Sunday, July 05, 2015

Learning, Gaps, and Complexity

I was taking a walk along the creek this morning when I noticed something.  White egrets were fishing in a small pool refreshed by lazy flowing water.

Dry stream bed  upstream
 But when I realized that I was downstream from the spot where the road crosses over the dry creek bed, my neurons woke up and started asking questions.  If there is no water upstream, how did the water get here?

I also happen to know, from a previous walk, that even further upstream there are more bird frequented pools of water, so obviously that is where the water comes from, but what happens in the dry bed gap?

Frequently when we are learning about something we are given simple models to help us understand.  Water flows downhill.  It will follow the creek bed from the upper pools to the lower pools.  We are taught how to think about systems like this using a simple logic.  If  A) there is water in a pool upstream then B) there will be water in a pool downstream and at all points between.  These simple models are easy to understand, and they give us a false sense of true understanding of a system.  When we think we have understanding, we stop questioning.  It isn't until there is a gap in our understanding, a dry spot in the creek bed, that we start to seek the deeper understanding of what is happening.
further upstream where bed turns from wet to dry

The most likely answer is that the limestone bed of the creek, is riddled with holes and the water seeps down in to them and comes out elsewhere,  still following the creek bed underground.  But what is happening there is invisible to my available senses.  I also know that there is an alternate source of water in the form of a neighborhood drainage ditch that empties into the creek further down stream.  So this other factor also lets there be water down steam when there is none upstream.
stream bed goes from dry to wet
Water percolates out of the rocks

But lately I've been seeing a lot of this simple logic being applied to more complex social systems, fueling confusion and debate.  Confederate battle flag = Racism AND Confederate battle flag = Heritage.  With our A then B logic model firmly in place we don't see how both can be true (as well as any number of other associations)  Mental Illness + Guns = Mass murder.  Without seeing where mass murder takes place without mental illness cues, and where mental illness + guns = healing.  For example someone with depression takes up marksmanship and has rise in self esteem and feelings of competence.

Everyone keeps calling for various solutions to happen upstream, legislation about what flags can fly where, or who can have a gun when and where, and think it will automatically flow downstream and positively impact what is happening downstream.  But it is a lot more complicated than that.  We need to be looking for the gaps and trying to figure out what is happening underneath the rocks between the upstream view of the society we say we want and the down stream view of the society we actually have.

1 comment:

ColoHarpare said...

Interesting, and very thoughtful.