Letters

|

SYSTEM DYNAMICS

I was pleased that REASON reprinted Professor Jay W. Forrester's article, "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems," from TECHNOLOGY REVIEW. My pleasure stems from two related thoughts—one, that it describes a methodology founded on logical reasoning and, two, that the methodology is applicable to a myriad of social problems characterized now by illogical and futile attempts at solution.

It was therefore with some annoyance, but no surprise, that I read Bill Westmiller's tirade against the article in the September 1971 issue of REASON. I express no surprise because he has fallen prey to the usual misconceptions about the methodology created largely through ignorance of what it is and why it is even attempted in the first place. But I do agree that some of the gnawing doubts Mr. Westmiller expressed about whose decisions these were and who benefits from any policies implemented are central issues in social systems and ones which should be squarely faced. I contend, however, that it was not the purpose of the article, nor of the study on which it was based, to face these issues at this time.

Rather it was, in my opinion, to obtain and transmit a better understanding of what drives such a system to produce the dynamic behavior observed over time and to investigate in a preliminary way the effects of certain policies offered as possible alternatives for discussion and, later, for implementation. The discussion part is crucial to the methodology to ensure that the value set of the analysts is not imposed coercively on the rest of society were the recommendations to be implemented. Issues such as those which concern Mr. Westmiller should be raised and resolved in the modeling process. People such as Mr. Westmiller should be persuaded of the method's worth and participate in defining the assumptions and structure of the models.

Mr. Westmiller has indulged in at least three cardinal sins of critical reporting:

1) letting his personal biases show against institutional research and the values he imputes to much of it, such as those commonly found in insulated upper-class bureaucracies,

2) wrongly identifying the author of an article he frequently cited: Richard M. Koff, and not PLAYBOY, wrote the article "An End To All This" which appeared in the September issue of PLAYBOY, and he should have been given appropriate credit, and

3) displaying his ignorance of the method he was criticizing. What was reported in Forrester's article were the results of preliminary research—a personal hypothesis offered for discussion—and not a final divine judgment on how the system really behaves. For this reason, Professor Dennis Meadows of Massachusetts Institute of Technology is recruiting researchers, mostly graduate students, to collect data and test the assumptions on which Forrester's model is based. The onus is on the critic to disprove the hypotheses in the model by offering alternative counterhypotheses with sound cause-effect reasoning and about which data can be gathered for later validation. Until this is done, Forrester's work represents the clearest and simplest model of world problems we have to date.

Further, relationships in the model are quantified only so that ensuing discussion can be very specific and so the model can get running. Specific values for the indicator "Quality of Life" are meaningless in themselves: far more meaningful is the contention that, depending on how it is defined, certain variables play stronger roles than others in causing the indicator to change one way or the other. If someone doesn't agree that it is slightly higher now than it was, say in some previous time, then he should be encouraged to direct his criticism toward the assumptions that created that particular output, and/or with the way the indicator is defined. This is not the same as criticizing the method or the underlying rationale that the method can provide valuable insights into the operation and behavior of complex social systems, as Mr. Westmiller has done. He has let his strong personal biases and feelings cloud the cogent remarks he was trying to make.

In summary, whatever criticisms may be levelled at the assumptions that go into creating a model, I feel that the modeling methodology itself is beyond criticism for what it purports to do. It is being used increasingly successfully in a broader range of applications dealing primarily with pressing social issues. Specifically, it is more suited to systems or organizations that have been experiencing a problem which has persisted through time and which has implicitly resisted all attempts at solution. System dynamicists theorize that the reason is that those people in control are not aware of the complex set of feedback loops which are inherent in the system, nor how easy it is for an ultra-stable system to "shrug off" intuitive attempts to get it to behave differently.

Particularly when addressing problems in the public sector, we need more dialog between the majority and the minority groups, between the Establishment and those opposed to it, between people who subscribe to one value system and those who cling to another, and between the traditional and the innovative. Models such as Forrester's and those of his students form a good basis for that dialog, and in turn, a basis for change based on reason. Even NEW YORK TIMES editor Harry Schwartz concludes, in a June 17, 1971 article called "Forrester's Law," that the method deserves "serious trial" in attempts at solving many of our most pressing social problems.

Stanley C. Abraham
Los Angeles

EDITOR'S NOTE
Mr. Abraham attended the 11-day Special Summer Program on "Industrial Dynamics: Corporate and Social Systems" at the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 1971. The course is offered annually, and information about next year's offering may be obtained from the Director of the Summer Session, Room E19-356, M.I.T. Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

GODFATHER AND FICTION

I enjoyed reading Editor Machan's review of THE GODFATHER (REASON, September 1971). However, his remarks on the state of contemporary American fiction calls for comment. To a large degree, contemporary science fiction is providing the sort of enjoyment and quality which he finds lacking in most other literature. As examples: Anderson's BRAIN WAVE, THE STAR FOX, TAU ZERO; Ursula K. LeGuin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS; Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT; Cordwainer Smith's short stories, above all THE GAME OF RAT AND DRAGON; and Fritz Leiber's THE BIG TIME. The characteristic of these and other excellent works within this field is that they project a context radically unlike the present one in certain ways, and then attempt to show how human beings in that context would feel and why. The best of these writers have made this genre more consistently intelligent, more reflective of human worth than any previous body of literature with which I am acquainted.

Also, the review refers to Puzo's projection of love. I, personally, have encountered no vision of love more worthy of respect, or more delightful to me, than in J.R.R. Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Tolkien says, in ON FAIRY-STORIES, that one function of fairy-stories (and of literature in general, I would say) is the recovery of clear vision of our primary and essential values, out of the confusion to which much of everyday habit subjects them; his own work is one of the best achievements in this respect that I know of—there is more health in it than in any but a very few works I have found anywhere.

William H. Stoddard
Sunnywide, Calif.

SPEED LIMITS

I recommend to readers interested in auto problems an article in the February 1970 issue of ROAD & TRACK. The article is entitled "Do Speed Limits Work?" by J.J. Leeming.

Mr. Leeming's analysis of road fatality statistics, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, brings to light some interesting conclusions on the efficacy of government-imposed speed limits. In some ways, this article echoes the substance of Mr. Forrester's work: the counter intuitive behavior of systems.

Leeming's article is concise and illustrated with graphical information. I urge all to examine it.

Michael J. Dunn
Bellingham, Wash.

Advertisement