The magnet metaphor

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The Magnet Metaphor replaces the word driver with the word modulator

If you show American students a set of objects they will talk about the most prominent object. If you do the same with Chinese students they will talk about the relationship between objects. The whole driver mindset is seeking to find something to which we can allocate causality. However it’s not like that, so tempting as it is dangerous.


One way I have been explaining this of late links back to the photograph which illustrates this post. INSERT IMAGE.

Magnets and Iron Filings

Imagine that you have a round flat table and around that table are a series of electro-magnets. They can vary in strength and also polarity. Some you control, some are controlled by people you know and some appear to change at random. In the middle of the table are a lot of iron filings. Now as long as the magnets don’t change, the iron filings will form a complex stable pattern. However as the magnets fluctuate in strength the pattern changes. if some of them change polarity then change is sudden and drastic before a new stability emerges. At the same time some of the iron filings get magnetised in turn as they pass through electric currents, making the situation even more complex. I may not even be aware of some modulators until they suddenly come into play and their impact is seen.


Modulators and emergent behaviour

The magnets in this case modulate the system. They interact with each other and with the system as a whole, they make it inherently unpredictable. Understanding what modulators are in play will help us understand emergent behaviour of the system, but not to predict its future state. Attributing cause to a limited number of dominant modulators (that is what I think people mean by drivers) is a mistake as the level of interaction is too much. I can build models to simulate the behaviour of the system, however simulation does not lead to prediction.


Modulators, Landscape and Risk

Hence the switch from talking about drivers, to modulators. it also opens up interesting issues of representation (landscapes can show modulator impact) and also new ways of assessing risk; how much of the past can you explain by the modulators of which are are aware. The difference is the dark matter (more accurately dark energy) component. If high, then risk is high, if low then risk is less and you scan the field in different ways.