Thursday, June 12, 2008

The butterfly effect: Totally wrong? Not even wrong? Not even a butterfly?

Science journalist Peter Dizikes explains in the Boston Globe (June 8, 2008) how the public gets the famous "butterfly effect" "totally wrong":

The name stems from Lorenz's suggestion that a massive storm might have its roots in the faraway flapping of a tiny butterfly's wings.

Translated into mass culture, the butterfly effect has become a metaphor for the existence of seemingly insignificant moments that alter history and shape destinies. Typically unrecognized at first, they create threads of cause and effect that appear obvious in retrospect, changing the course of a human life or rippling through the global economy.

Dizikes reminds us of The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Robert Redford's Havana, where suddenly mathwise Robert Redford informs Lena Olin, "A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. They can even calculate the odds."

But, he says, the late MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz really meant the opposite:
The larger meaning of the butterfly effect is not that we can readily track such connections, but that we can't. To claim a butterfly's wings can cause a storm, after all, is to raise the question: How can we definitively say what caused any storm, if it could be something as slight as a butterfly? Lorenz's work gives us a fresh way to think about cause and effect, but does not offer easy answers.
He closes, "Science helps us understand the universe, but as Lorenz showed, it sometimes does so by revealing the limits of our understanding."

Preach it, brother. But a daisy drooping on the mountainside will virally market the opposite message across the globe. For one thing, many people would rather have a wrong understanding than a limited one. And after all, you can make a movie out of the butterfly myth and all you can make out of the correction is a theory in science. At least so far ...