Abstract for: Models that Include Cows: The Significance of Operational Thinking

The unconscious application of sophisticated tools, and in particular the popular reverence to data as the source of knowledge, seems to be the rule in many scientific activities in which the application of tools replaces thinking and data analysis replaces understanding. In this respect, system dynamics has much to offer, though sometimes it is tricky to appreciate its full value and scope. One of its trademarks is known as “operational thinking”. This paper underlines that operational thinking drives a distinct epistemic posture. This posture, unlike traditional scientific practice that seeks to explain the world by means of data analysis, intends to understand the world in terms of its operations. In this paper I explore the significance of such a posture for the domain of human systems, I highlight its epistemic value in particular with respect to the prevalent observational approach to science, the Humean problem of induction and determinism. Operational thinking means to recognize that human systems do not obey laws to be discovered by observation and data analysis, instead, it acknowledges agency, that is, the fact that a social system is the result of the consequences of actions taken by free decision-makers