Systems thinking and the academic environment

Researchers in systems science work in a sometimes difficult academic environment. Both the subject matter and the methodologies of these scientists are often in conflict with the methods and products favoured by the academy. The methods of traditional academic and scientific work seldom reflect the properties of systems, and therefore systems science becomes incompatible with the nature of traditional academic work and development.

Systems science is occupied with phenomena that deal with dynamic processes like self-organization, self-reference and auto- poieses that are still barely dealt with in the international science community. Traditional analytic science tends to focus on linear models with relatively few variables and simple causal connections. It works with individual subsystems in isolation, while only occasionally (and frequently inaccurately) extrapolating to more complex systems. Temporal and physical levels of analysis are abstracted and isolated, and disciplinary divisions cut off consideration of their interaction. This inadequacy is reflected in the actual products of academic and scientific works like papers, lectures, and books, which are the coin in trade for academic workers. Such works, ranging from short papers to long treatises, nearly always have a linear structure both in argumentation and presentation while the chosen problem is far from linear.

As an university discipline, systems science has never striven for an educational monopoly, a fact that also probably has contributed to its decline. It is in the nature of systems science that other areas can cross its indistinct boundaries and use its methods. Its territory does not comprise a specific area of empirical reality and its specific methods are no more specific than the fact that they are used by other disciplines.

In the university there is a widespread skepticism about the soundness of interdisciplinary programs generally and systems program specifically. Furthermore, the systemic challenge to the traditional academic world has been taken as a threat against its existence. The scientific and educational impact of systems theory has therefore been opposed as an alternative to the old scientific paradigm.

The established and well-entrenched academic world seems to have too much to lose in accepting a new perspective and therefore regards a new paradigm as a threat. Several of the well- established and still reductionist academic disciplines of today seem to have forced relations to systems science. Furthermore, in the eyes of unsuspecting members of academia, systems science and systems theory have always been a subset of computer science. This misconception has often been painstakingly cherished by computer scientists in order to lay hands upon existing but diminishing funds.

Without strong external pressure, most department leaders are negative to stake their precious resources on ventures going beyond known disciplinary boundaries. A general impression is that resistance to new theories moving across disciplinary boundaries is stronger than resistance to them within the disciplines. Another phenomenon is that highly specialized scientists seldom accept that some general theories claim to know their field. They do not like interpretations of their findings with which they themselves are not familiar. Some even state that further abstract theories can confuse their students in their critical attempts to orient themselves in the own disciplinary track which is hard enough.

Unfortunately, traditional university and government laboratory environments have a tendency to freeze into permanent patterns as their scientists grew older. They tend to view their own field of work as the center of the world.

Isolated knowledge generated by a group of specialists in a narrow field has no value in itself. Only its synthesis with the rest of existing knowledge gives it a meaning. But as Systems Thinking undermines the legitimacy of those claiming high status of their disciplines and building walls around their fields, systems scientists are involved in an uphill fight. As a result, Systems Thinking has lost much of its earlier popularity and it is no longer possible to study Systems Science at Swedish Universities as an independent discipline. Perhaps the Scandinavian outlook is short-sighted, but a general impression is that this diminishing popularity is an universal trend.

At the time of writing, the future of Systems Thinking seems bleak. Its underlying principles may still be neglected for a number of years, but the growing amount of international crises will compel the establishment to resort to all means, including Systems Science. Necessity will force old thinking and old methods to be balanced by new ones taken from all human knowledge areas including music, art and philosophy. Furthermore, convergence of previously separate scientific disciplines and fields of engineering cannot take place without the emergence of new kinds of scholars who understand multiple fields in depth and can work to integrate them. Only through recognizing their connections with each other can all the sciences progress. Finally, from the four hundred year long history of Western science we may learn that main paradigm shifts are a question of centuries rather than decades.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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