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The illusion of precision

from Ikonoclast (originally posted as a comment)

A policeman puts his knee on the neck of a black man in Minneapolis for 8 minutes 46 seconds. A statue to a slave trader falls down in Bristol. This recalls the butterfly effect of Chaos theory. There is no humanly constructed model which would allow one to predict the second specific event from the first specific event. A broader probabilistic model might make predictions of protests and demonstrations after the first event, especially in a social media connected world. The model might struggle to predict where the protests would spread to, what form they would take, and especially the ramifications when it occurs synchronously with a virus outbreak and a social and economic lock-down predisposing whole systems of people to react more vigorously. Though, in hindsight the general outcomes do look predictable.

“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole”. – Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

The above is a “complex monist system” insight. Yet, chaos theory refers only to deterministic systems. If we accept that non-deterministic aspects to the cosmos and human agency (autonomy) also exist, then we see that the modelling problem for large complex systems becomes even more fraught.

The sequence of events is not explained by Newtonian upward causation alone. Certainly The “Newtonian” pressure of the knee killed George Floyd. The Newtonian force of the ropes generated a turning moment and pulled down the statue. Gravity played a role too. But there is more than this relatively predictable upward causation at work.

Upward causation is the more predictable Newtonian, and even Einsteinian, kind extending from the micro-physical up to the macro-physical. It’s what physicists (other than quantum physicists) and engineers work with. However, when the direction of causal influence extends from ‘higher’ levels of reality down to ‘lower’ levels of reality, we speak of downward causation. Downward causation can be said to occur when a complex system with emergent behavior generates causation that appears to move from the macro-physical down to the micro-physical.

In a human socioeconomic system, human agents are the main endogenous cause (only endogenous cause?) of downward causation in the socioeconomic system. We manipulate stuff. Actually, we manipulate people, symbols and stuff. In a sense, downward causation is “a wave going back”. I use this metaphor to help shorten this discussion of causation which otherwise could fill a book. When upward waves of causation arrive we react. When downward waves of causation from others arrive to affect us we also react. The interactions are extremely complex. How are we to model all these upward and downward (and sideways) waves of causation?

I think there is no way to model these things accurately. All we end up with is the illusion of precision and this illusion of precision is encapsulated and instantiated in the money/finance system. The attempt at precision ends in doctrinaire and cruel rigidity which is an entirely different outcome, of course. We can see the cruel and destructive rigidity with which neoliberalism continues to insist on its formulas; insisting on them as the only way to manage the economy. This rigidity results in real and widespread human suffering and environmental damage. Better to apply a fuzzy logic of heuristics informed by moral philosophy.

  1. June 15, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Although I want to agree with the conclusion it helps to get the argument right. Newtonian causation (the pressure of the knee or turning moment) is local. Remote control is not, but since light waves travel faster than objects causing Newtonian forces, we can receive and therefore react to information before the approaching object/force arrives. The wave of causation is only going backwards relative to our receipt of information about it. Now let’s get back to the point. Even if we have enough information arriving to tell us whether what is approaching is an iceberg or another boat, we need to get out of the way of it. So yes, the heuristic is just “trouble’s coming”, and the moral philosophy is the convention that big boats give way to little ones.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    July 4, 2020 at 4:37 pm

    All interesting and have been pointed out by many others on many other occasions. When I taught police officers on the use of behavioral data in finding crime and criminals, I used the following simple example. With just a few basic pieces of data (past arrests, pass times, likes and dislikes, and grievances) one can predict with “reasonable accuracy” if any person is likely to commit acts that bring them to the attention of the police. It’s by no means precise or exact. But it is a useful tool for allocating time and resources and for identifying who to “keep an eye on.” And none of it abridges any human right or requires deep dives into sensitive data or data bases. The history and current situation of a person provides useful insights into what their future “could be.” In our business it is always “could be.” Certainly never enough to restrain someone with a choke hold for 10 seconds, much less 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
    From this perspective econometrics is always voodoo.

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