I’ve been thinking about what it means to rewrite many similar kinds of events using the vocabulary of complex-systems theory. Such a shift isn’t necessarily radically unlike anything we know, but it does strike at the heart of one kind of common explanatory framework that many of us turn to when we’re trying to explain why a social or cultural event has occurred. I’ll call this “popular social science”, a kind of generalized, public-sphere version of the disciplinary practices of economics and political science. It’s regression analysis without the math. People try to explain an event by identifying its causes or inputs and then proceed to identify the single most important independent variable through common sense or observed assertions about the effect size of that variable. So we end up with stories like, “It was going after the squeegee men that reduced crime in New York”, “The reason that 9/11 happened is US training and arming of jihadis in Afghanistan during Soviet occupation”, or “Pirates of the Caribbean 2 sold as well as it did because of Johnny Depp’s performance in the first film, not because the audience liked the second film better than the first.” These are popular arguments about causation, echoed by a variety of scholarly arguments.
When the real causation can be so much more...well, complex.