How Networks Are Revolutionizing How We Think

This article from “Scientific American” discusses how adopting a networks perspective changes how we see the world and our place in it. The authors also propose that network thinking lets us scientifically understand the world around us as one of connections, and that like previous scientific revolutions, the network revolution also has the promise of reshaping our basic commonsense expectations of the world around us.

The authors make the point that both science and common sense are grounded in human experience. After all, scientists are humans, right? But these two ways of thinking are often in conflict with one another. Commonsense notions, for instance, are usually simplistic while science can be complex. Common sense tells us that the planet can’t be warming because it was cold today. Science, however, offers a complex explanation of how the earth can be warming AND it can be cold today. In some cases, the simplicity of most commonsense explanations can make it hard to win people over to the complexity and uncertainties of most scientific arguments.

Think of the challenge Copernicus faced when explaining his calculations and predictions for where the planets would be on any given night when most everyone else accepted as truth the mistaken but commonsense idea that Earth sat motionless at the center of the universe while the sun, moon and planets moved around us. Centuries later, Darwin faced a similar challenge when he asserted that all life on our planet was evolving by means of natural selection when the prevailing common sense said that humans were the central and lead characters in the story of life on Earth.

In contrast to the cognitive revolutions triggered by Copernicus and Darwin, today’s seemingly pedestrian worries about issues such as net neutrality or Facebook privacy may seem inconsequential. Yet both are contemporary signs that there is another cognitive revolution in the making.

The Scientific American authors argue that the network thinking is just as much a cognitive shift for most of us as what Copernicus and Darwin were asserting. They point out that modern research in fields like sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology are showing that our world does not revolve around ourselves as individuals. These disciplines are telling us what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks that reach far and wide.

How different is this notion? Traditionally, nearly all social science reasoning has rested on the idea that there are discrete groups of people on Earth that can be variously labeled as populations, ethnic groups, societies, cultures, or races. This is part of our commonsense understanding of human diversity and categorical thinking. Adopting a network perspective, however, changes how we see the world around us and our place in that world.

The authors ask us to consider the often-contentious issue of race. They point out that from a commonsense perspective, it seems obvious that different kinds of people live in different parts of the globe. After all, who could possibly mistake people from African, Asian, or Irish descent? Yet, from a networks perspective, we see that that everybody on Earth is linked with everyone else. The motion of the six degrees of separation. The article offers many other illustrations from why some of us are fatter than others, an evolving understanding of our genetic coding.

Network thinking lets us scientifically understand the world around us as one of the connections that shape the way we observe the world. Like previous scientific revolutions, the network revolution also has the promise of reshaping our basic commonsense expectations of the world around us. Network thinking asks us to see ourselves as something other than individualistic, quarrelsome creatures bounded by where we live, the language we speak, the color of our skin, and our religion. Network thinking challenges us instead to consider ourselves a social species linked to one another by far-reaching connections and ties.

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