Saturday, July 30, 2005


I have this principle, summarized by the phrase that titles this blog. It came about when, on September 11th, 2002, the winning numbers in a daily pick-three Lotto in New York City were 9-1-1. We were sitting around the dinner table marveling about this, and someone said, “Jeez, what are the odds of that?” To which, after a brief think, I replied, “It happened. The odds are one.” There are two aspects to this: one is the obvious—if we had asked the question the day before, it would have had a reasonable answer, because it hadn’t happened yet--on the day before the odds would have pretty much been 1 in 1000. Once it had, the question became statistically meaningless. This leads us to the second aspect: obviously 9-1-1 coming up on a date (9/11) that is meaningful to us already is in itself meaningful. But the meaning is not statistical, it’s meaning that’s defined the moment we asked the question, “what are the odds?”

Here’s a question you have never once in your life asked yourself: “What are the odds I would have a twin brother (or sister)?” The reason you’ve never asked it is because you don’t have one. It's a question without meaning. But people who have twin brothers or sisters probably stop and consider this all the time. It is, for sure, a statistical anomally to be born a twin. Just as it is incredibly statistically unlikely that I (the blogger) would be born in the 20th century in America—this is true of an uncountably small percentage of all the people who have ever lived, or will ever live. And yet here I am. So those odds don’t have the meaning that they appear to have. Or rather, there's meaning in asking the question, "What are the odds I'd be born a 20th Century American?" But they aren't about any mathematical odds. The meaning is in the fact that I would actually think to ask the question, and, in turn, what that says about me.

It completely screws up ones perspective as an observer when you are also a subject of the experiment. To cite yet another little hobgoblin in the mind of inference, consider this question: would you guess that you are among the first third or the second two-thirds of humans who will ever walk the Earth? Odds would seem to favor the latter proposition--it seems like you are more likely to fall into a group that contains 2/3 of all of humanity for all time, rather than one that contains only 1/3. But, on the other hand, if you do the math (which I won't reproduce here, because math is boring), and you answer that you're in the latter 2/3rds, you're dooming the human race to hit extinction within 500 years--that's how it works out based on the current rate of population growth.

So what does it all mean? The foundation of 20th century physics, and the foundations of many things one can name--sociology, advertising and marketing, politics, economics--are rooted in statistical inference. One can't predict what I, a 32 year old white male will buy/watch/listen to/do/vote for with any reasonable accuracy, but given 1000 people in my demographic, you can say with relative certainly how many of them will see a movie, or buy a particular product, or get married this year. But what are the odds that I will do any of those things? One. Or Zero. I will do them. Or I won't.

There are a lot of things that are good models on this macro level. Newtonian mechanics, for example, works great where things are very large or relatively slow. For atomic particles, or things moving at some reasonable percentage of the speed of light, not so much. At the quantum level, or near the speed of light, such fundamental things as cause and effect break down. So this, three months after I started this blog, is my opening salvo. Things look lot different than you think they are based on the model you're using to understand them. That model is not bad at all mind you, it's very good in fact. But it's a map, it's not the territory.

P.S. If you were a Java or C++ programmer, you'd think the title of this entry was a very clever joke.

Calvino: No I wouldn't. I'd think you're a dork.

The Stoat: This is your failing, not mine.

Calvino: No, you're a dork.

The Stoat: Okay, yes. But I'm a dork with a blog.

1 comment:

jpo said...

I'm a Java programmer. That's a syntax error.