Tom on Systems Science

[From Rick Marken (940224.1100)]

Tom Bourbon is having problems posting to the net so he has
asked me to post for him. I am more than pleased to do so as
you will see.

···

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From Tom Bourbon [940223.0825]

A few days ago, Rick Marken [specific references are not available to me in
this text editor] stirred up a hive of killer bees. He described his
reactions to a movie about "systems science," and he went further (than I
would have done) to extend his reactions beyond the movie to systems
science in general. The bees attacked [again, I don't have access to the
posts right now -- you bees know who you are], stinging Rick with
accusations that he was not familiar with real systems science, only with
the movie. Then they stung him with claims that systems science, in
general, and cybernetic science, in particular, (1) are foundational to PCT
and (2) "inform" PCT. And the bees stung Rick mightily about the neck and
ears with lists of systems scientists whose work he should have read, but
had not. The list included systems scientists and cyberneticists whose work
some participants on csg-l believe informs, inspires and animates PCT.

Like Rick, I question some recent claims and assertions on csg-l about the
historical and scientific importance to PCT of general systems science and
cybernetic science, as I know and understand those fields. Rick acknowledged
that he was not familiar with many names on the required long list of systems
scientists, but I am. If anyone is counting heads, include me among those
who say PCT originated independently of systems science and cybernetics and
that neither of those two fields has yet "informed" PCT. If you want to know
why I say that, read on; if not, hit "zap."

In 1977-78, systems scientists taught me how to do modeling and simulation.
I attended a National Science Foundation Chautaqua-like Short Course on
modeling and simulation. (I had read Powers's book and Science article in
1973 and was eager to begin modeling control systems.) The course was
taught by Bill Davisson and John Uhran, both from Notre Dame, where one was
an engineer, the other an economist. They had developed a Fortran-based
continuous system interpreter called NDTRAN, for Notre Dame Translator.
NDTRAN was designed as a smaller, cheaper interpreter than the more
widely-known DYNAMO, developed at MIT and used by systems scientists
like Jay Forrester and Donella and Jay Meadows, and participants in the
"Club of Rome."

In 1981 and 1982, two of my thesis students and I presented our results from
using NDTRAN to run control system theory (CST -- the previous name for PCT)
models in NDTRAN. We presented at a meeting of the Systems, Man and
Cybernetics Society of the IEEE and at a meeting of the Society for General
Systems Research. The IEEE people were not impressed with CST -- they saw it
as warmed over cybernetics (which it was not) and they were more interested
in optimization and models of optimal control. The SGSR people were not
impressed -- CST was merely cybernetics, which they all seemed to believe
was a very limited, mechanistic, and somewhat odd part of general systems
theory. SGSR people were interested in complexity, Prigogine (order out of
chaos), stochastic models, systems dynamic modeling of political and
economic phenomena on a grand scale, and ending war.

I joined SGSR and remained a member until 1988. I received the complete set
of _General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research_,
dating back to Volume 1, in 1956. I read or skimmed much of what was in
the yearbooks and recall seeing only one that reprinted an article on
CST/PCT; Volume 5, in 1960, contained reprints of the original articles by
Powers, Clark and McFarland. That's all. However, from 1982 through 1988, I
recall seeing two articles on CST in _Behavioral Science_, the journal
published by SGSR; one was a mangling of CST by villains unnamed (but often
mentioned on csg-l) and one was by Rick Marken (The nature of behavior).
Powers did have an article there in 1971. That makes two good ones and one
bad one, during 17 years; perhaps there were others I missed.

Between the yearbooks, the journal, and a publication called _Systems
Research_ (from the International Federation for Systems Science, sent to
all members of SGSR), the SGSR provided me a well-rounded exposure to
systems research and modeling. During those seven or eight years, I saw
absolutely nothing that would pass as a standard or common "language,"
whether for talking about "general systems," or for modeling them. The scene
was one of many people, using many different methods and diverse models of
widely varying degrees of rigor. Not one of them studied or modeled the
phenomenon of control as we all know and love it. Perhaps things have
changed since then.

From 1982 through 1984, I attended meetings of the American Society for

Cybernetics. (Rick was also there in 1983-4.) A few of us attended the two
Gordon Research Conference on cybernetics, organized by the ASC. Through
all of that time, most of the cyberneticists (I seem to recall they did not
like to be called cyberneticians) were unimpressed with PCT -- many said it
was aesthetically unpleasant -- ugly, is what they called it -- machine
-like and out of touch with life. They were more interested in Maturana
and Varela (autopoiesis), deconstructionism, poetry and ending war.

I joined ASC and remained a member until 1988.

I have seen, heard, read and in a few cases spoken or corresponded with,
many of the people on the lists that were flung at Rick. In some instances
they were speaking at lectures named in honor of others (departed) on those
lists. I do not slight their intelligence, which is often much greater than
mine, nor do I question their motivations. I do challenge a claim that
their work inspired or informed Bill Powers and his early collaborators, or
some of us whose collaborations are more recent. That claim is false.
Further, I never saw anything to unambiguously support a claim that PCTers
"do general systems science" whether they know it or not. Furthermore,
without hesitation, I never saw evidence that general systems scientists
or cyberneticists were "doing PCT." Other than the papers by Powers and
Marken, and the proceedings by my students and me, I never saw a functional
PCT model (CST model) in their literature or their presentations; instead I
saw one nonfunctional "model" after another, and many broadly descriptive
general systems models. That's just the way it was. Perhaps things have
changed since then.

As to whether their work provides *them* a deeper, aesthetically more
pleasing perspective on PCT, that is for them and their adherents to
decide. The possibility neither concerns nor excites me. I am content to
wallow here in the shallow mud and play with ugly PCT models.

Until later,

Tom