red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Leonard Mlodinow
New York: Pantheon Books ©2008

 

Full disclosure: I'm about as far from a mathematician as real person can get. Arithmetic, yes. Calculus, statistics, probabilities — not so much. Yet, awareness of the principles of this latter group, turns out, is critical to daily functioning, especially as life gets both more complex and simpler. Who knew?

Well, apparently, Mlodinow and a lot of others, who have a hard time getting through to the rest of us. But Mlodinow, holder of a doctorate in physics — and a writer for television series such as MacGyver (yes!) and Star Trek: The Next Generation — is that rare breed of specialist who can also describe his subject in an engaging way, a way that can make mind-boggling concepts relatively more accessible to average citizens who may never think "math" past the chore of balancing the checkbook. Yes, some of us still use checkbooks.

So here I am, intrigued by the blurb about this book recommended by another author I found interesting (Daniel Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness) and hoping I can make heads or tails (more about the odds and probabilities of coin tossing inside) of a discussion of chance, probability, and randomness — even as I, like most humans, want to believe there is logic and reason, as well as magic, at large in the world.

I'm not yet ready to give up on the value of intuition. Neither is Mlodinow, interestingly enough. But after a number of metaphorical whacks on the side of the head — encounters with ostensibly known quantities that proved to be anything but — it seemed important that I learn as much as possible about whether or not the odds were ever going to be on my side. The answer, according to Mlodinow, is that they are about as much as they are not. Good to know.

"The theory of randomness is fundamentally a codification of common sense. But it is also a field of subtlety, a field in which great experts have been famously wrong and expert gamblers infamously correct. What it takes to understand randomness and overcome our misconceptions is both experience and a lot of careful thinking." Mlodinow provides information about both. Just because something happens in proximity to something else doesn't mean one is the cause of the other, even if we would like that to be so. It may be, but then again, it may not. We must take care to make the distinction.

Think bell curves. Regression to the mean. Sample space. Coefficient correlations. All these seemingly esoteric phrases describe real activities of real human beings, unpredictable lot that we are. Mlodinow's gift is that he can describe these mathematical concepts in actual and often humorous examples. We get a fascinating history lesson, too, with stories of overlapping effort, often mutually unknown, starting as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans and moving through the likes of Galileo, the Bernoulli family, Descartes, Fourier, Pascal, Fermat (he of the Last Theorem), Lavoisier, Newton, Poincaré, Einstein, and other lesser known but no less important minds at work on everything from astronomy observations, rates of mortality during the Black Plague, games of chance, and the chest measurements of soldiers being fitted for uniforms.

You might not think it's true — and many people didn't/don't — that the wisest decision is to change your selection of Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3 on Let's Make a Deal if you missed the correct answer the first time and Monty Hall offered you the opportunity to switch. The odds of success are truly different than seems logical, because most of us actually base our "logic" on the intuition humans get from our skill at pattern recognition and 20/20 hindsight. We're hard-wired to fill in the blanks of the missing detail we can't see at a distance, but then we get in our own way by seeing only what we expect to see, even when confronted with the facts.

Given its obsession with statistics, sports is rife with examples of randomness, even if we might want the outcome to be otherwise. Just review the 1961 home-run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Then there are all the other aspects of life and business we wish we could predict with certainty. How else to account for market-research focus groups, political polls, and such? So when it comes to determining whether a CEO is worth the salary, a Hollywood movie will succeed at the box office, or a book, even by a well-known author, will turn into a best-seller, we can use all the numbers in the world, but we may miss the mark by a mile. And what about that most legal of gambling opportunities — stock trades and market performance? Or the wizardry of financial advisors? Along with automobile accidents, wine ratings, SAT scores, insurance rates, and weather forecasts, we have a lot to learn about how randomness influences everything. Even the iPod's "randomizer" algorithm had to be adjusted mathematically to be less random in order to make it seem more random to its human listeners. Go figure. Exactly.

Although the awareness that "human intuition is ill suited to situations involving uncertainty was known as early as the 1930s," only recently has "a new academic field...emerged to study how people make judgments and decisions when faced with imperfect or incomplete information. [This] research has shown that when chance is involved, people's thought processes are often seriously flawed." The Drunkard's Walk is the name of the principle, an apt visual description of the phenomenon, and Mlodinow's attempt in book form to get this academic work into the mainstream of society where it can do the rest of us some good.

Says Mlodinow: "A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness, and hard work. So the reality that we perceive is not a direct reflection of the people or circumstances that underlie it but is instead an image blurred by the randomizing effects of unforeseeable or fluctuating external forces. That is not to say that ability doesn't matter — it is one of the factors that increase the chances of success — but the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we might like to believe. Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict, and in both enterprises we benefit from looking beyond the superficial explanations." Let The Drunkard's Walk be your guide.

 

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