2008/07/18 09:05 Devin Wixon, "Using Systems to Clean Up Messes: Complexity, global client change and soil carbon cycling"

ISSS Madison 2008, 52nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker's presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the ISSS web site by David Ing.

Intro by Gary Metcalf:  Tim Allen, next president

Devin Wixen, winner of the Vickers Award

The big picture:  dealing with post-normal, complex issues

Closet realist hiding out in the lab

  • Care about application
  • Removed words "narrative" versus removing word "reality" as it doesn't exist

The point of studying complexity is to make things simple

Will talk about current struggles

Using systems

  • 1. Start with a mess.  Pick with an important, fundable one
  • 2. Try to clean it up.  At worst, multivariate statistics
  • 3. Fail

This is how reductionist thinkers come to system

Soil microbial communities are complex:

  • Bacteria, protozoa, actinomycetes ...

More carbon stored in soil than all of vegetation and atmosphere

  • Turning up temperature, soil microbes become faster in activites, will create more carbon dioxide than if all of us went out to buy Hummers

Potential positive feedback loop:  global climate change --> increased soil respiration --> global climate change

Proliferation of research, some funded, but not good narratives

  • Most researchers agree important
  • Agree we don't have consensus
  • They call it a web of interacting factors

Research question:  why can't we answer this question?

A good mess

  • Controls, drivers
  • Make it tough to observe
  • Throw in human beings

Complicated by scales

  • e.g. day vs. night, soils return heat, but then look over years

Why come to systems theory?

  • Want to get salient factors
  • Equivalent to framing the question

Used by SSM, modified by Allen & Hoekstra 1992

From systems hierarchy ...

  • Need several levels of analysis for adequate descriptoins
  • Take subjectively seriously

Giampietro 2003:  Making things more complicated does not help when dealing with complexity

  • e.g. why would someone trudge through systems biology if they didn't have a reason
  • Carpenter:  Sending a space shuttle to Mars is complicated.  Parenting is complex.


  • Dual audience issues:  one audience in soil, and one audience in systems
  • Dual paradigm issues: Todd Bowers described realist vs. constructivist
  • Translating Rosen