Public evening talk by Philip Ball: ‘2011 and all that; the case for considering society as a complex system’

by Jean Boulton

Following the AGM of the Nonlinear and Complex Physics Group London (28th May 2012), we were privileged to have a talk by Dr Philip Ball. Philip is one of those people who is skilled at writing science books for a popular audience without losing anything in terms of scholarship and integrity. His book, Critical Mass (2004) is of particular relevance to this group. His chosen topic at our meeting, attended by over 40 people, was: ‘2011 and all that; the case for considering society as a complex system’.

Ball_2011Fig. 2: 2011 and all that: the case for considering society as a complex system. Slides courtesy of Philip Ball.
Ball did not concede anything to accepted ideologies. Indeed he started by questioning the very basis of democracy. Fukiyama, in The End of History (1990) suggested that liberal democracy was the culmination, the pinnacle of political ideology. ‘But is it?’ asked Ball. ‘Does democracy always deliver ‘the good’, do we not have to recognise that other options are in play (look at how successfully China is embracing capitalism), and is there at least a need for other forms of democracy, with a new balance between market and government, as Stiglitz keeps saying.’ Ball’s contention is that complexity theory provides a useful perspective on the emergence of society and culture. He feels it can help us to explore how particular and local events (like the self-immolation of someone in Tunis) work together with emerging cultural shifts, including increasing social unrest and the role of new social media. He believes that complexity can help us understand the factors which shaped the UK riots and the Arab Spring, that ‘data mining’ grounded in complexity thinking might have uncovered patterns, might have led to prediction of some of these discontinuous societal shifts. Ball gave examples of issues where complex models coupled with social research have been helpful. Does segregation promote or reduce conflict? Is the ‘broken windows’ hypothesis for real – that is, do people indeed infer the behaviour of others through cues given by the environment? Ball discussed key themes from complexity thinking: the effects of social and technological connectivity, the impact of random and specific events, the ‘guiding trajectories’ that shape the context, the need for adaptability and flexibility. Ball’s talk led to a lively discussion. What is the role of modelling? How does the attitude of the public and of politicians towards science constrain the debate? Is it modellers who think their models provide definitive answers; or is it that policy makers and indeed the public expect certainty, expect science to be unequivocal? The attitude towards climate change modelling was raised as a prime example of how any variation in outcomes can be adopted as evidence that climate change is not necessarily happening, that scientists don’t know what they are doing. The need for a better public understanding of the nature of science – particular the science of complex problems – was well made.

A copy of the slides from his talk can be found at:

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