Categories: Crisis management / History of PR / PR issues

22 February 2012


Why Chaos Theory in PR is hogwash

I have noticed that there’s an increasing interest among PR pros in chaos theory. It might be because we’re in recession, the result of recent earthquakes and tsunamis, or even the new complexity that social media throws up. But whatever motivates them, here’s some insight into why they are misguided.

Writing this piece has forced me to reread Norman Levitt (1943 – 2009), professor of Maths at Rutgers. He was among the first warriors to take up cudgels in the Science Wars against left-wing postmodernists in the Academy. He maintained that their social constructivism, epistemic relativism and cognitive pluralism is in reality reductio ad absurdum.

Professor Norman Levitt

Levitt was clearly polemical in style. But he confronted some equally robust opponents. After Levitt died, Professor Steve Fuller, an American sociologist now based at Warwick University, opined that Levitt had been a pioneer of “cyber-fascism”. Fuller accused Levitt of having lived in a parallel universe, in which he positioned postmodernists as playing the role of Jews in need of extermination. Sticking the knife deeper in the man’s corpse, he said that Levitt’s major contribution to the debate was a steady stream of invective. He added that Levitt’s robust defence of science was merely the noise made by a loser who felt disenfranchised from the mainstream. So this debate was not nice or polite or for softies.

Of course, what should be remembered is that Fuller blamed Levitt for being behind the Sokal Affair. This, for those new to this stuff, refers to Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, who wrote Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity for an academic journal devoted to postmodern cultural studies. It was full of intentional howlers, such as claiming that quantum gravity was a social linguistic construction.

The resulting furore was a major embarrassment to the journal Social Text, which published Sokal’s baloney in its special edition devoted to what it dubbed the Science Wars. Professor Fuller was especially outraged because he had one of his own papers in the same edition of the journal. The Sokal Hoax seemed to underscore Levitt’s argument that for narrow-minded reasons, ignorant left-wing academics wrote and published nonsense about science.

Professor Alan Sokal

In reality this was much more than a squabble between left- and right-wing thinkers. Levitt was actually on the left of the political spectrum as are Professors Fuller and Sokal. For example, Levitt and Sokal, unlike Fuller, had no time for American conservatives who wanted to teach intelligent design and creationism in schools. Sokal and Levitt shared a distaste for the left-wing Derridean deconstructionism, which they decried as fashionable poststructuralist drivel, which Fuller admires. So what really united the likes of Levitt and Sokal and split them apart from Fuller was their understanding of the essence of science. In contrast to the postmodernists they stated that there was no such thing as “left-wing science”, no more than there was such a thing as “right-wing science” or “feminist Algebra” (no, I didn’t make that last one up and neither did Levitt).

Their concern was that postmodernist academics promoted a disdain for scientific principles, which struck at the heart of what science was about. They argued that this had negative consequences for society at large because it spread distrust about science, scientists and the benefits of the Enlightenment. They accused left-wing academics of promoting, what Levitt called, muddle-headedness:

Thus we encounter books that pontificate about the intellectual crisis of contemporary physics, whose authors have never troubled themselves with a simple problem in statics; essays that make knowing reference to chaos theory, from writers who could not recognise, much less solve, a first-order linear differential equation; tirades about the semiotic tyranny of DNA and molecular biology, from scholars who have never been inside a real laboratory, or asked how the drug they take lowers blood pressure. (Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science, by Norman Levitt and Paul Gross)

Levitt robustly defended the integrity of scientific works which had been misunderstood and misrepresented by postmodernists. One example of this was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was denounced by Professor Fuller as a Cold War narrative. In his book on Thomas Kuhn, Fuller even goes as far as to say that Kuhn’s work helped dupe scientists into supporting Western militarism in the fight against Soviet and Chinese communism. In short, Fuller’s representation of science leans toward explaining it as little more than a conspiracy organised by the Establishment.

For sure, when Levitt criticised postmodernism he fully understood that how scientific knowledge was used was indeed a social and political issue. What concerned him, however, was the suggestion that scientific methodologies and theorizing itself was a social (subjective) construction that produced little more than metaphors. Levitt said repeatedly, mathematical equations are anything but metaphors. He rightly pointed out that mathematics and science have a substance and complexity, which metaphors can’t really capture.

So, that’s enough background. Now let’s take a step closer to understanding what might be attracting PRs to take a serious look at chaos theory. One of the great attractions of chaos theory to social theorists, and in PR to critics of Jim Grunig’s work, is its emphasis on the importance of nonlinear mathematical and scientific enquiry in its search for patterns and associations in seemingly complex and chaotic systems. But what I’m not putting under the microscope today is chaos theory in its scientific incarnation. I’m questioning how chaos theory has been exploited for other purposes by people with no understanding of, or respect for, scientific methods.

Chaos theory appealed to social scientists of a particular type because it appeared to provide scientifically-sourced ammunition in support of cultural relativism. As one reviewer of Levitt’s work puts it:

To cultural theorists, the word ‘linear’ represents relentless sequentiality, single mindedness and the triumph of the instrumental — all components of the supposed Western ethos of conquest, domination and objectification. ‘Nonlinear’, on the other hand, for them suggests many-sidedness, multi-culturalism, polymorphism and the effacement of traditional disciplines — a world where multiplicity reigns in culture, sexuality and ethnicity and where old barriers may be freely crossed.

In books such as Katherine Hayles’ Chaos Bound it was argued that Newtonian thinking had been overthrown, when in fact it had been subsumed, which, as Levitt said repeatedly, is something completely different. Hayles – in common with many other postmodernists – popularised the fallacy that Newtonian physics was mechanical and linear in its fundamentals. In fact, as Levitt pointed out, Newton’s laws of celestial mechanics and his equations of planetary motion are nonlinear to their core.

Levitt’s critique of Hayles’ book cites her poor grasp of basic scientific principles. On virtually every subject she discussed from Newtonian science, quantum mechanics, logical positivism, to the special theory of relativity, right through to her understanding of mathematics, Levitt found fundamental errors.

Just how ridiculous this postmodernist muddling of maths, science and culture can get is illustrated by Sandra Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism, which condemned Newton’s Principia Mathematica for being a “rape manual”.

So the red lights started flashing when I started reading Priscilla Murphy’s influential paper Chaos Theory as a Model for Managing Issues and Crises. My pen-friend Heather Yaxley had already informed me that Murphy’s critique of Jim Grunig’s two-way symmetric model had been partly responsible for persuading him to rejig it as a mixed-motive model that took more account of asymmetric reality. To my despair I quickly discovered that Murphy’s understanding of chaos theory was firmly rooted in Hayles’ Chaos Bound. For instance, Murphy makes the following observation:

“In fact, chaos theory generally represents a postmodern departure  from the social science worldview that unfolded from theories about  the physical universe articulated by Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton. According to this tradition, the universe actions is like a vast machine governed by unchanging laws that can be deciphered  through scientific  analysis. This view leaves little to chance,  for reality is basically static [sic, she’s referring to Statics here which she thinks means fixed or static, so she completely misconstrues Newton] and tautological. Time is ‘reversible,’ meaning that one could go forwards or backwards at any point  and the same essential laws would be in operation. In contrast, chaos  theory urges us ‘to reinterpret the universe as being constituted by  forces of disorder, diversity, instability and non-linearity.'” [Chaos Theory as a Model for Managing Issues and Crises, page 96by Priscilla Murphy]

Her mistake, besides not understanding science, was to ever have supposed that our understanding of the human world could be built around what Newton and Einstein and others discovered about the material world. And just to illustrate how gross errors of reasoning and understanding get repeated, here’s Murphy repeating Hayles’ fallacy uncritically:

The ‘reality’ that describes a given phenomenon is determined, not by its  universal qualities, but by the observer who chooses the scale. Such concepts have created a convergence between chaos theory and the postmodern realization that what has always been thought of as the essential, unvarying  components of human experience are not  natural facts of life but social constructions. [Murphy cites Hayles here for her viewpoint’s “credibility”: see page 99]

The problem here is that science itself is being accused of being little more than a subjective, social construction. The charge is that science has little to no claim to objectivity. Accepting such premises would make dismissing Global Warming easy and dismissing Creationism and defending Darwin difficult.

One of my points today is merely that when PRs try to wrap their crisis management expertise and their cultural insights in the language of chaos theory and complexity theory (which also interests Priscilla Murphy) they are undermining our trade’s reputation.

Of course, there is much more to say on this subject. That brings me closer to what’s going to become my core proposition; one which I shall highlight by interrogating the thoughts of some leading PR academics. For example, in the near future I intend to review Jim Macnamara’s The 21st Century Media (R)evolution in which, Richard Bailey reports, he writes:

Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory.

For reasons that I hope are becoming clear in this piece, Macnamara is wrong on both points. Amusingly, in the same post on his blog Bailey quotes from Martin Thomas’ new book Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go, in which he analyses the chaos and ambiguity of modern life. Thomas is quoted saying, perceptively in my view, that:

We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.

Bailey also mentions how Grunig and Hunt’s Managing Public Relations drew on systems theory. Bailey adds that systems theory once seemed as solid as Newtonian physics – until some new theories came along (Relativity, String Theory) to change the way we think about the world. But Newtonian physics, remains as solid and as relevant and as scientifically robust as in Newton’s day: see here for a layperson’s explanation of my point. Moreover, the eclectic “systems theory” Grunig drew on had nothing whatever to do with Newton’s theories on kinematics and systems, but is an unscientific, wobbly, flexible and elastic construction (see here) drawn from the world of social sciences, which absurdly tries to wrap itself in the language of the physical sciences in an opportunistic and often hilarious mix and match approach.

Well, if PRs take Fuller, Hayles, Murphy and Macnamara seriously – and I’m not claiming Richard Bailey does just because he quotes some authors – one wonders what it will do for evidence-based PR. Perhaps it means R.I.P. Burson Marsteller?

Indeed, I shall be arguing in my book On Message: Propaganda, persuasion and the PR game that both the linear and nonlinear bods in PR circles fail to bring science to their cause. I shall explore why Grunig’s theory of Excellence has as little right to claim scientific credibility as does the display of ignorance that emanates from his opponents in the asymmetrical, relativististic postmodernist camp.

So, let’s remain grounded. The good news is that chaos and complexity theories, postmodernism and Jim Grunig’s symmetrical model of Excellence, have very little to do with proper PR. Thankfully, most PR professionals in the real world don’t consider such theories as being relevant. Discussions about what it all amounts to for PR professionals remain marginalized among PR academics and a few practitioners they educated or have influenced. However, if we left it at that that would require conceding the high ground to the spreaders of hogwash.

So in conclusion, I maintain that we need to interrogate the usage and possible misuse and abuse of real science by PR academics; not least because they mostly do so in the name of PR and often in association with some of our leading practitioners. It is necessary, therefore, to raise the profile of this debate about science within the PR community and in wider circles still. I hope you agree.

Recommended further reading:

Here are some links to what my fellow PR bloggers have had to say about chaos theory recently here here and here

David Ruelle’s Chance and Chaos, New Science Library, 1991

Harmke Kammingen, What is This Thing called Chaos? New Left Review, 1990  (Kammingen writes “…claim that chaos theory is the new paradigm for science should, at least at this stage, be viewed with considerable caution.”)

Heather Yaxley’s I’m a PR person, let me read your mind

Paul Seaman’s Psychobabble will not make PR credible

Paul Seaman’s What could “neuro-PR” do for our trade?

Note: since this was first published in June 2011 it has been updated to take account of the useful criticism Heather Yaxley made of my conclusion (see remarks in comments). It also corrects my understanding of Martin Thomas’ quote, which again is a criticism captured in the comments below. I have also incorporated a few other changes. Not least one from Professor James Woudhuysen who set me straight about one of my loose remarks on Newton. Of course, any remaining errors or points of contention remain entirely my responsibility.

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6 responses to “Why Chaos Theory in PR is hogwash”

  1. Edward says:

    One of the most enjoyable and intelligent articles I have read in a long time.

    Perhaps we should add second law of thermodynamics, which explains the direction of time, allows for the Newtonian motion of planets and why sand poured onto a surface will never fall into a shape of a sand castle. Chaos theory has no basis without this law.

    If people start attacking pure science and physics without understanding and intelligently de-constructing its underlying and apolitical beauty then they should be discounted as quacks.

    I find the general principle raised here, that compares linear equations to single minded individuals, and therefore should be considered somehow bad as quite amusing!

    You should add game theory in the mix while you are about it.

  2. For the record, in Loose I don’t attack scientific rigour – my target is the illusion of rigour that has become all too common in many businesses. I argue that years of investment in forecasters, planners, analysts, econometricians, compliance officers has not only added a massive cost burden but has actually made businesses less able to deal with the real world. There will always be a place for sound analysis and empirical rigour, but not at the expense of judgement, intuition and creativity.

    My use of the word chaos also has nothing to do with ‘chaos theory’ – it is simply the sentiment expressed my many business leaders facing ever more complex and unpredictable situations, for which their training has left them largely ill-prepared. I quote Samual J Palmisano, CEO of IBM: “events, threats and opportunities aren’t just coming at us faster or with less predictability; they are converging and influencing each other to create entirely unique situations.” Much of this defies rational analysis and neat, simple solutions. In the words of Sir Martin Sorrell, “the 21st century is not a place for tidy minds.” This is actually a world in which PR people should thrive.

    Good luck with the book.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Martin, thanks for the useful clarification. As I made clear in my piece, I have not read your book, but I intend to and soon. And I warm to your point about the illusion of rigour and to the view of Sir Martin Sorrell that says business today does not always call for tidy minds. I sense that you too don’t see the need to wrap what PR, marketing and the C-suite do in scientific jargon.

  4. First, thanks to Martin for his comment (I have just downloaded his book to my ipad and look forward to the read). I tend to agree with his premise about the “illusion of rigour”, which seems to echo what I have previously thought of as the myth of rational management. His mention of judgement, intuition and creativity reminds me, however of Sutherland’s great Irrationality, which is a reminder of how often we are deluded in thinking that we are being rational human beings. As a PR practitioner-academic hybrid, the attraction of the chaos and complexity concepts (lets avoid the contentious “theory” word), is that they are a reminder that there are many factors affecting the likelihood that we can achieve our objectives.

    My issue with “linear” thinking isn’t that many such models aren’t viable or useful, but that they are often too simplistic and provide a comfort blanket illusion of cause and effect. As someone with qualifications in maths, further maths and physics (albeit 30+ years ago), I appreciate a good equation probably more than most PR folk, and am quite happy with scientific formula and calculations. I also would like to see much more scientific and mathematical application to PR – for example in relationship network analysis.

    However, what I feel would be beneficial is more collaboration between those who have a clear grasp of such scientific/mathematical principles and those studying or indeed practising PR. The problem when non-experts try to apply scientific and such concepts from other disciplines is that they are likely to make errors in understanding or apply from their own mental framework. To date, there has been little interest shown in the field of PR by those in such other disciplines.

    This is not just true for science, but when we look at PR as applied psychology, or consider anthropological research methods or indeed study its history. In the same way that we often complain that everyone thinks they understand PR just because it appears easy to do, so should we respect knowledge in the sciences, mathematics, psychology and history, etc.

    Having said this, I think that those who only see the world through a scientist’s viewpoint would benefit from seeking to understand where their own disciplines are ineffective. If we really want to understand people, for example (and in PR surely that’s a key aim), then we have to look at social constructivism, cognitive pluralism and factual relativism – at least to understand the concepts and criticisms of them. There are certain principles, possibly even absolutes, about people and the way they think and react, which scientific studies may help us to understand. However, other aspects of individuals are more variable, individual and situationally-specific – so applying other methodologies would seem to be a relevant approach.

    Indeed, it is arguable that science itself has recognised the increased complexity, variability and individuality of the world rather than looking for commonalities and “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Isn’t this at the heart of some of the debate over modern medicine where universal cures seems to be giving way to recognition in many conditions that matching patients to potions is the challenge going forwards.

    Another area where I feel that scientific justification does need an area of challenge is in the notion that it this discipline is totally objective and operates with an unquestionable degree of rigour. In fact, one of the principles of science is that it doesn’t know all the answers and hence continues to look at ways of understanding the world (and beyond). My main point here, from a communications perspective, though is that the minute human beings seek to explain their thinking we are into the area of rhetoric, persuasion and subjectivity. Indeed, the phrase “pure science” reflects carefully chosen language; and it is always interesting to see that any questioning of science by “outsiders” is seen as “spreading distrust”. If you are not in the gang, then you surely cannot understand – us and them is one of the cornerstones of propaganda, n’est pas? Let’s not start on “global warming” changing to “climate change” as a marvellous piece of linguistic repositioning. But do consider how the minute a scientist becomes popular eg through television, their scientific brethren start to denounce their credibility.

    Instead of supporting an apartheid between scientists and the rest of us mere mortals, or vice versa between the noble artist and evil scientists (how easy it is to frame a debate) – we should be building bridges and looking at why there is distrust and how greater understanding can be created. Society needs robust thinking, and more engineers, scientists, mathematicians, investors and the like – but these people also need society’s support and to be open to explaining their work, and yes, to be challenged.

    So back to chaos theory and public relations. What we, as PR thinkers, are looking for, is how to understand and apply a different perspective (yes, probably in contrast to the dominance of the Grunigian models) to the phenomena we encounter in our work. Life doesn’t respond as per the traditional, linear crisis management models (with their illusion of control) and the notion of two-way symmetric communications (or engagement if you wish to use a more practicable term) still largely remains idealistic, or expensive to realise, in practice. We may be wrong in our interpretation of chaos theory – but it would be useful if those who are expert in this area engaged in discussion rather than directing insults that non-scientists are “muddled thinkers”.

    I have no agenda (at least as far as I am aware) in respect of my frustration at linear models – I do not equate it to any Western ethos or masculine dominance of society! I just find such ideas to be simplistic and ignorant of diversity in the way that people and things are.

    This leads me to my final observation of your post, Paul. Your good news that all this thinking has little to do with PR in the real world is, excuse me, hogwash! You seem to celebrate a lack of reflection in PR practice and ignore the importance of understanding why we do what we do. You cannot call for more application of scientific thinking in PR without encouraging more understanding and indeed, engagement in experimentation or inductive research to add more depth and credibility to our work.

    Many drivers no longer know how their car works, but if they did, they would certainly be better drivers, probably have fewer accidents and undoubtedly be better informed as customers. Isn’t the modern ignorance of how our telephones and other devices actually work part of the issue of why science and maths is so undervalued?

    We shouldn’t push discussion about PR conceptually and in practice into stuffy cubby holes – let’s bring it into the open and get more engagement with other disciplines to improve what we all do and think.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, you dare to say that I’m spouting hogwash on my own beloved blog…what a cheek! But I have to admit that you make a good point and that I’m back pedaling a bit. You are correct to say that we need more reflection, not less. Your point that it would improve PR practice if more PRs understood some basic scientific principles – including maths – is well made, too (I never really thought otherwise, that’s why I wrote the piece). And, yes, our colleagues in the scientific community could help with that. I add, however, that in order to improve the level of discussion we first need to spot and then admit to having made the gross errors we’ve been (ok, ok, some of our colleagues) making and spouting in the name of science – none of which has made PRs a credible bunch of professionals. That point from me, however, only adds fuel to your point – so we don’t really disagree. On reflection, I did not express myself very well. I was trying to say that most of the nonsense has not gained traction in the real world. I was trying to say that much of its influence has remained confined to the Ivory Towers from where it should not be allowed to spread further. That’s a point I stand by. But if you are saying, as I think you are, that the best defence against hogwash (from me or from anybody else) is an open debate, the spread of knowledge which informs opinion, then I’d be a fool to disagree.

  6. Absolutely – let’s roast the hogwash on a public PR barbecue!