Letter: Complex questions

June 1, 2001

The question that Gene Rowe should be asking about complex issues ("The right way for a public say", THES , May 25) is not "how should science consult the citizen" but "how should the citizen consult the scientists?" The principles that guide scientific theorising - namely reductionism, simplicity and causality - are not always appropriate when dealing with complex matters. Although science can often provide a useful input to complex problem-solving, common sense - which deals with complexity all the time - often gives better advice.

Controlled experimentation, from which most acceptable scientific data are obtained, tends to conceal the interactions in a system that make it complex. Outside the laboratory, effects can affect causes, so a scientific search for causes is likely to lead to simplistic solutions. And because interactions in nature are often slow to take effect, science can be good at achieving short-term gains but bad at predicting their long-term consequences, such as those that affect individuals, society and the environment.

John Sparkes
Hemel Hempstead

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