Debunking the Butterfly Effect & Embracing Chaos Theory – SDP #20

[podcast] The Butterfly Effect is a false premise of illustrating how small initial differences may lead to large unforeseen consequences over time.  This is nothing more than cause and effect and yet the Butterfly Effect is spilling across the sciences as some belief that every event has a singular, infinitesimal known origin.  It is absurd to propose, and yet to scaffold with a mathematical formula, a relationship between a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico as the beginnings of an eventual hurricane in China.  Don’t succumb to such hype.

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We can never know all the initial conditions of a complex system in sufficient (perfect) detail.  For example, the formula below accounts for a static fraction of the potential millions or even billions of variables that interact in time in a complex system.  Such models are fancy, yet crude and embarrassingly incomplete representations of something that has about the same chance of occurring as predicting winning lottery numbers.


The Butterfly Effect’s logical replacement is Chaos Theory, which describes transitions between order and disorder.  These transitions are often surprising and nonlinear.  Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable.  It teaches us to expect the unexpected.  Gravity is linear.  We understand gravity and can mathematically calculate its influence on items.


Crowd response to a terrorist attack is nonlinear.  We know from studying such events that certain tendencies tend to arise, but crowd behavior is not predictable and also dependent upon the forces within the crowd as well as contexts and situations.  If leaders rapidly emerge, a crowd stabilizes and will generally follow those giving directives.  Nobody could have predicted the manner in which chaos theory played out in the extraordinary boat evacuation of 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.  Cause, effect, context, situation, actors – all combine to produce the effect.  When you hear someone talk of the butterfly effect, direct them to the nearest flower garden or to the library.


David will respond to discussion thread comments or questions & also to emails.  The Safety Doc Podcast is hosted & produced by David Perrodin, PhD.


Opinions are those of the host and guests and do not reflect positions of The 405 Media or supporters of “The Safety Doc Podcast”.  The show is curse free and adheres to nondiscrimination principles while seeking to bring forward productive discourse and debate on topics relevant to personal or institutional safety.