The Butterfly Effect

Column by George Sibley

Philosophy – September 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

I keep getting these flashy come-ons from The Economist magazine that say in bold white letters on the front of a big blue envelope: “When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another….”

This decontextualized soundbite, cited as “from Edward Lorenz and Chaos Theory,” bothers me — irritates the hell out of me, in fact.

It’s similar to the way Darwin’s theory of evolution got corrupted into “Social Darwinism” in the late 19th century; it was a pseudo-scientific covering for a thoroughly heartless and asocial “winner take all” brand of capitalism in which the greediest capitalists got themselves celebrated as “the most fit.”

The “butterfly theory” provides the same kind of pseudo-scientific crutch for American-style individualism. If a single butterfly can cause a hurricane just fluttering its wings, why should a human have to worry about participating in society, community, unions, political parties, church groups, action groups, et cetera? Just exercise your “power of one” whenever or if ever you want something to happen, or change, or whatever.

The “butterfly-caused hurricane” is actually a pretty thorough misrepresentation of an illustration demonstrating the difficulty of scientific prediction in complex phenomena like the weather. All of the factors that go into tomorrow’s weather operate according to relatively simple laws — laws of thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and the like.

But the difficulty comes in applying these simple laws to the myriad minute iterations of thermodynamic and hydrodynamic events at any given moment — events that, yes, include this butterfly flapping its wings here, another flapping its wings there, a human sneezing a microstorm into the air over there, heat rising off a parking lot somewhere else (which probably trumps a few thousand butterflies and sneezers), warm moist air boiling up off the ocean (which probably trumps a few thousand parking lots), and so on and on. How could one possibly measure, with any degree of accuracy, all of these discrete events that contribute their mite or might to tomorrow’s weather?

MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz and others have explored this difficulty, and come up with a still evolving theory on the predictability of the order in complex events called “chaos theory.” This might be a misnomer, for, like all science, it’s about order, not chaos: the underlying order in the most complex and seemingly chaotic of natural phenomena, like the climate.

The “butterfly effect” is taken considerably out of context by the marketeers of The Economist: all chaos theory really says about the butterfly is that it is not really possible to measure any given butterfly’s contribution to the “initial conditions” that lead to a hurricane, or a sunny calm day for that matter. No scientist working in chaos theory would deny that a butterfly’s wing flap in North America might contribute to a hurricane that later forms over the Atlantic, but I cannot imagine any respectable scientist suggesting that said butterfly “can eventually cause a hurricane.”

“Might contribute” — maybe, but given current measuring capabilities, it is impossible to say one way or another. Imagine trying to measure and calculate the fluid dynamics of millions of butterflies, all fluttering randomly about, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes nullifying, each other’s flutters….

But once it’s politically corrupted, the “butterfly effect” is a convenient pseudo-scientific fiction for market economists to put out on propaganda materials. If a butterfly can cause a hurricane, an individualistic American can probably do just about anything he or she wants to do. Vote with your ballot; vote with your wallet; send out e-mails; set up a blog site; and your personal will will sweep over the world with hurricane force — and eventually you won’t even have to leave your computer desk to cause your hurricane.

Economists have been pushing the “butterfly effect” fiction ever since Adam Smith invented “the invisible hand” of the idealized marketplace, where everything works out fine so long as we each act individualistically in what we perceive to be our own self interest. Anyone who suggests that we need to work together — organize unions or daycare co-ops or political organizations — is kind of suspect today, kind of retro.

And the only truly organized entities seem to be those 800-pound butterflies that have worked so hard to get legally defined as individuals: the corporations that work around the clock to give us ever more things on which to vote with our wallets, stoking our “power of one.”

I see it here in Gunnison every time anyone organizes an event to try to build a little community. We feel good if a hundred of our 4,000 people turn out — well aware that the rest are mostly tuned in to the corporate delusion that with this car, that computer, this whatever, we can flutter our little wings and be hurricanes in the world.

George Sibley writes in Gunnison and teaches at Western State College.