Michael Crichton on Applying Models to Complex Systems

Just as the global warming crowd bases their climate predictions on the use of computer models, Keynesian economists try to explain economic activity using mathematical formulas.  As Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman explains in his new book, The Return of Depression Economics: “The only way to make sense of any complex system, be it global warming or the global economy, is to work with models—simplified representations of that system which you hope help you understand how it works.”

Well, we've all heard the saying about a butterfly's wings in Tokyo causing a hurricane off the coast of Africa.   Weather is simply too complex to predict using current technology.  Otherwise the weatherman would be right a lot more often.

More difficult still is the prediction of human behavior. All we can say about human beings is that they will act. What form that action takes, we cannot say. However, if you ask many economists why people do not do the things that the economist believe that they should—what the economist thinks is in their best interest—he will often reply that they are acting irrationally. That's balderdash. Before they act, people always act in ways that they think will benefit them.  Otherwise they would not choose that particular course.  It is only after the action and upon reflection that we can determine if the action was beneficial or not.  Of course, the actor does not have this luxury ex ante.

So what the economist really means is that people are not acting in the way he predicted.  Imagine that!!  People are not robots and sometimes act unpredictably!!   Who'd of thunk it?

How in the world can anyone hope to predict the behavior of billions of individuals?  In other words, how do you apply a model to an economy of any size? For that matter, how can you apply a computer model to the actions of one individual?  If you try you will probably be constantly surprised.

Michael Crichton, the noted author and filmmaker, studied computer models for over forty years. In this video he explains why it is not only inappropriate but also dangerous to try to apply models to complex system.

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  • 1/12/2009 10:14 AM Juan wrote:
    Mr. Crichton’s short presentation on the collective movement toward “sustainable development” is well done and should, in itself, provoke cognitive and meaningful thought about orchestrated trend propaganda and related management techniques and prescriptions.

    The sustainable development movement is over 100 years old now. Sustainable development has three primary components. Those components are: (1) economics, (2) natural resource, and (3) human development. The general methodology was directed toward centralizing control and systematic manipulation of each of these components into an integrated scheme that is overseen by an aristocracy. The ultimate objectives of the movement were imbedded in the controllers’ lusts for unfettered control and profit.

    It is well recognized and openly admitted that “sustainable development” has no useful definition. It is merely an umbrella phrase used to incite emotional responses and to entice others to give their consent to ever expanding powers. To achieve undefined goals and expansion of powers, the promoters must artfully acquire implicit faith and blind obedience from the general public. As such, the inherent absurdities and dangers in the scheme are colored over by pretenses of credentialed professionalism backed by political authority and joint venture actions.

    Public sensationalism is often applied with insufficient data and empiric conclusions in such schemes. To expand this particular global movement, political parrots have add the pretense of centralized authority and duty without regard to limitations, whether those limitations are natural, personal, civil or political. These same tools, however, have been used throughout human history to control both the collective herd and individual behavior.

    "Reason and Ignorance, the opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind. If either of theses can be rendered sufficiently extensive in a country, the machinery of government goes easily on. Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it." See: Rights Of Man, Thomas Paine, Conclusion.

    Sustainable development is not unlike the Trojan Horse that was pulled into the city of Troy at the folly of those with political and social influences. The Song of Illium arose from that incident and from the combination of fear and continued duress followed by false pride, arrogance, ignorance, and from the deception of those who wanted ultimate control. The error was fatal. Reality and reason have a way of exposing and reasserting what has been callously forgotten, wantonly flaunted, and craftily hidden.
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  • 1/12/2009 2:16 PM John wrote:
    Excellent post and video. Thank you.

    Certainly science has been misapplied to many problems, even by so-called experts and authorities. Nevertheless, it has many insights to offer. The first is, as you point out, don't expect to manipulate a complex system with a blunt instrument and get a predictable response.

    But science also teaches that complex systems can sometimes be influenced with favorable results. All complex systems blend order and chaos in a manner that varies spatially and/or temporally. In regions or at times when order is predominant, complex systems are relatively stable and resistant to outside influences or "perturbations", since the most basic characteristic of orderly systems is that they tend to absorb or dampen external influences. But if such systems are perturbed, even mildly, in a chaotic phase or region, widespread effects can eventually develop, since the most basic characteristic of chaotic systems is to amplify and/or propagate external influences.

    What I've found over 20 years of practice is that complex systems, including individuals and groups, can sometimes be influenced favorably by patiently studying their dynamics, identifying the regions of sensitivity or insensitivity to external influence, then waiting for an opportunity to lightly touch a point that has the potential to generate a cascading effect throughout the system, mostly powered by the system itself.

    One has to have the humility to never force a system, and that might mean never being able to influence it if a window of chaotic opportunity never does appear. Even if it does, the effect of the "light touch" one applies may die out anyway.

    This approach depends somewhat on rational scientific understanding, but perhaps more importantly on the balanced use of perhaps the most complex system we know of, the human brain and psyche, with its immense capacity for pattern recognition and intuitive information processing, and its ethical and moral dimensions. The use of inaccurate or inadequate models to justify gross intervention in complex systems signifies not only an intellectual, but also an ethical and moral, laziness and immaturity.
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  • 1/12/2009 10:52 PM Michael Wiseman wrote:
    Enjoyed the post! I'm a huge Michael Crichton fan (God rest his soul) and a lot of these same issues are touched on in his 2004 book 'State of Fear' which I just finished reading. If you get some spare time on the road (ha-ha), I suggest picking it up. It touches on some other issues related to this (such as keeping Americans in a 'state of fear' to control them).
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  • 1/23/2009 5:15 PM Patrick wrote:
    I predict that white guilt will be replaced with human guilt. As in "us humans are a virus destroying the planet!" Emboldened greenies will push multiple totalitarian schemes for "sustainable development."
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  • 2/3/2009 3:15 PM Nelson wrote:
    Reminds me of this quote: "The difference between theory and reality is that in theory, theory and reality are the same, while in reality they are different.
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