This isn't a blog post, but more of a blog-collection. 6 common things that systems thinkers like to say that are bupkis. We call them sacred cows of systems thinking because it is almost blasphemous to disagree with them, even though most have a much bigger bark than bite. Click on the links below (in the right column) to red the blogs on each sacred cow.


Table: 6 Sacred Cows of Systems Thinking

Sacred Cow True or False? Replacement CONCEPT (and LINK TO BLOG)
1. The whole is more than the
sum of the parts (a.k.a.,
"emergence").
False The whole is always precisely
equal to its parts.
2. All systems have a purpose. False The "purpose" of a system is
what it does.

3. Systems thinking is ____
[insert systems dynamics
or other models here].

False

Systems thinking is a plurality of
hundreds of methods and
models
that all cohere around four patterns
of thought (DSRP).

4. Systems thinking is holistic
(or alternatively, systems
thinking is anti-reductionism)
False

Systems thinking is balanced
thinking (both holistic
and
reductionistic, and/both not
either/or).

5. Everything is connected. False Everything is connected, or
not.

6. There is no system out 
there.

False
There is a system out there, 
it just may be different from
your mental model of it.

In one sense, I agree with those who lament that semantic debates lack utility. Purely semantic debates, based entirely on opinion, are not terribly useful. Yet, a good portion of these distinctions (above) are actually not purely semantic—in most cases they are empirical. With the possible exception of #2 (which leans toward the philosophical), all 6 of the "scared cows" I mention above are empirically testable, not a matter of opinion. In all cases, the distinction being made between the "scared cow" and the replacement provides increased depths of understanding about systems.

One of the things that all scientists (systems scientists included) must get better at is making scientific concepts accessible to the public (because the public funds our science) without dumbing them down to the point of losing fidelity with the scientific concept. All of the sacred cows I mention are guilty of over-simplifying or being somewhat loose with language. Thus, when these tropes get repeated and reinforced, they provide the public with a false understanding. When the public commits to these tropes so thoroughly that they become "sacred cows" it becomes even worse.