Science 13 December 2013:
Vol. 342 no. 6164 pp. 1319-1320
DOI:10.1126/science.1245386
Book Review

Unnecessary Complexity

Daniel W. McShea | 4 Comments

The contributors examine the nature of complexity and its changes over time as well as their causes.

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As a medical doctor, every day and every patient visit is a chance to take the very complex and recast it into a simple concept complete with a foundation so it does not sound like something made up. I will say every time I do that recombination I see insights that I never realized before. What ever is found in a laboratory or an equation must in the end make common sense and that should be explainable to anyone/everyone.

Submitted on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 19:23

Melanie Mitchell makes a good point about placeholder words. There are people who use words like complexity, information, etc. that way. They use them consciously and diffidently, aware that meanings will change with increased understanding, and aware that whole concepts may evaporate, if they turn out not to line up with nature. (Melanie shows this kind of sensitivity in her own work. See especially her book, Complexity: A Guided Tour.) So in many cases, I agree: fuzzy words offer great opportunities for expanding our thinking. Overreaching can be good.

But there are also those who just seem to like to toss cool words around, who have very little awareness of the frailties of concepts (or if they do, they check that awareness at the door when they sit down to write), and who somehow manage to pass off incoherent sentences full of hip-sounding words as great profundity, deceiving even themselves. Seemingly oblivious, some go on to spin these cool words into equations, thereby imparting to their nonsense the cachet of real science. For these people, it is as if these words are too precious and too delicate to risk forcing them into hard-edged conceptual boxes, to risk clarifying them, much less precisely defining them. It is as if these words are too exalted to make ordinary demands of them, demands we routinely make of most words in science, like consistent usage. Fuzzy words, become a smokescreen for fuzzy thinking. Is there some way to ban these words just for *these* people? :)

Finally, Melanie makes a good point about the word "gene." Should it should be “banned” too? (The quotes are a reminder that my proposal of a ban was, and is, tongue-in-cheek.) Yes, gene should be banned. Or rather, it should be allowed only when clear from context how it's being used, since there are a half dozen different senses of the word (at least). And maybe that's the rule to follow for all of these words.

Submitted on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 10:46

Dan McShea says "Entropy, order, information, computation, emergence, and free energy. These words and phrases should be banned from interdisciplinary discussions of complexity in the history of the universe."

I sure hope these words aren't banned, since these concepts (along with "dynamics", "evolution", and "adaptation") are the very building blocks upon which our understanding of complex systems is beginning to take shape. Dan implies that scientists shouldn't usee words if we don't know what they mean. But words have always been used in science as "placeholders" for things we don't yet understand. Take the example of "force" as it was used in physics before quantum mechanics. No one knew what it meant, but it turned out to guide physics in essential ways for centuries. Or the example of "concept" in psychology. No one knows what a "concept" is in the brain, but it's a useful placeholder until we gain more understanding. Or in Dan's own field of evolutionary biology, what about "gene"? It seems like our understanding of precisely what this means is undergoing radical changes.

Finally, take the notion of "computation". While Dan argues that this shouldn't be used since it has a precise meaning in a particular field -- e.g., "computation is what a 'Turing Machine' does." However, the meaning of "computation" is constantly being expanded, not only as computer scientists explore new forms of computation, but as scientists in biology and other fields find that notions of computation and information processing can actually make sense of how organisms and other complex entities work.

Yes, the field of complexity is full of "placeholder" words, including "complexity" itself, but that just indicates its relative youth as a science. Nothing seems more exiting to me than making these notions more precise across disciplines. And that requires an embrace of these terms, in all their ambiguity (not to mention an embrace of the mathematics that will eventually make them more precise).

To learn more about complexity across disciplines, see complexityexplorer.org.

Submitted on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 12:56

"However, the meaning of "computation" is constantly being expanded, not only as computer scientists explore new forms of computation, but as scientists in biology and other fields find that notions of computation and information processing can actually make sense of how organisms and other complex entities work."

Exactly. Thank you, Melanie. Just because there exists a precise definition in a particular context does not mean that definition is exhaustive or necessarily gets at the spirit of the matter.

Submitted on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 11:36