Gears and Rust
My heart is pounding and I am short of breath. I fumble through my keys, dropping them once, digging for the one that unlocks College High Hall so that I can refresh myself at the water fountain before sitting down to begin this series of blog posts.
It’s about an hour’s bike ride from my house to campus, although it’s only twelve minutes—on days with less than heavy traffic—by car. My bike is old and purple, a loan from my fiance back when I lived much, much closer to WKU last year. I think, all along the ride here, back to middle and high school science—to the lessons about gears and conservation of energy, about how inefficient machines waste more to heat. My bike wastes a lot to heat.
The rules for working this out are simple: If I rotate once a gear with twenty teeth that is attached to a smaller gear of ten teeth, then that smaller gear will rotate twice. Therefore, in a perfect machine, it will take twice as much energy to turn the big gear as the small one, but the output will be twice as fast. By comparing this to how much energy it takes to spin the big gear in a real machine, we can work out how inefficient, say, my bike is because I just can’t get motivated enough to spray it down with WD-40.
Many concepts in science are simple “transformations” in this way. I put x in, I get y out.
Like a vending machine.
This sort of straightforward, empirical thinking can be traced back to Rene Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton. As Saroj Jayasinghe explains it in his paper on mechanistic thinking, this approach to science includes:
—Reductionism, which explains things in nature in terms of the parts that make them up. My purple bike, for example, can be divided into the system of gears and cables and forces acting upon them.
—Hierarchy, which arranges those parts into a clear, centralized “family tree” of cause and effect. The reason Barrack Obama receives so much hate mail is undoubtedly because he is at the top of the political food chain. Anything bad that happens must be his fault. Right?
—Linearity, which, unlike the other two properties, has a name whose meaning is less than obvious. Linearity simply refers to scenarios where “the whole” is exactly equivalent to the “sum of the parts.”
Little, and Big, Details
When these three properties hold, the math in a problem is usually simple or, at the least, solvable. But the world is not, in reality, that easy. Even the phrase, “rotate a gear once,“ is hiding a wealth of details.
At the level of atoms and atomic bonds, particles from the air are constantly in contact with the surface of the gear, beating against it like angry peasants beating the walls of a castle demanding more than “cake” to eat. These collisions, over time—a very, very long time—change the shape of the gear, some atoms breaking away and others adhering to it.
Going a scale lower, we can see mysterious forces acting on the atoms of the gear. If it is made of iron, over time it may begin to magnetize, somehow all the molecules arranging themselves in the same direction, aligning with a field that stretches far greater than the scale of atoms, reaching through cells and organisms and cities and continents and stretching into outer space.
That is to say, (1) behavior at a scale too small to be observed is (2) driven by forces at a scale that encompasses all of human life so that (3) patterns can be made that fit in the palms of our hands.
This is, of course, how an Etch-a-Sketch works.
But even with all these details of atoms colliding and aligning themselves with Earth’s magnetic field, reductionism, hierarchy, and linearity still very much apply. That is to say, a big complicated problem is still just complicated and not necessarily complex.
So let’s come up with simpler problems.
—I prefer Dr. Pepper and Coke to Mountain Dew and Pepsi, but this doesn’t mean it can be explained in terms of the atoms that make up my tongue.
—Protests like the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong cannot be arranged into a hierarchy because the protest is, by nature, de-centralized so that no one person can be the target of assassination.
—The very phrase “the whole is exactly equivalent to the sum of the parts” is awkward because the saying goes that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” How else can we expect to explain the necessity of teamwork to school children?
Into the Future and Into the Fray
It should be apparent then, if not obvious, that social networks are inherently “complex.” However, Saroj Jayasinghe explains, too much of the conversation about health systems—which are built on top of and serve social networks—is stuck in the mechanical way of thinking.
The conversation around epidemics like Ebola must move forward. The bike ride may be long, and we may end up short of breath, but we cannot, as a culture, understand Complex Systems unless we put in the leg work.
It’s going to take more than a change in vocabulary. It’s going to take relearning “cause and effect” without relearning “blame,” gaining a new understanding of how behaviors at one scale can produce patterns that just “emerge” at another scale, and letting go of nationally-harmful behaviors that sound like great ideas locally. ∎