Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

Just finished a fine layman's book on the behavior of random events, the behavior of human beings, and the discord between the two: THE DRUNKARD'S WALK by LEONARD MLODINOW.

The book takes a while to make its point, but that's okay because the first two-thirds of the book is a very digestible and highly entertaining history of great ideas in probabilities/randomness and the rather eccentric people who came up with them.

The point the book makes in the last few chapters is that human beings are excellent at pattern recognition. We are so good at it, in fact, that we imagine patterns everywhere, even in places where they do not exist. One huge class (maybe the only class) of events where seeing patterns is actually harmful to us is random events. The easiest illustration of this is the guy or gal who plunks down the mortgage payment on a roulette wheel that is "due" to hit black. But the book gives countless more examples of people seeing patterns in cold data that not only harms themselves, but others as well. Drug researchers who see what they want to see in the results of tests. Lawyers who misuse statistics to cite patterns of data and send innocent people to jail (or keep guilty people out of jail).

And the reverse is true also, we are horrible at recognizing, reproducing, and generally comprehending true randomness. I could honestly quote this book all day long. There are sooo many good stories and illustrations in it. But this very practical one speaks to the general problem.

"There is a difference between a process being random and the product of that process appearing to be random. Apple ran into that issue with the random shuffling method it initially employed in its iPod music players: true randomness sometimes produces repetition, but when users heard the same song or songs by the same artist played back-to-back, they believed the shuffling wasn't random. And so the company made the feature 'less random to make it feel more random.'"

As much as I appreciate the author's point in the book, I will admit to being a little uneasy with the ultimate conclusions. The subtitle suggests that "randomness rules our lives." My own view of the universe falls a little short of that sentiment. I think he doesn't give enough credence to just how many events in the world are not random. Ultimately I believe our pattern recognition abilities are a survival trait and a reflection of the reality around us, which abounds with meaningful patterns. But there are some great cautionary lessons in this book for helping human beings deal with truly random events, avoid logical fallacies, and protect themselves from making stupid/harmful mistakes.

Great stuff. I will recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

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