Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by American physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow is a particularly appealing book since it debunks so many specialists self-satisfied predictions.  

Mlodinow sets about to illustrate how the study of randomness, can show, for instance, that most financial planners over the course of their careers do no better than if someone had picked stocks randomly.  He illustrates how our expectations of an orderly world cause us to impose order on random processes, a particularly dangerous thing when a doctor diagnoses a disease.  Our expectations help perceived good students continue to get good grades, pick draft choices in football, and order wine with dinner.

All this is good and well.  Again, it feels satisfying to rub the noses of academic and professional gurus with the fact that over the long haul, their decisions are ruled by little more than a random outcomes.

But this may not be enough.  Critics have pointed out that the author makes key assumptions about the structure of occurring events and confuses basic distinctions between probability and randomness, among other topics.  I am not qualified to say if this is so; but this does hearken back to an age old philosophical problem, from the pre-Socratic philosophers.  Is the world ruled by random forces, or is it orderly and predicable?  Can it, in some illogical way, be ruled by both? 

It seems we are no closer to getting a firm answer to this question even with this clever, well-written book.

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