Monday, August 31, 2015

Tweaked Story

'The Butterfly Effect' is the fascinating idea that if you were to go back in time, and bump one butterfly... everything in the future would change. We can't bend time, and so thinking of observation tubes where we could go back and 'look but not touch' is fun but impossible. The moral is very powerful though. Everything matters. Sweat the small stuff because each action compounds and builds over time. This fits perfectly into how we normally try understand the world. If I do this. This happens. Cause. Effect. Take control of the cause, and you can take control of the effect. We like control.

Damien Hirst's very different version of the Butterfly Effect

There is a hole in the theory. Sometimes we see things as connected and build a story around that connection, but we have got it wrong. The thing that matters in the Butterfly Effect is only fractionally due to the bumping. The far bigger issue is simply that you have started again. Then added time. We like to think of history as a tape with a set path. This helps us make sense of the why after the event. The bump lead to a different path. Daniel Dennett and others nibble at the path theory. Press play again and the hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of lefts and rights will lead to a complete different world. Not because of the bump, but because that is how life works. History would have played out completely differently even if nothing was different other than it playing out again.

The moral of the tweaked story is slightly different. We underweigh how much of an impact noise and randomness have on the specific path we end up on. Actions do have a huge impact, especially over time, but cause and effect is more complicated than we think. Tyler Vigen has a lot of fun with this looking at different 'Spurious Correlation'. Daniel Lin shared a 'fascinating chart' on Twitter showing the strong correlation between the Shanghai Composite Index and a map of Virginia.

Butterflies matter. Not because of their knock on effect, but because they are beautiful.
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