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This is only the second diary I have published (the first not being all that great), but there is a general musing that I wanted to get out in the air.  Hopefully, enough people will get a chance to see it in order to generate some discussion.

Essentially, my goal is to bring to your attention a potential way of arming an informed public with a much more powerful method of figuring out a very complex world.  This is a bit of a long post, but please stick with me - I really think there is something here.

More to come ... ::

Much has been made of the relative positions of the traditional media and the blog world.  The blog world tends to be very good at hunting down published information, and the best arguments are backed by scores of links, allowing a rapid check of the writers' bibliographies.  These bibliographies arise from necessity, and basically serve to bootstrap trust from their readers.  Bloggers have no real credentials, except for when they are blogging in their professional domains - see RealClimate, Panda's Thumb and others.  Say what you will about mainstream media nowadays, but they have earned their trust along the way with the big stories like Watergate and the NSA scandal.

In most cases, blogs still do not do direct interviews (except for with fellow bloggers).  The mainstream reporters - I am talking real shoe-leather journalists, not paid communicators - also have a couple of advantages.  One is the obvious fact that they do this for a living.  The other is that they build up contacts throughout all varieties of officialdom, government, non-government and business.  Thus, to know the minds of these people (or at least to get enough rope from them for hanging), the newspapers are the places to go.  The fact that many diaries use traditional media links shows that there is still definitely a role here.

Where blogs really shine, however, is in the synthesis of official and mainstream information and personal experience.  There are some excellent "connect the dots" blog stories out there.  And of course, there is that little incident about the outed plagarist.  The synthesis of several bits of (often obscure) information can pack a pretty serious punch in terms of understanding reality.

What I really want to talk about, though is how all this collaboration and synthesis relates to coming up with opinions.  In my own biased mind, I would say that most policy suggestions made here come either from the gut or perhaps even a study or two that was particularly well-liked.  All that great foundation on reality when describing events unfortunately ravels as soon as we start to talk about the future.  Yet there is a powerful tool that can be used to extend our great command of the facts into a traceable and transparent trail of reason.

This field of study could leverage the incredible powers of synthesis of this community, and allow us to discuss the future more intelligently.  This field is called systems dynamics (with a cousin called systems thinking), and has been used in think tanks, businesses and the like since the 60's.  It is thought to be only for specialists, but with modern software, it might just be open to the masses.

Systems dynamics was invented at MIT, originally to study the problems of business - inventory tracking, adjustments of markets to changes and so forth.  It also made a large splash in the public view with the publication of the Limits to Growth, a study that challenged the wisdom of having a fundamentally unsustainable economy.  Limits, and its follow-ons, created a simplified model of the world showing how resources were consumed, people multiplied, industry grew, pollution was made and how food was produced.  It also showed that even the most optimistic beliefs in technology would only buy 30 years at most without stabilizing the world population.

MIT SD group
Limits review

People have been shown to be very poor at understanding large, interconnected systems.  Also, most experts are only expert in a small domain of knowledge, without much better understanding than the lay public everywhere else.  System dynamics is designed to bring together communities of experts (even from diverse disciplines), sit them down together, and allow them to strap together a whole.  It is also meant to force all of the disciplinarians to see each other's concerns, and to highlight all of the interconnections and feedback loops that exist in the real world.  Another goal is to flush out all of the hidden costs and "side effects" that occur when one defines the system of interest far too narrowly.

Let's say we wanted to understand how to deal with health care.  We could model the insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, patients and the government in their current configuration.  Despite the fact that every one of these groups can do dastardly things to one another, each also serves its purpose.  It is when this system gets out of balance that we have problems (denial of legitimate treatment, doctor over-use of expensive resources like MRI, too much eagerness to just prescribe a drug).  Any policies that are recommended should strive to put the system into balance, but it is hard to know beforehand what that is if you are only arguing on principle.  To be practical, we need to have experiments, and the computer is the only ethical place to perform policy experiments.

For all those that call for single payer, I would say that there are likely to be many unintended consequences.  However, you will never believe me until we really run the model.  And when I say really run the model, I also mean exposing all of the assumptions and properties that are used to generate it.  We could probably also experiment with the levels of benevolence in each of the actors - in other words, how much pressure from the system at large needs to be applied to keep them in check.

To show an example:
UK SD study on health care

The best thing about all of this, though, is that there is a variety of knowledge out there.  And as diarists like boondad show, there are also quite a number of you that can go and hunt down the appropriate data.  It is just a matter of finding a large enough number of individuals with the right background and an interest in finding out the truth.

Originally, system dynamics was arcane enough to only be understood by a few scholars that could actually do the math.  Nowadays, there is software that puts most of the worst bits behind the curtain.  As an added bonus, some of this software is free.  For your edification, check out Vensim from Ventana systems.

Look for Vensim PLE

Also, for background, I recommend checking out Limits to Growth from a nearby library, and also looking for the assorted research groups.

So consider this a suggestion for open-source politics if you will.  This is just my first cut on it - there is a lot of room for revision and suggestions, feedback and so forth is much more than welcome.  If there is enough interest, I will try and write on this subject again.

Originally posted to OdinsEye2k on Sun Apr 30, 2006 at 10:14 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Am I nuts (5+ / 0-)

    or does anybody follow where I'm going?

  •  You Presume a Society That Wishes to Analyze (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and collaborate.

    Personally I don't see any interesting evidence of mass media attempting to engage a majority of the electorate by either informing them or by supporting substantive societal debate. We see every election cycle that there's no meaningful debate. And surveys consistently show the electorate to be both ignorant and misinformed.

    There's also serious doubt about which, and how many, political leadership factions are interested in seriously open, participatory problem-solving.

    I'm not sure but you may also be presuming that the general electorate is or should be engaged in this complex systems approach. That would definitely qualify as wishful thinking.

    A glance across the entirety of American messaging shows that there is no delivery of any kind of message at an adult level of complexity to the general electorate. There's a reason that our superpower, information-age society conducts its campaigns with simplistit slogans and cartoons. There is simply no bandwidth for complex messages or any substantive debate.

    I've been a programmer so I can appreciate how a powerful a systems approach could be. But it's going to have to be a very niche activity limited to narrow participation, from all I can tell about this country.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy....--ML King, "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Apr 30, 2006 at 11:41:48 AM PDT

    •  On the other hand ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, MarketTrustee

      isn't there a reasonable subset even here on DKos who does want to analyze ... and, if so, what is the power of our system dynamic infuencing the larger DKos/blogger/progressive environment ...

      We can work together to develop concepts, analyze the system dynamics to be able to somewhat understand the implications and interactions so as to arm those who go into the policy arena to 'fight' with program ideas that might actually work ... If we team this up with the word eloquence / framing skills of so many here, it might not just be 'workable' but also winnable (politically) solutions.

      9/11/05, Day 1469, A count worth keeping? Or, Osama Bin Forgotten?

      by besieged by bush on Sun Apr 30, 2006 at 09:35:18 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The salvation of this country (0+ / 0-)

    lies in a massive and prolonged power failure.  The "miracle" of instant communications would fail.  The controlling influence that we call media would cease and that would be a good thing.
    I know what you propose and really it sounds like a great idea but the general public?
    The guy already had the heart attack, the paramedics zapped him 6 times and well, it's just a flat line.

  •  Welcome OdinsEye2k, I've have a great deal of (0+ / 0-)

    respect for the system dynamics methodology and have used and taught it extensively, mosty in corporations for senior executive strategic debates.

    I've more experience with Dynamo 3, Stella, Ithink, and Powersim software packages than with Vensim PLE, but at least last time I checked, all are mathematical equivelent mumerical method implementations of Euler's routine or Runge-Kutta 2 or 4 simulated solutions to multi-ordered non-linear differential equations.  

    But all system dynamics based software packages feature convenient representations of the real life non-linear relationships between variables that often get left out of more traditional methodologies.

    Also, except for the original mainframe based Dynamo, all the rest include easy to use graphical interfaces allowing users to create intuitive models using more easily understood stock and flow diagrams and causal loop diagrams that guide non-mathemeticians through the process of representing their intuitions in difference equations without realizing it.

    With proper coaching anyone with high school alegegra skill can use this software that gives the the analytic and scientific power of advanced calculus.  

    Actually, many of my students and even myself, never really properly undestood alegebra or calculus until using and "playing with this software."    

    One tremendous advantage of basing computer simulation models on the real life feedback and stock on flow structures (integations and derivitives) rather than regression based extrapolations on datasets, is that one can jump over the limitation of inaduquate databases for most of the real life strategic questions that are confront decision makers in real systems.

    Another powerful advantage, is that all encourage and guide both individual and team modelers to start using the scientific method of hypothesis testing applied to social issues where gut instincts or sociological power dynamics have so far prevailed.

    Once teams get practice surfacing their mental models, explicitly representing them as testable hypothesis and then evolving their collective assumptions sets against objective scientifically rigorous simulation methodologies or even an intuitively based systems thinking process the quality of thinking, decision making, as well as the whole strategic process can benefit.

    But the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. So one experiment some of here are conducting to test the proposition that groups can benefit from such methodology without even realizing it.  

    I presume you must be a graduate student and therefore have takin Professor John Stermans Principles of Systems 1, 2, etc.

    Does he still use the Integrity of the US Constitution as the example of the floating goal structures and the anchor and adjustment system archetype?  If so please let him know that his brilliant insights of 25 years ago are being applied to the restoration of integrity to the White House and the efforts to hold the Bush Administration and the Congress accountable to their oaths of office.

    Also, David Kreutzer's system dynamics and systems thinking models of war and revolution, terrorism, evolution of social systsms, and as well as his models of Gandhi's and Gene Sharp's non-violent social change and low intensity combat are inspiring my perspectives on opposing the neocon political philosphy and forming policy and strategy about our sad situations in Iraq, Iran, as well as hoping to assist progressives and Democrats to form more effective approaches to acheiving US national security and world peace.

    I haven't talked much about methodologies here yet as the discussion here are more issues focused it takes a while to understand communities, issues, and establish credibility.

    But I welcome you here and give my strongest recommendation to the power of the MIT system dynamics approach.  I hope you will help improve the quallity of thinking and discussion around the many complex real life systems issues that the folks at Daily Kos have devoted themselves to for years and years.  

    A brilliant fellow named Markos founded this site years ago to help Howard Dean fund raising and it has quickly evolved to be what I consider to be the leading web community of its kind.

    Markos and the 73,000 folks who arrive here before I did have done an outstanding job creating the finest community of thinkers and and passionate progressive political enthusiasts I know of in the blogosphere.    

    I've been following dkos since the last election  but only actively involved in the last year or so.

    I started observing here originally as a source of data for a system dynamics model to better understand the dynamics of the 2004 presidential elecion. And in particular to refine a model I started in the 2000 election looking at the final year competition in the battle ground states.

    I started with aggregate national core model of seven stock model representing a spectrum of voter affiliations from right to left that ultimate generates votes for Gore vs Bush, and then Kerry vs Bush.  

    But noticed that in both elections the country divides up into cultural bubles such as West Coast, NorthEast New England, the South, the Midwest, Industrial Heartland.

    I developed some theories that try to trace core values blocks all the war back to the New England Northern versus Southern Colonies, East-West Expansion, North - South civil war etc.

    Of particular interest was trying to understand the Ohio-Pennsylvania regions. And what can we learn to get break Arkansas, Tennesee, West Virginia, etc out of the previously solid red southern block.

    And another interesting evolution of voter sentiment seems to be occuring in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and an emerging new battleground zone in the West.  

    Including some theories I learned from Brian Berry at Harvard on the Heartland-Hinterland Dynamics in his classic textbook on Economic Geography which I will still be working in over the next few years.  Hopefully sufficiently before 2008 to be useful in helping form strategies then.

    My original intentent was to focus as much atttention as we can on winning back control of the Senate and House in 2006 as warm up. And also to identify and cultivate potential sponsors, co-developers, and users. (Oh BTW, I should probably mention that I'm a Democrat. As I would hope and predict all good systems dynamisist would be. ((Except maybe for Jay and those older than 75 for whom I've always allowed special founder waivers)) LOL)

    However, the transgressions by the Bush Administration of our Constitutional systems of checks and balances, the Geneva Conventions, the 1945 UN Charter became so problematic, much of my short term efforts have been diverted into assisting impeachment efforts.

    And I've been so seduced by the intellectual passion and commitment of the dkos that I've somehow fallen into the pattern of a citizen volunteer writing essays each day on topical events.  (Be careful young, OdinsEye2k, this blogging can be like a dangerous narcotic, with addictive properties. Make sure you get tenure before getting too involved. Or have you done this already?)  

    But my hope is here originally was to cultivate a community of folks who wish to work more formally on work inspired and perhaps even centered around the original SD and ST models  of elecitons dynamics during the 2006 and 2008 elections.  

    However, now I'm thinking that an even higher leverage application may be to help progressives develop more explicit foreign policy philophies to the failed and disasterous Neocons movement that has got us and the world into such a perilous situation.  

    But this is enormously complex and goes well beyond my areas of original expertise.  I'm still scanning the literature and familiarizing myself with the key players and rapidly evolving issues.  

    Forgive me, it I go on, but its sort of exciting to discover a fellow traveller who might appreciate this sort of thing.

    I should probably write to you a private letter. By the way, please drop me a note a and let me know how Jay, John, Jim and the old SDG gang is doing.  

    Glad to see you here.  Welcome and good luck with your SD modeling.  


    Helping to bring justice back to the White House, one indictment at a time.

    by HoundDog on Sun Apr 30, 2006 at 01:19:25 PM PDT

    •  Heh, well, thanks for the input... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Actually, I am a graduate student (no future plans of tenure for me though - hoping to hit industry), but I am currently going to Georgia Tech.

      I haven't ever interacted with the MIT group - I just taught myself SD from Sterman's textbook.  It was a pretty easy read - I had already trained in all the relevant mathematics, so all the language was pretty natural.

      Anyways, I appreciate the very passionate response.  I think there is a lot of value in the "flight sim" aspect of these models ... I'm just trying to figure out how to break them out of the world of the 'suits,' if you know what I mean.  I'll have to chew on this and write you a little bit more thought.

      •  Can't wait to hear from you OdinsEye2k. I'll be (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        glad to help you out in anyway I can if you ever run into challenges.

        I've led the development of numerous of the flight simulator projects and recomend them.  When I was your age, most of the funding and money came from the corporate world.  

        But I've had students and former employees who've done work in a variety of fields.

        I looked you up and notice you seem to have an interest in environmental issues.

        One "flight simulator" you may want to google was done by a fomer MIT student of mine called "daisyworld" where he modeled something I vaquely remember from 20 years ago was called I think the "albedo" affect which describes the average reflectivity of our planets surface to solar radiation.  

        I may be misremembering his project because he had several models of environmental effects.  But due to coal burning darkening the surfaces of the polar icecaps he generated alternative scenarios of how rapidly the polar icecaps might melt from increased heat retention.

        This compounds the green house gas effect due to the fact that CO2 traps more solar energy in our atmosphere that previously reflected into space.

        He exported the difference equation computer simulation model done in STELLA out to a visual basic interface on the MacIntosh and built a visual flight simulator interface.

        I can't remember his name, but I wrote a recommendation for him and he was accepted in the PhD program in Cognitive Psychology at Carnigie Mellon about 20 years ago.  

        I can look him up for you if you don't find it easily on google.  This was his passion and he was quite brilliant so I expect he has done much good work continuing this line of research.

        You can find well documented Dynamo models of heavy metals pollution, ecosystems, and resource recycling in Dynamics of Growth in A Finite World by Dennis and Dana Meadows et al.  

        I adapted the Limits to Growth model you mentioned into a Food Population Model looking at the Worlds carrying capacity for food production from four different paradigms, classical rational economics, enviromentialist, technological optimist, and socialist perspectvies as in illustrations of the use of system dynamics models to explore integration of competing philosophies and dispute resolution.  But never published this work.

        But, this work is one of the sources of my hope to demostrate the same capability of modern mathematics and computer simulation methodologies to inform traditional competing philosophical debates.  

        Which is one reason I find the Constitutional issues, and the failures of the neocon philosphophy interesting as potential similar experiments.  

        Good luck.  And please let me know if I can be helpful.  I've devoted most of my adult lifetime to advancing system dynamics, systems thinking, and facilitated group modeling for team learning and dispute resolution.

        But a tragic divorce, business failure, and some personal health issues got me sidetracked.  

        But I'm gearing up for a return to action if I can manage to break this terrible addiction to blogging.  Especially here at dkos.

        Be careful.  Don't let this happen to you too.  LOL



        Helping to bring justice back to the White House, one indictment at a time.

        by HoundDog on Sun Apr 30, 2006 at 02:59:29 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  thanks to diary rescue (0+ / 0-)
    collaboration, decision, systems software and virtual spaces -- all extremely interesting topics to me, especially timely when leveraging communications infrastructure.

    keep it up

    Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

    by MarketTrustee on Mon May 01, 2006 at 10:54:25 AM PDT

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