Roman numeral system where V is always V, the Arabic numeral system makes use of positional (or place) values. So the ‘5’ can represent 5 units, 5 tens or 5 hundreds, depending on where it is placed. As we know from history, changing systems not only made arithmetic less cognitively taxing, it also gave rise to the invention of new, previously unthinkable things - like calculus. 

Languages, numbers, models, stories, metaphors – are all means of representing the world around us. In shaping our thinking, these cognitive tools can have a profound influence on our understanding of ourselves, our environment and the likely consequences of our actions. Just as an alternative system for representing numbers allowed people to think in previously unimaginable ways, it’s entirely plausible that the development of new representation systems could enable us to think differently - and potentially help us overcome some of the present barriers in understanding complex phenomena. 

Take for example, the work of Brett Victor who, among other things, transformed a seminal scientific paper on network theory into a visual, dynamic and interactive medium. Let’s face it, some things (like Watts and Strogatz’ notions about “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks”) are hard to put down on paper. And although the standard paper-based mode of representing and communicating scientific research hasn’t really changed in the last 400 years, computer-aided mediums offer exciting possibilities for making complex ideas more accessible. Other examples include Michael Nielsen’s efforts to develop ‘Magic Paper’, which aims to provide a new computational interface for representing mathematical ideas. Nicky Case’s work to make explanations more ‘explorable’ through playful, interactive and insightful expositions also demonstrates the powerful potential for mixing creativity with computer-aided interfaces. But what about the realm of public policy – could alternative representation systems improve our capacity to understand and promote the interests of society?

New mediums for measuring what matters

Representing the health of the economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has long been recognised as problematic. Bad things – like wars and earthquakes – can make the measure go up, while good things – like leisure time, home production (including child-raising) aren’t accounted for. The rise of the digital age has made this measure even more misleading. Although things like Google maps and Wikipedia have made a profound difference to our lives, it is difficult to capture the benefits of these types of innovations in the GDP accounting framework. Moreover, GDP also won’t tell you anything about the distribution of goods and services in an economy, or the extent which growth was achieved by unsustainably depleting natural resources. Its time as an indicator of living standards might be almost up.

Numerous proposed alternatives exist. Some measures include adjustments to better account for things like inequality, while others broaden the measurement basket to include life expectancy, education and life satisfaction. And although the growing number of alternative measures are providing important and useful insights into broader notions of human wellbeing, it’s worth considering whether an alternative medium might provide entirely different perspectives on how we progress prosperity.

For example, ‘dashboards’ that present multiple components are becoming a more common form of representation. These displays encourage us to move away from thinking only in terms of movements in a single number. Network science, and the ability to represent a wide range of phenomena in terms  of nodes and their connecting links, could also provide a useful means of measuring things like social capital, systemic risk and resilience. But a broader question exists about how to measure – or at least represent – what really matters.

Robert F. Kennedy famously bemoaned GDP’s inability to capture things like the ‘joy of children’s play’, ‘the beauty of our poetry’ or the ‘intelligence of our public debate’. In the same way that Isaac Newton found that he needed a new form of mathematics to describe the speed of how an object falls, we might find that measuring what is truly worthwhile requires a new representation system.

Model thinking

Models are also a powerful form of representation that economists hold in particularly high regard. Like maps, models help us represent the most important characteristics or features of an issue so that our brain doesn’t become overwhelmed with unnecessary detail. But in recent years, economists have been repeatedly criticized for omitting too much important detail in their representations of the world. The limited representation of the financial sector in models used by central banks in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis is an important case in point. The “grossly misleading” characterisation of damage functions (stipulating potential economic losses from climate change) used in models for informing climate policy is another.

There are some important efforts underway to develop alternatives, such as the more flexible agent-based models, which aim to capture how macro-level phenomena emerges from the interaction of individual agents acting in accordance with prescribed behavioural rules. While these models are still a relatively new analytical framework and can sometimes run the risk of growing more complex than the real world they try to help explain, their continued improvement could provide policy makers and economists with a powerful medium for better understanding complex economic dynamics.

But perhaps models shouldn’t only be tools for technocrats. Think back to medieval times, when literacy was restricted to a specialist few – the clergy and some elites. This created the conditions in which those who had the ability to read and write could wield significant power over people – largely through control over the interpretation and teaching of religious texts. However, with the invention of the printing press, the spread of literacy not only democratized knowledge, it unleashed an extraordinary period of growth in ideas. This is not to say that everyone needs macroeconomic models in their living rooms. But while we’re filling our houses with ‘smart’ appliances and AI assistants, let’s not forget that there could be alternative ways to improve the smarts of society.

The Representation of Meaning

One final consideration is how we represent meaning. The rise of the information age has, in part, been underpinned by a clear system for representing information – bits. Moreover, the development of information theory provides a scientifically rigorous analytical framework for measuring and thinking about information. Could there be a similar system for representing meaning? After all, meaning shapes the value and use of the digital bits.

We know we can powerfully represent meaning in stories, poetry, art and films. As these media can express profound truths about human experience and ultimately shape culture, developing a more systematic framework for analyzing the representation of meaning could move us one step closer to finding answers to those notoriously tricky questions – like the meaning of life.

  • About the author

    Dr Penny Mealy, Research Associate

    Penny is a Research Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. In collaboration with Diane Coyle, Penny’s work focuses on a project entitled ‘Practical Wisdom in a Complex World’.   Learn more

    Penny Mealy