Book review: ‘Thinking in Systems’ by Donella Meadows

I recently borrowed this book on recommendation from a friend, knowing nothing about it or its author that the title didn’t give away. I read the whole book yesterday, and can confidently assert that I made a great decision.

Thinking in Systems is a book by the late American environmental scientist Donella Meadows whose primary goal can be summarized as the translation of the essential concepts required to understand the counterintuitive entities known as systems into a common language for a common audience. Meadows does this superbly, beginning from the most conceptually basic level of systems knowledge, but even having this knowledge already didn’t put me off those chapters because of her engaging writing style and liberal peppering of fascinating quotes and engaging case studies all throughout the book. To get a sense of scale, I think there are more than 100 of these in the book.

Reading the book also makes you feel like Meadows is holding back a lot. You get a sense exactly ‘what’ she’s holding back from time to time when she lets this slip, such as in the following section where she discusses the problem of dependency (e.g. on welfare, foreign aid, oil, alcohol) in systems:

The problem can be avoided up front by intervening in such a way as to strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens. This option, helping the system to help itself, can be much cheaper and easier than taking over and running the system—something liberal politicians don’t seem to understand. The secret is to begin not with a heroic takeover, but with a series of questions.
* Why are the natural correction mechanisms failing?
* How can obstacles to their success be removed?
* How can mechanisms for their success be made more effective?

In short, when reading the book you very quickly get the sense that you’re dealing with someone who has a very low threshold in terms of bullshit tolerance. Political and ideological bias is entirely unfelt, as she goes back and forth to praising the counterintuitive systems-level comprehension of figures like Jimmy Carter and his proposition to levy a tax on oil imports proportional to the fraction of oil consumption that was imported, to castigating some of the paradigm assumptions that lead to system failure, in which she includes:

Money measures something real and has real meaning; therefore, people who are paid less are literally worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens… Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our current culture, all of which have utterly dumbfounded other cultures, who thought them not the least bit obvious.

Meadows’ understanding of the role that paradigms play in underlying human systems (e.g. by setting their parameters and operationalizing their utility functions) is of very high esteem to me, as I previously wrote my undergraduate dissertation on cultural paradigms and how they shift. While Meadows doesn’t go into paradigm shift in so much detail, she notes the difficulty inherent to the task, which is an astute (though perhaps not so counterintuitive) observation; in my dissertation I described a framework for this utilizing trauma, whose abnegation of paradigmatic axioms is one of the only reliable ways to secure such a shift, but I can’t blame a non-psychologist for refusing to treat the problem.

Overall, I think that this is the kind of book that everyone should have read at least once; the kind you put on the mandatory reading list in high schools. Unfortunately, as Meadows notes, our own ability to ‘transcend’ our paradigms or systems is actually quite limited, using her continued addiction to coffee despite her mechanistic understanding of this reliance to exemplify the point. This can lead us to consider that even if our ability as humans to respond to features of systems may be limited, it still may be possible to build AI systems that are able to address lack of systems comprehension. In consideration of the book’s style and intended audience I was unable to locate within it any flaw, so I’m going to have to go all the way in my evaluation.

5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: ‘Win Bigly’ by Scott Adams

The facts may not matter, but shitty writing does

I recently finished with Scott Adams’ book ‘Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter’.

I made the decision to give the book my time because of my curiosity with the author borne out of his somewhat unexpected appearance on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. Adams’ performance in that podcast was outstanding, and it was a great trial for Harris’ epistemological pretensions of objectivity (whatever we take that to mean). So I went ahead and got the book because of the author, knowing next to nothing about its content.

Unfortunately, this book wasn’t as good as Adams’ performance in debates. He introduces a few heuristics that could have been interesting, like ‘master persuasion’, but is ultimately unable to do anything with these heuristics because of his rapid bouncing from topic to topic between section and chapter, all of which have very little of coherence or narrative to speak of. The book is part anecdote, part self-help book, peppered throughout with justificatory factoids by way of ‘evolutionary psychology’, and by ‘inverted commas evolutionary psychology’ I mean speculative nonsense in the style of Sex at Dawn, rather than genuine work a la Dunbar or Kanazawa. There lack of substance or structure makes it a leap and bound from one ramble to another, some of which is (verbatim) copy-pasted from Scott Adams’ own blog.

Some of what Adams says is useful. His simplistic and story-like explanations for why free will is an illusion, for example, would probably be much more effective for the layperson some than arguments from Harris or genetic determinists (incidentally, I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not). He also makes some interesting statements in favor of Jamesian pragmatism, such as his assertion that the only ‘filter’ (read: schema, ideational paradigm, cognitive map etc) that works is one that makes you happy and does a good job at predicting the future. For those who occupy themselves with the ‘postmodern conundrum’ of how exactly to live with the fact of the death of God, this could be a useful insight that could be interpreted as supportive of the Christianity Adams renounces. And in case you wonder just how many people that is, Pew Research states that about half of Americans have changed religious affiliation at least once, suggesting that finding what ‘filter’ to live with is actually a challenge that quite a lot of people face.

Coming in with no expectations, I still feel a keen sense of disappointment at having wasted precious hours of my life. The book reads like an ADHD-driven series of blogposts stitched together to make sales rather than a coherent narrative from start to finish. Overall, I think the only ‘persuasion’ skill Adams has is in getting gullible people to buy his book.

2 out of 5 stars.

Individualist ethics and rape

Over here in the UK, feminist academic Germaine Greer recently caused a huge controversy by calling for the punishment for rape to be reduced (Guardian). She stated that rape is not a “spectacularly violent crime” but is often instead “lazy, careless, and insensitive”. Obviously, this created storms of furious chatter between the pro- and anti-camps that emerged out of the formless ether of the internet presumably only engage in the kind of mindless invective that seems to dominate sociocultural discourse right now. That said, Greer was making an argument, and treating it as such necessitates some consideration of what she was actually getting at.

Firstly, Germaine’s argument can be distinguished into two elements, one descriptive, one prescriptive. To me, her descriptive claims seem to be the following:

  1. Rape generally doesn’t inflict much harm
  2. Exceptions to this pattern are rare
  3. A significant proportion of rapes, whether harmful or otherwise, are the results of miscommunications in which malevolence or ill-intent were absent (where mens rea cannot be reasonably attributed)

Following this reasoning, she makes the accordant prescriptive claim (4) that the punishment from rape should be reduced. I’m going to argue that while her fundamental descriptive claim (1) is wrong, her prescriptive claim (4) would still be wrong even if (1) was right. Here goes.

Greer makes the acknowledgment that while rates of PTSD among combat veterans is close to 20%, these pale into insignificance in comparison with the rates among rape victims which approximate 70%. I didn’t check the source of these claims because it’s irrelevant to my argument, but I’ll note that I’m skeptical of the notion that the collection of this data for PTSD rates was methodologically identical (i.e. self-reported vs medically diagnosed). In reference to this huge disparity, Greer says:

“What the hell are you saying? Something that leaves no sign, no injury, no nothing is more damaging to a woman than seeing your best friend blown up by an IED is to a veteran?”

This is the statement that set my psychology-sense tingling.

Unfortunately for Greer, clinical psychologists have known for decades that the likelihood and severity of PTSD symptoms cannot be evaluated in direct proportionality to any physical harm inflicted by an experience. This is because trauma is as a phenomenon dependent on our subjective expectations and self-image within the context of interlocking societal collectives, or what clinical psychologists like to call a ‘schema’ for short. James Pennebaker is a clinical psychologist who did a lot of research back in the ‘90s on trauma and its epidemiology; his papers are a goldmine for fascinating factoids, like gender being a better predictor of PTSD likelihood than proximity to ground zero.* Jordan Peterson, much of whose pre-fame academic career actually focused on trauma, summarizes findings for us as follows: “[a] blizzard that would incapacitate Washington for a month barely makes the residents of Montreal blink”.**

In short, Greer is wrong about the harmfulness of rape. People can be traumatized by quite a lot of things, and the fact that more rape victims report being traumatized than combat veterans is direct attestation to that fact. A soldier fighting in a combat zone will likely have a reasonable expectation of killing someone, of having his friends killed, or of being killed (or almost killed) himself. All of those events are pre-programmed into their schema from basic training onward. Frankly, the fact that around 20% of soldiers get PTSD at all seems to suggest that war is even more brutal than we think, since it’s unlikely that so many people would be traumatized by something they engaged in years of physical and mental preparation for otherwise.

Contrast this with a woman walking home from work who gets assaulted, dragged away and raped. As awful traumatic events go, this is pretty much 99th percentile. Given the assumption that healthy and psychologically normative individuals do not tend to make provision for the eventuality that they will be physically and sexually violated in such a way, nor would the future possibility of such an event feature prominently in their self-image, nor would they have engaged in years of intense physical and mental preparation for being victimized in such a fashion, they’re entirely defenseless to the psychological damage that subsequently ensues. Viewed in this context, Greer’s attempted comparison seems somewhat inane; why would rape victims get PTSD at a higher rate than combat soldiers? We might be better served by asking how on earth they would not?

But returning to the original point – even if we grant that these types of rapes are a small minority, and most rapes are not *as* traumatic (this does not mean *not* traumatic), she’s still totally wrong on the prescriptive point she made suggesting that the punishments for rape should be decreased.

Things aren’t illegal just because they upset people, and individual harm isn’t the sole factor considered by any justice system. Crimes and their legally mandated punishments are also integral elements to the social contract, which dictates what a society considers to be acceptable or integral to its cohesiveness and smooth operation. Ideally, this social contract reflects the social will, otherwise you’re most likely in a tyranny of some kind (a definition with which modern Britain surely complies).

That aside, the policing and punishment of rape is not an isolated phenomenon that pertains only to the retribution of the harm done by the offense – it also lays out in stone the framework around sexual relations which our culture, any culture, considers to be normative and moral. Forcing people to have sex with you is wrong – it’s a behavior we are so opposed to, that we’ll lock you up for 10 or more years in jail just so you have enough time to get that into your head before we let you out again.

Little of this, in the Western legal tradition, has anything to do with inflicting upon the perpetrator an equivalent level of harm as he himself committed; the Western justice system is not as victim-centric as Islamic law (e.g. qisas) or other similar systems, but in fact SOCIAL-centric, in the sense that it operates on the principle of the sanctity of the common good. In other words, it seems to me that Greer is failing to incorporate the social implications of rape into an overall assessment of its harm. This kind of failure is typically exhibited by Western moral individualists, whose elevation of the individual to absolute primacy results in a kind of vulgar utilitarianism exemplified by Greer’s comparison of PTSD rates between rape victims and soldiers. Such thinkers may be very good at assessing individual harm, but they’re also incredibly bad at building moral frameworks for functional social systems – if you want proof for that, just look at the West today.

However, I would support further distinction and categorization of rape within the legal system, simply because I do acknowledge that an aspect of Greer’s reasoning here is correct. 

Perhaps this situation could be remediated by adding further categories of legal distinction to rape, such as rape by coercion, rape by force, and rape by predation, or something of the kind. It seems to me that categorizing date rapes (as meriting of punishment as they obviously are) alongside those of the other kind mentioned here is somewhat nonsensical.


*Pennebaker, JW, Cohn, MA and Mehl, MR. “Linguistic markers of psychological change surrounding September 11, 2001,” Psychological
Science 2004, 15 (10). pp. 687-693. DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00741.x. P691

**Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999, p249