Thank you, Edward Lorenz
We are sad to note that Edward Lorenz of MIT, “the father of chaos theory,” died today at age 90. (See the NY Times report here.) Lorenz was also the author of an article and metaphor that inspired the name of this blog.
That 1971 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” stated that in dynamic systems, vanishingly small differences in cause can lead to vast and unpredictable differences in effect. Scientists placed this insight on a par with those of Newton and Einstein in advancing our fundamental understanding of nature.
In 1961, Lorenz, a meteorologist, was working with mathematical models showing how weather systems developed when he discovered that a tiny rounding error of less than 0.1 percent had a vast impact on the model’s predicted weather outcome. Knowing that real weather in the natural world was a vastly more complex system than his simple program, Lorenz came to see that chaos – unpredictable, accumulating and nonlinear change – was inevitable in all complex systems.
Lorenz bequeaths two very important lessons for us and our nonprofit clients. First, even our small efforts have the potential to influence and even transform systems, like public education or the environment, that may at first appear to be far beyond the reach of our resources.
Even more importantly, we cannot reliably predict ultimate success or failure from our efforts. We can make projections, for instance fundraising projections, but only by simplifying our assumptions to a few factors like response rates, average gifts and the like. We cannot predict the Indonesian tsunami that will command worldwide attention for a month and pre-empt domestic fundraising for a month. We can’t model the vivacious volunteer who triples the take from our annual event by sheer force of personality.
Some find that absence of absolutely assured results frustrating, frightening, even paralyzing. Our refusal to promise certainty may have cost us a client or two.
But, we find uncertainty both exciting and liberating. Uncertainty frees us at last to bring our ever-incomplete analysis to an end and take action. Uncertainty means that the results and lessons from our best efforts will always be new and surprising. Uncertainty means we may always have hope.
So. thank you Edward Lorenz, for the gift of chaos and possibility.