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POSC 390R: Complexity and Public Policy


POSC 390R: Complexity and Public Policy

By Karen Son

On November 12, 2012, the Curriculum Committee of Brigham Young University-Hawaii approved a new Political Science course. The capstone course was proposed by Dr. Troy Smith and now presents Political Science majors with another option since Dr. Jon Jonassen’s retirement will leave our capstone offerings short. On November 21, 2012, I interviewed Dr. Smith about his new Complexity class to try to understand its focus and advantages. The following is a summary of his comments. How would you explain complexity to students? In the 21st century social systems adapt as they receive feedback. As consumers, voters, netizens, citizens, or users offer feedback, systems that depend on these people adjust, maximizing whatever it is that the system creates—thus resulting in order. This represents a change. The more familiar, classical models of social science seek to expand understanding by exploring various social components, identifying how small parts comprise the whole system, and predicting outcomes based on rational choice models. Now, however, as societies become more complex due to massive changes in globalization and technology, many classical models and theories have lost their ability to explain social change. In general complexity occurs on its own. Federalism, for example, begins with covenants which are ways of organizing society: simple rules that everybody agrees to follow. If all do so then an order appears called “spontaneous order.” Nobody is in charge of it but people following rules make it exist. People deciding how to respond to that order and those rules is the feedback that the system receives and it adjusts accordingly. In a free-market environment, nobody sets prices but somehow they are determined through people’s feedback, creating a type of market order. Some would like to eliminate complexity in order to preserve control but what complexity science is trying to do is find ways to work with it rather than fight against it—finding a balance between the feedback-driven adaptation and central control? The class POSC 410: Complexity and Public Policy teaches students an alternative approach to understanding modern systems. Using computers students can create models to study complexity in social contexts. For example, complexity can explore how communicable diseases spread, examine how revolution spreads over Twitter, or find ways to restrain ivory poaching. How will complexity be useful to students? The class will emphasize the importance of feedback and why we need to pay attention to it. Many times the feedback comes in a way that we do not expect. Proportionality (classical science) claimed that big things create big effects whereas small things create small effects. Today, however, social networks have become very fluid and wide, enabling small things to create enormous effects and big things to have little effect. In today’s world, even very small things can cause societies to fall apart and collapse. If we ignore or remain unaware of simple principles related to feedback, it can have enormous consequences and shatter our social order. The class emphasizes fundamental elements of leadership and identifies where to find solutions when we have a problem. It also teaches the value of diversity since that is a huge part of complex systems. In short, the more diversity exists, the more complexity exists. Maintaining complete control is impossible, but if we can learn the complexity system, we can try to understand some ways to create an order within complex and diverse systems so conditions do not spin out of control. The course has huge implications for public policy. Terrorists always adapt and adjust as do the anti-terrorist forces going after them. The environment adapts to us which then requires that we adapt to it. By studying complexity we can learn how to set up systems to better adjust to environmental change, terrorist attacks, and so forth. The course also allows us insights into leadership styles. How do leaders respond to changes in the system and how do people in the system respond or offer feedback to government changes? What helps community thrive? The solution is not entirely with government and markets. The solution lies in the interactions and networking between people in the community. Interactions among people will increase and develop greater levels of complexity; that complexity then enables society to better express the interests of the people. Increasingly, groups with no voice are gaining one and their feedback has an impact whether those in positions of authority are willing to acknowledge it and act or not. The revolutions in North Africa represent an excellent example. Will the new class require math or statistics? Should you decide to go into more depth then you may need to use statistics. This class, however, will require neither math nor statistics. Can other majors take this class? The class is open to all majors. What is the number? For Winter 2013 the class will be called POSC 390R. Afterwards, however, it will have its own permanent number: POSC 420.