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  • Brendan Stec

Conquering Randomness

Listen to these potential article headlines: "Stocks Rally After New Unemployment Numbers" and "Stocks Rally, But We Don't Know Why." Which one would you click on?

It's clear newspapers and media are in the business of selling us entertainment. But they are also in the business of selling us reasons, causes, and stories. Why? As humans, we love stories that explain the world and paint a clearer picture of the chaotic things that occur on a daily basis. No one wants to hear a report stating that a plane crashed for no reason...the pilot must have had one too many vodka tonics, or a bird must have flown into the engine. Events without causes are almost apocalyptic, as if cast down upon us by a mysterious god from the heavens above. The truth is, humans have evolved to the current level of sophistication - including our ability to understand planetary motion and the causes of hurricanes - due to an obsession with finding causes and therefore conquering randomness in the world:

This apple will fall to the ground because of the gravitational force. Your husband died because he contracted tuberculosis. My interview went well because I was prepared.

Without an interest in understanding the world more and more clearly, we would be exposed to the brutal and cold chaos of the world with no preparation or tools for survival. We'd think, "a horrible storm came this season and destroyed my entire harvest. Some random force...I guess I'll just starve next time too!" In an effort to evolve and live happier and healthier lives, we have developed different cultures, religions, and scientific endeavors to explain randomness and protect us from the universe's forces we don't understand.

Beyond the evolutionary perspective, we also like finding order in the world because it makes us feel in control and happy. A painter begins his piece with a few vague ideas, but as the brushstrokes gather on the canvas and slowly attain meaning, an ordered creation emerges before his excited eyes. A start-up founder has a blurry vision for the future of her young company, and when she sells her first product, makes her first million, and successfully separates a dream from reality, she feels a strong sense of accomplishment. When we get accepted to medical school, successfully ask out a girl or guy we like, or complete a cutting-edge scientific breakthrough, we confirm our ability to control our own fate, that we're in the driver's seat (and not subject to the universe's whims). For a brief instant, we feel that we understand the world, and that feels pretty damn good.

Conquering randomness and looking for causes feels so damn good that we try to do it as much as we can, even in situations where it would be impossible to do so. I believe this is why the narrative fallacy is such a common error in critical reasoning. Take Nassim Taleb: "Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story, a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness."

Because uncertainty in the world is so scary, it is difficult to observe a sequence of events without attaching logical explanations around them. Again, the "Stocks Rally, But We Don't Know Why" article wouldn't get too many clicks. But that doesn't mean we're always better off forcing potentially faulty explanations, and that a bad reason is better than no reason. I'd prefer a CEO who is willing to admit he doesn't know enough about a potential project over one who recklessly finds a "reason" to invest millions into unchartered waters.

As the saying by Michel de Montaigne goes: "I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly."


1) Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

2) Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb

3) Strongly suggest this interesting video with Gerd Gigerenzer and Nassim Taleb (where I heard the Montaigne quote first)

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