Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 1 Number 4, Dec. 2002
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailbag: Feeding Back Your Feedback
I get more email about the "Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems
Theory" -- and now this newsletter as well -- than anything else I've
done on the internet. This month I'd like to share some of that mail,
as well as some of my responses. (Names and/or email addresses
withheld when requested.)
A student at Boise State University wrote:
Hello Alan. I am a philosophy student and have recently been getting
into some research concerning the philosophy of science and problems
with reductionist science. This has lead me into some research and
thought concerning systems theory. I am very much compelled and have
a strong affinity toward the basic concept behind systems theory. I
am however at a loss as to how I would go about pursuing such a study.
The specialized nature of academic institutions that I am familiar with
make such a trans-discipline study impossible. I have been looking
around on the internet for a college program based on holistic
thinking. I ran across your curriculum and thought you might have
some ideas. Do you? Any help and consideration is very much
Alan Scrivener (email@example.com) wrote:
First the bad news:
I don't believe any university in the USA today offers a major
in cybernetics and/or systems theory. The closest I am aware
of was a program in the mid-'80s at San Jose State in Cybernetic
Engineering, but it was abandoned by the engineering department,
picked up for a while by the anthropology department (probably
because Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist), and then vanished.
Now the good news:
You don't have to major in it to study it. None of the founders
of cybernetics majored in it. Look up the Macy Foundation meetings
on feedback in the late '40s: chairman Warren McCulloch was a
neurologist, Bateson and Meade were anthropologists, Norbert Wiener
was a mathematician, etc...
In fact, our society does need generalists, to run corporations,
hold top government posts, and manage environmental resources among
other things. There are majors right at BSU that would allow
you to take one of these paths. A mathematics major with an
emphasis in operations research would work. A paleoclimatology
major with a minor in applied math would be an interesting twist.
Or try combining economics and biology.
Just remember that academia has pretty much rejected the multi-
disciplinary approach, so don't make too many waves. Just find
a way to connect the dots and learn what you need to. Make the
waves later, when you use systems theory to make a great
breakthrough in your career.
Postscript: UCLA now has a Cybernetics major! I will be devoting
a future C3M to this program; in the meantime see:
Peter Bogacki wrote:
Dear Professor Scrivener
Regarding the part of your work that is concerned with communication
of the nature and use of the Viable System Model (VSM), please
consider the possibility of using as part of it "Constituent (7):
The End Result," an abstract (from a manual) that was accepted
in late 1997 as an article for publication in "Kybernetes:
The International Journal of Systems and Cybernetics."
Eileen Andrews wrote:
Wow! Gotta tell ya, Mr. Scrivener, this is more than I ever wanted
to know about ANYTHING! (But it sure is interesting and I'm
definitely going to read at least one of your recommended books!)
Question: Do you not consider Rupert Sheldrake's morphic fields
or morphic resonance pertinent to any of this system theory
information?? Just curious.
Alan Scrivener wrote:
I remember first reading about the M-field thing in the newsletter
"Brain/Mind Bulletin" the early 1980s. It had a summary of the
ideas, and I was skeptical but curious and so waited for more
information to trickle in. It never did.
So yesterday, after getting your email, I did some web research
on Sheldrake & M-fields. I seem to be having some trouble getting
any "hard data" on what Sheldrake's theory really is. A few
phrases and a bunch of stories about pet ESP don't make a theory.
Where are the quantitative predictions, that make it testable?
The social contract among scientists is that -- though no
theory is ever really proved true -- it must be possible to
disprove it with experiments.
I haven't been able to find any scientists who even comment on
Sheldrake. The creationists like him, though.
Eileen Andrews wrote:
No, you've not missed anything that I'm aware of. I did the
same exercise about a week ago and was disappointed to find
even less information on his web page than I found a few years
back. My experience with Sheldrake is limited to having read
his book, "The Presence of the Past" back in 1989. I had hoped
you might have more or better references, but since your efforts
resulted in the same lack of new information, I guess I'll table
this topic indefinitely.
My friend Steve Premo (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote:
There is some recognition that most scientific models, including
medical models, study parts of systems without studying or
describing how they fit together into an integrated system, such
as an organism. Thus, there is criticism that modern science
and western medicine are "reductionist" and inadequate. In my
experience, the people who voice these criticisms mostly assert
that the solution is to seek a more "spiritual" approach, and see
the problem as stemming from an emphasis on "materialism". (I use
"materialism" here to refer to a philosophical approach that
emphasizes the material world without tying it to what is seen as
the underlying spiritual reality. It has nothing to do with, say,
valuing wealth over personal relationships.)
So while there are a lot of people who recognize this as a problem,
most of them seem to feel that the solution is either to
pray/meditate more, or to study some strange philosophical/religious
system like Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy is based
on Steiner's clairvoyant inspirations, and as a system of study it
is intellectually pretty rigorous, but it's all bulls**t.
I, of course, think that the best way to study the material world is
with a materialistic approach, and see no value in using clairvoyance
to understand physical reality. Intuition can be a source of
inspiration, but you've still got to see if your ideas hold true
in the real world.
So it's good to see what efforts are being made to understand
systems as a whole from a materialist perspective, rather than
a new-age spiritualist perspective.
My friend David Demers, whose talk on "cognitive illusions" I
linked to last month, told me he recommends the chapter on
investor mistakes in "What Works on Wall Street: A Guide to
the Best-Performing Investment Strategies of All Time" by
James P. O'Shaughnessy. (He does NOT recommend the investment
strategies, though -- he says he's simulated them with historical
data and they're not very good.)
He also sent me this follow-up email with more citations --
David Demers wrote:
In case you are interested in further detail on mental biases
etc, there are a couple of other good secondary sources that
"Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes - And How to
Correct Them: Lessons from the New Science of Behavioral
Economics" by Gary Belsky & Thomas Gilovich.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684859386/hip-20 )
"Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds"
by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/047115962X/hip-20 )
The primary sources are fairly accessible, actually. Most of
the good work on the "behavioral finance" side is in "prospect
theory", originated by the late Amos Tversky along with Daniel
Kahnemann (who just won the Nobel prize in economics this fall).
A good collection is "Research on Judgment and Decision Making:
Currents, Connections, and Controversies" edited by William
Goldstein & Robin Hogarth. It's current through 1996 or so
& includes & cites most of the major work.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521483344/hip-20 )
I've found that cognitive psychologists have gone down similar
paths but tend to have been insular to the particular problem
domain they each studied, which is why I put the talk together,
covering a very large set of what I believe to be related
My working theory is that it all stems from the evolution of
useful heuristics (for survival in primitive times), which
creates the innate cognitive biases. The biases now are
suboptimal in the rapidly changing modern society for
overcoming the new challenges we humans face.
But, I could be wrong...
My friend Will Ackel wrote:
> ..."not a serious candidate" is code for "loser."
Naturally as a Libertarian I have thought about this as well.
While I have not generally found George McGovern to be a source
of wisdom, here's a notable exception: In his 1983 bid for the
Democratic Presidential nomination, McGovern was deemed by the
press to be "not a serious candidate". At a campaign event, a
voter had this to say (paraphrasing from memory): "I think you
would be a great President, but you clearly aren't going to win.
Why should I waste my vote on you." McGovern's answer: "It's better
to waste you vote than to waste your conscience." I would add to
that that the only ways to waste your vote (in order of increasing
badness) are to not cast it, to cast it based on misinformation
or inadequate information, or to knowingly cast it without regard
to your own personal values and judgment.
Responding to my mention of Admiral John Poindexter's new
Information Awareness Office (IAO) and the paranoia it is sure
to inspire, my friend Dave Gilsdorf (email@example.com) passed
along this link:
Also, the following article reports that -- sure enough -- some
people have gotten a little paranoid, and decided to share the
feeling with the Admiral and his cronies, by collecting
personal information about them
and posting it on the web:
Also, "the IAO also appears to have scuttled its eye-death-ray
logo, which ... was denounced far and wide as being Orwellian,
Masonic -- and just plain creepy as hell."
Coming Soon in C3M: Dr. Alan Garfinkel has given me permission to
key in and post his landmark article "A mathematics for physiology"
(1983) which first appeared in the American Journal of Physiology
(245: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 14: R455-66).
Also, this month I was privileged to be able to interview Dr. Arthur
Olson of the Scripps Research Institute about the present and future
of "biological computing," and I'll be writing that up soon.
Meanwhile, I got the book "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution"
by Howard Rheingold for Christmas, so I'll be reviewing that as soon
as I read it.
I should mention that I first learned of Rheingold's new book
from a very intriguing source: a "bot" which automatically
scans "blogs" (web logs) looking for book links, and then rates
them by number of mentions. It seems like a great trend-spotting
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Copyright 2002 by Alan B. Scrivener