Humility; enabling the entry of values and ethics in policy making

(In memory of Andrew Janisch)

A key principle of complexity is that of ‘incompressibility’. Complexity cannot be reduced or simplified, any attempt to do so loses something. Further, there is no such thing as an objective observer in generalised complexity thinking, each perspective is significant, unique, partial and provisional.

A search for ‘the truth’ and certainty in complexity then becomes an asymptotic exercise; a universal truth is inherently undiscoverable. Acknowledging this from the perspective of a modernist paradigm steeped in the late twentieth century triumph of science and reduction requires humility, and a recognition of the importance of perspective.

From here, identifying the limits to knowledge and certainty may become more productive than continuing to invest in more data, more evidence. So too, exploring the ‘technologies of humility’, as described by Jasanoff in an essay in Nature, 2007.   How to proceed under certain uncertainty.

The importance of values; understanding who values what and why, is highlighted. An ethical dimension enters as basis for policymaking. In many instances it may be more important to act now, ethically, than to wait for more certainty.

Others write of humility in relation to disciplinary knowledge and tools, especially models, a central feature of climate mitigation policy work. Academic disciplines have developed and engaged with different ways of knowing, but all perspectives are partial.  Humble collaboration with a respect for difference is required in the face of complexity. A curiosity for perspectives and different values can unlock many ‘spaces of the possible’ (Shine, 2015).

I recall a brief engagement I had with Andrew a good many years ago now on a model for financing a solar water heater programme in low income communities which I had developeAndrew-Janischd and he had advanced. I approached the meeting proud of my output and fully bought-into an epistemology that maintained the superiority of such tools. I recall our discussion well – I was thoroughly confused at his refusal to join me in my inflated view of the cleverness and utility of the model, despite his having made some excellent improvements to it. He was utterly humble in both its role, and his role, in advancing the objectives of the programme. And in retrospect a whole lot more realistic.

This experience of Andrew’s humility and its implications for our practice has been long lasting, and will always remain an inspiration to me as I know it is to others. He will be sorely missed.

4 thoughts on “Humility; enabling the entry of values and ethics in policy making

    1. Ah but the models and the algorithms are hugely important (and I always forget to make this point when I write or talk about complexity – thank you for reminding me here). Its just that the world is complexifying and we need more than these tools and ways of thinking to navigate it. On their own they are insufficient, and we make a mistake when we forget this.

      What I’m coming to understand about complexity thinking and generalised complexity as a paradigmatic shift is that it holds these different tools and their underlying epistemologies within one paradigm, in critical tension. I emphasise the insufficiency of the models and reductionism because this is what my community of practice values and does well, and I am guilty of taking this for granted when moving outward from this to discover what is missing.


  1. My original comment was lost due to the irritating WordPress requirement that I have a userid and password, both of which I had carefully copied down but the password was rejected and so I had to get it reset, in the process losing my original comment. Its replacement is not as good. Why do these people think that access to their site should be so strictly guarded? I had to add double the number of characters into my password for it to “strong” enough. Grrrr


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