Coping with Uncertainty:
Insights from the New Sciences of Chaos, Self-Organization, and Complexity

Uri Merry (Praeger, 1995)

The late Uri Merry targeted this book at social scientists, policy makers, and citizens who wanted a first introduction to topics in complexity theory and chaos theory. Part I of this work is a 70-page primer on chaos theory, self-organization, and the theory of complex adaptive systems. Parts II and III introduce Merry’s own ideas, rooted in chaos theory, meant to explain why social systems have great difficulty coping with uncertainty and what societies could do to cope with uncertainty.

In the first chapter, Merry recaps familiar arguments that the pace of change in human affairs is accelerating, that the pace of change discomfits people, but that dynamical, chaotic systems also are the source of progress and innovation. The second chapter discusses the deep need that people have to control their environment, and urges the reader to accept the message that the world is fundamentally nonlinear, hence impossible to control directly. Chapter 3 provides a brief overview of chaos theory, introducing the concept of fractals and strange attractors. Next, Merry briefly describes Ilya Prigogine’s work on self-organizing systems and argues that self-organization is the principle that connects the social with the natural sciences. Finally, Merry’s primer concludes with a brief overview of complexity theory and the research program of the Santa Fe Institute.

As a primer, Part I of this book is suited only for those who want a brief, easy-to-grasp introduction to these intellectually challenging topics. This is by no means a thorough review of research in these areas, and Merry introduces no new ideas. His purpose is to explain, as quickly and concisely as possible, what elements of the “new sciences” he wants to use in order to probe how humans and human organizations cope with uncertainty.

Part II attempts to build a perspective on uncertainty that employs selected themes from chaos, complexity, and self-organization. Merry argues that the late twentieth century is a time of unprecedented uncertainty, because several trends are creating unprecedented complexity. Technological change is one; another is a transition to a new historical era characterized by depleted natural resources, an environmental crisis, the collapse of scientific and social paradigms that emphasize control and predictability, the end of nation states and strong governing political units, and individual anomie. These reinforce one another, leading to a vicious circle of spiraling change.

Merry’s argument is neither new nor rigorously argued. Part II is an impassioned cry, reminiscent of Alvin Toffler’s classic Future Shock; Merry neither builds an evidentiary case for his conjectures, nor attempts to tie them together into a coherent theory. The reader is left wondering what this “new era” is, because no underlying theme or insight interweaves the various threads that Merry has brought together. Merry speaks from the heart for many who believe that complexity theory is an important new way of describing a world whose dynamics are inherently nonlinear, because things are more interconnected and interdependent than ever. He adds his voice to the chorus without singing any new notes.

In Part III, Merry suggests that to cope with change, individuals and societies have to alter their self-identities. The “new self’ gives up the desire to control the world and tries to operate at the “edge of chaos,” where both excessive order and excessive disorder are avoided. Surprise can be good, and people should embrace its creative potential instead of rooting their identity in their past beliefs. The coming era is one in which people must learn to cooperate, curb world population growth, live in harmony with nature, and eschew dominating one another.

Coping with Uncertainty is not directed at managers, and has little to say to them. Although managers wrestle with uncertainty in a complex world, Merry’s book is really targeted at individuals and at human societies, both of which he believes must transform themselves. How one does that using principles from complexity theory or chaos theory is not Merry’s fundamental concern: the book focuses more on changing attitudes and perspectives than on applying solid research to the problem of coping with uncertainty. Uri Merry was a frequent and articulate contributor to the COMPLEX-M mailing list (for details see, and a search of its archives for his postings will giv 3 the manager a better feeling for managerial applications of the ideas he cared about than this book conveys.


This is—very nearly—an infuriating book. It is also, very nearly, an excellent book. If you can tolerate “lineal” instead of “linear” (mostly...), “chaotic” and “chaos” being used sometimes to mean muddle, sometimes confusion, and progressively toward the end of the book to mean determinate chaos (divergent trajectories into the future from similar present conditions), you could get a lot from this treatment. But if you can do that, you have probably learned many of the lessons that Merry wants you to get from his little treatise. Basically, the book could have used an editor. It reads like a tolerant, kindly grandfather giving advice: it is poorly organized, often rambling and repetitive, with little inserts of what he considers of most importance interrupting arguments of quite a different nature.

That being so, what he says is definitely worth hearing. Several other books have said it, many management schemes and courses emphasize it, and popular-science books and articles promoted it 10 years ago. What is remarkable, and useful, about this treatment is that it starts from a prechaos position, deploring the bewildering explosion of uncertainty in business and personal worlds, and progresses to a modern stance, celebrating our new view of “complex systems science.” But it is not simply the recommendation “If you can’t beat them, join them!” which is the stance that many “management” treatises have taken. Merry clearly sees that the new stance is better at dealing with the classical problems, too, and he does genuinely go for it in his last chapters. This is not a reluctant, grudging acceptance but a real positive understanding of what the new attitudes mean and how they open our view of the world of complex systems.

Because of this, and despite the muddle and lack of editorial discipline, this book is worth reading—especially by those who do not understand mathematical language.