The Challenges of Complexity

Last night, I attended a dinner in Lafayette. A delightful man at my table turned out to be a retired environmental engineer, and during the conversation, the subject of fracking came up.

I’ve had a good deal of trepidation about the practice, so I was surprised when he said that–done with a reasonable level of care–it doesn’t pose a threat to environmental safety. He also noted that the abundance, and relatively low cost, of natural gas could both lessen our dependence on foreign oil and give the economy a needed boost.

On the way home, I thought about our conversation, and realized that I had absolutely no way to evaluate the accuracy of his observations, or to weigh them against the arguments of those who oppose fracking. I don’t know enough.

The problem is, in so many areas of our communal life, we are all in the position of not knowing enough to make sound, evidence-based decisions. In an increasingly complex world, a world in which none of us can possibly have the knowledge needed to make independent decisions, we have no alternative but to place our trust in experts.

I’ve written a lot about the “trust deficit” in America, and its various causes. This dinner-table conversation focused me on one of the most troubling results¬†of that deficit.

How do we make sound policy decisions when so many of the issues we face require considerable expertise, but we don’t know who has that expertise, who is able to render an unbiased and informed opinion, and who is “in the pocket” of an interest group or otherwise untrustworthy?

What was the old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

We are.


  1. Perhaps, taking “emotional attitudes” out of things might help!!! People tend to feel that all their emotional needs have to be met. Three heads are always better, one on each side, and one who doesn’t have money in the game or political gain. Then we could slow down and not think everything has to be solved immediately with millions of dollars. I really feel that people have gotten to emotionally and financially involved to be fair anymore.

  2. Professor Kennedy, I found your comments posted on Facebook. Many of us are taught that the argument from authority is a logical fallacy. In reality, in an increasingly complex world, we must often trust intellectual authority. However, intellectual authority is not distinct from moral authority and moral courage. If my own reading and life experience has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that. To know whom to trust, look for those devoted to the truth and lacking apparent self-interest.

  3. What’s doubly frustrating to me is that even if “the facts” concerning the technical issues, degree of risks, costs, etc. were knowh with near-absolute precision, and stipulated to by all stakeholders, we still wouldn’t be all that far along in the dialogue or decision process. Folks on one side would say that the risk of even one fracking-related fatallity or serious illness due to environmental effects would be unacceptable. Folks on the other side would say that the beneficial effect on the economy due to less expensive (however defined) energy must at some point outweigh those risks. And typically both sides tend to be overly pious as to whether or not such balancing should never take place. It does… necessarily has to in some form. That doesn’t make it easy.

  4. Yes, Ma’am. I no longer trust American government, corporations, or media to default to presenting the pertinent facts and both sides of a story. Maybe in years past, No longer.

    When everything can’t be aired and deliberated, who left among us doesn’t smell a rat?

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