World will not bow to our control

January 16, 2004

In an increasingly uncertain world threatened by elements as diverse as freak weather and terrorism, Robert Geyer has the daunting task of overturning the belief that humans can govern and control events around them.

As head of the new Centre for Complexity Science at Liverpool University, Dr Geyer is spreading the message that the future does not depend on the past.

The time has come, he believes, to acknowledge that the endless pursuit of predictability is a pointless - and possibly dangerous - waste of time.

"While forecasting may have become big business, its usefulness has debilitating limitations," he said.

"In an orderly world, cause would lead to effect and the past would mirror the future - but life isn't orderly. That's why stock markets, voters and terrorists still spring surprises on us."

Learning to manage uncertainty is one of society's biggest challenges, he says, and complexity theory is in the process of developing new solutions.

"Events such as the war in Iraq may lead us to think that the world is spiralling out of control. But by recognising that uncertainty and unpredictability are normal and play an important role in both nature and humanity, the new science of complexity helps us to deal with chaos and catastrophe as well as everyday problems that confront us," he said.

Dr Geyer described complexity as a new and challenging interdisciplinary science that was searching for the hidden patterns and structures of diverse and chaotic systems such as weather movements, stock markets, species evolution, human diseases, organisational dynamics, public policy, war and terrorism.

The ideas behind complexity emerged from the physical sciences following the discovery that systems such as the weather, the growth of bacteria and the spread of disease do not conform to classic Newtonian rules.

Dr Geyer said: "Isaac Newton had a far greater impact on society than he probably imagined when he argued that the universe was essentially mechanical and linear.

"Today, we still try to run our institutions on orderly, hierarchical lines. But, paradoxically, we now know that our physical world doesn't entirely conform to Newtonian rules. There are numerous phenomena - quantum physics, fluid dynamics and the evolution of species, for instance - that don't behave in an orderly, linear fashion."

Complexity theory assumes that the physical world is governed by the interaction of order, complexity and disorder. If this is true, our perennial pursuit of order and predictability may do us more harm than good, Dr Geyer believes. In fact, according to him, we may need to rethink our fundamental approach to society and the economy.

"Complexity is not based on prior knowledge or existing theoretical frameworks. On the contrary, it assumes, unlike mechanistic approaches, that phenomena may change over time. In addition, these changes may occur spontaneously and unpredictably, and there could be an infinite number of changes."

Small disturbances in complex systems, according to Dr Geyer, may turn into avalanches of change.

"Complexity doesn't give researchers the luxury of ignoring troublesome parts of the problem by imposing convenient boundaries," he said. "It doesn't permit arbitrary classifications to reduce the range of variables to a convenient, manageable number. Complexity is not interested in averages, or smoothing out discontinuities or homogeneity. Instead, it sets out to capture the richness inherent in tiny changes - because this is actually what is important: this 'microdiversity' is what underlies the ongoing process of evolution."

At one level, he says, complexity is the science of common sense. At another level, it challenges the traditional boundaries of almost every field of science.

Liverpool is the only British university to try to coordinate complexity initiatives and to lead complexity research in the UK. The centre will be a focus for hundreds of academics from at least 40 different disciplines, all united in the view that the future may differ significantly from the past.

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