All Models are Wrong: Reflections on Becoming

a Systems Scientist


Sterman, John D. (2002) System Dynamics Review 18(4): 501-531




Thoughtful leaders increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to solve the persistent problems we face, but are in fact causing them. System dynamics is designed to help avoid such policy resistance and identify high leverage policies for sustained improvement. What does it take to be an effective systems thinker, and to teach system dynamics fruitfully? Understanding complex systems requires mastery of concepts such as feedback, stocks and flows, time delays, and nonlinearity. Research shows these concepts are highly counterintuitive and poorly understood. It also shows how they can be taught and learned. Doing so requires the use of formal models and simulations to test our mental models and develop our intuition about complex systems. Yet, though essential, these concepts and tools are not sufficient. Becoming an effective systems thinker also requires the rigorous and disciplined use of scientific inquiry skills so that we can uncover our hidden assumptions and biases. It requires respect and empathy for others and other viewpoints. Most important, and most difficult to learn, systems thinking requires understanding that all models are wrong and humility about the limitations of our knowledge. Such humility is essential in creating an environment in which we can learn about the complex systems in which we are embedded and work effectively to create the world we truly desire. The paper is based on the talk the author delivered at the 2002 International System Dynamics Conference upon presentation of the Jay W. Forrester Award.

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