A Systems Literacy Manifesto – Hugh Dubberly

In 1968, West Churchman wrote, “…there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in which our society is run. …the citizen has begun to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.”[1] Churchman was writing at a time of growing concern about war, civil rights, and the environment. Almost fifty years later, these concerns remain, and we have more reason than ever “to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.” Examples abound.

In the 2012 United States presidential election, out of eight Republican party contenders, only Jon Huntsman unequivocally acknowledged evolution and global warming.[2] While a couple of the candidates may actually be anti-science, what is more troubling is that almost all the candidates felt obliged to distance themselves from science, because a significant portion of the U.S. electorate does not accept science. This fact suggests a tremendous failing of education, at least in the U.S.

But even many highly educated leaders do not understand simple systems principles. Alan Greenspan, vaunted Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board of Governors, has a PhD in economics; yet he does not believe markets need to be regulated in order to ensure their stability. After the financial disaster of 2008, Greenspan testified to Congress, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”[3] Despite familiarity with the long history of bubbles, collapses, and self-dealing in markets, Greenspan expected people whose bonuses are tied to quarterly profits would act in the long-term interest of their neighbors. Like many Libertarians, Greenspan relies on the dogma of Ayn Rand, rather than asking if systems models (models of stability, disturbance, and regulation), like those described by James Clerk Maxwell in his famous 1868 paper, “On Governors,”[4] might be needed in economic and political systems.

Misunderstanding of regulation moved from the fringe right to national policy, when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, convincing voters that “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”[5] Reagan forgot that (under the U.S. system) “we, the people,” are the government. Reagan forgot the purpose of the U.S. government: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” that is, to create stability.[6] And Reagan forgot that any state—any system—without government is by definition unstable, inherently chaotic, and quite literally out-of-control. We need to remember that “government” simply means “steering” and that its root, the Greek work kybernetes, is also the root of cybernetics, the study of feedback systems and regulation.

Churchman points out that decision makers “don’t know what they are doing,” because they lack “adequate basis to judge effects.” It is not stupidity. It is a sort of illiteracy. It is a symptom that something is missing in public discourse and in our schools.

We need systems literacy—in decision makers and in the general public.


Continues in source: A Systems Literacy Manifesto