Abhinav Sinha

Archive for the ‘Chaos Theory’ Category

Systems Thinking – Randomness vs Chaos

In Chaos Theory, Systems Thinking on August 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Just four articles old, I had already begun to face the writer’s block, till Bollywood came to my rescue. My last movie going experience was both entertaining and a stimulating one. This Friday, I watched the much anticipated, ‘Peepli Live’.

The story deals with the sensitive issue of farmer suicide, served to the taste of the mainstream audience with a dash of humor and satire. What made me mention the movie here is the chain of events that get rolling by a seemingly trivial issue.

For the benefit of those, who have not yet been to the theaters, the farmer brothers in the story are deep in debt, when they pick up the idea of a suicide. They see it as the easiest way out of their woes, as the government would pay the surviving family an amount of 1 lakh as compensation.

Their decision does not seem to change or influence anything big until their story is accidently picked by a local reporter and published. This triggers of a sequence of events that alters political equations both at the state and at the center, sends national media into a frenzy with army of reporters and cameraman camping at Peepli. The village, with all the attention that it is getting, turns into a land of opportunities for everyone from bangle sellers to coffee vendors from nearby areas.

One single event twisted a large part of the previously existing socio-political system. You will have to watch the movie to experience the pandemonium yourself but at the end of the movie I found myself wondering, whether what happened was just random sequence of events or was it chaos?

You might wonder what the difference is, anyways!

Let me bring in another example that almost each one of us would be aware of (even the non movie goers).

In the US presidential elections of 2000, the Palm Beach county supervisor of elections, Theresa LePore decided to make the typeface on ballots larger for Palm Beach voters, because many of her residents were older and had difficulty seeing small print. She did not notice that it now took two pages instead of one, and that could confuse voters about which button to push when they voted.

As a result 19,120 voters punched holes for both Pat Buchanan and Al Gore, and their ballots had to be thrown out. Another 3,407 people appeared to vote for Pat Buchanan, which he himself found most surprising, expecting only a couple of hundred votes. Ms. LePore’s new design caused about 22,000 votes for Al Gore to not be counted. If they had, Florida would have gone to Gore and he would have been the President of the United States. (Source – CNN News report)

Gore in turn would have likely signed the Kyoto protocol on global warming and probably not have declared war on Iraq. Of course, other things would certainly have happened that we cannot imagine.
What do we attribute such an outcome to? Chance, Randomness or Chaos?

Such condition where, small differences in the ‘initial condition’ of a dynamic system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system is called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ in the ‘Chaos Theory’.

There is frequent confusion between chaos and randomness. There are some similarities in the nature of chaotic and random system, but there are also some fundamental differences.

A random sequence of events is one in which anything that can ever happen, can happen next. A familiar example serving as a paradigm of randomness is the toss of a coin. Here either heads or tails, the only two things that can ever happen, can happen in the next throw. The probability of throwing a heads on the next toss is the same as in any other toss. Knowing in addition the outcome of last toss, cannot increase our chances of guessing the outcome of next toss.

On the other end, chaos consists of things that are actually not random, but only seem to be. Knowing the initial conditions well, there outcome can be determined by the known laws of scientific enquiry. But their dependence on the initial conditions is so high, that perfect determinism is a practical impossibility.

As it is popularly understood, chaos deals with unpredictable complex systems. Chaos theory studies how these systems, once thought to be completely random, actually contain hidden ordered patterns.

An example of a chaotic system is the weather forecasting system.

Chaos theory as a field of study in mathematics stems, in part, from the work of Edward Lorenz of MIT, a meteorologist, who simulated weather patterns on a computer. Working with a computer having limited memory, after viewing a particular pattern, he wanted to recover the data. He started the program again, except that this time he put in the initial values of temperature, air pressure, humidity etc. rounded off to 3 places after decimal instead of the original 6.

He was surprised to find a completely different result of weather patterns on his computer, than he had before. The sensitivity of initial conditions in a chaotic system is so high. that it is sometimes metaphorically quoted, that even a flutter of a butterfly’s wing somewhere over the deserts of Rajasthan can create a turbulence miles across, over the islands of Andaman!

This is how the ‘Butterfly effect’ has come to become a popular slogan of the chaos theory. If you make a error while dealing with a random system, the effect would be nothing significant as it would only lead us back to randomness. However, effect of small errors in initial condition of a chaotic system could be explosive.

The same principle applies to human society. Tiny changes in one person’s state of mind can, on occasions, lead to major changes in society as a whole. Or simple acts can lead to unintended consequences.
Chaos is important as it helps us to cope with dynamic, complex and unstable systems (like a few described above, including weather forecast) by improving our ability to describe, understand and even forecast them.

Another arena within which chaos theory is useful is that of organizations.

Applying chaos theory to organizational behavior allows strategists to take a step back from the management of day-to-day activities and see how organizations function as unified systems. An organization is a classic example of a nonlinear system (i.e., a system in which minor events have the potential to set off grave consequences or chain reactions, and major changes may have little or no effect on the system whatsoever).

In order to exploit the chaotic quality of an organization, one needs to try to see the organizational shape that emerges from a distance. Instead of pinpointing causes in the organization for organizational problems, the company is better served, according to chaos theory, by looking for organizational patterns that lead to certain types of behavior within the organization.