Research News

Legal academy needs to embrace complexity science: Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl (Vanderbilt University)

Complexity science has already been accepted as a valuable tool in the physical sciences and many of the social sciences. The legal community would be doing itself a favor to do the same, says a Vanderbilt University law professor.

In an article published exclusively by Science on March 30, J.B. Ruhl and two co-authors make the argument for legal researchers to use complexity science, an approach that analyzes how relationships between parts give rise to the collective behaviors of a whole system, and how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment. Complex systems include ecosystems, IT networks, brains, markets, businesses and cities. It could be a valuable, perhaps necessary, new way to study laws, court decisions and other legal data, says Ruhl, who holds the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law at Vanderbilt Law School.

“A complexity science agenda in legal research may open new horizons of important research questions,” say Ruhl and his co-writers Daniel Martin Katz and Michael J. Bommarito II in the article.

“So long as complex and co-evolving legal systems are kept separate from social systems research, our understanding and management of human societies will remain incomplete and policy-making will fall short.”

The practical value of complexity science can be illustrated by applying it to the U.S. tax system, Ruhl, Bommarito and Katz write in the article.

“A perennial theme of U.S. politics is that the tax system is too complex, in need of a ‘simplification.’ Tax laws are a highly interconnected network of cross-citations between and across statutory and regulatory provisions. … This makes the impact of tax reforms difficult for policy offices … to predict.

“This cascading dependency could be captured in a complexity science macro-model to focus on policy analysis.”