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Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy 1st Edition

5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226532622
ISBN-10: 0226532623
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Editorial Reviews


“Very stimulating. . . . [Unsimple Truths] is clean and spare and fun to read. And to argue with. What more could one ask of a philosophical treatise?”

(Michael Ruse Quarterly Review of Biology)

“Drawing on nicely handled examples from psychiatry (e.g., major depressive disorder), biology (e.g., recent genetics and genomics, drug discovery, the study of insect societies), and the policy world (e.g., climate change and economic problems), Mitchell develops and illustrates a philosophy of science suited to the complexities scientists face. The result is a compact and elegant presentation of a philosophy of science she calls “integrative pluralism,” challenging many orthodox positions in the philosophy of science.”
(Richard M. Burian, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University BioScience)

About the Author

Sandra Mitchell is professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of Biological Complexity and Integrative Pluralism.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226532623
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226532622
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,369,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sandra D. Mitchell is Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsbrugh. She has degrees from Pitzer College, Claremont, California; The London School of Economics; and the University of Pittsburgh. More information can be found at her web page:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've been thinking about complexity for years, so it was a joy to discover this outstanding book. I agree with everything Sandra Mitchell says, and I felt like she was reading my mind. As a consequence, I may not have gained any major new ideas from the book, but it certainly helped in crystallizing my understanding in many areas.

Below, I've attempted a summary of the key points from the book, along with providing my own fairly detailed thoughts (not in the book) on how these ideas can be applied to the problem of cancer. My hope is that these thoughts will be both illustrative and useful in themselves.

Prevalence and Behavior of Complex Systems:

(1) Complex systems are ubiquitous, especially in biological and social domains. As described below, cancer exemplifies complexity.

(2) The behavior of complex systems tends to be multilevel and full of "messy" causal interactions. The biological complexity of cancer involves molecular, organelle, cellular, tissue, organ, and organismic levels, with lateral, upward, and downward causation within and across all of these levels. In addition, beyond biological complexity, the cancer problem also involves psychological complexity related to individual knowledge and decision making, as well as social complexity related to paradigms in cancer research and clinical oncology, institutional structures and practices, funding mechanisms, peer review processes, methods for disseminating information, drug approval processes, legal considerations, etc. Further, there are abundant upward and downward causal interactions across the biological, psychological, and social levels, thus making the complexity of the cancer problem truly intertangled, multifaceted, and encompassing.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Samuel W. Mitchell on February 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is aimed at professors in Philosophy of Science and students with college level exposure to that field. It is a succinct presentation of the author's view -integrative pluralism- and its lessons for public policy.

As an articulate, thorough, and brief (119 pages of text) presentation of that position, the book is very helpful to anyone in the field. It will be particularly useful reading for graduate students and advanced undergraduates coming to grips with the major currents of thought there.

The book makes a case for integrative pluralism and then looks at the ways in which adopting the position would affect our views of scientific laws, the methods of natural science, public policy reasoning, and the range of scientific explanations.

A broad vision of science that sees its explanations and methods as being of a single kind, found paradigmatically in the most unifying theories and methods of physics, is inculcated into many of us. Integrative pluralism rejects this broad vision, and in particular rejects the view that a microscopic, physics-level, scale is in any way more privileged or illuminating than the explanations and methods of other sciences. Rather, science presents a motley of many different forms of interaction among different entities at higher and lower levels in both its methods, theories, and explanations. Sometimes the behavior of an organic molecule is explained by a history of selection of multicellular organisms.

Mitchell gives a variety of reasons why the complexity of phenomena that we study in natural science should lead us to adopt integrative pluralism. Any representation of the physical world is partial, idealized, and abstract (13, 23, 33).
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unsimple Truths is an excellent and timely book. Mitchell claims there's a middle ground between the idea that everything physical can be reduced to fundamental laws (such as Newton's laws of motion and gravity), and that many things (such as predicting climate change, or the causes of major depressive disorder) are so complex that science fundamentally can't disentangle the multiple causes and interactions of causes.

She's absolutely correct that this binary (either/or and no in-between state) is a prevalent problem. A popular argument against government policy to mitigate and adapt to climate change, is that all the factors that cause weather and climate are so complex that they defy all efforts of humans to model them to predict outcomes.

Mitchell would say that even if we may not be able to apply timeless and universally-true physical laws to describe with certainty the evolution of complex systems, we can still make progress in understanding causation and consequences. She calls her approach "integrative pluralism," and advocates "Robust Adaptive Planning" developed by Robert Lempert and others which is a set of approaches to compare scenarios and strategies.

Darwin, Planck, Einstein and others grappled with the failure of existing conceptual frameworks to describe the world they were seeing. Their work was baffling to the general public. Now most of us accept many of their insights as tried and true. Now as then scientists see complexities that can't be explained by previous approaches, and again they have to invent new frameworks. Mitchell is part of this effort, and she does a great job translating it to lay readers.
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