The advent of what the loosely related family of concepts, methods, theories, and tools that I’ve been referring to collectively as “complexity science” or “complexity theory” has changed the face of scientific practice in ways that are only beginning to be appreciated. Just as when quantum theory and relativity overthrew the absolute rule of classical physics in the first part of the 20th century, much of what we previously took ourselves to know about the world (and our place in it) is now being shown to be if not exactly wrong then at least tremendously impoverished. The view that I’ve associated variously with traditions in reductionism, eliminativism, and mechanism--the view that the world consists in nothing over and above, as Hume put it, “one little thing after another”--is proving increasingly difficult to hold onto in the face of contrary evidence. Novel work in a variety of fields--everything from ecology to network science to immunology to economics to cognitive science--is showing us that many natural systems exhibit behavior that is (to put it charitably) difficult to explain if we focus exclusively on the behavior of constituent parts and ignore more high-level features. We’re learning to think scientifically about topics that, until recently, were usually the province of metaphysicians alone, and we’re learning to integrate those insights into our model building.
While this complexity revolution has changed (and will continue to change) the practice of scientific model building, it must also change the way we talk about science in public, and the way we teach science in schools. The future impact of complexity must be neither confined to esoteric discussions in the philosophy of science, nor even to changes in how we buildscientific models. Rather, it must make an impact on how the general public thinks about the world around them and their place in that world. Moreover, it must make an impact on how the general public evaluates scientific progress, and what they expect out of their scientific theories.