The politics of complexity (and the complexity of politics)

As there are globally-significant discussions this week on both climate (in Paris) and the civil war in Syria, I thought that I would prepare a cut-out-and-keep guide to guide all of you to the correct decision in each case.

For those of you on the political Right: cutting global carbon dioxide emissions is a ludicrous suggestion as there are far too many uncertainties associated with climate science, and the risk to global economic growth is too great. At the same time, bombing Syria is necessary as ISIS is an evil force that needs to be curtailed. Moreover, we have the military capability to target the ISIS leadership and this will, in turn, reduce the threat of terrorism in western cities.

For those of you on the political Left: cutting global carbon dioxide emissions is an urgent and necessary step but bombing ISIS is a potentially disastrous as there are far too many uncertainties and it is not a foregone conclusion that removing the ISIS leadership in Syria will curtail Islamic extremists elsewhere in the world. It may even encourage them.

Stand back from the details and both climate change and the situation in the Middle East resolve into the same problem: highly complex situations that are either reduced to simple cause-effect relationships by politicians with a point to make, or unpacked to reveal the huge uncertainties that would accompany any plan of action, should you want to block that path.   Left and Right simply swop sides when the discussion switches from climate to Syria (see “Is our world too complex to be trusted to politicians?“)

In both cases, the protagonists are telling us that there is a cause-effect relationship that means that a particular course of action (bombing ISIS strongholds, cutting carbon dioxide emissions) will have a predictable outcome. This is illustrated in graphical terms below. The “explanatory variable” is the action you think should be taken; the “response variable” shows the outcome.   The dots show the evidence on which this is based and indicate that in all circumstances for which you have evidence, increasing the value of the explanatory variable (e.g. by permitting UK bombers to target ISIS in Syria), will automatically have an effect on the response variable (e.g. reduced capability of ISIS).


Political rhetoric, expressed graphically: an adjustment in the value of the “explanatory variable” (increasing the quantity of bombs dropped on Syria, for example) will lead to a corresponding change in the response variable (reduced capability of ISIS).

The graph also summarises, very neatly, the plot of most action films .. James Bond, Superman, Misson Impossible … the list is endless. The hero is faced with an improbable situation and the climax invariably involves a rapid adjustment to a single explanatory variable that causes an immediate and dramatic change in the response variable such that the Evil Genius is thwarted. The problem is that this type of thinking then rolls over into real life: I’ve lost count of the number of times that a “security analyst” has come on the radio and explained how western bombs will disable ISIS capabilities and, by implication, eliminate the threat of Islamic extremism in Europe.

These highly predictable cause-effect relationships may be observed in controlled conditions in laboratories, where you are able to hold every other variable constant during an experiment. Out here, in the real world, however, we have to accept that many other variables will be changing at the same time as the two that we considering. In the sense that philosophers and mathematicians now understand “complexity”, we also need to recognise that  some of these other variables may behave unpredictably as the explanatory variable changes, with the potential for positive feedback loops to accentuate some outcomes, and dampen others. The best we can hope for is illustrated in the second graph.


Political reality expressed graphically: the situation is rarely so neat that a tweak to a single explanatory variable will automatically lead to a change in the response variable. Whatever the politicians tell you.

This is the type of situation we encounter very frequently in ecology: there is weak relationship between the explanatory variable and the response variable, but it is not possible to say with certainty how much effect a change in the explanatory variable will have.  The state of the response variable is influenced by many factors, not just the explanatory variable.    Indeed, it is possible that a small change in the explanatory variable will have no effect on the response variable at all and even that the system will behave completely unpredictably.   It is tempting to make the leap from using evidence to describe the state of the world, to making predictions; of confusing “correlation” and “causation”.   The risk is heightened if you look at data such as these through the lens of your chosen political ideology.   We also need to remember that, in the case of rapidly-evolving situations, the evidence base on which actions should be determined often does not exist (or is not in the public domain).

In the case of Syria, in the aftermath of events in Paris last month, the sense that Something Must Be Done seems to have overruled the lessons learned painfully and bloodily in Afghanistan, Iraq and, more recently, Libya.   All were sold to us as neat, surgical exercises to excise a tyrannical leader; none turned out that way.   Donald Rumsfeld, bless him, got it right with his oft-mocked quote about the Iraq war: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”   And then, of course, there are things that we’ve decided to forget and things that only happen in action films.

(Note to Right-leaning friends: replace “climate change” with “Syrian civil war” as you read the article, if you wish. The details may differ but the principles are pretty much the same)


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