Edward Kwong/the Gauntlet

Reclaiming the random

Brief notes on cavemen and statistics

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A common invocation on campus is a claim that something random has occurred. An example may be something like, "Jill, did you hear I got drunk last weekend? It was totally random."

Let me assuage your fears of sexism and assuming-there-is-a-problem-with-getting-drunk-ism with another, albeit less likely example: "Edward, old chap, I solved the problem of free will! It just came to me-- totally random."

The issue (or the one I'm concerned with here) is that in both cases, the speaker is attempting to express the low probability, or surprise at the high occurrence, of the event occurring. Worst of all, the underlying tone suggests that something incorporeal has taken place, as if acting on the individuals to cause the event. This sort of thing comes across most often when something seemingly rare takes place.

What our drunkard and our free-will solver (I'll reveal the solution next week) really mean to say is that something arbitrary, unexpected or unlikely has taken place, in that the event happened without knowledge of the causes that led to it. As the truth is revealed, it's realized that there were a number of actions that led to both events. Buying that bottle of scotch (why not scotch?) and inviting those people over is a good place to start. For convenience, I will say the same events happened for the philosopher.

What we have here is a common case of something humans are particularly good at. That is, a terrible grasp of complex statistics. It is, of course, not our fault. On the savannahs of Africa when our species was in its infancy, nature did not deem it necessary to evolve a firm grasp on anything more complex than rudimentary mathematics. We have been paying the price ever since.

In his book The Mind of the Market, Michael Shermer makes a powerful case against looking at humans as the always rational, always economical species that scholars treated Homo sapiens as for much of the 20th century. Instead, we consistently make irrational choices. One illuminating example is that the majority of people in the United States respond that they would rather have less money overall, as long as they had more than the community average. Similarly, we are much more likely to hold on to investments we already have than get rid of them, even if the evidence indicates we would be better off without them. This tendency is why compulsive gamblers try to win their money back, instead of counting their losses.

Statistics are not our strong suit. Seemingly miraculous events occur every day to people, but even extraordinary things such as cancer remission and winning the lottery can be assessed for the probability they will occur. If a one in a million chance (you would be right in thinking it very low) presents itself, that still means that 35 people in Canada will, on average, be witness to this event every day.

With this in mind, the so-called soft sciences of meteorology and economics are less reliable only because there are so many more variables involved. Weather will always be difficult to predict and as long as a free market exists, professionals and amateurs alike will continue to fail to see enormous bubbles growing right under their noses.