The future of the social sciences and humanities in the science of complex systems

Johnson, Jeffrey (2010). The future of the social sciences and humanities in the science of complex systems. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 23(2) pp. 115–134.



The modern world is characterized by problems that involve systems with social and physical subsystems. They are entangled systems of systems of systems with multilevel dynamics. There is no methodology able to combine the partial micro-, meso- and macrotheories that focus on subsystems into a coherent representation of the dynamics of the whole. Policy requires prediction, but the traditional definitions of prediction are not appropriate for multilevel socio-complex systems. Heterogeneous multilevel systems have subsystems that may behave with great regularity over long periods of time, and then suddenly change their behavior due to weak coupling with other subsystems. Thus systems that are usually highly predictable may be subject to rare but extreme events, and this is highly relevant to policy-makers. New ways of thinking are needed that transcend the confines of the traditional humanities, social and physical sciences. Of necessity, this science will be embedded in the design, implementation and management of systems, and therefore the new science will be entwined with policy. Much policy is interventionist experiment. By themselves scientists cannot conduct experiments on socio-complex systems because they have neither the mandate nor the money to design and instrument experiments on the large scale. Policy-makers - elected politicians and their officers - design the future, making it as they believe it ought to be. New kinds of scientific predictions can inform policy but can only be instrumented and tested if there is goodwill between policy-makers and scientists, where scientists are junior partners. Scientists offer policy-makers theories and predictions of social systems based on logical-deductive methods. Policy is generally made on the basis of rhetoric, with the best possible arguments being deployed to support favored conclusions. To convince policy-makers that a particular scientific theory should be used, scientists move from the logicaldeductive to the rhetorical. Thus the full theory of a science of complex systems has to provide a logical-deductive metatheory of the rhetorical and logicaldeductive systems that make decisions and implement them. Traditional natural and physical science has avoided rhetoric, which is much better understood in the humanities and social sciences. Thus it is concluded that the science of complex systems must embrace the humanities and social sciences not just because their domains of study are relevant but also because their methods are necessary to understand how science and policy work together in complex social systems.

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