SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 4 – IMPOSSIBLE COMPLEXITY

Chaos

In Part 3 of this series of posts looking at the limits and possibilities in applying scientific findings and methodology to the practice of education, I looked at the basic characteristics of the scientific method, and some of the challenges faced by carrying-out ‘hard’ scientific research in an educational setting. For sure, if you are going to investigate teaching and learning in ‘ecologically valid’ ways, whilst also using the gold standard of double-blind randomised controlled trials, you are going to have your work cut-out for you.

But I declared at the end of the post that it wasn’t simply the nightmare of us ever accumulating enough methodologically robust research that was bothering me. Rather, I said that my concern is with the social human subject matter itself: with the explosion of complications you get through the interactions between different levels of elements, the reflexivity of the human subject matter, and the constantly shifting uniqueness of every situation which is looked at.

In this post, I am going to expand on this point, and explore just why I believe that these three factors mean that we will NEVER be able to

  • Completely understand why someone has acted the way they have
  • Fully predict how they will act in the future
  • Reliably control changes in a person

Firstly… INTERACTIONS:

We are relentlessly researching just about every aspect of human activity. In the process, we are constantly uncovering patterns, dynamics and apparent mechanisms which come into play in myriad ways across the diverse range of human behaviours. We acknowledge that each one of these apparent factors give a weighting to what happens – they don’t necessarily allow you to predict everything – but we often read reports of new findings which do seem to imply that ‘this explains everything’ – that the mechanism which has been identified appears to have a hidden hand in just about all human occurrences, and now that we have found out about it…. well…

…Well what? Just how far do such discoveries get us? The famous concept of ‘The Butterfly Effect’– that small changes can lead to huge consequences down the line – simplifies a much bigger realisation. Not only might the flapping of that butterfly’s wings conceivably lead to a hurricane occurring somewhere, but the flapping of the wings will also have some indiscriminate effect on uncountable other future events in multiple directions within the same dynamic system (however infinitesimal these effects might be). Furthermore – and this is crucial to the ways humans like to rationalise things – going backwards in time, what was it that led the butterfly to flap its wings? An infinity of previous events and processes fanning-out prior to that moment (think of the way family trees spread out both before and after an individual’s place in them.)

Why did Britain vote for Brexit again? After the event there was no shortage of analysts demonstrating our attraction to hindsight bias. This is the case after any unexpected event. We think that both it was obvious that it would happen, and that there was one key factor implicated in it and which can be used in the future to predict similar things.

Any effect which we think will be caused by a current action is but one of many consequences, rippling outwards and onwards. And any cause which we think has led to a current happening is also but one of very many, coinciding on this moment from legion previous happenings.

So, in human affairs we can NEVER point to a causal chain. It is ALWAYS a causal web of just how many strands we can be fully sure, and an additional thing to ponder is just how quickly different effects can multiply together to create fundamentally unpredictable consequences. Using the example of billiard balls colliding in turn, physicist Michael Berry calculated that by the 6th or 7th collision, in order to predict how the balls would collide, you would have to take into consideration the gravitational pull of people moving around the edge of the table…

In essence, what I’m saying is that the uncovering of ‘general principles’ influencing what seems to happen in brains or classrooms or social systems, give us absolutely no power whatsoever to predict – let alone direct – what will actually happen as a consequence of our actions.

REFLEXIVITY

One of the defining aspects of human intelligence is our ability to carry-out abstract reasoning, running simulations about what might happen in the future, and combining information intentionally to achieve goals. This means that we can consciously interact with causes and effects around us, creating either positive or negative reinforcement loops. In social science this is known as reflexivity.

This adds an additional layer of unfathomable complexity to what is going on, as any attempt to predict and openly control future behaviour can change the likelihood of that behaviour coming to pass. It could be that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies and placebo effects, or alternatively it could create a reaction against what would otherwise have been a smooth progression from one situation to an apparently inevitable outcome. Publically announced election forecasts are famously prone to influencing what they are purporting to simply be observing, and social science researchers getting close to the subject matter of their study are likely to effect the exact appearance of what it is they are most likely struggling to observe – and perhaps even the likelihood that it will appear again in those particular subjects.

It is not even the question of whether or not we have ‘free will’ that would make this situation hard to factor into predictions. Just the very belief in free will can make people respond differently to situations, and every shift in a person’s beliefs, understanding and experience can change the ground for future outcomes. We never return to the same state we have previously inhabited. Whether or not the Illuminati are cleverly controlling our behaviours, believing that they are or that they aren’t will likely affect the way we go about our lives in some way.

How to control for reflexivity, in a way which would allow researchers to unambiguously measure the inner workings of a human decision, untangle the web of causality which has led to it, and then take an action which will reliably lead to predictable and replicable outcomes, seems impossible to untangle. And that is made all the more certain by the final concern I have…

UNIQUENESS:

Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why can’t we properly learn from the lessons of history? The infinite webs of interactions – both seen and unseen, known and unknown – between causes and effects, systems and entanglements, mean that we never enter the same situation twice. The famous saying “no one steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” (derived from attributions by Plato and others to the teachings of Heraclitus), show that this reality was apparent at least 2500 years ago.

We bemoan the fact that no-one learns from history, and also mock naïve assertions that “this time things will be different”, but there are good reasons for our inability to sagely avoid previous missteps – despite our most reflective best intentions – as well as our inability to repeat the successful formulas of the past: The exact same circumstances are simply never repeated.

If you were to raise the idea at this present moment in Britain of having a referendum about some big issue (such as becoming a republic perhaps), then, irrespective of people’s feelings about the monarchy, the reaction would likely be different to how it would have been 3 years ago. Our collective and individual thoughts and feelings about things such as referenda will have been sizeably changed by the experience of the Brexit vote. We can’t go back to a previous state of naivety, but, even if we could, the situated reality in which we are operating will have changed anyway. Technology and interconnectivity, norms and opinions, all of these things are evolving at such a rate that we can never tell from one day to the next just which way the wind will blow with a proposed idea, or an unexpected – or indeed expected – action.

The bottom line to all of these things is that hopes to ever be able to scientifically disentangle, predict and control human experience and behaviour, in the way we can now control silicon and electricity, are utterly deluded, and this has a significant impact on our vision for what education might become.

Exactly where this leaves us moving forward is the subject of my final post in this series.

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