The importance of appreciating complexity

Here is another new essay of mine, called The Simplicity Assumption.

The opposite of the Simplicity Assumption would be a complexity diagram. Imagine a diagram with a social problem, such as the obesity epidemic or the financial crisis of 2008, at the center. Then list all of the plausible factors that could have contributed to this problem, and put those on the diagram, with arrows pointing to the central problem. Next, draw arrows that reflect likely feedback loops among these various causal factors. Finally, draw arrows that reflect likely feedback loops from the central problem to some of these causal factors. For a complex problem, this diagram will look rather messy, like a badly tangled ball of kite string; you cannot be sure that tugging on one part of the knotted mess will make things better or worse.

Economists do not work with complexity diagrams. Such diagrams are not conducive to creating tractable models. Not having a tractable model is not conducive to publishing a paper. Not publishing papers is not conducive to having a successful career.

Read the whole thing.

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6 Responses to The importance of appreciating complexity

  1. Joe says:

    It really needs a picture or at least a link to a picture of an example of a complexity diagram.

  2. MikeW says:

    Good essay. If only more people would admit that they don’t know all the answers…

  3. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Very nice essay. I’m repeating myself, but it reminds me of a couple of things.

    1. Nathan Glazer’s remarks that he is skeptical of the use of social policy because we just don’t know enough.

    2. The expert syndrome found in the Kennedy and more so LBJ era, later criticized by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    I don’t recall exactly where this is discusse, but one place to look is this: you should be able to find it discussed in the biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan written by Godfrey Hodgson.

    If, for example, the cities are in trouble, we need an expert designed program to “Save the Cities.”

  4. Thomas Boyle says:

    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
    – H.L. Mencken

  5. Randy says:

    Occam was wrong?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It’s like Einstein’s famous saying that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” All the work is being done by “as possible.”

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