8 Complexity Analysis Underscores a Fallacy in the Value of Mindless Analysis of Big Data

February 8, 2021

First, I want mention that in the last two days I have read essays which are like PowerPoint slide shows with animation and written text. Is this a new form of “writing”?

Now to the business of the essay and its mini movies: “What Is Complexity Science?” provides a run down of the different types of complexity which academics, big thinkers, number nerds, and wizard-type people have identified.

If you are not familiar with the buzzwords and how each type of complexity generates behaviors which are tough to predict in real life, read the paper which is on Microsoft Github.

Here’s the list:

  1. Interactions or jujujajaki networks. Think of a graph of social networks evolving in real time.
  2. Emergence. Stuff just happens when other stuff interact. Rioting crowds or social media memes.
  3. Dynamics. Think back to the pendulum your high school physics teacher tried to explain and got wrong.
  4. Forest fires. Visualize the LA wildfires.
  5. Adaptation. Remember your friend from college who went to prison. When he was released and hit the college reunion, he had not yet adjusted to life outside: Hunched, stood back to wall, put his left arm around his food, weird eye contact, etc.

The write up explains that figuring out what’s happening is difficult. Hence, mathematics. You know. Unreasonably effective at outputting useful results. (How about that 70 to 90 percent accuracy. Close enough for horse shoes? Except when the prediction is wrong. (Who has heard, “Sorry about the downside of chemotherapy, Ms. Smith. Your treatment failed and our data suggest it works in most cases.”)

Three observations:

  • Complexity is like thinking and manipulating infinity. Georg Cantor illustrates what can happen when pondering the infinite.
  • Predictive methods make a stab at making sense out of something which may be full of surprises. What’s important is not the 65 to 85 percent accuracy. The big deal is the 35 to 15 percent which remains — well — unpredictable due to complexity.
  • Humans want certainty, acceptable risk, and possibly change on quite specific terms. Hope springs eternal for mathematicians who deliver information supporting this human need.

Complicated stuff complexity. Math works until it doesn’t. But now we have a Ramanujam Machine which can generate conjectures. Simple, right?

Stephen E Arnold, February 8, 2021


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