MIT (10) Why is Complexity Controversial?

Graduate students tend to talk about famous professors, and few are as famous as Nobel Prize Winners. This story is about Herb Simon, who got his PhD from the University of Chicago in decision sciences, a combination of social science, computer science, and experimental psychology, which explains why he won his Nobel in economics. For the awards ceremony, Simon learned Swedish to give his acceptance speech, which for me is just showing off. I saw him just once, sitting next to my PhD adviser on a panel at the American Political Sciences Association (APSA).

This story was told to me about Simon long after he had died. One day, Simon was visiting a university, and afterwards some graduate student was tasked with driving him to the airport. They’re driving along, the conversation was waning, the student was trying to think of topics to discuss, so he asked Simon about his Nobel. Somewhat surprisingly, Simon was angry about it. Specifically, he was mad because the award felt to him like a lifetime achievement award, and it felt that way because his ideas had not permeated or been inculcated by the political or policy professions. It is worth considering why this is so. That is, why is it that fundamental and correct insights into the complexities of social systems might be rejected?

A couple of theories present themselves. First, Simon puts forward the theory of bounded rationality, which states that people make decisions based on few and certain data, and when they are stressed, they make decisions on even fewer and more certain data. The problem with bounded rationality is that is places limits on ambitious political entrepreneurs. That is, Simon’s theory states that there are limits to how much information any person can process, which places limits on hierarchies, hierarchical organizations, and decision-making. It also forces decision making, and thus power, to be distributed, which does not sit well with the politically ambitious who seek ever greater amounts of power.

Second, bounded rationality posits an external “reality” about which the human mind cannot know everything and that actually places limits on human action. Moreover, the complexity of this external reality creates “resistance” to policies so they don’t achieve their intended results. The expression, “the devil is in the details” captures this external reality, but God is in this reality and these details too. The goal then should be to understand as much about this external reality to policies work out more predictably and better policy outcomes can be achieved.

However, that’s not the way it works in big-time professional politics. Instead, ever more personnel, time, and money is spent trying to achieve policy goals that need not necessarily be impossible but probably are. Simon observed that important policy questions are always controversial, and there is an inherent clash here between those who study the problem so that it encompasses multiple positions and those who advocate for a particular position, which the former being more cognitive and scientific but the latter being more emotional and accessible. Controversy tends to emphasize emotion, and the potency of the modern media has perfected the art of stoking emotion to a high-art — especially in a democracy with voting — so while advanced computational techniques are available to better understand complexity and policy, the incentives for doing so are not significant.



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