mar 19

Complex systems

Right now around here, it’s raining out, even though a myriad of computers crunched numbers to conclude it’d be clear all day.

Yesterday, the price of silver fell through the floorboards to historic lows, even though experts who spend every waking hour researching and modeling precious metals forecasted silver prices to shoot to the moon.

When Chernobyl happened in April, 1986, reputable news outlets put the death toll at ground zero to be in the 15k–30k range. When a UN investigation concluded a study, some fourteen years after the incident, the official number was fifty-six. (Not fifty-six thousand, but fifty-six.)

We’re in constant proximity with complex systems. But I believe most of us think we humans are so advanced that we know how to model, predict and deal with such systems.

It’s my thinking that we do not.


I’ve had ‘golfer’s elbow’ (medial epicondylitis) for twelve years. It’s a hindrance, and as someone that relies on the right elbow, it’s been a mad scramble to try to remedy it.

The elbow and neighboring tendons & muscles make up a simple system, one with a tens of dynamics, but nothing on the order of the stock market, the weather system, or any other like complex system.

With all the best medical advise, compounded over a decade and a half, I never found a remedy for my elbow. Thankfully, it was something of a niggle, and my life wasn’t at the mercy of this health issue.

One day, I began a new little ‘rehab’ routine, and my pains disappeared in a week. I didn’t learn about this fix via any medical professional, nor did I ever read about it on any of the many sports blogs that deal with such injuries.

I just magically bumped into it, and it fixed my elbow right up.

A zillion variables

Complex systems are demonstratively greater in detail than simple systems, such as the mechanical properties of elbows. But even with such a simple system — where I had become quite knowledgeable — I couldn’t solve it.

(In fact, if not for some random luck, I would still be dealing with the same stubborn elbow pain.)

I’ve come to appreciate how magnificent complex systems are. My sentiment is that we ought to be in awe of complex systems.

We need to be skeptical, not of experts per se, but of ‘experts’ in such complex areas who are bombastic and unwavering in their assertions.

Let’s never neglect to remind ourselves how simple our models are, how difficult complex systems are to quantify, and how much farther us humans need to go in order to rein in such complexities.