The Drunkard’s Walk

The title of this book, by Leonard Mlodinow, may be more appealing to you than its contents, at first glance, since it is about randomness, probability, and statistics. But for those of you who are mathematically challenged, you would be making a mistake if you pass this book by.

The first half of the book discusses the history of probability and statistics, from the time of the Greeks, when the concepts were beyond imagination, to the end of the last millennium, by which time most of the concepts and mathematics had been fully developed. The history is interesting, and the math is minimal. And you will find out the difference between probability and statistics (I would explain that here, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you!)

But where this book shines is when it discusses how the random nature of our existence is perceived by brains that are [too?] adept at discerning order, cause-and-effect, and meaning, even where there is none.

He discusses how statistical analyses of sports records, Wall Street successes, and the careers of movie moguls reveal that all of these are more likely to be the result of random fluctuations than of brilliant insight. Those CEOs who bring down multi-million dollar salaries could be replaced with a set of dice, and in the long run, the companies that they run would fare no worse. And the boards of managers who place their faith in these CEOs are equally misguided.

He also reveals studies of human nature that are sobering. We need to feel in control, and need to feel as if all around us makes some sort of sense, to the point where we fabricate explanations for situations that are clearly random, and out of our control.

This will not come as a shock to those of you whose feet are firmly, even cynically, planted on the ground, but the underlying explanations are interesting and provide ammunition for the moments when we are confronted with people for whom the universe, and our place in it, are too well understood.

Read this book. You won’t be sorry.

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