Complexity, Complicated and Health Science

One of the challenges I find with health science is that it assumes that health and the human body is something that is complicated, but not something that is complex.

What I mean by this is a concept that is explained by Davis and Sumara (1997), where they describe how “complexity theory draw a distinction between the descriptors complicated and complex” (p.117). Complicated systems are described as systems that can be understood by analyzing the individual components and adding the components together where, complex systems are more than the sum of their parts, in that they cannot be understood by breaking them apart.

The premise of the scientific method, however, is based upon controlling certain variables and altering other variables. The idea is that if you hold certain parts fixed, and move the other parts, then the change in result is directly because of the change in the moving parts. This makes complete sense when you are looking at complicated systems, however, it does not make sense when you are looking at complex systems.

One flaw with the health research is the primacy placed on scientific method as if it were the only way of knowing – but also as if the systems being studied were merely complicated systems, instead of complex ones. Maybe this means that we need to start thinking about ways in which to study the human body, disease, etc, in the ways that complexity theorists use rather than through the lens of scientific theories.

What do you think?



Davis, B., & Sumara, D. J. (1997). Cognition, Complexity, and Teacher Education. Harvard Educational Review, 67(1), 105-125.


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