August 8, 2009

Harnessing Social Complexity: my thought process


I woke up very early today again. I am developing into a full-blown insomniac, but it does not seem to bother me much, as I get the chance to experience the sun rising every day, along with all the beautiful sounds of the birds as they are welcoming the new day. Some days feel better than others; today somehow I feel more cheerful than usual. It is early morning and I already finished a number of tasks set out to do for my day's worth of work.

Last night, I went through a particularly difficult thought process. Again, I found myself still wandering about the reach of our scientific understanding of complex social behaviors in real world systems and experience-rich settings. My concern is not as much as to the individual characteristics of the social system itself, or its various components, as much as its functionality in diverse and heterogeneous social, environmental, cultural, economic and geopolitical conditions and settings.

My impression is that we are good on understanding the revealed or experimentally verified systemic behavior when such complex environmental conditions are confounded or well bounded in our scientific investigations. Under such simple assumptional settings, often highly complex social patterns of systemic behavior are revealed or emerge. We, thus, often don't really know how such boundary initial or confounding conditions influence systemic behavior. It is not simply a matter of varying such conditions (e.g., sensitivity to model parameters, initial conditions, or hypothesis settings). Seemingly unrelated sets or bundles of conditions may suddenly become critical to systemic evolution, or give rise to even more complex organizational forms of social emergence. The opposite might be also true, that is that the complex interacting and interwoven sets of conditions might be causing the system to become static and trapped into relatively steady attractors.

From a scientist point of view, the key question is how do we generate a relevant level of plasticity in our understanding (and interpreting) of systemic functionality in such complex, yet realistic social settings? How can we facilitate the emergence of systemic robustness and resilience? How far do we reach in specificity of social dimensions of our models? How open or closed we frame our systemic boundaries and study of interactions?

Some of the questions above are rather technical by nature, and require experimentation, including the introduction of computational modeling and simulation approaches. Others, yet, are theoretical or methodological and require adjustments of our observational views or our tools we use to study them. In any case, my feeling is that we need to revise the ways we think, approach and study complexity of social interactions in our systems.

For now, I need to return back to these thoughts after I have revisited some of the methodological issues and complex systems approaches. I don't know exactly how a different view (under the auspices of complexity framework) can be epistemologically formulated in ways that enhance its validity. Nevertheless such views must host and embrace uniqueness and robustness in ways that promote our adequacy to avoid the shortfalls of past theoretical and methodological approaches and particularly those of the disciplinary views. Insofar, such an advancement is incomplete, at least in the level of providing a convincing confidence level in my investigation.

July 24, 2009

My process of scientific inquiry - Part 1

I find very interesting how my own personal scientific discovery process plays out. It is an exciting process, but often leads to an overwhelming or overload of thoughts racing through my mind. Often, when faced with a research problem, my main and primary concern is how to understand what my experiences, judgments and data tells me. What is the deeper story and meaning of the things I observe and experience? Is there broader principles and patterns that I can detect?

Sometimes it starts simply as an intuition. Reading few interviews, or trying to answer a simple question could trigger this intuition. The feeling that something is there, and somehow I am missing the point, is a powerful motivator. It is not unusual to find myself not been able to sleep or do anything else important without having those taunting questions tantalizing my brain. Some might think this sounds like torture, but for me, this is all about being a scientists. This often "tingling" feeling about such thoughts, serves as something of a premonition, an sign that excites scientific curiosity and can lead to discovery.

Over the course of time, I learned to be patient and embrace this process, as I know it often takes a while. Sometimes it comes and goes and if it is important, I know it will come back at a later stage, when least expected, triggered again by something seemingly irrelevant. Not always we grasp the significance of such signs (as Thomas Kuhn argues), but I also believe that if something is significant, it will be eventually emerge and be picked-up. This fuzziness or uncertainty about the value of our thought processes, when managed could serve well on allowing the time to critically reflect and bounce back and forth some ideas and thoughts.

The process, when successful, resembles pieces of a puzzle coming together. We pick up one piece, look at it, put it back in a pile, then we pick up another, go through the same process again and again, until, at some point, we pick a piece, and then we remember other pieces of the puzzle that fit together. We reach back to the pile, pick the ones that remained in our memory, and... Oh! What a magic! The pieces fit together forming a part of the picture. When this happens, try to imagine how it feels.

Scientific discovery, on the other hand, is not simply a mental competency exercise. It requires painstaking thought, experimentation, hypothesizing and testing. It also requires skills and knowledge. Not so much on the type of knowledge that is simply accumulates or serves definitional narratives, but the one that allows the scientist to deeply understand the meaning and depth of the context to which such knowledge is applicable or functional. In interdisciplinary settings, the ability to generate viable and strong connections between different knowledge domains and combine successfully skills and experience is essential.

Personally, I find that an essential scientific quality and attitude towards scientific discovery is being able to be a harsh critic of oneself. Only when we can challenge ourselves first we can have the strength and power to challenge assumptions and widely held conventions in scientific knowledge. I challenge what I know, what I see and what I understand all the time. To knowing that you simply don't know enough is a powerful tool that can aid scientific discovery. Going through mental exercises in your mind, convincing oneself that often what you see is not what you get, challenging one's assumptions, dispositions and attitudes, and recognizing and embracing the proposition that in most cases it is more likely to get it wrong that getting it right are some of my intrinsic tools that drive my scientific process and the way I function in science.

The role of maturation of such processes into one's intellectuality is critical too. As time goes by a very slow process of maturation is progressing in my mind. A scientist is not simply a professional that acquired knowledge and skills throughout his or her career. A scientist is primarily an intellectual that philosophizes about his or her scientific expertise and what his or her expertise has to contribute in transforming information into knowledge that benefits society as a whole. In another article I will expose my views regarding the distorted current practice that treats the process of acquiring a PhD as a sterile educational and skill-related professional accreditation rather than a true transformative ability that turns an inquisitive individual into a scholar and philosophy of science within an area of expertise.