Book Review: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Leonard Mlodinow

Leonard Mlodinow weaves a compelling path through the world of statistical probability showing us how the laws of chance affect our lives on personal and grande scales. Mlodinow skillfully illustrates randomness and its profound implications by presenting complex mathematical constructs in language for the rest of us (non-mathematicians), without dumbing-down this important subject.

The book defines many of the important mathematical concepts behind randomness and exposes the key fallacies that often blind us as we wander through life on our “drunkard’s walk”. The law of large numbers, the prosecutor’s fallacy, conditional probability, the availability bias and bell curves were never so approachable.

Whether it’s a deluded gambler, baseball star on a “winning streak” or a fortunate CEO wallowing in the good times, Mlodinow debunks the common conceptions that skill, planning and foresight result in any significant results beyond pure chance. With the skill of a storyteller Mlodinow shows us how polls, grades, ratings and even measures of corporate success are far less objective and reliable than we ought to believe. Lords of Wall Street take notice, the secrets of your successes are not all that they seem.

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Prophecy Fail

From Slate:

What happens to a doomsday cult when the world doesn’t end?

Preacher and evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping has announced that Jesus Christ will return to Earth this Saturday, May 21, and many of his followers are traveling the country in preparation for the weekend Rapture. They’re undeterred, it seems, by Mr. Camping’s dodgy track record with end-of-the-world predictions. (Years ago, he argued at length that the reckoning would come in 1994.) We’ve yet to learn what motivates people like him to predict (and predict again) the end of the world, but there’s a long and unexpected psychological literature on how the faithful make sense of missed appointments with the apocalypse.

The most famous study into doomsday mix-ups was published in a 1956 book by renowned psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues called When Prophecy Fails. A fringe religious group called the Seekers had made the papers by predicting that a flood was coming to destroy the West Coast. The group was led by an eccentric but earnest lady called Dorothy Martin, given the pseudonym Marian Keech in the book, who believed that superior beings from the planet Clarion were communicating to her through automatic writing. They told her they had been monitoring Earth and would arrive to rescue the Seekers in a flying saucer before the cataclysm struck.
Festinger was fascinated by how we deal with information that fails to match up to our beliefs, and suspected that we are strongly motivated to resolve the conflict—a state of mind he called “cognitive dissonance.” He wanted a clear-cut case with which to test his fledgling ideas, so decided to follow Martin’s group as the much vaunted date came and went. Would they give up their closely held beliefs, or would they work to justify them even in the face of the most brutal contradiction?

The Seekers abandoned their jobs, possessions, and spouses to wait for the flying saucer, but neither the aliens nor the apocalypse arrived. After several uncomfortable hours on the appointed day, Martin received a “message” saying that the group “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” The group responded by proselytizing with a renewed vigour. According to Festinger, they resolved the intense conflict between reality and prophecy by seeking safety in numbers. “If more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly, it must, after all, be correct.”

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Are We Intelligent Matter or Incarnate Spirit?

From Evolutionary Philosophy:

One of the most confounding philosophical questions involves our understanding of who we really are. Are we intelligent matter – stuff that got smart – or are we incarnate spirit – smarts that grew stuff around it? This question is inherent in the very nature of our experience of being human. We have bodies and we have the experience of consciousness – mind and matter, body and soul. Which one is more us, which came first, and which is really running the show?

The great religious traditions of the west have tended towards the outlook that we are spiritual beings who became flesh. First there was God, pure spirit and from God came us. Our more recent scientific understanding of reality has lead many to believe that we are matter that evolved into life and intelligence. Now, of course, there are always those who land somewhere in between these extremes – probably most people reading this blog for instance – still this is the divide that has generally separated science from religion and idealists from materialists.

If, in fact, we are essentially spirit that has taken form it would mean that in some significant way human beings are separate from the universe. We have some source of intelligence and will that is free from the rest of nature, that acts in nature while maintaining a foothold in some transcendent outside reference point. In this view, the core of our being stands apart from and above the laws of nature and we are therefore uniquely autonomous and responsible as the source of our own action in the universe.

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Test-tube truths

From Eurozine:

In his new book, American atheist Sam Harris argues that science can replace theology as the ultimate moral authority. Kenan Malik is sceptical of any such yearning for moral certainty, be it scientific or divine.

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. In recent years, the riposte of many to this challenge has been to argue that moral codes are not revealed by God but instantiated in nature, and in particular in the brain. Ethics is not a theological matter but a scientific one. Science is not simply a means of making sense of facts about the world, but also about values, because values are in essence facts in another form.

Few people have expressed this argument more forcefully than the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Over the past few years, through books such as The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris has gained a considerable reputation as a no-holds-barred critic of religion, in particular of Islam, and as an acerbic champion of science. In his new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, he sets out to demolish the traditional philosophical distinction between is and ought, between the way the world is and the way that it should be, a distinction we most associate with David Hume.

What Hume failed to understand, Harris argues, is that science can bridge the gap between ought and is, by turning moral claims into empirical facts. Values, he argues, are facts about the “states of the world” and “states of the human brain”. We need to think of morality, therefore, as “an undeveloped branch of science”: “Questions about values are really questions about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.” Science, and neuroscience in particular, does not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, Harris believes, science will decide which view is right “because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.”

Harris is nothing if not self-confident. There is a voluminous philosophical literature that stretches back almost to the origins of the discipline on the relationship between facts and values. Harris chooses to ignore most of it. He does not wish to engage “more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”, he explains in a footnote, because he did not develop his arguments “by reading the work of moral philosophers” and because he is “convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics’, ‘deontology’, ‘noncognitivism’, ‘antirealism’, ’emotivism’, etc directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

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