The economists John Kay and Mervyn King assert in their book ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘ that ‘economic forecasting is necessarily harder than weather forecasting’ because the world of economics is non-stationary whereas the weather is governed by unchanging laws of nature. Kay and King observe that both central banks and meteorological offices have ‘to convey inescapable uncertainty to people who crave unavailable certainty’. In other words, the necessary assumptions and idealisations combined with the inaccuracies of the input data of both economic and meteorological models produce inevitable uncertainty in the predictions. However, people seeking to make decisions based on the predictions want certainty because it is very difficult to make choices when faced with uncertainty – it raises our psychological entropy [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffective leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. Engineers face similar difficulties providing systems with inescapable uncertainties to people desiring unavailable certainty in terms of the reliability. The second law of thermodynamics ensures that perfection is unattainable [see ‘Impossible perfection‘ on June 5th, 2013] and there will always be flaws of some description present in a system [see ‘Scattering electrons reveal dislocations in material structure‘ on November 11th, 2020]. Of course, we can expend more resources to eliminate flaws and increase the reliability of a system but the second law will always limit our success. Consequently, to finish where I started with a quote from Kay and King, ‘certainty is unattainable and the price of near-certainty unaffordable’ in both economics and engineering.
I am teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students at the moment and in most previous years this experience has stimulated me to blog about thermodynamics [for example: ‘Isolated systems in nature?’ on February 12th, 2020]. However, this year I am more than half-way through the module and this is the first post on the topic. Perhaps that is an impact of teaching on-line via live broadcasts rather than the performance involved in lecturing to hundreds of students in a lecture theatre. Last week I introduced the second law of thermodynamics and explained its origins in efforts to improve the efficiency of steam engines by 19th century engineers and physicists, including Rudolf Clausius (1822 – 1888), William Thomson (1827 – 1907) and Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906). The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe increases during all real processes, where entropy can be described as the degree of disorder. The traditional narrative is that thermodynamics was developed by the Victorians; however, I think that the ancient Greeks had a pretty good understanding of it without calling it thermodynamics. Heraclitus (c. 535 BCE – c. 475 BCE) understood that everything is in flux and nothing is at rest so that the world is one colossal process. This concept comes close to the modern interpretation of the second of law of thermodynamics in which the entropy in the universe is constantly increasing leading to continuous change. Heraclitus just did not state the direction of flux. Unfortunately, Plato (c. 429 BCE – c. 347 BCE) did not agree with Heraclitus, but thought that some divine intervention had imposed order on pre-existing chaos to create an ordered universe, which precludes a constant flux and probably set back Western thought for a couple of millennia. However, it seems likely that in the 17th century, Newton (1643 – 1727) and Leibniz (1646 – 1716), when they independently invented calculus, had more than an inkling about everything being in flux. In the 18th century, the pioneering geologist James Hutton (1726 – 1797), while examining the tilted layers of the cliff at Siccar Point in Berwickshire, realised that the Earth was not simply created but instead is in a state of constant flux. His ideas were spurned at the time and he was accused of atheism. Boltzmann also had to vigorously defend his ideas to such an extent that his mental health deteriorated and he committed suicide while on vacation with his wife and daughter. Today, it is widely accepted that the second law of thermodynamics governs all natural and synthetic processes, and many people have heard of entropy [see ‘Entropy on the brain’ on November 29th, 2017] but far fewer understand it [see ‘Two cultures’ on March 5th, 2013]. It is perhaps still controversial to talk about the theoretical long-term consequence of the second law, which is cosmic heat death corresponding to an equilibrium state of maximum entropy and uniform temperature across the universe such that nothing happens and life cannot exist [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ on November 2nd, 2016]. This concept caused problems to 19th century thinkers, particular James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1979), and even perhaps to Plato who theorised two worlds in his theory of forms, one unchanging and the other in constant change, maybe in an effort to dodge the potential implications of degeneration of the universe into chaos.
Image: decaying ruins of Fountains Abbey beside the River Skell. Heraclitus is reported to have said ‘no man ever steps twice into the same river; for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’.
You might have wondered why I used ‘entropy’, and ‘psychological entropy’ in particular, as examples in my post on drowning in information a couple of weeks ago [‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. It was not random. I spent some of the Christmas break catching up on my reading pile of interesting looking scientific papers and one on psychological entropy stimulated my thinking. Psychological entropy is the concept that our brains are self-organising systems in a continual dialogue with the environment which leads to the emergence of a relatively small number of stable low-entropy states. These states could be considered to be assemblies of neurons or patterns of thoughts, perhaps a mindset. When we are presented with a new situation or problem to solve for which the current assembly or mindset is unsuitable then we start to generate new ideas by generating more and different assemblies of neurons in our brains. Our responses become unpredictable as the level of entropy in our minds increases until we identify a new approach that deals effectively with the new situation and we add it to our list of available low-entropy stable states. If the external environment is constantly changing then our brains are likely to be constantly churning through high entropy states which leads to anxiety and psychological stress. Effective leaders can help us cope with changing environments by providing us with a narrative that our brains can use as a blueprint for developing the appropriate low-entropy state. Raising psychological entropy by the right amount is conducive to creativity in the arts, science and leadership but too much leads to mental breakdown.
Hirsh JB, Mar RA, Peterson JB. Psychological entropy: A framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychological review. 2012 Apr;119(2):304
Handscombe RD & Patterson EA, The Entropy Vector: connecting science and business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.
The title of this post is a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge‘. For example, if you search for scientific papers about “Entropy” then you will probably find more than 3.5 million. An impossible quantity for an individual to read and even when you narrow the search to those about “psychological entropy”, which is a fairly niche topic, you will still find nearly 500 papers – a challenging reading list for most people. The analysis of the trends embedded in scientific papers has become a research activity in its own right, see for example Basurto-Flores et al 2018 on papers about entropy; however, this type of analysis seems to generate yet more information rather than wisdom. In this context, wisdom is associated with insight based on knowledge and experience; however the quality of the experiences is important as well as the processes of self-reflection (see Nicholas Weststrate’s PhD thesis). There are no prizes for wisdom and we appoint and promote researchers based on their publication record; hence it is unsurprising that editors of journals are swamped by thousands of manuscripts submitted for publication with more than 2 million papers published every year. The system is out of control driven by authors building a publication list longer than their competitors for jobs, promotion and grant funding and by publishers seeking larger profits from publishing more and bigger journals. There are so many manuscripts submitted to journals that the quality of the reviewing and editing is declining leading to both false positive and false negatives, i.e. papers being published that contain little, if any, original content or lacking sufficient evidence to support their conclusions and highly innovative papers being rejected because they are perceived to be wrong rather than simply deviating from the current paradigm. The drop in quality and rise in quantity of papers published makes keeping up with the scientific literature both expensive and inefficient in terms of time and energy, which slows down acquisition of knowledge and leaves less time for reflection and gaining experiences that are prerequisites for wisdom. So what incentives are there for a scientist or engineer to aspire to be wise given the lack of prizes and career rewards for wisdom? In Chinese thought wisdom is perceived as expertise in the art of living, the ability to grasp what is happening, and to adjust to the imminent future (Simandan, 2018). All of these attributes seem to be advantageous to a career based on solving problems but you need the sagacity to realise that the rewards are indirect and often intangible.