The title refers to a line from Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. But, Dr. Horrible brought extra frozen yogurt because he knew the girl of his dreams liked it, it wasn’t an actual random event.
Scientific America has a short, but interesting, article by Michael Shermer about randomness and how people ultimately misinterpret events and give them greater meaning than actually exists. I may wind up requesting Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk from the library now:
His title employs the metaphor (sometimes called the “random walk”) to draw an analogy between “the paths molecules follow as they fly through space, incessantly bumping, and being bumped by, their sister molecules,” and “our lives, our paths from college to career, from single life to family life, from first hole of golf to eighteenth.” Although countless random collisions tend to cancel one another out because of the law of large numbers—where improbable events will probably happen given enough time and opportunity—every once in a great while, “when pure luck occasionally leads to a lopsided preponderance of hits from some particular direction … a noticeable jiggle occurs.” We notice the improbable directional jiggle but ignore the zillions of meaningless and counteracting collisions.
Relevant in a lot of areas of human life, yes/no? This explains why people think psychics are more accurate than they really are. Why people claim their houses were spared by gods after horrible storms wiped out their neighbours (or why theirs is the only house destroyed). Why gamblers are swayed by “hot streaks” at an inanimate roulette table. Why the million monkeys on a million typewriters could eventually hammer out a Shakespeare sonnet. Or, maybe not.
Extraordinary events do not always require extraordinary causes. Given enough time, they can happen by chance. Knowing this, Mlodinow says, “we can improve our skill at decision making and tame some of the biases that lead us to make poor judgments and poor choices … and we can learn to judge decisions by the spectrum of potential outcomes they might have produced rather than by the particular result that actually occurred.” Embrace the random. Find the pattern. Know the difference.
In the first part of this series, Shermer suggested that our brains didn’t evolve in a way that would help us grasp the likelihood of certain events occurring in our lives. He alludes to Richard Dawkins and his Middle World idea of how humans compare things by relative sizes or shapes, speed or distance. We can’t observe germs or distant galaxies without special equipment, for example, but we know a grain of sand is smaller than a mountain. That a cheetah is faster than a tortoise but how fast does a glacier move? We can’t watch it happen in an afternoon, but check back in 20 years or so. We certainly don’t live long enough to see massive shifts in the evolutionary progress of a species, so there’s a tendency in some people to assume it isn’t happening. Global warming, same deal, apparently.
Sociologists tell us that each of us knows about 150 people fairly well, thus producing a social-network grid of 45 billion personal relationship connections. With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans, it is inevitable that some of those 54.7 billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4 million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45 billion relationship connections. In fact, it would be a miracle if some death premonition dreams did not happen to come true!
Dreams are pretty damned random, it doesn’t matter what the dream analysis books claim are driving our minds at night. But, out of all the dreams people have and out of all the dreams people remember, the ones that appear to be connected to something specific, like a death, are the ones people use to prove they foretold the future, but only “realize it” after the fact.
Our Middle Land folk numeracy leads us to pay attention to and remember short-term trends, meaningful coincidences and personal anecdotes.
I don’t think people really like the idea of random circumstances. That there might not be a divine plan or guiding hand that’s going to get a body from start to finish with minimal damage. It’s a comfort to be surrounded by a cushion of self-deluding lies in a world of hard edges and painful falls. People want to see patterns, want to see connections, will willingly delude themselves into thinking there’s meaning in the meaningless, sense in the senseless. Because it’s better than nothing.