Saturday, January 6, 2024

Troubleshooting and Understanding

For more than two decades I have known that civilization and possibly the life of our entire species might end before I would naturally be expected to die. The past year brought ample evidence that it was likely. Most significantly, there was a growing lack of interest and will on the part of millions to help protect other people and other species from increasingly catastrophic consequences of their behavior. From the spread of disease and misinformation to the destruction of ecosystems by creation and distribution of waste, the ability of life to support life has been degraded to the point where a cascade of death like the collapse of a house of cards is virtually certain to be unstoppable.

A big part of my personal effort to forestall this catastrophe has been to use imaginative thinking coupled with communication and troubleshooting skills to identify and motivate actions that a critical fraction of the population can take physically and socially to achieve the best possible outcome. I have been both heartened and dismayed that others far more knowledgeable and skilled than me have made a lot of progress along similar lines, but with nowhere near the success that’s needed. This has been a variation of a lesson learned and relearned at various times and scales: if you’re not going where you want to go, try going somewhere else that’s as good or better.

An effective approach to testing and troubleshooting in both my professional personal experience has been to observe the behavior of something and attempt to identify basic variables in its makeup and its environment that can help to predict that behavior. Changing conditions to establish how values of those variables are associated with behavior of interest is then done creatively so that the relationships between the variables along with the behavior can be represented in a conceptual or quantitative model. The model is then tested for its correspondence with reality while being used to converge on a solution to a problem at hand, which is essentially a question that needs answering and can lead to other questions whose answers deepen understanding of the system and help identify other behaviors that might be of interest.

Arguably the most wanted result of troubleshooting is a simple summary of a problem’s cause and a single, easily implemented solution. The least wanted result includes a detailed description of what was learned and could be learned, along with a list of potential new problems. As a scientist by personality and training, I tend to favor the least wanted result, which is also the least conducive to convincing people to act, no matter how well it is communicated. I’ve found that communicating the most wanted result is easy and effective, but only if the problem completely disappears after the solution is implemented and nothing obviously related to it takes its place.

In the case of the multiple threats facing humanity’s survival, the complexity of the involved systems and their behaviors makes it highly unlikely that simple and practical solutions can be found and acted upon. Essentially, we all must become experts in understanding at least some of the systems and both their healthy and unhealthy behaviors. Scientists and engineers who have studied and worked with many of the systems out of curiosity or affinity can provide some guidance to the rest of us, but they cannot impart the understanding needed by us to manipulate the required variables on an ongoing basis; we must get it for ourselves and become effective troubleshooters.