Duncan Watts [presentation]:: The Myth of Common Sense

Duncan Watts is a clever guy! Not just because he is well educated, which he undoubtedly is but because he has the ability to explain why “common sense” works in the appropriate domain(s) – simple, maybe even complicated – but is particularly dangerous in complex or chaotic domains. But, then again, that is what this definition tells us: “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts“. But when I talk about these different domains you should not visualise this as “islands” or separate entities. Rather, as various “conditions” or “states” that can be found within a single complex [adaptive] system, its sub-systems and networks at any given time, as it performs the many inter-connected processes that underpin functionality.

Why is this relevant? Because “common sense” isn’t much use if you are dealing with a system so complex that you CANNOT understand its complexity, track causality or anticipate the unintended outcomes (or unintended consequences)! Where the smallest decisions can have enormous consequences and the smartest decisions can be counter-intuitive, how can they be validated when the crowd advocate “common sense”???

I urge you to watch the presentation (even read the book!) and, if this has whetted your appetite, you may also be interested in what Atul Gawande has to say about surgeons dealing with complexity, Tim Harford talking about Oil Rigs or Dave Snowden a kids party!

Social problems…must be viewed not as the subject of rhetorical debates, but as scientific problems, in the sense that some combination of theory, data, and experiment can provide useful insights beyond that which can be derived through intuition and experience alone.

Freakonomics » The Myth of Common Sense: Why The Social World Is Less Obvious Than It Seems.

Too often we are guilty of over-estimating our own knowledge and underestimating what appears familiar even though we know that appearances can be deceptive – some “creatures” are particularly adept at exploiting this knowledge – and how much we have learnt by looking deeper (into space) or more closely (DNA, bacteria). Living systems come in all shapes and sizes but their true nature and an understanding their “structure” cannot be ascertained without observation at a variety of scales.

What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber « naked capitalism

You may be interested in “eavesdropping” on a very interesting and informative conversation that, beautifully, illustrates how effective we are at ignoring history!

If you are really “hard core” you may want to check out “Mesopotamian complexity” in more detail here.

PP: Which do you see as playing a more important role in human history: money or debt?

DG: Well, it depends on your definitions. If you define money in the broadest sense, as any unit of account whereby you can say 10 of these are worth 7 of those, then you can’t have debt without money. Debt is just a promise that can be quantified by means of money (and therefore, becomes impersonal, and therefore, transferable.) But if you are asking which has been the more important form of money, credit or coin, then probably I would have to say credit.

PP: Let’s move on to some of the real world problems facing the world today. We know that in many Western countries over the past few years households have been running up enormous debts, from credit card debts to mortgages (the latter of which were one of the root causes of the recent financial crisis). Some economists are saying that economic growth since the Clinton era was essentially run on an unsustainable inflating of household debt. From an historical perspective what do you make of this phenomenon? Read more of this post

What the Mayans can teach us about wind turbines

Ms Costa is promoting her new book in this article and, perhaps understandably, is using GW Bush & Tony Blair to illustrate how belief can replace fact in complex situations. Please don’t get too hung up on that but, rather the “pattern” evident in the demise of once great civilizations. She does have the good grace to acknowledge Joseph Tainter (of whom I have written plenty)  but this is also a subject covered, most notably, by Jared Diamond amongst others.

I hope here book isn’t a tired “jump on the bandwagon” rehash of previous work on the subject!? If so, she may be better advised to consider the future “post critical” landscape because that will be interesting…and challenging!

Among physicists it is common knowledge that increased complexity leads to higher rates of failure. So as our problems become more complex, the number of wrong solutions begins to outnumber the right ones. As complexity escalates, the chances that we will make the right call diminish.

via What the Mayans can teach us about wind turbines | Mail Online.

Is the "fire" taking hold in the Arab world? Tunisian “burning man revolution” a lesson in Complexity Theory

For obvious reasons this and other blogs that talk about the threat of contagion and systemic risk have focussed, almost exclusively, upon financial and ecological inter-connectedness.

HOWEVER, once again we see a “pattern from nature” in these Geo-Political events. The institutional model is and will continue to be under extreme pressure to change as it is the vehicle of the “elites” and in uncertain or turbulent economic times scrutiny and criticism will only increase. Only those that are “structurally resilient” can withstand the heat of a fire that started in Tunisia with a spark and is gathering in intensity as it spreads through peoples inter-connected on numerous levels. People unified by a common purpose…to bring about a cultural paradigm shift.

I would urge you to read: “Disaster myopia”: Failing to learn the lessons of increased uncertainty

A Fruit seller, whose cart was impounded, and complaints ignored, by authorities, set himself on fire in a desperate act of protest. His actions have since been mirrored across the Arab World. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is a measure of how disenfranchised the citizens of these countries feel. Whether fuelled by Political or Religious oppression, an increasing gulf between the “have’s” and the “have not’s”, corruption, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of jobs or food the message is the same. The “elites” who preside over institutions that have given them power Read more of this post

Interdependence (updated from July 2009)

A segment of a social network

Image via Wikipedia

It isn’t a sudden realisation that INSTITUTIONS are too interested in self preservation built upon structuring win/lose contracts. But it has become even more apparent as a result of relentless pursuit of the truth behind stories of abandonment of ethics within banks, other institutions and politics.

ME formula: mine – “self serving”


Historical (blind) faith in institutions, even pre-credit crunch, was being questioned and eroded. In current climate the exposure of institutional and political greed has only served to accelerate the process.

Independence in business is, to a fair extent, a falsehood! Every business needs customers. Business needs to SELL their products and services.

Quantity model

Customer silos


New formula, which is hybrid of “People – Planet – Profit” philosophy, has been aided or underpinned by web 2.0 capabilities that facilitate collaborations and innovation. Mass inclusion and contribution drives creation of win/win contracts and, with inclusion of social/community/planet considerations – win/win/win contracts. Read more of this post