I am excited that the Sunday Times-News featured a political cartoon directly referencing my column that ran on April 4. It featured what I consider to be a misconception of my position, but I love to see that (1) the column was noticed and (2) what the takeaway was for some people. Along with that, I enjoyed the feature about Mini-Cassia and how they are now cooperating on shared priorities. One priority for me in writing this column is to encourage cooperative effort in solving public policy problems. However, the reason I mention the two items together is that they are two examples of the effect of complex systems on 21st-century problem solving.
There is a field of study that has emerged since I ended my formal education, which I find fascinating and frustrating and applicable at the same time. I purchased a course from The Teaching Company called Understanding Complexity because I had already been trying to figure out complex systems on my own and I believed the course would be useful. It was, but the mathematics involved is daunting.
I believe that, as we travel further into the 21st century, it will become imperative that citizens will need to know how prevalent complex systems are. A simple Venn diagram is only the beginning of understanding a complex system. A Rube Goldberg device, which displays the domino effect, is another way of putting one’s toe into understanding the theory. The research is used in the social sciences as well as the hard sciences. Complexity intensifies much of the divide in public debate. I use the two examples I started out with because they are familiar to my readers. In the case of Mini-Cassia, both the reasons for the failures to cooperate in the past and the reasons for the new joint endeavors illustrate how complex the situation is. Many of the barriers in the past involved actions by different people or organizations. Simplot was upset about electrical rates, acted, and there was pushback by individuals as well as communities. The river played a part, both physically and symbolically. I suspect that the existence of two different canal companies and long forged family and social alliances also played a part. The new system currently in place was influenced by the emergence of several changes in the old one. It was a complex number of factors acting within a complex problem.
The disagreement I received about my comments on the electoral college also illustrate how easy it is to misunderstand the complex nature of our current political climate. The political cartoon showed the larger population of California voting as one interest. Many of the comments I received also limited their thoughts of state populations voting as one block. This may have been true in the 19th and 20th century, but it is not true currently. States have become politically divided. Think about how many states have considered partition.
Also, there are myriad reasons why people have the political views they have, and geography and lifestyle are only two of them. One of the reasons why both social media and election tampering are being examined is that social statisticians used data to pinpoint psychological traits of individual voters and the types and tones of arguments most likely to influence them in states with electoral college numbers which could significantly change the outcome of the election. They then used a barrage of those arguments, absent any conflicting information, to influence belief. This is an example of using the mathematics of complexity in a socially destabilizing way.
We all tend to respect common sense. It is often all we need to function in our world. Unfortunately, common sense is sometimes not enough to solve problems. I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that the study of complexity has emerged. It can make my head ache, but it also explains why simple answers don’t always succeed. It explains the law of unintended consequences, and it points out why we have to work so hard to find common ground.
When I write this column, I try to point out significant points in what I understand as complex issues. I am not writing a book, just a small opinion to give my readers something to think about and debate. My hope that my thoughts become a springboard for further thought and, especially, comment.