The Pervasive and Pernicious Effects of Neglecting Systems Thinking

John Raven (Dr)
24 May 2019

Abstract: This note brings together a number of problems that are usually considered separately but which seem to have a common root in neglect of, or avoidance of, systems thinking. The note begins by reviewing a number of studies from which seriously misleading conclusions have been drawn because they uncritically adopted the perspective of reductionist science and failed to document outcomes to which attention might have been drawn had the authors set the problem in a systems context. It is argued that the quality of a scientific study depends more on its comprehensiveness than on the accuracy with which a particular outcome has been assessed. Next considered are the effects of the widespread failure to study the systems processes which lie behind, and determine, even elaborate, observed relationships. The article then moves on to note that the tendency to introduce what are essentially single-factor changes in social policy without considering their multiple unintended, and often counterintuitive, effects is not only deeply disturbing but actually destructive. Several examples are given. But how could things be otherwise given our hierarchical governance structures wherein centralised and over-loaded “decision takers” are required to govern by decree? This suggests that the most important area in which systems thinking has been neglected has been in relation to our system of governance itself. Unfortunately, these errors and oversights appear to be only one side of the problem since the tendency to avoid complex systems thinking and generate simplistic codes and regulations seems to be linked to a belief that one has a right to forcefully impose on others activities which one believes to be good and right without much regard for the consequences for the individuals concerned or the wider society. Such a world view can perhaps most accurately be described as fascist. That having been said, it is obvious that the tendency to behave in this way is pervasive and finds expression in a widespread tendency to prescribe what others must, or may not, do, think, see, or say. The article concludes by noting what seem to be a number of other traits disturbingly linked to this predisposition.