Authors: Warren Weaver
Publication, Year: American Scientist, 1948
Notes by: Matthew R. DeVerna
Problems of Simplicity = "old school pre-1900s" science which focuses on a few variables
Problems of Disorganized Complexity = science that focuses on the statistical principals which can well describe averages like flipping a coin a billion times
Problems of Organized Complexity = problems that are somewhere in the middle, and often focus on variables which largely interact with one another.
In this piece Weaver seeks to…
... get a view of the function that science should have in the developing future of man.
In order to do this, he'd like to "look at the record" and,
Neglecting the older history of science, [he] shall go back only three and a half centuries and take a broad view that tries to see the main features, and omits minor details.
The seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "formed the period in which physical science learned variables"
The hardest problems in science can not be restricted to two constant variables
The most important and difficult questions often regard many dozens of variables and even some which cannot be, or have not yet been, quantified.
It is not surprising that up to 1900 the life sciences were largely concerned with the necessary preliminary stages in the application of the scientific method — preliminary stages which chiefly involve collection, description, classifications, and the observation of concurrent and apparently correlated effects.
Thus, he says,
… physical science before 1900 was largely concerned with two-variable problems of simplicity; whereas the life sciences in which these problems of simplicity are not so often significant, had not yet become highly quantitative or analytical in character.
In order to tackle problems which addressed more variables, physical scientists — often working with mathematicians — developed new powerful techniques of probability theory and of statistical mechanics to deal with problems of disorganized complexity.
A problem of disorganized complexity is one in which the number of variables is very large, and one in which each of the many variables has a behavior which is individually erratic, or perhaps totally unknown.
A good example of this is the problem of describing the movement of billions of billiards balls onto of a very large pool table.
While we can describe the motion of a single ball or even a couple quite easily, the description gets more difficult as the number of balls increases to a factor of ten or fifteen — simply because it is not so practical to calculate so many variables.
Interestingly, however, when the number of balls gets much larger, the problem actually becomes easier.
These represent statistical techniques which are not restricted to situations where the scientific theory of the individual events is very well known.
Indeed, the whole question of evidence and the way in which knowledge can be inferred from evidence are now recognized to depend on these same statistical ideas, so that probability notions are essential to any theory of knowledge itself.
Problems of organized Complexity are those problems which fall between the problems of few variables (i.e. Problems of Simplicity) and the problems of many variables (i.e. Problems of Disorganized Complexity).
These types of problems have too many variables to be addressed properly using methods for Problems of Simplicity however, they do can't be simplified using statistical measures of averages like we would forProblems of Disorganized Complexity.
Put most simply by Weaver himself...
They are problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole. They are all, in the language here proposed, problems of organized complexity.
Weaver also provides two "bits of special evidence" which suggest that we may begin to address these types of problems. Both bits of evidence came as a result of wartime developments.
They make it possible to deal with problems which previously were too complicated, and, more importantly, they will justify and inspire the development of new methods of analysis applicable to these new problems of organized complexity.
A "Mixed-team" approach
It was found, in spite of the modern tendencies toward intense scientific specialization, that members of such diverse groups could work together and could form a unit which was much greater than the mere sum of its parts. It was shown that these groups could tackle certain problems of organized complexity, and get useful answers.
In this section, Weaver more or less bloviates about how amazing science is for a while and then states that it (and scientists themselves) must be humble and recognize that science cannot address all problems.
He sort of goes on a philosophical tear and says that...
Our morals must catch up with our machinery.
He also adds that ...
Knowledge of individual and group behavior must be improved.
He calls on the need to do the following things as well:
Finally, he ends by saying...
None of these advances can be won unless men understand what science really is; all progress must be accomplished in a world in which modern science is an inescapable, ever-expanding influence.