Well I don’t.
Neither did Jason Bourne but as I’m not a highly trained fictitious US assassin, I’ll need another excuse. Mine is just that I’m AD, so random doesn’t sit well. (Click on ‘So who’s Narrating My Life‘ for more on AD). Impulsive decisions are not a normal feature of my life. I can take days just to decide what to do at the weekend, ask Gill, so for me it really is a good job that a working week is five days long or I’d never get anything done. It’s not that I’m lazy or can’t be bothered, it’s just that unless there’s a clear winner, (and being AD means that almost never happens), then seeing both sides of any choice simply means that as it makes no difference, I don’t decide. I’d be Procrastination Champion of the World if I ever got around to entering the competition.
Do you remember that cat food commercial where 8 out of ten owners who expressed a preference etc.? I didn’t express. I didn’t have a preference. As it happens I didn’t have a cat either, but you get my meaning.
There is, however, more than one way of cooking with random and my AD tendencies aren’t really the issue here. As my sciency mathematician friends will know, random is a fundamental feature of the universe and the world that we know. We take it for granted and usually get it wrong. We aren’t really hard-wired for random. Understanding random doesn’t save your life or propagate your genes.
It doesn’t sell iPods either. Young Mr Jobs, (nice man, good ideas, shame he’s not around any more), thought that a random shuffle should be random, you know, play the next track, well, at random. Unfortunately it didn’t go down too well with the Apple afficianado listeners of those early iPods. You see, if you play the next track at random, then every track is just as likely to come up as any other including another track off the same album as the last track. Seeing as early iPods didn’t come as fully loaded with as many multi-Gigs as they pack in now, there wasn’t enough space for hundreds of albums. So if you had a 20 album iPod, then on average, about every 20 tracks, you’d get 2 tracks played one after the other from the same album and because that’s only an average about half the time it’d turn up more often. Now that doesn’t sound like random to me. That sounds like a mistake. I mean, how can a random shuffle play two tracks from the same album one after another?
Our unconscious can’t cope with that. It looks too much like a pattern and a pattern can’t be coincidence it must be causal, according to the life-saving pattern-hunting sections of our unconscious mind. This lead to so many complaints that the so-called random shuffle wasn’t really random that legend has it Apple changed their shuffle programming to make the shuffle ‘less random so that it felt more random’. It actively deselects tracks if the previous track was from the same album. Are we odd, or what?
Periodically some newspaper, (sorry about the pun, it was accidental), or other will spot a cluster of supposedly non-infectious illnesses in a small geographical location and assert that there must be a link, an underlying cause. They’ll go looking for the nearest environmentally unfriendly site and promptly declare that there must be some link between the wind turbine farm and leukaemia. Random events aren’t evenly spread. If they were evenly spread then they wouldn’t be random, (well they could be but if you’re following all this, you’ll know that it’s extremely rare). Take that thought one stage further and a direct consequence is that random event absolutely will produce clusters for no other reason than that is what random does, unless of course it doesn’t because it’s one of those million to one chances when random decides to act even handedly.
Whether its three tracks from the same album in a row or several apparently unrelated people in the same area contracting the same illness, that’s just how random behaves. Not that this human obsession with patterns is always a bad thing. It was one of the early indicators that alerted the medical community to the dangers of thalidomide. Up until then, it was incorrectly assumed that drugs could not cross the placenta. They were wrong.
Mind you it can work the other way. The recent MMR scare, irrespective of whether there actually is a causal link between MMR vaccine and Aspergers, (the debate for that one has been closed by medicine but there still remains quite a level of disquiet out there), meant that the take up rate was low enough to stop what’s known as herd immunity, that’s the level of communal immunity which prevents one or two cases spreading into an epidemic. It doesn’t protect every individual but it does protect the ‘herd’. Many children who should have been protected caught measles as a result. We had a mini epidemic. As an aside, is it coincidence or cause that we call it ‘herd’ immunity and the word ‘vaccine’ is derived from the Latin for a cow?
Predicting the future can absolutely save your life. Best guesses become critical. If more humans make good predictions than a bad ones then more people survive and the species staggers along into the next millennium. It’s worked for us so far. Evolution designed us to recognise patterns. We notice order amongst chaos, (another favourite theory of those sciency maths geeks I know and which may well be something for a later post). How often have you thought you could see a face in the pattern of the floor tiles, or in the curtains in the moon light? How often have you jumped at a threat that just wasn’t there, no more than a passing shadow?
Leaping out of the way of a passing shadow that’s no more harmful than a breath of air keeps you alive. You never know, it just might have been that mythical long-toothed cat that keeps cropping up in these posts. (I really must develop another evolutionary protagonist, this one’s getting weary and losing motivation). Humans being humans, it just might have been the nearest and dearest of that man that got killed (cause) when you raided the next village and they’re out for revenge, (effect). Of course, depending on which rain forest you were in, it might just be Sunday and time to cook the roast dinner.
As it turns out, the direction I’m headed off in, hopefully with you still in tow, is towards that blurred area of confusion where Random meets Cause and Effect. You see, whilst we don’t do random, we definitely do do cause and effect (and, just to keep Trevor happy, Complex Equivalence as well). Intuitively, humans don’t get the random nature of our world. Mostly because an awful lot happens in it that isn’t random, least while concerning those things that we really can influence.
If you were going to design a brain to keep its multi-celled host organism alive, which would be more important? To have a full and deep seated understanding of random events, which by their very nature can’t be predicted and if one of them is going to kill you, the very fact that it’s a random event means that you won’t see it coming. Or would you concentrate on those causal patterns which give you some measure of prescience so you can take steps to avoid what might be happening even if it does have you jumping at shadows?
Personally, I’d go for shadow jumping every time when it comes down to that tradition of life or death decision making, otherwise you’d have to be actively calculating the standard deviation of all the possible random futures to work out which of the multiple potential nasties is most likely to turn up and even then you’d have a 32% chance of being wrong.
I can already hear the maths and science chappies jumping up and down about how useful our current understanding of random chance is and they are absolutely correct. It is vital in our current technological world to help us take steps beyond deterministic prediction and into the world of the quantum. Back in the day, when building even bigger nuclear bombs was all the rage and got you a Nobel prize, (why is the Peace Prize named after the chap who invented dynamite?), it was the development of a mathematical technique which took into account all possible variations of random uranium decay to predict the most likely fission chain-reaction which accurately allowed the bomb to be designed without destroying the lab during the test runs. They even called it the Monte Carlo Simulation, naming it after… well, it’s obvious really.
However, despite its scientific and technological usefulness, people don’t naturally recognise random events as random. Think about it. Do you ever do the lottery? It’s truly random. But people still feel they have lucky numbers. They still talk about numbers becoming over-due, as if there’s a natural pressure on them to turn up soon. Particularly difficult to get your head around is that you’re just as likely to win using last week’s jackpot numbers as any other set you may care to choose. Hold on, I can hear your objections already. The jackpot numbers have never turned up twice! I know.
Look at it this way, there’s a one in fourteen million chance, (actually it’s precisely 1 in 13,983,816 not that it makes much difference at these odds), of any particular set of numbers actually turning up and there have been less than two thousand draws, so statistically we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. To put it in perspective, if these odds were a flight in Trevor’s private Quest helicopter from Regent’s College in London to Sydney then we’d only have been in the air for a minute and a half. If it were a sneeze, you wouldn’t have felt the first twitch of your nose yet. And, yes, legend has it that you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than win the lottery.
Bill Isles famously bought 3 lottery tickets in Witchita for the mega-millions prize draw. He got struck by lightening. And didn’t win the lottery. You’d think that would prove my theory, however as always, there is a twist. It turns out that our Bill is a Storm Spotter with the National Weather Service, so maybe the odds were stacked against him and he’s not good example of random after all.
The issue is that our brains keep on trying to see the sense in our environment and for our brains, random just isn’t sense. It remains invisible to our senses which insist that everything must happen for a reason and the reason it does this is to give us the illusion that we can control our destiny. If we maintain that illusion, then we’ll try to control our world. And if we try, then we really will spot the stuff we can control or influence and we’ll manipulate the situation to our advantage if we can, make it through another day. If of course it really was a random event, then we don’t actually influence it at all. It just happens the way it would have anyway. We survive or we don’t.
Here’s the catch. If we try to deal with a random event and don’t die, (sorry to be morbid here), then our brain slots another survival behaviour pattern into our memory. The first time you jumped in a swimming pool, you got a mouth full of water and choked. The first time you asked your teacher a question, she told you to stop being a nuisance. When you picked your first lottery numbers back in 1994, you chose your family’s birthdays and you so nearly won the jackpot! Guess what you still do.
If it’s a good consequence we do it again, if it’s bad we try to avoid it, to behave in a way to make-it-not-happen-please. And because our brains like certainty, whatever our original unconscious conclusion was it will look for evidence to support it, reinforce it. It’ll ignore everything else because everything else is now irrelevant. It’s made up your mind for you and you’re still alive. What more proof does it need.
Before you know it, if the original random event or consequence was strong enough, you have your very own superstition. Ever heard of Halloween? Or if you were unlucky, your very own a phobia or anxiety uniquely and painfully tailored to your very personal triggers. The problem you face is that your unconscious will run your standard behaviour pattern whenever that trigger turns up, no matter what social consequence it might have because its fundamental design is to keep you safe. If you’re still alive at the end then it’s working thank-you-very-much-for-your-concern. No matter how hard you try, you’re unconscious absolutely will do it again.
Unless, that is, you’re lucky enough to find something or someone to shine a light bright enough to make your unconscious sit up, take notice and see clearly. Then it has a chance to recognise new information. It doesn’t want to, so you’ll have to convince it. Take it back to where it all began. Look at it again in that new light. Fortunately, all memory is plastic and if you can find someone to help you remodel your memories, you might stand a chance.
I used to make models as a child. I’d melt them, mould them, refine them into something new. In a way, I still do. Come and see me. I’ll show you.
They must be very large chickens
© Tony Burkinshaw 2012