J Epidemiol Community Health 61:933-937 doi:10.1136/jech.2006.054254
  • Glossary
    • Continuing professional education

A simple guide to chaos and complexity

  1. Dean Rickles1,
  2. Penelope Hawe2,
  3. Alan Shiell2
  1. 1
    Department of Philosophy, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
  2. 2
    Markin Institute, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada
  1. Dean Rickles, Department of Philosophy, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada; drickles{at}
  • Accepted 4 February 2007


The concepts of complexity and chaos are being invoked with increasing frequency in the health sciences literature. However, the concepts underpinning these concepts are foreign to many health scientists and there is some looseness in how they have been translated from their origins in mathematics and physics, which is leading to confusion and error in their application. Nonetheless, used carefully, “complexity science” has the potential to invigorate many areas of health science and may lead to important practical outcomes; but if it is to do so, we need the discipline that comes from a proper and responsible usage of its concepts. Hopefully, this glossary will go some way towards achieving that objective.


  • Funding: This work was conducted as part of an International Collaboration on Complex Interventions (ICCI) funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. DR is an ICCI Post Doctoral Fellow. AS and PH are Senior Scholars of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. PH holds the Markin Chair in Health and Society at the University of Calgary.