I’ve been mulling over this point for a few days now, and come to the conclusion that it’s a bit wobbly. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a “non-complex” (i.e., simple) system in nature because there is a relationship, however tenuous, among all things. That sounds suspiciously like Lovelock and his Gaia overreach, but that’s not where I’m going. It means merely that there’s a continuum of diminishingly significant influences on any macroscopic effect that we can quantify in some way. And yet, we successfully meddle with many complex systems because we have winnowed out the determinant factors that allow us to so meddle. It would therefore, it seems to me, be foolish to halt research on systems where we’re not so sure.
For another, how can we hope to illuminate the inner workings of any complex system if we’re petrified of probing its operant characteristics? I’m not suggesting that we throw caution to the wind, but a hands-off approach because we might unleash an unexpected demon just strikes me as too much of the old mediaeval mysticism where Catholic orthodoxy held sway. In any case, Taleb’s point about CO₂ appears to conflate focussed small-scale scientific endeavours with mass political and business interests. The two are decidedly different: politicians are businessmen of an especially unsavoury stripe (even when their interests aren’t primarily pecuniary), and businessmen aren’t scientists, whereas scientists mostly care about the facts and how these are best explained. In capitalist democracies, politicians care about votes, which means they care about campaign funding, which in turn means aligning themselves with business interests—which is all about as far removed from wanting to pursue science and facts as it can be.
My third reservation is that we can “meddle” with just about anything as long as we do so in an appropriately measured way. For by far the most applied research, we have a pretty good a priori idea where a study might lead us. Remember the whole Large Hadron Collider furore about smashing particles together at unprecedented energies in pursuit of the Higgs boson? The doomsayers were out in their numbers, predicting apocalypse and Armageddon, but you didn’t find any reputable physicists among them. That’s because they had a much deeper understanding of the reality than any wannabe End-of-the-World advocates.
The bottom line is that the world has lost its discernment. We listen with equal zeal to both false prophets and to studious, measured experts, and think that we can decide the real issue, depending on whose story we like most.