testing the validity of complex systems

I could be wrong here, and I am not entirely sure about the argument I am making, but it seems to me that much of the work being done in complexity science has yet to reach a point where topics are tested to see if and how they function as complex systems. There is lots of work on the network structure and dynamics of various systems; there is lots of agent-based modeling, and some of this work has gotten along enough to do both agent-based modeling and network analysis. Then there are various forays into emergence, self-organization, autopoiesis, swarm behavior, dynamics, chaos, evolution, and measurments of complexity. But, there is yet to be any sort of criteria set by which researchers can go out and determine if and how some topic of study is and acts like a complex system.

I am not setting up a straw person here. I know our field is very new; in fact, in some ways there is no complexity science; there are, instead, the complexity sciences. I know there are multiple definitions of what a complex system is; and i know we work in a broad range of fields, making any sort of singular statement both impossible and, at least from my perspective, unncessary. we can accept that complexity is an encyclopedic term and leave it at that.

So, for sake of discussion, let's just focus on the social sciences. In the social sciences, there does not seem to be much research actually applying the full force of complexity science to the study of a topic. Researchers do not seem to often take a topic, apply some criteria or empirical tests to see if it functions like a complex system, and then proceed on to examine the topic in complex systems terms.
Instead, it just seems that most topics are assumed to be complex systems, and some aspect of them is studied, say their network structure or the role agent-based interaction plays in their emergence.

My colleague, Galen Buckwalter and I are working on a paper now that does just the sort of thing we are talking about. Our work is in community health science. We are trying to take a topic and say, "okay, we think this community can be studied as a complex system; we think it acts like a complex system, and we have all these methodological tools that we can use to explore the empirical validity of our conjectures, so, let's proceed, in litmus test fashion, to determine if and how our community acts like a complex system."

Why do we think this is important? Well, I guess I will need to blog on it a bit, but for now I think the main answer is that, without some type of empirical and methodological rigor established (start with a, then move to b, etc), it becomes impossible to pull together the arsenal of tools, theories and concepts complexity scientists have created over the last three decades to get the most out of studying any given topic in the social sciences in complex systems terms. That is all for now, but i will try to say more and say it better.

Michelangelo and Complexity Part 2

Okay, so a few of my personal art critics asked me to push the painting you see above a bit further. To see the older version, click here The argument was that I needed to develop the network more, to make it stand out. I think it was a very good recommendation and I like this version of the painting much better. So, here is it.


Homage to Michelangelo and Complexity

Michelangelo and Da Vinci's work are a major source of inspiration for my artistic and scientific work in complexity. Their Renaissance attitude is, in many ways, what complexity science, with its multi-disciplinarity and systems perspective is all about.

In the painting I have posted here I had a very specific goal. I wanted to do a painting in the manner of Michelangelo: a painting that focused on the human body and that celebrated the mathematical and scientific dimensions of art. However, I wanted to create a painting that fit with my own 20th century attitudes.

So, the first step was to determine how I wanted to approach the body. I stayed away from the over-muscular work of Michelangelo, opting instead for a more realistic portrait. I also wanted to have the person pose in a somewhat more humble and less grandiose manner--something that honored the dignity of humans but without going overboard. In the complex, global society in which we live, humility and a recognition of one's deep interconnectedness to the world, at least for me, is an important ethical position. I wanted to reflect that in the painting.

The second step was to incorporate a Zen Buddhist perspective into the painting. For me, the symbolism I primarily focused on revolves around the sky, clouds, and the circle, which have a lot to do with systems thinking, holism, interconnectedness, meditation and bodhichitta.

The final step was to incorporate some of the latest developments in complexity science and mathematics, namely networks and fractals. Math and science were an important part of Renaissance painting, and they are likewise important in my own work. In a fractal-like manner, there are levels of scale in the painting: there are large circles, which suggest a larger network that cannot be entirely seen; then there is the specific network structure surrounding the figure.

So far, reaction to the painting has been mixed. That is understandable because I struggled with the painting myself. I would like to continue exploring this type of painting, working next with more than one person or playing off of different poses that Michelangelo used in his own work.


Complexity in Health Group

It has been a while since my last post. My research colleagues and I have been busy creating a new research center for studying health and health care via the tools of complexity science. It is called, appropriately enough, the Complexity in Health Group. Much thanks to Michael Ball and Kenny Carvalho for their incredible viking work.

CHECK OUT THE SITE: cch.ashtabula.kent.edu


The Complexity in Health Group (CHG) promotes the application of complexity science to the study of health and health care through a cross-disciplinary program of teaching, training and research. The CHG’s application of complexity science includes complex systems thinking, computational modeling, network analysis, data mining, and qualitative and historical approaches to complexity. The CHG is specifically committed to collaborating with health care centers and practitioners in Ashtabula County, Ohio; and to students and faculty at Kent State University. The CHG is affiliated with the Robert S. Morrison Health and Science Building, Kent State University at Ashtabula. Other affiliations we are working on include Kent State University’s College of Public Health and the Kent-Summa Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.

The Group will have several foci:

• Becoming a leading international research center in the application of complexity science to the study of health and health care;
• Generating revenue for our campus through extramural funding;
• Fostering interdisciplinary research with faculty at the Ashtabula campus, as well as Kent State University and other universities;
• Developing our undergraduate student population’s skills in science, technology and mathematics in application to health and health care, particularly public health;
• Developing collaborative research relations with local health agencies and businesses to promote the public health of Ashtabula County.

The current topics of the CHG are:

• Studying how communities, as complex systems, impact residential health, particularly in disadvantaged communities;
• Developing new tools for measuring and teaching medical students, residents, and clinical faculty about the challenges of medical professionalism in today’s complex health care system, both nationally and globally;
• Using network analysis to research how medical learning environments shape nurses and physicians;
• Studying how public educational systems impact the health and wellbeing of children.
• Developing the SACS Toolkit, a new method for studying health and health care from a complexity science perspective.