Fat Chance / Slim Chance: Random Thoughts on Randomness
I’ve been thinking a lot about the randomness of the universe lately…well, the randomness of my little corner of it anyway. When I was a kid I saw connections everywhere I looked. Odd events really did come in threes, knocking on wood was a sovereign corrective for unintentional hubris, and an involuntary shiver really did mean someone had just walked over my grave.
Now, I just see accident.
Our logical brains know that the result of any given coin toss has no bearing on the one that follows it, but our minds are programmed to look for patterns, so we tend to see patterns even when they are not there. Sure, if you start tossing a coin and don’t stop; the heads and the tails, in the very, very, very long run, will even out to something approximating 50-50. But (and this is a huge but), sooner or later if you keep tossing that coin, you’re going to hit a streak that defies explanation--fifty or a hundred or a thousand tails in a row, and that’s the sneaky, perplexing and counterintuitive thing about randomness: it’s just so…so…random. So much so, in fact, that in smallish sample sizes it doesn’t look random at all. So, on the six hundred forty seventh toss of that seemingly impossible streak of tails, you will watch that coin hit its apogee and begin its descent toward your waiting palm, and your pattern-finding brain will say, “Well, this one HAS to be heads.” No. No, it doesn’t.
One of the ways, I seek to control the uncontrollable is to read about things that scare me. Somewhere not-so-deep down in my over-taxed gray matter is fixed the notion that if I know the factors that make a hurricane veer off in an unexpected direction, if I know why my numbered ping pong balls seem never to swim up the chute, or why terrible things happen to good people and why wonderful things happen to perfectly awful people, I can effect outcomes. I can protect my family. I can avoid becoming a statistic. It doesn’t do a bit of good, of course. It is, however, not an unpleasant way to pass the time while I wait for that rope on which the grand piano hangs high above the street to finally decide to snap.
Here is a not at all random sampling of books on randomness from Harris County Public Library's collection.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable / Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives / Leonard Mlodinow
Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives / Peter Olofsson
Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market and Just About Anything Else / Amir D. Aczel
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets / Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari / Ivars Peterson
Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life / Nicholas Rescher
Randomness / Deborah J. Bennett
Thanks for reading and as always comments, questions, clashes of opinion, random splashes of spleen, and anything else including suggestions for future posts are greatly encouraged.
Photo Credit: Spin/Wheel of Fortune by Conor Ogle via Flickr.com Creative Commons