Monday, July 29, 2013

Anecdotes - non-trivial machines

The following anecdote comes from Stuart Umpleby responding to queries on the ASC conference about trivial and non-trivial machines.

"Dear Tom, As I recall, when speaking about a non-trivial machine, Heinz [von Foerster] always referred to an aluminum box that Ross Ashby constructed. As far as I know Ricardo Uribe still has it. It had two switches and two lights. The task was to determine the internal structure of the machine by pressing the switches and watching the lights. However, pressing one of the switches changed the  internal configuration in the box.

After building it, Ashby spent many hours at his kitchen table trying to figure out the internal operation of the machine. If a human observer could not figure out how such a simple "non-trivial machine" worked, how much more difficult would it be to figure out how a human being was thinking?

We want our machines to be trivial/ predictable. Would you want a car that turns to the left only 95% of the time when you turn the steering wheel to the left? But human beings change their minds often. They are non-trivial. Heinz felt that human beings try to trivialize non-trivial machines (i.e., human beings). Examples are threats of the use of force and most education systems.

Regards, Stuart"

This anecdote is telling in that it demonstrates how within a language community or an intellectual  lineage certain distinctions carry significance because of who said them and how it carries news of difference.  The distinction trivial/non-trivial machine was important to Heinz von Foerster who followed Alan Turing in using these distinctions.  This history makes sense within a lineage preoccupied with machines and mechanism but is unlikely to win favour in many disciplines within the social sciences because the distinction conserves the machine metaphor.  That said, in many fields, including areas of the social sciences humans are still too often treated as 'trivial machines'!

Cyber-systemic news

Ranulph Glanville writes:

"We have firmed up details for our {ASC} 50th anniversary conference in 2014. It will now take place in Washington DC: arrangements with Duke University ran into trouble when we tried to co-ordinate dates. Stu Umpleby will be helping set this conference up. It will be based around 6 August, when the ASC was incorporated. We will develop a special program around the theme "Living in Change".

He goes on:

"I think the following links may lead to things that interest you.

This link will take you to the first ever web page from CERN, 20 years ago. It is 20 years since the world wide web was inaugurated.

These links will take you to the books published by echoraum in Vienna. They have a whole series of contemporary cybernetics, as many of you will know, by and about Foerster, Glasersfeld, Jung, Pask, Karl and Albert Mueller, Scott and myself, amongst others.

The following link will take you to the newsletter of the European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research, which has much of interest including conference announcements (ours is one of them)

Finally, Carl Auer, publisher the two interview book by Bernhard Poerksen, with Foerster and Maturana. These are on special offer at 10 euros each. Follow the links to find more and order:

I hope these various links will interest you."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

'Systems Practice' Reviewed

My 2010 book Systems Practice. How to Act in a Climate-Change World (Springer and The Open University) has just been reviewed by Howard Silverman in the journal Ecopsychology. His review is replete with understanding. The first page is available on open access.

Howard opens his review with:

"The surest view into Ray Ison’s perspective on systems practice, as described in his 2010 book Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, begins with his definition of a system. Ison cites a four-part formulation developed at the Open University, where he is Professor in Systems:
  • A collection of entities
  • That are seen by someone
  • As interacting together
  • To do something
This might seem like boilerplate stuff, but that’s only partially correct. Compare it for example with Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s definition: an entity that maintains its existence through the mutual interaction of its parts (Davidson, 1983). Or Donella Meadows’ in the book Thinking in Systems: a set of things, interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time (Meadows, 2008). Or one based on the three properties laid out by Russell Ackoff in Redesigning the Future: a whole, consisting of parts that can interdependently affect the behavior or properties of the whole (Ackoff, 1974).

Three aspects of systems—elements, interactions, and identity or behavior or purpose—are cited by each of the three systems luminaries. The Open University formulation includes these three aspects and also a fourth: point of view.  This top-line emphasis on point of view recalls a diagram by two additional luminaries, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. In it, they describe two perspectives on systems—first-order and second order cybernetics—distinguished by whether or not one sees oneself as a participant in the system under examination.."

He concludes with:

"What becomes apparent on reading is that, in Ison’s perspective on systems thinking and practice, the functionalist impulses that have dominated the systems field are held in check. He elaborates on acting in a climate-change world without mention of international protocols or planetary boundaries or stabilization wedges. He criticizes target-based management without reference to that favorite target of environmentalists: 350. For better or worse, the reader is left to contemplate the broader applications and implications of Ison’s approach. Yet for anyone interested in what the systems field might contribute to a reflexive understanding of situational inquiry and engagement, there is hardly a better book with which to start."

Further reviews of Systems Practice can be found in Agricultural Systems (by Ika Darnhofer) and Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, Volume 14, Issue 4, 2012, pp.481-483 (by Lauren Rickards).  Lauren writes:

"As the ‘wicked’ and ‘messy’ nature of contemporary problems becomes increasingly apparent, the need to better understand and appropriately engage with the complex systems we are part of is of growing importance. Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World is rich in insight into the challenges and joys of developing this was of thinking and acting. It is itself a highly valuable but challenging book, in part because of the depth of the problems in modern society it reveals (including, for example, the very concept of ‘problems’, with its implicit simplistic corollary: ‘solutions’). It is also challenging because of the richness of strategies it provides for engaging with these ‘problems’ and becoming a ‘systems practitioner’... Its breadth and depth of thinking is stimulating and the intellectual and emotional challenges it poses reflect the situations we are in rather than weaknesses with the book itself, which is instead carefully and cleverly crafted."

Governing science - emerging systemic failures?

The governance of science has attracted institutional innovation (in the new institutional economics sense) since the founding of The Royal Society. The Royal Society formed outside government and ostensibly remains that way.  In recent times one of the most significant institutional ‘innovations’ has been that of ‘chief scientist’, a role within government. Beginning in 1964 the “UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) [has been] the personal adviser on science and technology-related activities and policies to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; and head of the Government Office for Science.”  According to Wikipediahe has a significant public role as the government's most visible scientific expert”; nothing is said about the gendered nature of the role – a woman has yet to be appointed. 

Later, Chief Scientific Officers were appointed to all ministries. The UK model has, in part, been followed in other places such as Australia and in the private sector.

Those in the role have championed particular concerns and have, at times, attracted a certain amount of controversy. In 2005 there were criticisms of Australia's chief scientist, particularly his links to 'big mining'. In 2007 in an 'own goal' display, Jim Peacock, Australia's then Chief Scientist speaking at a conference in Melbourne, said those circulating misinformation about GM were largely "self-serving organic farmers and ill-informed environmental activists". There are other perspectives. James Wilsdon provides an easy to read overview of the Chief Scientist role in the UK following the latest appointment. But be warned it is an overview of a particular flavour.

Institutions, like that of Chief Scientist, should not be immutable though too often they are. Recent controversies around the role suggest a need for some critical reappraisal including an examination of some of the systemic consequences of the institution as contexts change. This might well extend to modes of enactment of the role. Peter Ellerton in an article in The Conversation asks: 'what are chief scientists for?' 

George Monbiot has perhaps been the most strident UK critic. He writes 'Beware the rise of the government scientists turned lobbyists. From badgers to bees, government science advisers are routinely misleading us to support the politicians' agendas'.  In response Roger Pielke Jr and James Wilsdon outline Why Monbiot's attack on Walport misses the mark: 'it is unfair of Monbiot to write off Walport as a corporate stooge in search of a peerage' they write. 'What this episode highlights are a set of broader tensions and dilemmas in the chief scientific adviser role, which Walport needs to bear in mind and address more openly'.

One of the more contentious issues of late was the response by the UK government (and Chief Scientist) to the proposed EU-wide ban on the use of neonicotinoids. The UK stood out against the EU position which was eventually passed into law. In follow-up reporting it was noted in The Guardian that the main scientist advising the UK government on this issue 'is to join Syngenta, the chemical giant that manufactures one of the insecticides'. There have been further reports in the UK press of studies showing that insecticide-polluted water  has 70% fewer invertebrate species.

It is not only the UK where there has been recent controversy as this story from Canada exemplifies: The Rise of The Science Philistines: Canada’s Chief Science Regulator Announces That “Scientific Discovery Is Not Valuable Unless It Has Commercial Value.”  The reponses to this posting make for fascinating reading. I was struck in particular by a posting from Richard Smith (Institute for Policy Research & Development, London) with a link to his article in Real World Economics (no. 64) called Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth: Six theses on saving the human species.

The linking of science with traditional models of economic growth, a mantra of the current UK government (despite intelligent papers arguing for alternatives published prior to the last election by Conservatives Selwyn Gummer and Zac Goldsmith), caught Walport out yet again and invoked, justifiably a strong critique from George Monbiot: "Speaking at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, Walport maintained that scientific advisers had five main functions, and the first of these was "ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth". No statement could more clearly reveal what [French philosopher, Julien] Benda called the "assimilation" of the intellectual. As if to drive the point home, the press release summarising his speech revealed that the centre is sponsored, among others, by BAE Systems, BP and Lloyd's."

Importantly Monbiot extends his critique beyond the chief scientist to scholars themselves and thus to universities: OxfordUniversity won't take funding from tobacco companies. But Shell's OK.  As Monbiot says: 'If scholars don't take an ethical stance against corporate money, where's the moral check on power?'  

At 'the other' place some moral fortitude was exhibited: Oxford alumni condemn choice of Shell to fund Earth sciences labIt is a pity my own alma matar, the University of Queensland was not more morally discerning as it seems to be playing both sides. On the one hand research there has shown that: "a shift from coal-fired to gas-fired power generation will not significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions" (the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland) whereas in other areas it seems to have signed up, uncritically, to 'frackademia'

At this historic moment there is no intellectual or moral justification for scholars and Universities accepting funding that prolong our carbon-based society. Fracking and coal seam gas are in the same league as Big Tobacco and should be resisted at all costs.  It is perverse to me that so much money has been (foolishly) spent on carbon sequesteration on the one hand and now the world has gone mad about the exact opposite - the release of yet more safely stored carbon, methane and other toxics into the atmosphere. This morally indefensible attitude has been apparent in the 'official' UK government response to the report by MPs on the Environmental Audit Select Committee who have called for a moratorium on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. As this Alaskan example demonstrates, it is clear to me that we are rapidly moving from  human-induced ecocide to to a form of eco-genocide.

Phil Macnaghten and Jason Chilvers have researched some of the governance issues in the UK. They conclude in their 2013 paper: "The future of science governance: publics, policies, practices" in Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, the following:  

 Abstract. In this paper we develop new insights on science governance at a time when an emphasis on public engagement in responding to questions of trust in science is giving way to a more systemic and networked perspective. In a meta-analysis across seventeen UK public dialogue processes we identify five spheres of public concern about the governance of science and technology relating to: the purposes of science; trust; inclusion; speed and direction of innovation; and equity. Forty in-depth interviews with senior UK science policy actors reveal highly partial institutional responses to these concerns and help explain the underlying processes that close down, and at times open up, reflection and response on public values. Finally, we consider the implications of this analysis for the future of science governance, prospects for more anticipatory, reflexive, and inclusive forms of governing, and the roles for critical social science inquiry.

It is to be hoped that their findings have 'impact' and that some institutional reform is forth-coming. Importantly reform needs to involve the governing bodies of our main publicly-funded Universities, and not least, academics themselves.