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Complexity in problems does not lend itself to taking the problem apart

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I was so taken with this talk just an hour later and discussing ETS’s Opportunity in America Initiative, I used Tobias’s image of a complex problem not lending itself to taking itself apart — an approach which we tend to use in problem solving. My colleague Irwin Kirsch said that this reminded him of a recent speech by David Brooks in which Karl Popper was cited. Some years ago Popper gave a rather famous lecture in which he contrasted problems that are like clocks — mechanical, easily fixed through taking apart and then putting them back together — and problems that are clouds. I’ll go to Popper himself to make the distinction, which I think is useful for our efforts:
“My clouds are intended to represent physical. systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable. I shall assume that we have before us a schema or arrangement in which a very disturbed or disorderly cloud is placed on the left. On the other extreme of our arrangement, on its right, we may place a very reliable pendulum clock, a precision clock, intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour.

According to what I may call the commonsense view of things, some natural phenomena, such as the weather, or the coming and going of clouds, are hard to predict: we speak of the `vagaries of the weather’. On the other hand, we speak of `clockwork precision’ if we wish to describe a highly regular and predictable phenomenon.

There are lots of things, natural processes and natural phenomena, which we may place between these two extremes-the clouds on the left, and the clocks on the right. The changing seasons are somewhat unreliable clocks, and may therefore be put somewhere towards the right, though not too far. I suppose we shall easily agree to put animals not too far from the clouds on the left, and plants somewhat nearer to the clocks. Among the animals, a young puppy will have to be placed further to the left than an old dog. Motor cars, too, will find their place somewhere in our arrangement, according to their reliability: a Cadillac, I suppose, is pretty far over to the right, and even more so a Rolls-Royce, which will be quite close to the best of the clocks. Perhaps furthest to the right should be placed the solar system? ”

Perhaps one of the reasons that we see certain situations as paradoxical is because of this cloud nature; in a system, elements are not always stable, and our efforts to intervene may have unintended consequences. I’m not sure what to do about all of this, but I found Tobias’s talk very useful in trying to clarify the situations that we face. BTW I don’t see a link to the actual slides: is that forthcoming?


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