Life-giving detail characteristic of a resilient system, and hated by the rationalist and the person with a mission—for whom, to describe something as an anomaly is enough to condemn it without the need for more reasons.

Anomaly may take the form of:

1. an instructive deviation from the expected;
2. the natural expression of an evolving complex system; and/or
3. an affront to the tidy or controlling mind, warning that a system has more complexity and independence than had been assumed, and that it will consequently be a source of pain and surprise until eliminated.

In other words, anomaly can be valuable and creative. Here are two examples. The first comes from a study of police forces in the metropolitan areas of the United States. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were proposals to reduce the number of forces (departments) in eighty areas by amalgamating them. Underlying these proposals was the assumption that their diverse size should be standardised—and that they should in general be substantially larger.A32

Is it not self-evident that the anomalous differences in the sizes of police forces would cause problems? This was the question that Elinor Ostrom set out to investigate, and she was able to show that small forces can in fact have substantial advantages in efficiency, giving better services at a lower cost than large police forces serving similar neighbourhoods. She showed that the areas with the largest number of small police forces can put more officers on patrol (relative to the total number of officers employed) than areas dominated by a few forces operating on a large scale. Overall, a higher standard of service is provided in metropolitan areas where there are many police forces, where no single large force dominates, and where there is a diversity of size: the anomaly, far from being a handicap, is an advantage.A33

There are good reasons for the effectiveness of what could be dismissed as a muddle of diverse scales and distinctive approaches. Different urban conditions require different styles of policing; forces learn from each other, imitating the most successful initiatives and avoiding the least successful; it is easier for citizens to become properly informed about their police presence if there are other forces with which they can compare them, and small police forces may know their local areas better. They may also have less rigid procedures, allowing local invention and diversity; for the larger forces, in turn, there is an incentive to innovate and maintain high standards as they compete for contracts to use their services.A34

The proposition, which is indeed normally taken to be self-evident, is that large-scale organisation, organised to a standard design and on a standard scale, is better—that is, more efficient—than smaller structures which lack consistency and tidiness: common sense tells us so. However, the claim that something is self-evident should be viewed with suspicion—as a sign that a complex system is being observed and summarised at a glance, in preparation for radical deconstruction in the name of reform.A35

The second illustration of creative anomaly comes from medieval Europe. Beginning late in the tenth century, considerable thought was given to the matter of how to reduce the damage and the frequency of wars, and the church took the initiative in doing something about it.

The plan they adopted (in 1027) was to outlaw war at weekends: any war in progress must stop at midday on Saturday, and must not be resumed until Monday morning. This made it possible for everyone involved to go to church on Sunday, and to have an early night the evening before, and it was so successful that it was decided to extend the truce to the other holy days of the week. The ban was therefore extended to Saturday mornings (in memory of Christ’s Entombment), Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion), and Thursday (the day of the Ascension and of the first Eucharist), the periods of Lent and Advent, and to the twelve most important saints’ days.A36

It was then extended to places: whatever day of the week it was, war was banned in churches and courtyards, and in fields at harvest time. And it included people: women, children, old people and farmers working in fields, were all to be left unmolested.

This was the Treuga Dei, The Truce of God, and the remarkable result was that, to some extent, the truce held. Circumstances were stacked against it, and there were many occasions when it was broken; it was common practice not to pay soldiers—it was part of the job to fend for themselves, and if, in the process, they wrecked the enemy’s farms and communities, so much the better. Warfare was therefore more a matter of constant raids (chevauchées) than of the pitched battles which history remembers.

In the “Great War” of the Middle Ages—the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) in which France was under constant attack from England—the set-piece battles, such as Agincourt and Crécy, were interruptions to the normality of freelance pillage, and fair play had precious little to do with them. In the case of large-scale, far-from-home wars, especially if they involved hordes of savage English archers, the Treuga Dei did not work: no rules did, except the one about not running away. But, for smaller-scale affairs, closer to home, local secular authorities could enforce it to protect non-combatants. And the Treuga Dei was an important principle, precisely because it was an anomaly: it announced the idea that, even in something as ruthless and horrible as war, there could be some sense of fairness and legality. It indicated that justice has a life of its own, and endurance. If war and justice can coexist, justice must be more than it seems; it has depth; there is more to it than today’s righteous indignation.A37

And yet, that coexistence of two contrasting ideas is an affront to the tidy mind of empire, and the Treuga Dei was abolished (or at least trumped and superseded) in the reign (1493–1519) of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. He decided it was time to sweep away the anomaly, to introduce an overdue reform suited to the modern world, to demonstrate his sincerity and his commitment to peace. So he announced the Eternal Truce of God. From now on, war would be prohibited on any day of the week, and for ever: total peace was established. What followed was total war, maturing to the Thirty Years’ War and its sequels, unrestrained every day of the week—no one, and nowhere, exempt. Now, at last, they could have a proper, efficient, anomaly-free war, with consistency and transparency, and no pity for anyone.

Ideology resents exceptions. Deprived of anomalies and the theoretical chance to negotiate—“don’t kill us today, it’s Sunday”—which at least started a conversation, communities and churches became irrelevant to the task of keeping the peace. The top-down decision had left them with nothing to say.

Anomaly in a system is a sign that it tolerates intelligent life.


Related entries:

Internal Evidence, Presence, Script, Good Shepherd Paradox, Personal Experience Fallacy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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