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.
★★