On the testability of systems thinking

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford.

One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 11/01/2017 00:10


Karl Popper taught us that the best theories are those that can be readily falsified.

General system theory principles (encapsulation, information feedback, determinism etc) are used every day, all over the world.

Every computer programmer applies these principles, and relies on system testing to prove the system theory they code.

Human activity systems in businesses are designed using the same principles; and we all depend on them working systematically.


“Though it grew out of organismic biology, general system theory soon branched into most of the humanities.” Laszlo and Krippner.

Actually that is a little misleading, since sociological systems thinking predates general system theory

The “Introduction to systems thinkers” paper shows it can be traced back to the 19th century.


Sociologists look at a human society as a discrete and organised group of individuals.

There are now countless socio-cultural systems thinkers and systems thinking propositions, including:

·         Various classifications of how societies have evolved through history (often implying evolution = improvement).

·         Various classifications of systems and social groups into different kinds (using scalar, tabular and graphical models).

·         Various models for how to change the organisation of a social group to meet some goals.

·         Various models for how to make “interventions” (as business management consultants call them) to improve business systems.

It is unclear which are correct, effective or can be recommended, because it is so hard to evaluate them.


“Scientism”. 1

“Pseudo-science”. 2

“Limits to growth”. 3

Doomsayers and optimists. 4

Totalitarianism and individualism.. 5

“The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory”. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 6

Footnote: more on “The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory”. 7



The scientistic guru announces a theory, and recommends you act as that theory suggests.

One symptom of scientism is that the guru is always right.

If the action fails, the guru will say you didn’t try hard enough, or unforeseeable phenomena got in the way.

Then consider the difficulty of verification or falsification where success has a thousand fathers.

If the guru claims success, it is possible that a different parallel action or market forces were the primary cause of the success.


"The dismal science" is a derogatory name for economics coined by Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish writer and philosopher.

Here’s an excerpt from the 1974 Economic Sciences Nobel prize acceptance speech by Friedrich von Hayek called “The Pretence of Knowledge”:


“It seems to me that this failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with

their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences - an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error.

It is an approach which has come to be described as the ‘scientistic’ attitude –

which, as I defined it some thirty years ago, ‘is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word,

since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.’"


For instance, where is the evidence that a debt crisis can be solved by accruing more debt (a de facto policy implemented today)?

Without evidence to support or contradict the policy, you can’t rationally argue for or against it.

If the policy fails it’s only because you did not pile on more debt fast enough, and so, the guru is always right.


Curiously, scientism is common in software engineering also.

Software design fashions come and go with little or no testing of one fashion against another.

As long the code works, eventually, people don’t look into whether it works optimally or not.


Richard Feynman (1918- 88) was recently ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time, and left us with insights that go beyond the world of physics.

Here is what Feynman had to say about social sciences in this BBC interview in 1981 (the whole series is worth viewing).


“Because of the success of science, there is a kind of a pseudo-science.

Social science is an example of a science which is not a science.

They follow the forms. You gather data, you do so and so and so forth, but they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found out anything.

They haven’t got anywhere – yet. Maybe someday they will, but it’s not very well developed.


But what happens is, at an even more mundane level, we get experts on everything that sound like they are sort of scientific, expert.

They are not scientists.

They sit at a typewriter and they make up something like ‘a food grown with a fertilizer that’s organic is better for you than food grown with a fertilizer that is inorganic’.

Maybe true, may not be true. But it hasn’t been demonstrated one way or the other.

But they’ll sit there on the typewriter and make up all this stuff as if it’s science and then become experts on foods, organic foods and so on.

There’s all kinds of myths and pseudo-science all over the place.


Now, I might be quite wrong. Maybe they do know all these things. But I don’t think I’m wrong.

See, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have about checking your experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself.

I know what it means to know something. And therefore, I see how they get their information.

And I can’t believe that they know when they haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t done the care necessary.

I have a great suspicion that they don’t know and that they are intimidating people by it.

I think so.  I don’t know the world very well but that’s what I think.”


Socio-cultural system thinkers strive understand the collective behavior of social groups, sometimes with a view to changing them.

The trouble is, human social groups contain volatile, irrational, unpredictable and contrary human actors.

To Feynman’s point, rather than acknowledging this huge limitation, the gurus present their theories and models as truths without the evidence that harder sciences expect.


The gurus describe social systems using terms like "complex, adaptive non-linear systems”.

They borrow mathematical-sounding terms like “complexity theory”, “nonlinear dynamics”, “fractal geometry” and “chaos theory”.

And other scientific-sounding terms like “autopoiesis”, “emergent properties”, “strange attractors” and “entropy”.

Where von Hayek called this scientism, Feynman called it pseudo science.

“Limits to growth”

If we still can’t predict the weather next month, it is difficult be confident about predictions of when a worldwide calamity will happen.


“In the 1970s, the Club of Rome (Meadows et al, 1972) released its first report “The Limits to Growth”.

The scientists and philosophers of the Club took a systemic look at the development of present-day civilisations

by consideration the interactions of global subsystems in the areas of population growth, agricultural production, dwindling resources and pollution.

On the basis of the computer simulation of the future course of the world ecology, they predicted worldwide calamity by the year 2025.” Bausch


Meadows’ team modelled industrialisation, population, food, use of resources, pollution (as stocks and flows in a “system dynamics” model).

They modelled the historical data, then modelled a range of scenarios up to 2100, with varying assumptions about action on environmental and resources.

Their “business-as-usual” model predicted a catastrophic collapse in the economy, environment and population before 2070.

Recently, decades later, some pointed out that the “business-as-usual” model matches reality pretty well so far.

And therefore proposed that the catastrophic collapse will happen when that model predicts it.


Yet first, the “business-as-usual” presumption is questionable, since the world has changed in so many ways.

Google anything you can find from Hans Rosling, especially “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats”.

And second, so far, the graphs (shown in the article below) show near-to-linear continuations of past trends.


So it remains impossible to be confident when if ever the predicted change from linear to non-linear will happen.


The system dynamics model (here and in other case) is a limited scientistic theory of how the world works.

The guru is always right: if the model fails to predict reality, the guru may point to an unforeseeable interference from something outside their theory.

Success has a thousand fathers: if the model predicts reality, it might be that something outside their theory (e.g. global warming) is the primary cause.

Moreover, it won’t be clear what the outcome of doing things differently would have been.

Doomsayers and optimists

Perhaps we all share a pessimistic view of the world and its future?

Meadows is one of many systems thinkers who have predicted some kind of dramatic failure in society.

Other socio-cultural systems thinkers include commentators and essayists on the human condition, politics and economics.

Decades ago, Ackoff and Beer both (independently) predicted the imminent collapse of governments, if not western civilisation.

Do those who follow Ackoff or Beer now consider their predictions have been falsified by the evidence?


How have things turned out?

Many statistics have moved dramatically and surprisingly in the right direction since the 1970s.

There have been global increases in health and education, and reductions in poverty.

Google anything you can find from Hans Rosling, especially “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats”.

Totalitarianism and individualism

The balance between centralisation and distribution runs through much system theory and systems thinking.

A theme in socio-cultural systems thinking is the balance between totalitarianism (hierarchical control) and individualism.

Here, individualism might be interpreted as anarchy, or liberalism or participatory democracy.


There are obvious reasons why hierarchical bureaucracies are inefficient and inept.

·         Parkinson's law

·         The Peter principle

·         The difficulty of recruiting, motivating and retaining employees to do boring or difficult work

·         The impossibility of a top manager knowing enough to do much better than random in decision making

·         The unintended consequences (distortions of behaviour) that arise from top-down targets.


Some systems thinkers present their own insights into the weaknesses of commercial and government institutions.

Some advocate a particular organisational model – often towards the individualism end of the spectrum.

But few present convincing empirical evidence to support their theories and recommendations.

“The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory”

This is the title of a book by Kenneth C. Bausch, published in 2001.

Bausch suggests systems thinkers have a mission to herald a new era of social organisation, of advancing participative democracy.

This section comments only on his conclusions, there is more commentary in the footnote below.


Habernas concludes his volume on the lifeworld and system by echoing Weber’s musing about the loss of meaning and freedom in the modern world.

“Weber saw the noncoercive, unifying power of collectively shared convictions disappearing along with religion and metaphysics” (Habernas, 1989, p. 301).

Where is the evidence of shared convictions disappearing?

The coercive power of shared religious convictions remains highly evident in terrorist movements around the world.

And despite the number of gun deaths, a shared conviction of a “right to bear arms” remains powerful in the USA.

(In 2014 there were 6 gun deaths in the Japan, compared with 33,599 in the US.)

On January 1st 2017, in the US, 210 people were shot in 264 separate incidents of gun violence.)


“These shared convictions have waned as we have relied on a subjective reason of self-assertion and neglected objective reason with its reliance on truth.

In this process, freedom has succumbed to the domination of technocracy.

These seem to be metaphysical assertions for which there is no the evidence. Do technocracies neglect objective reason or ignore truth?


“Society is becoming a shell of bondage which men will perhaps be forced to inhabit someday, as powerless as the fellahs of ancient Egypt.” (Weber quoted in Habernas, 1989, p.302)

Where is the evidence?

As Hans Rosling (above) shows, there have been dramatic global increases in health and education, reductions in poverty over the last 50 years..

These improvements are least partly due to the bureaucracies and technocracies that systems thinkers have denigrated.


Having painted a curiously depressing picture of the world today, Bausch is optimistic about the impact socio-cultural systems thinking will have.

He says Laszlo, Banathy, Warfield, and others propose models and designs for moving into a new era of social organisation.

“If systems theory is applied to social processes in the manner exemplified in this book, it offers practical and ethical methods for advancing participatory democracy.”

Advancing participative democracy? Is that an end in itself? Is this really a political movement?


Bausch concludes by promoting a process-based view.

“Systems theory in its coherent view of the social world, offers a process-based understanding that avoids the logical and semantic difficulties that are created by structure-based conceptions of those realities.”

Conclusions and remarks

Bausch’s book is a thoroughly researched review of work in the field.

He is erudite and reviews a long history of thinkers and theories, views and propositions.

This history is rich in theory development, but thinly supported by experimental verification or falsification.

And the use of the term “system” is questionable.


Are system processes also evolutionary processes?

Bausch favours a dynamic or process-oriented view of the universe, life and systems.

We also favour a dynamic view, but we draw an important distinction.


Biological processes create transient organisms, each with a finite life time from birth to death.

A system described according to general system theory principles also has a finite life time from birth to death.

It is a transient island of stability in the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.


Biological processes also replace one generation of transient organisms by the next (slightly different) generation.

A system designed according to general system theory principles may also be changed from one generation to the next.


Complexities arise in social system description where a) the goals of a group and the individual actors in it are different.

And b) operational processes and evolutionary processes are entangled

On actor can alternate between roles in operational processes and evolutionary processes.

Combining a system and its meta system confuses actor with role, and roles inside and outside a system.


To maintain the integrity of the system concept, one must separate processes within a system from processes that change it.

A general system theory has to distinguish:

·         operational processes within a system (which sustain it, or meet its goals)

·         evolutionary processes in the meta system that replace one system by another (by design, natural or artificial selection).


Is systems thinking a political movement?

Again, Bausch suggests systems thinkers have a mission to herald a new era of social organisation, of advancing participative democracy.

A new era of social organisation? Advancing participative democracy? Is this really a political movement?

Is the mission of systems thinking to change society, the way government works, the way commercial organisations work?

Do systems thinkers offer a coherent view of how this vision will work and how to get there?

Is the general population composed of actors who are intelligent, willing and able to play roles systems thinkers expect?

What about those actors who reject the idea of participating in democracy?


Some do seem to start from an anti-central government, anti-technology, or anti-capitalist standpoint.

Some imply the world would be better place if political power and decision making were more widely distributed

As Feynman said above: it may be true, may not be true; where is the demonstration one way or the other?


Is systems thinking supposed to be metaphysical?

Much of the work reviewed by Bausch (though using scientific-sounding words like “entropy”) seems more metaphysical than scientific.

In systems thinking discussion, it is often unclear what the system is, or where it is described, or what the word “system” adds to “thinking”?

Footnote: more on “The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory”

This section adds more commentary to that above.


Bausch’s opening position statement

“Nature is creative. Matter/energy spontaneously generates forms of order and organisation.”

A little poetic perhaps, but not in question here.


“Living things maintain themselves as ever-evolving processes of self-reproduction.”

The meaning of this proposition is unclear; it could easily be read to mean things that are untrue.

Most evolution has ended in failure; 99 percent of species that ever lived on earth are now extinct. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction

Organically, an individual living thing does not evolve at all, and a species is not truly ever-evolving.

A species evolves in a discrete event-driven fashion, on each birth and death event.

The processes of life in an individual organism are very different from the process of evolution.

The bio-chemical processes in an organism run for one generation; the selection process of evolution is cross-generational.

The natural selection process of evolution applies outside of biology, to commercial enterprises for example.


“Societies organise themselves.

Systems thinkers often draw casual analogies between societies and other things, especially living things.

The self-organisation of a society differs from the self-maintenance of an organism.

The self-organising processes of a society change its nature; the self-sustaining processes of an individual organism maintain its nature.

Read the paper on “change” for more on difference between generational (evolutionary) change and state (adaptive) change.


In social situations of rapidly accelerating change, the self-organising processes of a participatory democracy provide the best survival strategy.”

We’ll return to this proposition later.


Bausch on systems and regular behaviours

“We talk about systems in numerous contexts: the solar system, the endocrine system, the system of complex numbers, computer systems, bureaucratic systems, school systems, personality systems, and so on.

True, but using the same term in all these contexts doesn’t mean the concept is the same.


The overriding concept of “system” is “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 1199).

It is not enough for items to be interdependent - like the bricks in a wall or the words in sentence.

Bausch takes a process-oriented view in which at least some of the items must be regularly interacting actors.


“The question arises whether human activity systems are “systems” in the same sense as a computer system or a digestive system.”

Before that, the question that arises as to whether every human social group is well-called a human activity system.

According to general system theory, an activity system is one in which actors perform regular behaviours.


“In what ways are these systems alike? In what ways do they differ?”

And importantly: how are systems best described and tested against reality?


Bausch on the systems movement that took off after world war II

Bausch outline three social system models summarised by Buckley (1967): mechanical, organic and process.


On the mechanical model

“In the 17th century “Social Physics” considered a person to be an elaborate machine.

The focus of sociology is on the machinery of social groups rather than the biology of individual group members.

We point out that a system may be mechanistic/deterministic yet still behave in an unpredictable, chaotic or non-linear fashion.


Pareto [added] the idea of equilibrium “any moderate changes in the [system] elements or the interrelationships away from the equilibrium position are counterbalanced by changes tending to restore it [which was] taken over by many sociologists, especially Parsons”

We say the idea that a social system is or should be homeostatic (like an organism) is a distraction from system theory principles more usefully applied to business systems.


On the organic model

“Herbert Spencer (1897) dealt with social systems in terms of organic evolution…

“The organic model and homeostasis are basic for many cybernetic explanations of societal functioning…

“Organic analogies are inadequate as models of social systems.”

We are equally opposed to analogy as explanation.

Evolution by natural selection explains the development of mutually-beneficial behaviour perfectly well without reference to the biology of an organism.


On the process model

“In this model, “structure” is not “something distinct from the ongoing interactive process but rather a temporary accommodative representation of it at any one time (Buckley, p.18).”

We says the structure of the universe and of any organic entity is a transient side effect of processes that have no goals.

But an abstractor may abstract a “system” (and attach goals to it) that imposes a temporary structure on the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.

The structure of a social, business or software system is required to perform the regular processes inside that system.

Evolution by natural selection (which changes the processes inside a system) lie outside of that system – in a meta system.


Bausch on Parsons

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who developed a general theory for the study of society - called action theory.

He presented a metaphysical context for systems theory and cybernetics.


“Parsons carefully differentiated social systems theory from personality theory and a theory of culture.

In his conception, these three theories combine in an overall theory of action, in which we can understand how we actually do human (social) activity…

Parson’s evidently believed that his conception of systems theory provided a valuable, if partial, model for understanding social structures and processes.”

Is Parson’s separation of these three systems testable or logically provable?


Bausch points to Feynman-like criticisms of Parson’s work

“According to Buckley, any critique of the Parsonian framework must contend with its loose conceptual structure” (1967, p23).

Alexendar finds strength as well as confusion in the tension of Parson’s thought, which is “internally contradictory”, and which “provides support for a variety of partial, often mutually antagonistic interpretations” (Alexander, 1983, p309).”

Can any of these conflicting interpretations be proved or disproved?


Bausch points to Parson’s later (1977) work.

“Parsons describes his action theory as having “our generic types of subsystems,” which are the organism, the social system, the cultural system and the personality

Any cultural activity then results from a combination [of these] activities in these four areas mutually influence, or “interpenetrate” each other.

Is the interpenetration of these four systems testable or logically provable?


Parsons uses this idea of interpenetration to explain how two free, and therefore unpredictable, human beings can engage with each other in mutually advantageous behaviours”.

Evolutionary biology explains human cooperation well, without any need for Parson’s action theory.


“The idea of concensus plays a major role in Parson’s conception of society, which he conceives as coalescing around accepted values and norms of behaviour.

Parson’s deals with how a society maintains its norms and values in the face of deviant behaviour and thereby maintains its equilibrium.”

This harks back to Pareto’s On the Equilibrium of the Social Systems"

Some norms and values of society have shifted dramatically in my lifetime; there has been continual change, not all for the better.


Bausch on Meadows and “The limits to growth”.

See the main body of the paper above.


Bausch on others

Bausch draws much from Habernas and Luhmann.

He also mentions Beer, Jackson, Haken, Prigoine, Eigen, Maturana and Varela, Csanyi and Kampis, and Goetzel.


Bausch on soft systems

Bausch alludes to Churchman, Ackoff and Checkland as the triumvirate who created the “soft systems” methodology.

“[They] consider hard systems methodology to be a special application of systems theory in situations where the objectives are not in question…


We say that in every situation, there may be heated debate about the objectives of the described system.

In the case of designed systems, the objectives of the system sponsors take precedence.

But still, system architects are taught “stakeholder management”, the need to compromise between goals, and to make “trade offs”.

We go on to argue the hard/soft system distinction is really a distinction between entities that are social systems and entities that are better called social groups.



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