Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Butterfly Effect

THE WAY OF CERTAINTY. Think you know what facts are? Think you know what reality is? Are you sure? Then answer this: Can the ghost of a technological 'hoax' past contribute substantially to the credibility of a scientific 'truth' present? Before you bet the farm on your opinion about that, you should probably take the time to read this post.

The graphic above is borrowed from a site called Universe, which also explains today's headline:

Of all the storied elements of our great folkloric misunderstanding of Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect has undoubtedly suffered most from popular conception. It was born innocuous, a slight allegory to explain how changes in a mathematical situation's beginning coordinates have an unprecedented effect on its outcome, and yet the Butterfly Effect has somehow mutated into a beloved believe-it-or-not tenet of pop science. A butterfly flapping its wings on a balmy midwestern afternoon, many of us believe, can cause typhoons on the coast of Japan. The image is lovely, of course, and gives us a world that is wildly interconnected, multifarious, and dangerous. However, any mathematical concept which finishes its career as the title of an Ashton Kutcher movie should be immediately fact-checked.

Although the Butterfly Effect is mathematically, conceptually, solid as a rock, the actual dusty-winged butterfly is only an image, and nary more. [emphasis added]

This is an outstanding introduction to my topic for several reasons. The terse definition of the Butterfly Effect is correct, the references to 'pop science' and 'image' are apt, and the "Yes, but..." endorsement of the underlying math is perfectly in tune with the story Glenn Reynolds linked the other day about "the warmest year of the past century."

The Universe blogger is at pains to tell us that while the principle is valid, the butterfly analogy is not. In his view, the butterfly really is too small to precipitate a typhoon. But he's talking about hard-core science, not pop science, or (perish the thought) the preternaturally tumultuous climate of publicity. If a social butterfly flaps her wings in Beverly Hills, can it cause a worldwide hurricane of media coverage and public obsession? Yes. It can. That's an interesting distinction in light of the Global Warming axiom brought into question by IntaPundit's link:

Years of bad data corrected; 1998 no longer the warmest year on record

My earlier column this week detailed the work of a volunteer team to assess problems with US temperature data used for climate modeling. One of these people is Steve McIntyre, who operates the site While inspecting historical temperature graphs, he noticed a strange discontinuity, or "jump" in many locations, all occurring around the time of January, 2000.

These graphs were created by NASA's Reto Ruedy and James Hansen (who shot to fame when he accused the administration of trying to censor his views on climate change). Hansen refused to provide McKintyre with the algorithm used to generate graph data, so McKintyre reverse-engineered it. The result appeared to be a Y2K bug in the handling of the raw data.

McKintyre notified the pair of the bug; Ruedy replied and acknowledged the problem as an "oversight" that would be fixed in the next data refresh.

NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as record-breaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II.

An example of Y2K discontinuity in action.

But this can't be right. Y2k was a big nothing, wasn't it? As it happens, I wrote about this at some length back in December 2005. I said, in part:

We're coming up on another new year, and as I have done for half a decade now, I find myself thinking about the Y2K computer bug and the end of technological civilization that didn't happen on January 1, 2000. It seems especially relevant this time around...

Some of the most expert computer jocks I'd heard of were the most concerned about the prospects for calamity. And vast numbers of computer illiterate businessmen who had come to believe they could order problems out of existence were famously reluctant to take the Y2K bug seriously or allocate real resources to fix it.

Then the dread day came and... nothing. TV news anchors turned it into an instant joke. The world was suddenly divided into those who had never known enough to worry and those who were too embarrassed to admit they had ever worried. The cataclysm that didn't happen disappeared from the radar as completely as if there had never been a Y2K scare in the first place. All's well that ends well?

The thing is, there was a Y2K scare. You can verify that to yourself by doing a Google search. You'll get pages and pages of links. What you won't find are more than a handful of entries dated after January 1, 2000. Either an enormous and expensive hoax was perpetrated on the world, or we all dodged a huge bullet. Yet in all the years since, who among us has cared enough to figure out which it was?...

Today, of course, various experts are trying to warn us about a possible (some say inevitable) pandemic of avian flu, although most of us are far more concerned about the NFL playoffs than mass death due to a virus. In another part of the cultural spectrum, our lawmakers are whistling past the graveyard of future terror attacks by dismantling the Patriot Act and forcing U.S. interrogators to treat al Qaeda captives more respectfully than the cops in your town treat petty criminal suspects. Our national memory is already fading exponentially about the potentially huge loss of life that might very well have occurred -- and was, in fact, erroneously reported -- in New Orleans. Nevertheless, many highly esteemed scientists are beating the drum louder and louder about global warming, which may represent the closest analogy we have to the Y2K scare, while other experts insist that warming is merely a cyclical phenomenon that tracks more closely with sunspots than human behavior. So many bad things that could happen, and here we are trimming our Christmas trees with silly smiles on our faces...

For those who are interested, that post -- and its comments -- confirm that the Y2K bug was a fact, with many well documented effects, ranging from slight to potentially grave. Yet in the consensus reality created by our media, it has become an almost forgotten and somehow quaint footnote of our transition to a new millennium. Particularly after the shattering events of 9/11, who has time for the catastrophe that didn't happen? Its long-term impact is reduced to that of an imaginary butterfly flapping its wings in an extinct century.

How incredibly odd, though, that one of its wingbeats would launch a zephyr in the direction of the publicity that was already slowly building to storm force around the Global Warming story. Odder still that a butterfly which, according to the Universe blogger, was powerless in the realm of hard-core science would generate a linchpin statistic as fallacious as the "hockeystick" fraud it so conveniently replaced. The only partial explanation is that so much of what we think we know about such subjects is fed to us by a media machine that is notoriously incompetent about technical subjects of all kinds. We are, most of us, responding to storms of publicity, not the findings of hard-core science.

What do you think about reality now? If Y2K was a hoax or a myth, how can it now be causing NASA to revise some of its most critical 'facts' about Global Warming? If you've spent the last seven years believing, based on media coverage, that Y2K was a non-event, how can you be certain that your media-driven belief in Global Warming is more valid than your unbelief in Y2K? Or if you accept that Y2K was a genuine but over-hyped problem, how can you be sure that the Global Warming crisis is not also being over-hyped? If you have come to believe that Y2K was a very serious problem that was nevertheless somehow resolved by technological experts operating in a free-market economy, why would you be so willing to substitute draconian governmental edicts for free-market technology in addressing the problems that may be caused by any Global Warming that's occurring? If the temperature statistics of an entire century can be fundamentally changed by an invisible error in calculation, how much of what you think you know from the media about Global Warming is still certainly 'true'?

Alternatively, if your disbelief in Global Warming is based on a mere rejection of the media's tendency to hype technical subjects they know little about, how sure can you be that you're not ignoring a serious -- and utterly real -- scientific problem just because you've learned to distrust the messenger?

You'll have to answer all these questions for yourselves. My only point here is the same as it was in the Y2k post a year and a half ago. Reality is a very messy business. The time to be most suspicious of your convictions is when you are most certain you couldn't possibly be wrong. That's when a butterfly can bite you in the ass.

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