Tag Archives: systems thinking

Reduction in usefulness of reductionism

decorative paintingA couple of months ago I wrote about a set of credibility factors for computational models [see ‘Credible predictions for regulatory decision-making‘ on December 9th, 2020] that we designed to inform interactions between researchers, model builders and decision-makers that will establish trust in the predictions from computational models [1].  This is important because computational modelling is becoming ubiquitous in the development of everything from automobiles and power stations to drugs and vaccines which inevitably leads to its use in supporting regulatory applications.  However, there is another motivation underpinning our work which is that the systems being modelled are becoming increasingly complex with the likelihood that they will exhibit emergent behaviour [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015] and this makes it increasingly unlikely that a reductionist approach to establishing model credibility will be successful [2].  The reductionist approach to science, which was pioneered by Descartes and Newton, has served science well for hundreds of years and is based on the concept that everything about a complex system can be understood by reducing it to the smallest constituent part.  It is the method of analysis that underpins almost everything you learn as an undergraduate engineer or physicist. However, reductionism loses its power when a system is more than the sum of its parts, i.e., when it exhibits emergent behaviour.  Our approach to establishing model credibility is more holistic than traditional methods.  This seems appropriate when modelling complex systems for which a complete knowledge of the relationships and patterns of behaviour may not be attainable, e.g., when unexpected or unexplainable emergent behaviour occurs [3].  The hegemony of reductionism in science made us nervous about writing about its short-comings four years ago when we first published our ideas about model credibility [2].  So, I was pleased to see a paper published last year [4] that identified five fundamental properties of biology that weaken the power of reductionism, namely (1) biological variation is widespread and persistent, (2) biological systems are relentlessly nonlinear, (3) biological systems contain redundancy, (4) biology consists of multiple systems interacting across different time and spatial scales, and (5) biological properties are emergent.  Many engineered systems possess all five of these fundamental properties – you just to need to look at them from the appropriate perspective, for example, through a microscope to see the variation in microstructure of a mass-produced part.  Hence, in the future, there will need to be an increasing emphasis on holistic approaches and systems thinking in both the education and practices of engineers as well as biologists.

For more on emergence in computational modelling see Manuel Delanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, Continuum, London, 2011. And, for more systems thinking see Fritjof Capra and Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2014.


[1] Patterson EA, Whelan MP & Worth A, The role of validation in establishing the scientific credibility of predictive toxicology approaches intended for regulatory application, Computational Toxicology, 17: 100144, 2021.

[2] Patterson EA &Whelan MP, A framework to establish credibility of computational models in biology. Progress in biophysics and molecular biology, 129: 13-19, 2017.

[3] Patterson EA & Whelan MP, On the validation of variable fidelity multi-physics simulations, J. Sound & Vibration, 448:247-258, 2019.

[4] Pruett WA, Clemmer JS & Hester RL, Physiological Modeling and Simulation—Validation, Credibility, and Application. Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, 22:185-206, 2020.

Re-engineering engineering

More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’.  My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition.  And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering.  Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology.  In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.

In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven].  This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering.  If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).

For information on the licensed engineering institutions in the UK see: https://www.engc.org.uk/about-us/our-partners/professional-engineering-institutions/

We are all citizens of the world

A longer post this week because I was invited to write an article for the Citizens of Everywhere project being organised by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. The article is reproduced below:

Scientists seek to discover and describe knowledge, while engineers seek to apply and deploy the same knowledge by creating technology that supports our global society.  In their quests, both scientists and engineers are dependent on each other and on those that have gone before them.  On each other, because scientists increasingly need technology in order make discoveries, and because engineers need new scientific discoveries to drive innovation; and both groups stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, to mis-quote Isaac Newton who said he was able to see further by standing on the shoulders of his predecessors.  Scientists and engineers have to build on the achievements of their predecessors, otherwise nothing would be achieved in a single lifetime.  This process is enabled by the global dissemination of knowledge and understanding in our society, which does not recognise any boundaries and flows around the world largely unimpeded by the efforts of nation states and private corporations.  As Poincaré is reputed to have said ‘the scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful’.  The feeling of delight is a reward for hours of intense study; but, the realization that you are the first to recognise or discover a new scientific fact generates so much excitement that you want to tell everyone.  Scientists have always met to share their findings and discuss the implications.  As a young researcher, I had a postcard above my desk showing a photograph of the attendees at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927 at which 29 scientists from around the world met to debate the latest discoveries relating to electrons and photons.  Seventeen of the 29 attendees at this conference went on to receive Nobel prizes.  Not all scientific meetings are as famous, or perhaps as significant, as the Solvay conference; but, today they are happening all around the world involving thousands of researchers from scores of countries.  Besides the bureaucratic burden of obtaining visas, national boundaries have little impact on these exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge and understanding.  If you are a researcher working in the subject with sufficient funding then you can attend; and if your work is sufficiently novel, rigorous and significant, as judged by your peers, then you can present it at one of these meetings.  You can also listen to the world’s leading experts in the field, have a discussion over a coffee, or even a meal, with them before going back to your laboratory or office and attempting to add to society’s knowledge and understanding.  Most scientists and engineers work as part of a global community contributing to, and exploiting, a shared knowledge and understanding of natural and manufactured phenomena; and in this process, as global citizens, we are relatively unaware and uninfluenced by the national boundaries drawn and fought over by politicians and leaders.  Of course, I have described a utopian world to which reality does not conform, because in practice corporations attempt to protect their intellectual property for profit and national governments to classify information in the national interests and sometimes restrict the movement of scientists and technologist to and from states considered to be not playing by the right set of rules.  However, on the timescale of scientific discovery, these actions are relatively short-term and rarely totally effective.  Perhaps this is because the delight in the beauty of discovery overcomes these obstacles, or because the benefits of altruistic sharing outweigh the selfish gain from restrictive practices.  (Of course, the scientific community has its charlatans, fraudsters and free-loaders; but, these counterfeiters tend to operate on a global stage so that even their fake science impacts on the world-wide community of scientists and engineers.)  Participation in this global exchange of ideas and information makes many of us feel part of a world-wide community, or citizens of the world, who are enfranchised by our contributions and interactions with other citizens and international organisations.  Of course, along with everyone else, we are also inhabitants of the world; and these two actions, namely enfranchisement and inhabiting, are key characteristics of a citizen, as defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  Theresa May in her speech last October, at the Conservative party conference said: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’  If she is right, then she rendered many scientists and engineers as aliens; however, I don’t think she is, because citizenship of the world does not exclude us from also being citizens of other, local communities; even though politicians may want to redraw the boundaries of these communities and larger unions to which they belong.  However, in practice, it is hard to avoid the fact that we are all inhabitants of planet Earth and have a responsibility for ensuring that it remains habitable for our grand-children and great-grandchildren; so, we are all citizens of the world with its associated responsibilities.

When I was a student, thirty years ago, James Lovelock published his famous book, ‘Gaia’ in which he postulated that the world was a unified living system with feedback control that preserved its own stability but not necessarily the conditions for the survival of the human race.  More recently, Max Tegmark, in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, has used the analogy of spaceship Earth stocked with large but limited supplies of water, food and fuel, and equipped with both an atmospheric shield and a magnetic field to protect us from life-threatening ultra-violet and cosmic rays, respectively.  Our spaceship has no captain; and we spend next to nothing on maintenance such as avoiding onboard explosions, overheating, ultra-violet shield deterioration or premature depletion of supplies.  Lovelock and Tegmark are part of a movement away from a reductionist approach to science that has dominated since Descartes and Newton, and towards systems thinking, in which it is recognised that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  It’s hard for most of us to adopt this new thinking, because our education was configured around dividing everything into its smallest constituent parts in order to analyse and understand their function; but, this approach often misses, or even destroys, the emergent behaviour of the complex system – it’s like trying to understand the functioning of the brain by physically dissecting it.  Recently reported statements about citizens of the world and about climate change, suggest that some world leaders and politicians find it easier, or more convenient, to use reductionism to ignore or deny the potential for complex systems, such as our global society and planet Earth, to exhibit emergent behaviour.

Thomas L. Friedmann in his book, ‘The World is Flat’ warned that ‘every young American would be wise to think of themselves competing against every young Chinese, Indian or Brazilian’.  He was right; we cannot turn back the globalisation of knowledge.  The hunger for knowledge and understanding is shared by all and courses provided over the internet are democratizing knowledge to an unprecedented level.  For instance, I recently taught a course on undergraduate thermodynamics – not normally a popular subject; but, it was made available globally as a massive open on-line course (MOOC) and taken by thousands of learners in more than 130 countries.  The citizens of the world are becoming empowered by knowledge and simultaneously more networked.  Large complex networks are systems that exhibit emergent behaviour, which tends to be unexpected and surprising, especially if you only consider their constituents.