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Is history really chaotic, or merely slightly random?

Reader comment on item: The Slap Heard Around the World

Submitted by Dan Simon (United States), Dec 19, 2011 at 01:50

In physics, a process is "chaotic" if it is fully deterministic but macroscopically dependent upon immeasurably microscopic details--the classic example being the global weather system, in which the formation or non-formation of entire storm systems can depend on the strength of a single flap of a butterfly's wings half a world away. "Random" processes, on the other hand, are non-deterministic--exactly the same initial circumstances may result in radically different results. However, the range and likelihood of those results are determined by a "distibution", which may in fact be very concentrated on a small number of relatively likely events. Random processes, in other words, can be highly predictable in a way that chaotic processes can never be.

Was the process that led from the "slap heard round the world" to the fall of three Arab governments chaotic, or merely slightly random? One natural comparison is to the "shot heard round the world" (or, rather, to at least one event sometimes given that label): the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian radical Gavrilo Princip, which led directly to World War I. Most historians, I assume, would consider this chain of events too predictable to be chaotic, in the sense that if Princip's action hadn't triggered World War I, something else very likely would have in short order.

Similarly, I would argue that the Arab governments that collapsed as a result of a slap were the ones that were ripe for collapse. After all, most of the Arab world's dictatorships survived the wave of popular discontent and emerged largely or completely intact, and Libya's could be said to have succumbed to a concerted NATO-led miltiary campaign, rather than to a home-grown rebellion. Similarly, the outcome in Syria, which is still in doubt, seems likely to depend more on the balance of foreign forces aligning for and against the Assad regime, than on the relative strengths of the regime and its domestic opponents.

In fact, governments of all stripes are regularly challenged and probed from below. How they react--whether deftly or clumsily, confidently or hesitantly--depends on such factors as their political strength, resources, popularity, and skill, and moreover determines whether these challenges blossom into full-blown rebellions or retreat into renewed quiescence. In Tunisia and Egypt, certain unique, country-specific factors made the now-deposed regimes particularly vulnerable to mass expressions of popular discontent, and those outpourings were therefore pretty much inevitable. The "slap heard round the world" was thus merely an accidental pretext, rather than a true trigger, of the uprisings there.

Submitting....

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Daniel Pipes replies:

Thank you for the careful analysis. I agree that something would have provoked World War I and something would have provoked the 2011 Arab upheavals, so these are more random than chaotic.

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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