Chaos All Around Us

Chaos in mathematics and nature is a system. Chaos doesn’t mean completely without order, which is the usual way we non-mathematicians think of the term. A chaotic system is nonlinear, and involves feedback loops. It has structure. My personal unscientific belief is that we are surrounded by systems of chaos, everything from disease to economics to politics.

In chaotic systems the future is unpredictable except in the short term. The weather is one such system. Weather forecasters have done very well predicting the weather up to five days by treating the millions of weather data points as a system of chaos they can analyze with super-computers. But beyond that they can only predict general trends, and limited ones at that. And because weather has this chaotic nature, that limitation is unlikely to improve. It’s the story of the butterfly wings in Argentina that cause a cyclone in Japan. We have no way to predict how the cascade of effects from that butterfly wing will unfold. Nor will we ever.

We are surrounded by systems of chaos.

I believe that we can generally expect things to go along smoothly in most complex systems, but the introduction of a single unexpected event can put the entire system on a completely new and unknown path, usually not a benign one.

Take economics. If there is one thing that is predictable about economic trends, it is that there will be recurring market crashes from unexpected causes that destroy wealth wholesale and require major readjustment before we can recover, and we’re doing almost nothing to protect ourselves against that inevitability. The economy is a complex system of chaos, and for that reason, economic predictions are virtually worthless. We will be surprised every time. Those who make predictions expect events in economics to be distributed regularly, like a bell curve, with all events falling on the curve. But wild events that simply are not part of a normal distribution show up. Economics is a system of chaos, and future predictions, like those of the weather, cannot be valid except in the short term.

Economic predictions are virtually worthless.

Looking back at any market crash, we can see that the signs were there, but we didn’t recognize them. Nor can we. This will happen every time there is a crash, and right now we cannot recognize the causes of the economic crash that will occur in five or ten years, although they are right in front of us. We can maybe predict what will happen a few days or a week out, so long as nothing too unusual happens, but we can know nothing with reasonable probability beyond that. That is because yesterday’s events effect today’s events, and today’s events effect tomorrow’s, and much beyond that the possibilities are too complex to predict. However, it seems to me that we’d do well to keep banking, industry, and commerce under better control, so that not so many extremes and abuses develop. This, of course, is contrary to the belief in the so-called Free Market.

Economics being as important as it is to all of us, we are well advised to do what we can to soften the inevitable expected-unexpected blows that come with a chaotic system. We as a nation and as individuals need to set aside some cash for the crazy season. We should do nothing extreme, such as taking on a mortgage that is probably beyond our ability to pay, or a second mortgage (home equity loan) on top of that, and we should sharply limit household debt. You know, the kinds of things that became clear in the recent market disaster. Be conservative. Those whose household finances were under control, and who had some savings, weathered the last storm reasonably well. Those with extensive debt faced disaster. The same with industries and whole nations.

It is possible that warming will reach a tipping point,
after which a self-reinforcing feedback loop
will escalate into uncontrollable warming.

Global climate is another complex chaotic system, perhaps the mother of all of them. Unfortunately, the survival of all humankind depends on stability in that system, because of the narrow range of climate extremes in which we can survive. But we have disturbed that system by introducing changes unseen since long before we were a species. Specifically, we have dumped and continue to dump multi-millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into our paper-thin atmosphere every year, and we show no signs of changing that significantly. And that’s not all, of course. The result is the escalating global retention of heat. We can see ready evidence of this by looking at the rapid melting of glaciers worldwide, the frequent violent storms we experience, the melting of Arctic ice, flooding of low lying areas, and so on.

We see the evidence of global warming more and more in our daily lives, as spring arrives earlier, seasonal weather patterns we have known all our lives are altered forever, and extremes come more often. It’s in our face. The eastern US experienced a mega-hurricane and a mega-winter storm within months of each other. (Thanks to accurate short-term weather forecasts, deaths and damage were lessened in both cases.) We try to predict what will happen so that we can plan our survival, but because of the nature of chaos, we have only a general idea of the future. We can make educated guesses about global climate change, but even our best scientific estimates have already had to be revised for worse outcomes several times now. If something unexpected happens that creates major change, all bets are off. One such possibility—even a probability—is  that warming will reach a tipping point, after which a self-reinforcing feedback loop will escalate warming so that we have no possibility of controlling it. We don’t even know if we’ve crossed that point yet, but if we have, we soon will.


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