ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Why I Don’t Believe in the Butterfly Effect, Part 2

Part 2 of 12: The Butterfly Effect in Pop Culture

The butterfly effect began as a scientific theory. It was proposed by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s (see Part 1). However, in our popular understanding, the butterfly effect is not just a theory in meteorology. Both before and after the time of Lorenz, people have been applying that same line of reasoning to many other topics — everything from science fiction movies to our own life stories. In this essay, I will explore some of the ways in which the theme of the butterfly effect shows up in pop culture and in our own thoughts.

Perhaps the most common place where one sees the idea of the butterfly effect is when people talk about history. For example, when I go to a library, I will often see books called “How a Minor Naval Battle Changed the World Forever” or something along those lines. For every event in history, it seems there is at least one book about how that event “changed the world forever.” And while some events really did change the world forever, such as the two world wars, the phrase “changed the world forever” is overused.

In fact, I was reading one of these kinds of arguments just last week. It was an article in The Atlantic in which the author claimed that Barack Obama never could have been elected president had it not been for 9/11. His argument went like this: in response to 9/11, President George W. Bush started the Iraq War, which led Obama to speak out against it even while other Democrats were supporting it. But the Iraq War turned out to be a disaster, which made Obama look good for having opposed it from the beginning. This expanded his popularity, allowing him to ascend to the presidency in 2008 over rivals like Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both of whom had initially supported the war. And so, the author claimed, Obama could never have become president without 9/11. The author went on to frame all of America’s foreign policy over the last two decades as being a consequence of 9/11.

In my opinion, while I have no doubt that 9/11 was important, I don’t think it was nearly as important as this author was making it out to be. I think he is using the same line of reasoning that is found in the butterfly effect. I looked up the author. His name is Ben Rhodes, and he was a speechwriter and diplomat under the Obama administration. He is obviously an intelligent person. But even intelligent people can fall for these kinds of logical fallacies. (Sometimes, I fall for them too.)

The fallacy is often more extreme when people talk about alternative history, rather than real history. Historians and writers often make claims about alternative history (“if Kennedy hadn’t been killed …”), which usually propose that if something had happened differently, then such-and-such alternative history would have happened. Typically, this alternative history ends up being markedly different from real history. For example, someone might claim that if Kennedy hadn’t been killed, then Al Gore would have won in 2000, due to some long chain of causes and effects that no one could have predicted. There are many novels and movies that explore such alternative histories.

And if you follow sports, you will hear many arguments based on the butterfly effect. It’s not hard to find sports-themed YouTube videos with titles like “How One Loss to the Bills Led to the Patriots’ Dynasty” or “What if Jackie Smith Hadn’t Dropped That Pass in 1979?” (YouTube has countless videos promoting the butterfly effect, and not just with regard to sports.) There are several YouTube Channels in particular, including “N if L”, KTO, NFL Ripple Effect, and Total Pro Sports, that have produced many such videos. These videos are all based on the same premise: since one little thing causes another thing, which causes another thing …… then if that one little thing hadn’t happened, everything would be different.

The butterfly effect is also quite common in the genre of science fiction. There are countless science fiction books and movies in which the main character travels back in time, induces one small change, and then lives in the ensuing alternative timeline in which, before long, everything is totally different. There is even a movie called The Butterfly Effect, in which the protagonist does exactly that. There’s also a movie called Sliding Doors which features an alternate timeline in which the protagonist misses a train one day, and before long, her whole life is radically different. This pattern is also found in the alternate timeline sequence of the famous Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, as I will discuss in Part 7. Classic movies like Back to the Future and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also involve the theme of altering the past to change the present, although the consequences in those films are not as far-reaching.

In fact, the storyline of traveling to an alternate timeline in which something in the past happened differently has become such a trope that it is often parodied. For example, there are several episodes of the sitcom Family Guy in which Brian and Stewie travel through a series of alternate timelines. In one of these alternate timelines, Frank Sinatra was never born, which meant that he couldn’t use his fame to influence the 1960 presidential election, which meant that Richard Nixon won that election instead of John Kennedy. Then, as president, Nixon made the wrong choices during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which meant that the Cubans bombed major U. S. cities, which meant that the modern United States is nothing but a wasteland. So thanks to the absence of Frank Sinatra, the modern U. S. is an uninhabited wasteland. That is a very “butterfly effect” sort of a story, even if it’s not meant to be taken seriously. (I really dislike that show, by the way).

The butterfly effect is also found in several phrases that one often hears. It is found in the use of the word “snowball” as a verb: that is, the idea that a small mistake can cause a cascade of causes and effects that leads to some sort of widespread breakdown. It is also found in the phrase “turning point” (for example, historians say that the Battle of Midway Island was a turning point in World War II), because the implication is often that this turning point singlehandedly caused the string of victories that followed it. Other phrases that contain some hint of the butterfly effect include “this changes everything,” “slippery slope”, and “the beginning of the end.” Meanwhile, “ripple effect” and “domino effect” both mean basically the same thing as the butterfly effect.

Speaking of the slippery slope, the concept of the slippery slope is rather similar to the concept of the butterfly effect, although there are also some important differences between the two. Many commentators have criticized the idea of the slippery slope, mostly for the same reasons that I criticize the butterfly effect. I will discuss this in Part 10.

Sometimes, the butterfly effect is portrayed as something beautiful. For example, the tone and imagery of many YouTube videos about the butterfly effect are intended to invoke a sense of awe. “With the slightest change, a whole different world could be created,” they might say.

Related to this, the butterfly effect is sometimes portrayed as something that should inspire us to make the world a better place. For example, as a child, I remember reading a children’s book called The Quarreling Book which features a family over the course of one day. In the morning, something upsets the father, making him grouchy, which makes the mother grouchy, which makes one child grouchy, which makes the other child grouchy, which makes him be mean to the dog. But the innocent dog responds with a kiss, which makes the child happy again, which makes the other child happy again, which makes the mother happy again, which makes the father happy again. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, they say. And that’s actually a very “butterfly effect” way of looking at things, which is why I don’t agree with it, beautiful though it may be.

This usage of the butterfly effect as inspiration is also used in advertising campaigns. For example, the last time I bought a bottle of iced tea, there was a message on the label that said, “Small Decision. Big Impact.” Many other advertisements have made similar claims.

I also sometimes hear a theme of the butterfly effect when people talk about ecology and the environment. Ecologists often claim that if you remove one part of an ecosystem, you end up changing (or destroying) the entire ecosystem. If one animal goes extinct, it throws the whole system out of balance. And in the context of an ecosystem, those arguments may actually be true (although that’s not quite the same thing as the butterfly effect, which is never true).

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention one other place where the butterfly effect shows up: in my own thoughts. I often reminisce on the past, and I often think to myself, “You know, if I hadn’t done A ten years ago, then B wouldn’t have happened, and then C wouldn’t have happened, and then D wouldn’t have happened, and D was so awful …… if I hadn’t done A, my life would’ve turned out so much better.” (And sometimes, I use this thought process as an excuse: if A was something beyond my control, then I can blame all my life’s problems on something that wasn’t my fault.) Everyone falls for these kinds of logical fallacies sometimes.

I am also guilty of using fallacious “slippery slope” arguments in my own mind. For example, I often think to myself, “If you’re not productive in the next thirty minutes, then that will set the tone for the day, and you won’t get anything done all day.” And again, the fallacy behind slippery slope arguments is similar to the fallacy behind the butterfly effect, as I will discuss in Part 10.

But in all of these fields, everything from sci-fi movies to my own thoughts, the premise is always the same: if you change just one small thing, then before long, you end up with completely different results. If A causes B, and B causes C, and C causes D, and … and Y causes Z, then if you change A (only a very small change), then that entire chain of causes and effects doesn’t happen, and you end up with a different chain of causes and effects, and by the time you get to where Z was, the whole world is totally different. That is the essence of the butterfly effect, and my goal in these essays is to disprove that line of reasoning. I will spell out my central argument in Part 4.

Other parts of this series:

Part 1: An Introduction

Part 3: The Wrong Way to Disprove It

Part 4: My Central Argument

Part 5: Responding to Arguments in Favor of the Butterfly Effect

Part 6: Exceptions (And Why They Aren’t Really Exceptions)

Part 7: Three Wrong Ways to Discuss Alternative History

Part 8: The Right Way to Discuss Alternative History

Part 9: How I Would Interpret Lorenz’s Observations

Part 10: The Butterfly Effect and the Slippery Slope

Part 11: Why I Care about This Topic

Part 12: Conclusion

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