Powerful and effective heuristics are the only way to quickly communicate the complex understandings required to save humanity, because they facilitate quick feedback. They break through information logjams. They reduce information overload. The various elite powers on the planet use heuristics in the form of propaganda to mislead the people and drive them like cattle toward a predetermined objective. But they have a great advantage over us. It’s easier to confuse than enlighten. It’s easier to destroy than to build. It’s easier to get people to misunderstand complexity than to get them to understand it.
So unless we become clever at heuristics, we are outnumbered and outgunned. And we need to be cognizant of any model that can help us dilate the conduits of feedback to the point where our big picture understandings can spread like lightening to the general public. There are many ways to do this, mostly by commandeering well-understood terms and putting them to new uses.
While I was watching the Boston Marathon bombing coverage I heard them talk about victims who were at one point in critical condition but who had been reevaluated to serious condition. And it made me want to look up the precise definitions of these terms. That’s when I saw that they could have usefulness describing all kinds of complex social dynamics. After all, that’s what systems theory is all about. The five terms are: undetermined, good, fair, serious, and critical. You can find definitions here at wikipedia:
Briefly, they are: waiting assessment; stable within normal limits; indicators are favorable; indicators are questionable; and indicators are unfavorable. These concepts can be applied at every level and context of social dynamics because they are terms that describe systems. And as Donella H. Meadows stressed, the whole point of systems theory is to cut through all the jargon of the multiplicity of specialties. The point is to make things as simple as possible without making them too simple. Simplify but don’t oversimplify.
But she said that systems theory, ironically, became a specialty unto itself, and became complex and obscure and remote when the whole idea was to reverse that process and no facilitate it and further it. So we all need to try our best to use terminology that is quickly grasped by the average citizen: We the People, remember them/us? As the Chinese say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Images are the best teachers.
That’s the reason that the metaphorical language of poetry is so powerful. That’s the reason it reaches people so deeply. The most prominent devices of poetry are simile and metaphor, which express one idea (perhaps more obscure and abstract) through it’s similarity to another more well known idea. And the medium is imagery. And I think these five medical terms are just one example of how fairly well-known terms could be used to convey complex, big picture understandings.
We should all keep our eyes open for such terms, because they are the only way we will ever reach the average citizen and open their eyes to what we already see.
Phi Beta Iota: Organizations — governments, corporations, religions, universities, labor unions — all lie to protect the accumulated benefits of those who have been placed in positions of public trust and private power. They lie for the wrong reasons, and their lies deepen the situation, turning disasters in to catastrophes. Only the truth is an absolute good. The truth at any cost lowers all other costs.
Supplemental from a Systems Person: I like the medical terms. Very nice observation. However, they work because we have agreement on what is normal. To some people slavery in the South was normal and efforts to change it were disruptive. For a generation the Cold War was normal and the collapse of the USSR was very disruptive. For some people having the banking industry take 40% of corporate profits is just fine. If we could define what normal is, at least within a range, then we could use terms like serious and critical. I think it could be a very worthwhile effort. Unemployment and inflation are widely used “vital signs.” CO2 and average temperature are becoming accepted. Inequality (e.g., the Gini coefficient) is an important indicator for some people. Some people work to create indicators (e.g., transparency international measures corruption). A friend of mine, David Campbell, developed a measure of democracy. Currently measures of the quality of universities are causing chaos in universities as administrators strive to rise in rankings (e.g., firing good people because they do not publish in journals used in rankings). I think journalists would be more effective if they focused on some key indicators in addition to specific events. There have been efforts recently to put a specific terrorist event within the context of similar events over the past several years. The business press combines articles on indicators with articles on stock offerings, mergers and acquisitions, etc.