Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drunkard's Walk

I’m halfway reading a book called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by some guy Leonard Mlodinow, who essentially argues that lots of things we think behave according to patterns or systems are really far less predictable than they appear to be.

So, for instance, while we may believe that our failure to get accepted into Harvard is because we are so much less deserving than those students who do, it may have nearly as much to do with the order in which our application was read as it does with our qualifications. Or, to take another example from the book: the fact the Bill Gates ends up making billions of dollars as founder and chairman of Microsoft turns out to be more a matter of somebody else deciding not to offer a different operating system to IBM way back when than of Gates’ native genius.

On the one hand, this is all very reassuring and makes me feel like my own shortcomings or failures are far more arbitrary than I might think, but on the other hand, it makes whatever successes I’ve enjoyed a little too out of my control, too. The good news about this, though, (if there is any) is that, as Mlodinow points out, lots of things that we think are related to each other aren’t, that coincidence plays a bigger part in our lives than we imagine, and that even though, for instance, every single car that has cut me off in traffic this week has been a Honda Civic, I shouldn’t make too much of it.

Another example Mlodinow plays with is grading; he observes a case where the same paper handed in by different students to the same teacher earned scores from 70 to 93; while I hope I’m not that inconsistent, I know that, to some degree, the grades I give are random.

I wouldn’t necessarily call that a drunkward’s walk, but someone watching me work might.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question:How is it the same teacher didn't notice he received the same paper several times?

12:46 PM  
Blogger dashap said...

That's a good question, but having graded lots and lots of papers myself, I can see how it might happen.

12:48 PM  

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