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The Tansley Effect

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I just finished re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune. One of the things I like about this book are the arcane mash-up references Herbert makes to real and fictional events, persons, and principles. During this re-read I became fixated on something Herbert called the “Tansley Effect”

“He set up small unit experiments with regular interchange of data for a swift Tansley Effect, let each group find its own path.”

So what is this Tansley Effect? Surprisingly, Google has almost nothing to say. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist. Almost. A nice article in the Citizen Scientists League  last year made an attempt to unravel the story behind the reference,

“Given Herbert’s well-known penchant for researching the science behind his fiction and his interest in ecology, it seems plausible that he would have run across Tansley’s work  and named a future scientific principle after him”

From Herbert’s writing I imagine the Tansley Effect as the cumulative outputs from a group of highly skilled, disciplined professionals all studying the same problem, and routinely sharing their findings. Each new independent finding becomes a common input into everyone else’s process. The Tansley Effect is an endless positive feedback loop. How quickly the solution would reveal itself against such an onslaught!

Impossible, you say.

How would we avoid the waste of duplicated effort?

This question is irrelevant. Allowing independent local solutions to a common global problem is neither duplication nor waste; it’s best practice.

How would we ensure information was shared?

A culture of information sharing arises naturally from shared goals and from investment in group outcomes. Any impediment to that culture is removed from the organization. Plenty of organizations ruthlessly defend their culture.

How would we eliminate the default competition?

Wrong question; competition is not inherently bad for the organization, as long as it remains productive. Non-productive competition is counter-incentivized. Correct behaviors consistent with the culture and goals are rewarded.

The combination of shared goals, constant cultural recalibration, and incentivizing of correct behaviors is the driving force behind the Tansley Effect. This effect is operational and observable in organizations and communities around the world.

By any other name, have you ever seen the Tansley Effect in action? I’d love to hear the story.

  1. Neal Herink
    July 7, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    Thank you for putting this together! I find that my biggest obstacle to pursuing scientific goals is my lack of access to a passionate community. I would love to study how cooperative incentives and productive competition manifest in and affect research among communities. Is there one specific example that comes to mind when you think of the Tansley Effect?

  2. ben
    January 12, 2017 at 2:56 am

    I understand Herbert’s use of Tansley effect differently.

    The concept is referenced twice. The first one is helpful in clarifying the second one that you’ve quoted. “We’ve had a long time in which to build up the Tansley Effect — small-unit experiments on an amateur basis from which my science may now draw its working facts.” Kynes said.”

    Note the “amateur basis” statement is at odds with your description of highly-trained professionals. To me, Herbert is describing something more like crowdsourcing or distributive problem solving, in combination with an engineer or design thinker’s practicality of “good enough”. This allows Kynes to rapidly gather information and insight that would take too long if left only to experts in highly controlled lab scenarios.

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