Whisper, Don’t Shout

Previously in my career, when I had a research position at IBM, I worked on chaos theory, more specifically, visualising the transition to chaos. It wasn’t straightforward as the system considered was multidimensional so you could only get glimpses of it’s behaviour by using 3D projections.

The approach I adopted, using texture mappings, was fairly original and lead to some useful additional insights (a summary of the joint project got published in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos).

After my research phase, I moved on to technical and finally business management (with other companies). However I’ve always been interested in how ideas taken from one (science) area can be used in another (e.g. business) and have previously written about this eg here.

One major example is the subject of ‘complexity’ where lots of people have tried using it’s ideas in many fascinating ways. A few years ago I thought I’d brush up on this and bought the book ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell as it had a good review in a technical journal.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and before starting I thought I’d read a few reviews on Amazon. Some of these were quite negative so in the end I decided to put it on hold. This was in 2009!

Recently, spurred on by some interesting tweets about complexity from colleagues, I decided to take another look. I managed to find the book in the ‘chaos’ that is my library/study and wondered a bit more about what had put me off originally. I went back to Amazon and there are now over 60 comments (far fewer on the UK site).

I browsed around and here’s an extract from a rather thoughtful one (my emphasis in bold):

As Dr. Mitchell points out in one of the chapters, there is little agreement on what “complexity” actually entails. In such a field of emergence, it is very helpful to have a broad, rather than narrow, view. Yes, this is not a textbook to be used in a graduate class on complexity, yet that is not its purpose. However, it is my guess that even the most accomplished practitioner of one particular aspect of complexity will learn something from reading this. We are all reductionists at heart, even those who profess to be an “expert” in complexity. We would be well-served to take the recommendations of Warren Weaver who suggested that if we descend from the tower of our own experience into a common basement, we can impart information by whispering and not shouting.

I quite like the last sentence – I’ll bear all this in mind when I next look at reviews!

NB There’s a free online course linked to the book if you’re interested: Complexity Explorer.

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