Steven Popper, (an economist) Robert Lempert (a scientist) and Steven Bankes (a computer scientist), all at Rand are working on how leaders can "weigh the present against the future" and "avoid being paralyzed by scientific uncertainty."
While analytical methods and tools have become considerably more sophisticated, the challenges faced by the world have also become more complex, "too complex and contingent for scientists to make definitive predictions." And,
In the presence of such deep uncertainty, the machinery of prediction and decision making seizes up. Traditional analytical approaches gravitate to the well-understood parts of the challenge and shy away from the rest.
Here's their recent article Shaping the Future, in Scientific American. And here's their report, Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis. You can buy it through Rand or download each chapter as a PDF.
Their article notes the "(in) famous report, The Limits to Growth from the early 1970s" as an example of how "standard tools of analysis often fail to mediate such debates." They go on to say that "... the model was not wrong; it was just used incorrectly" and while noting that "The Limits to Growth revealed some important aspects of the challenges faced by society. In presenting the analysis as a forecast, the authors stretched the model beyond its limits and reduced the credibility of their entire research program."
Limits to Growth was based on the discipline of System Dynamics. Its authors and others in the SD field are already perturbed by the Popper, et. al. article noting that such models are not intended as predictions.
Jack Homer one of the leading practitioners of System Dynamics had this to say:
I have read the article and, while sympathetic with much of what it says, was chagrined to find that it promotes the authors' ostensibly new approach by contrasting it with a flat mischaracterization of Limits to Growth (and by extension, System Dynamics). True, one of the authors is an economist ... and mischaracterization of the LTG/SD by economists is certainly nothing new. But what I found upsetting is what the authors felt compelled to denigrate LTC/SD even when their approach sounds so similar to what we do: evaluating alternative scenarios with simulation, and seeking to inform decision-makers about tradeoffs and uncertainties rather than forecasting single futures.
Hey, isn't this site about healthcare? What does this tempest between analysts have to do with us? A lot actually.
Narrowly, System Thinking/System Dynamics (the latter taking the extra step of doing computer simulations) is major perspective of how I think about healthcare systems. The method is an insight generator of the first order.
More broadly, how do we think about the future of healthcare? How do we think about the structure, dynamics and uncertainties of complex (healthcare) systems and where they are taking us? (Indeed, haven't we gone past the "limits to growth" of New York's hospital system?) We trust that those providing us medical care will be as analytically rigorous as they can be and will take the uncertainties into account when framing our decision choices and when making their own. Shouldn't we be doing the same for healthcare systems? Unquestionably yes in our book.
I haven't read the full Rand paper yet. But I, like Jack, am concerned that a professional dispute among those struggling with the same issues will detract from the larger point that thinking systemically, testing one's theories and mental models rigorously, and considering alternative futures is even more important as systems become more complex. Let's not give decision makers another excuse for throwing up their hands and doing nothing more than barging ahead with what looks good at the moment.