A book by a political scientist on chaos, black swans and the butterfly theory - Hindustan Times
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Chatty book by a political scientist on chaos, black swans and the butterfly theory

Mar 13, 2024 06:10 PM IST

In Fluke, author Brian Klaas brings up a question: If life is indeed all chaos and chance, how do we believe that everything we do matters?

“My existence is a fluke, an outgrowth of a mass murder,” says Brian Klaas.

Brian Klaas(Courtesy: HachetteIndia) PREMIUM
Brian Klaas(Courtesy: HachetteIndia)

With that sensational declaration, the political scientist-associate professor at University College London has our attention. His book Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters is a Malcolm Gladwell-like mix of theory and stories on chance and chaos determining our lives.

Klass has previously written books on the nature of power and the subversion of democracy. This time round, he has turned his attention to chaos theory, chance and black swans, in a book inspired by his unusual personal story and his research as a social scientist.

Fluke is a warning against human hubris, of assuming we can control our world. The book focuses on chaos theory, which studies unpredictable behaviour in systems including the black swan phenomenon, which is a rare event without precedent, and on the butterfly effect, the idea that seemingly trivial events may ultimately result in something with much larger consequences, that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could trigger a tornado in Texas.

Klaas, who calls himself a “disillusioned” social scientist, illustrates and amplifies the work of Edward Lorenz and James Gleick on Chaos Theory, of Nassim Taleb on Black Swans and many others, weaving in thoughts and theories and stories from a rich mix of disciplines.

It is a commodious canvas; it is also convoluted and contentious, shifting from parallel universes in the world of the film Sliding Doors and the Jorge Luis Borges short story, The Garden of Forking Paths, to the mutant Mamokreb fish from Madagascar who no longer need a male to reproduce. It also takes in perhaps the most catchy of modern-day stories, about an army commander in Zambia who is being chased over a wall, but who escapes leaving his trousers behind in the hands of his pursuers, thereby defeating the coup and letting democracy survive, literally, by a thread.

But back to the mass murder — Klaas's origin story for Klaas.

“On June 15, 1905, Clara Magdalen Jansen killed all four of her children, Mary Claire, Frederick, John, and Theodore, in a little farmhouse in Jamestown, Wisconsin in the northern United States. She cleaned their bodies up, tucked them into bed, and then took her own life. Her husband, Paul, came home from work to find his entire family under the covers of their little beds, dead, in what must have been one of the most horrific and traumatic experiences a human being can suffer…

The Paul who came home to that little farmhouse in Wisconsin was my great-grandfather, Paul F. Klaas. My middle name is Paul, a family name enshrined by him. I’m not related to his first wife, Clara, because she tragically severed her branch of the family tree just over a century ago. Paul got remarried, to my great-grandmother.”

When he heard this story, Klaas realised that his life was made possible only through a gruesome mass murder. Four innocent children died, and now he is alive.

Changing anything changes everything, Klaas explains, telling us the story of an American couple who holidayed in Kyoto and found it beautiful. Nineteen years later, when the man got to be America's Secretary of War (Henry L Stimson), that one vacation taken by one couple became the most important reason why Hiroshima, and not Kyoto, was incinerated, with more than a hundred thousand people dying in one city rather than another.

The many stories in this book showcase a breadth of scholarship and research in the fields of evolution, psychology and prediction. A chapter on probability has stories of weather forecasting and the phenomenon of p hacking (a misuse of data through analysis) as well as fascinating trivia, like why there are seven days in the week and where they got their names from.

For human beings, who need to see meaning in everything, such a view of the universe is hard to process. Our brains distort reality to give us a picture of coherence. Our most popular stories are situated in a moral universe, one of cause and effect, says Klaas.

"As a social scientist, I've long felt that we are creating fiction by trying to cram the infinitely complex array of causes and effects into simplified models that provide a straightforward – but wrong – understanding of our world. Fluke takes chaos theory seriously — and applies it to our own lives and our societies instead," Klass said.

Fluke is thought-provoking but seemingly paradoxical. If we are to believe that the human brain is cognitively unable to accept chaos, why then should we accept these stories to prove the opposite? With the weight of evidence, this book provides so articulately, if the world is indeed all chaos and chance, how then do we believe that everything we do matters?

The paradox isn’t an either-or conundrum, Klass explained in an interview.

“I don't believe in free will, simply because I don't believe there is a difference between our minds and our brains,” Klaas said. “My mind is my brain; it's a physical system, an infinitely complex chemical reaction that is shaped by my genes, my upbringing, and every experience and input that has shaped how my neurons interact with the rest of my body and environment. As a result, I think that the world is generally deterministic, effectively a chain reaction of infinite causes and effects, stretching back to the very beginning,” he said.

“However, humans still make decisions – even if we can't independently control them separately from the physical matter in our brains. And those decisions have a profound influence because chaos theory teaches us that every action—no matter how tiny—produces ripple effects that can profoundly affect a system over time (in our case, our lives, or our societies).”

Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters is made available by Hachette India

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