Review of “The Sciences of the Artificial,” by Herbert Simon

It is perhaps the curse of the successful explorer that, after new lands have been found and the surveys made, his own writings become collections of obvious cliches and bizarre assertions. Surely Christopher Columbus felt this. In 1492 you are a visionary and a hero. But by 1505 everyone knows there is a large landmass west of Europe, and no one believes it is China.


Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial is, objectively, one of the worst books I have ever read.
There is some obvious discussion of local maxima and satisficing (picking the best solution you can find, rather than holding out for the perfect one), some more-or-less obvious if somewhat simplistic speculations about how business functions (it might be modeled as a problem-solving entity), and an incredibly tedious discussion of “standard social sciences model” (SSSM) psychology, in which some early psychology studies are tortuously interpreted to imply that the human mind runs on a relatively small number of simple algorithms, albeit in a complex environment.

(If you read the Wikipedia page on SSSM , you will find criticisms that the SSSM is a ridiculous straw-man, and that it was “comical” to assert anyone believed it. But Herbert Simon, very definitely pushes such a view in his book.)


Indeed, Simon’s discussion of psychology is so dangerously wrong-headed I will spend a paragraph here refuting it. Simon describes the human memory system, and describes two systems long-term memory (which he is generally accurate about) and “short term memory” (which appears to be a confused mix of working memory, associated with general intelligence, and sensory memory, which provides the awareness of taste, etc). In mainstream psychology, long-term-memory and working-term memory as associated with the automatic, highly parallel, intuitive, and effortless “System 1” cognition system, and the manual, serial, logical, and painfully slow “System 2” cognition system. In academia these two systems are often studied under “dual-process theory,” and in the military, they are described as part of the OODA loop.”


While Simon does not use the “System” nomenclature, his description of it is oddly incomplete, basically missing the most important studies of the last few decades to provide an oddly limited view of human thinking. The only mental processes he implies occurs in System 1 is the passive maintenance of memories. And while he cites such famous studies as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (a measure of the range of working memory) and B.F. Skinner,” influential System 2 studies simply do not occur.

Now…. the reason for this is that Simon wrote The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969, and the last edition was published in 1996, perhaps the last year that his view on psychology could be taken seriously. Simon is a Nobel prize winner and, even more prestigious, a Turning Award winner. The reason for his digressions into “satisficing” and “organizational behavior” is he coined the term satisficing and is a founding father of organizational behavior. The Sciences of the Artificial is like a letter from Columbus in 1505, describing his views on geography: Cliched, tired, ridiculous, and an artifact of a pathfinder.

I read The Sciences of the Artificial in the Nook edition.

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