I recently watched an excellent documentary on BBC4 called ‘high anxieties: the mathematics of chaos‘ (still available on iplayer) which essentially tells 3 interwoven histories over the last 100 years or so, namely:
To cut a long story short, the main message is that we have repeatedly make the mistake of believing that the world behaves like a big pinball machine with predictable causes and effects. However in reality, mathematics and science include inbuilt chaotic behaviour which we generally choose to ignore as it’s too unsettling.
More specifically, what the 3 histories show us is the following:
Now I can’t see our global connectivity decreasing any time soon; in fact I think it can only increase. Therefore assuming chaos is generally something we strive to avoid/manage in economics or our climate, this suggests to me that we need to rethink our attitude to relentless growth.
Ever the optimist I believe we need to embrace this ambiguity and chaos, not ignore it, and be more wary of certainty. Perhaps we should learn to live with ambiguity from unexpected sources such as artists, the slow movement and mathmeticians. But then again i’m not certain.
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This sounds like a fascinating documentary, and I’ll track it down. Speaking as an economist, macroeconomic and financial stability models have long recognised the possibility of chaotic dynamics (though, more than often than not, technical assumptions are made to remove these “inconvenient” model properties!).
For me, developments in current financial markets notwithstanding, a major puzzle has always been why we do not in reality observe even more ‘chaos’ than we do. According to the chaotic dynamic models I have seen, complex economies should be buffeted from one state to another on a much, much more frequent basis than what we see in practice. How did the commentators in the programme account for this? All accounts of chaos – be they about financial crisis or about climate change – must also account for the powerful stablilising forces that clearly exist on some level in society.