Systems Science Friday Noon Seminar Series



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A new year often begins with a sense of optimism, but we (ever the contrarians) will begin it with a healthy dose of pessimism. This week's seminar will be a discussion about criticisms of systems science. As Winston Churchill said, "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." Is the systems project in an unhealthy state? Since its emergence in the 1940s and 1950s, a number of people have believed that to be the case, and a few have issued strong--and long--critiques of the systems view. A few of the most notable have come from R. C. Buck (1956), Ida Hoos (1972), and Robert Lilienfeld (1978). As George Klir notes--his 2001 book Facets of System Science will provide a good deal of the material for our discussion--some of this criticism was ill-conceived and easily refuted; but some was indeed justified, and addressing the "unhealthy" aspects of systems science changed it for the better. No doubt it behooves the systems thinker to be familiar with these criticisms both justified and unjustified: knowing the "justified" criticisms will (hopefully) prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past and provide us with a deeper understanding of the systems project's development; knowing the "unjustified" criticisms can provide us with an understanding of how the systems field is perceived by those outside it and (perhaps) motivate us to improve the way we communicate our ideas.

To give everyone a head start, here are some of the criticisms from Buck, Hoos, and Lilienfeld (Buck's criticisms are paraphrased by me, and those of Hoos and Lilienfeld by Lars Skyttner (2005)):

R. C. Buck

  • If every system has subsystems and every system has its environment, one can't think of anything or any combination of things that isn't a system; if the concept of "system" can apply to everything, it is logically empty.
  • The fact that the spread of neural impulses, the spread of rumours, and the spread of epidemics can all be described by similar mathematical models is sheer coincidence. "So what?" if these different systems are seen as analogous.
  • If Joan's heart is the system, and Joan is the environment, isn't Joan's heart--being a part of her--also the environment? So which is it?

Ida Hoos

  • The so-called isomorphisms are nothing but tired truisms about the universality of mathematics, i.e. 2 + 2 = 4 prevails whether we consider soap, chickens, or missiles.
  • Superficial analogies may camouflage crucial differences and lead to erroneous conclusions.

Robert Lilienfeld

  • Systems theory is the latest attempt to create a universal myth based on the prestige of science.
  • Systems thinkers have a special weakness for definitions, conceptualizations, and programmatic statements, all of a vaguely benevolent moralizing nature, without concrete or even scientific substance.
  • In the eyes of the "universality" of systems theory all things are systems by virtue of ignoring the specific, the concrete, and the substantive.
  • Systems theory is a theory with applications which have never been really tested.
  • As a theory, systems philosophy is a mixture of speculation and empirical data, neither of them satisfactory. It is an attempt to stretch a set of concepts into metaphysics that extends beyond and above all substantive areas.
  • Systems theory is not a genuine philosophy and is not a science; it is an ideology and must be considered as such.

In addition to these criticisms, I will also present a number of other criticisms of the systems field (here assumed to encompass the "complexity" sciences as well), including some more recent ones from people within the systems field itself (and perhaps a Nobel-prize-winning economist or two).

Biographical Information

Joshua Hughes is a second year, core-option PhD student and graduate assistant in the PSU Systems Science Graduate Program. He is working on research with George Lendaris on contextual reinforcement learning and experience-based identification and control; he is also collaborating with Martin Zwick on a few papers that show how systems theories might provide insights into some contemporary problems. He is interested in information theory, cybernetics, reconstructability analysis, neural networks, fuzzy logic, catastrophe theory, game theory, and many other things.


System theory -- Criticism and interpretation, System analysis -- Criticism and interpretation, Complexity (Philosophy), Cybernetics, Chaotic behavior in systems


Theory, Knowledge and Science

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Criticisms of Systems Science