Debunking the Butterfly Effect

These days we are all familiar with the concept of the “butterfly effect.” The usual formulation goes something like this: when a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world (often the Amazon jungle) it can cause a hurricane in another part of the world. The colossal disparity in magnitude between cause and effect embodied in the idea has fired the collective imagination around the globe.

Butterflies surround a glowing ball of energy

At the level of our lives, the famous butterfly effect is largely an urban myth. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

The butterfly effect was “discovered” in 1961 by MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He was working at the time as an assistant professor in MIT’s department of meteorology where one of his projects involved an early computer program designed to simulate weather. As so often happens in science, his discovery was accidental. Looking to save some input time, he rounded one of a dozen numbers representing atmospheric conditions from .506127 down to .506. To his amazement, the tiny reduction utterly transformed his long-term forecast. Lorenz wrote about the experience in a 1972 paper titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The title was imaginative, intriguing, and provocative. A completely new idea was born. Vast opportunities for exciting scientific speculation suddenly sprang into being.

It does not seem to have occurred to Lorenz to look for some savage and inappropriate multiplier effects in his crude weather model. Such models represent nonlinear systems where small changes in input can result in large changes in output, so his results, while startling, may have seemed plausible. However, the quality of long-term weather forecasts in the sixties and early seventies left much to be desired, a warning sign, surely, that all was not as it should be.

Fast-forward to contemporary chaos theory. This new science has happily embraced the butterfly effect and made it a centrepiece of the struggle to understand randomness. Chaos is a kind of deterministic nonlinear system, so once again we see the sensitive dependence on initial conditions. A small change at one location can provoke large differences in a later state. Lorenz has a precise, yet at the same time approximate definition. “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

This is fine, but humans always want to find new uses for things. If something looks good over there, why not try it out over here? Nuclear power can generate electricity, but it also comes in handy when you need to obliterate a city. Explosives work wonders loosening things up in mines, but artillery shells are just as efficient at thinning folks out on the battlefield.

Thus, we are treated to such gems as “If you change the smallest of life’s details then you change its outcome.”

Sniff! Sniff! Can you smell the science?

At the personal level, we all know how hard it is to alter our lives in significant ways. Big changes usually require sustained effort over long stretches of time. Why is this so? The answer is simple: our lives, while difficult to predict in their precise details, are not really nonlinear systems. They are subject to the usual kinds of cause and effect, and as a species, we are built deliberately to ignore the inconsequential.

At the ecosystem level, life is subject to endless dampening effects that limit the impact of changes. There are checks and balances. No virus or bacterium can run amok completely. Organisms have immune systems. No species multiplies endlessly. Predator numbers increase to exploit the increased food supply. Life forms are limited to specific environments. Nothing lives forever. Localized damage may occur, but the web of life is resilient and adapts. It is capable, not only of resisting change, but of repairing itself, re-establishing a pre-existing status quo.

Many bad analogies have been advanced to sustain a false impression of how widely the butterfly effect may be applied. “Although the butterfly effect may appear to be an esoteric and unlikely behavior, it is exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill may roll into any of several valleys depending on, among other things, slight differences in initial position” (Wikipedia). This is a rigged example with a fixed number of easily attainable, divergent, yet rigid and repeatable outcomes. There is no process of transformation here; once the ball starts rolling, the system is closed and the outcome is assured. The widely spaced end positions of the ball are determined entirely by the valley shapes and the directions in which they lie and not by the passive ball. It is really a simple cause and effect setup where the initial position of the ball (on a slope that leans slightly towards a particular valley or valleys), and perhaps wind direction, determine which way it starts rolling.

The butterfly effect is a common theme in time-travel fiction. The usual presentation has the storyline diverge in the event of a seemingly minor occurrence resulting in two radically different outcomes. The key words here are “seemingly minor.” There is often confusion over magnitude. That is, the “insignificant” event may have far more ramifications than are suggested up front. Such tales depend heavily on rigging the game to get the desired outcome. They ignore factors that might mitigate the divergence and stress those that accentuate it. Those familiar with the repeated timeline meddling in the film “The Butterfly Effect” know how huge the impacts of the timeline-changing events actually are. Far from minor occurrences, they are all emotionally charged life-changing disasters. However, like the ball example above, each scenario is really just regular (albeit sometimes psychological) cause and effect. This must be so or the story would make no sense.

In love with the idea, we have exaggerated the impact and prevalence of the butterfly effect. Most systems, including those that branch, work by familiar cause and effect. Those that do not are lacking in interest for the simple reason that they are unintelligible.

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12 thoughts on “Debunking the Butterfly Effect

  1. The butterfly effect has never been intended to be anything but a metaphor, and chaos theory certainly doesn’t depend on it. But it’s been blown up by the media and would-be science commenters to the point where it’s presented as a literal fact. Popular (amateur) science writers love to grab onto subjects like chaos theory and physics and turn them into what are essentially parodies of science, usually in the name of some whacked out spirituality. There’s a huge amount of New Age writing that’s guilty of this.

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    1. Catana, your remarks about misusing science to justify mystical spirituality are right on the money. Chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and particle physics are the branches of science most frequently abused in this way, although some cognitive and brain research also gets dragged in. A problem here is the willingness of scientists to go along with at least some of this nonsense because it puts their science before the public in dramatic and attention-getting ways. High visibility can translate into better funding opportunities.

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      1. Thomas, I’ve seen numerous articles by scientists, complaining about this misuse of science, and trying to show what the science is actually about. But I’ve never seen any evidence of they’re trying to take advantage of it for better funding. Maybe I just haven’t run across any such attitude.

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        1. Catana, I had in mind things like the Science and Entertainment Exchange (run by the US National Academy of Sciences) where scientists are recruited to advise on TV shows like “Fringe,” movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” or those dramatic special-effects extravaganzas you see on PBS and the Discovery Channel about parallel universes, alternate timelines, and dinosaurs in the Arctic. I suppose my point depends on where you draw the line between what is real science and what is mere mathematical speculation not supported by anything in reality. As an arch sceptic, I find many of these programs laughable.

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  2. Thank you for your timely and insightful post. Timely for me, as I am currently researching a novel exploring issues of free will and causation. Your discussion of the butterfly effect is orders of magnitude more incisive than the obfuscatory (yes, that’s a word, why is the spell check complaining?) philosophical articles through which I have recently been wading. I’d appreciate it if you’d now write something equally helpful on Laplace’s Demon, free will, and a list of other topics that I’d be happy to submit if you’re really bored…

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Evan; they are much appreciated. I have yet to tackle determinism (good topic!), but I have written about will from a Jungian perspective in earlier posts such as, “Where Does Will Come From?”, “Ego Is Only a Supervisor in the Psyche,” and “The Vow of Obedience.” I make a distinction between authentic will, which may be unconscious and works whether we realize it or not, and conscious willpower, which is often an illusion and usually ineffective.

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  3. Thomas, aha! No wonder I’m in the dark. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV, but I do remember vaguely reading about advisors to various programs. I wonder if they deliberately help the show writers to fiddle with the truth, or it’s just an inevitable result of trying to boil complex subjects down to a sixth grad level.

    (You need to add another level of comments.)

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    1. I see an admirable defensive pattern in your comments, Catana. As a logical rational person, you hold science in high regard and believe that those scientists complaining about the misuse of science largely represent the state of science at the moment. You may well be right. I would like to think so.

      Before I go on, let me say that I believe there are a great many men and women of science who uphold the rational spirit of their various disciplines in nothing but the most honourable and dedicated ways.

      Regrettably, I have a different, admittedly more cynical view of science as a whole. I don’t think the science advisors to television shows fiddle with the truth, and I do make allowances for the need to “dumb things down” to the layman’s level. My objections lie with the fact that, since the birth of quantum mechanics, a growing number of scientists have taken up what I regard as unapologetic religious or mystical positions towards their respective fields. Many of these television programs feature scientists professing views that I do not regard as scientific. They openly state that – reminiscent of the new mystics – they see no conflict between a belief in God and science. Some have come out in favour of the ridiculous “argument from design” as proof that God exists. I know that Einstein might well have agreed with the belief in God, but even he remained opposed to some of the worst mystical formulations of Wolfgang Pauli and the other pioneers of quantum mechanics, the most important source of this new mysticism.

      Worse, many of the lurid TV shows and junk books which put forward mystical interpretations of science are not all that far from the views of important scientists. “Many of the leading Quantum physicists did … give mystical interpretations to their findings” (Wikipedia: Quantum Mysticism). Scientists have also abused the uncertainty principle and some of the murkier cognitive research that leans towards the notion that we invent and create the universe rather than discover it.

      I’m not the only one complaining about this:

      “Whenever practicing physicists and astronomers do express their findings in terms of some form of the anthropic principle — which views all reality as operating for the express purpose of producing humankind — they are overstepping the bounds of their expertise. They are mistakenly attempting to explain a higher-level and incredibly complex dynamic system (such as that of organic or psycho-social relations) in terms of concepts appropriate to the much simpler (inorganic) level. They are also departing radically from the role of scientist” (Science and Mysticism: Are They Compatible? Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1996/97), p.20-24).

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      1. Oh, I have no illusions about scientists as a whole. They’re human, and outside their specialties, they’re just as likely to adopt irrational belief systems. There’s that recent book that seems to be going the rounds of debate — scientist? doctor? — who decided that his own experiences in some altered state of consciousness are proof that god exists. And a lot of people take that seriously. I definitely do not take the rational complainers as typical. I doubt that there’s such a thing as typical. Add in that so many scientists have been seduced by hard cash and perks to tilt their work toward corporate interests.

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