See Text Version of Website


Articles Associated with Keyword: randomness

Analysis > Friday, 23 July 2010 18:36:31 EST

Folly In Future Forecasting

Keywords: statistics, predictions, uncertainty, randomness, book

I've talked before about how how people can be overly confident in their ability to understand the past and predict the future.  A good illustration of this is a book called "The Next 100 Years" by George Friedman. 

The Next 100 Years by George Friedman

As I see it, Friedman falls into the mental trap of looking at history and seeing it's progression as inevitable.  With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how historical events were really uncertain and chaotic, and how the outcome really could have been different than the one that history records.

From this misunderstanding he has looked through history for patterns, and whether they actually exist or not, has found them.  From these supposed patterns he's projected out into the future to try and understand the forces that will shape the next century.

This seems to me like a good case study to highlight the ways that smart people can fool themselves and build a case that sounds compelling, but when you examine it closely you see that it rests on very shaky ground.

I read this book last year and am working off notes from an online discussion I had at the time.  I want to make clear that even though I criticize the book, I did enjoy reading it.  Especially the narrative of the coming war in the 2050's.  He admits that the details of the war are more speculative than the other areas, though to me the rest of the book is almost as speculative.  But in spite of being better suited to science fiction than anything else, it's a fantastic story.

But let's look at the arguments that Mr. Friedman puts forth as the solid basis for his claims:
Full Story

Analysis > Wednesday, 30 June 2010 21:34:54 EST

Essential Randomness

Keywords: randomness, uncertainty

A lot of what goes on in pseudoscience is the result of people finding patterns where none exist.  I think the concept of randomness and how we can find illusory patterns in it warrants a little bit of an exploration here for anybody who hasn't thought about it.

Randomness is one of the hardest things for people to understand.  Even those of us who pay lip service to the role of randomness in the universe have trouble with the concept.  We're just too good at seeing patterns.  We see them everywhere, even when no template for the seen pattern exists.  See my recent post about the nebula that looks like a hand.

We typically expect anything that's random to show absolutely no pattern.  We think random things should resemble an undecipherable mess.  But that's not the case.  Patterns in randomness are everywhere, and they can fool you more easily than you think.

I performed a classic experiment by creating a computer program that draws random dots on the screen.  I ran it a few times and picked my favourite examples to show you here:

Full Story

Analysis > Thursday, 17 June 2010 11:34:01 EST

A Hand In The Sky

Keywords: randomness, uncertainty, epistemology

A little over a year ago NASA released an interesting image of a nebula captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  What's interesting about this image is that it's a nice example of pareidolia.  On first glance, this nebula looks remarkably like a human hand:

A Hand Shaped Nebula

What I find fascinating about this image is how much of the resemblance to a human hand evaporates when you examine it closely.  Much of the distinguishing features of the hand are made up of very insubstantial mist, only giving the vague impression of the shape of a hand.

If you take the time to simply draw an outline around the clearest parts of the nebula, the illusion of a hand disappears altogether:

Nebula Outlined

To me it now looks more like a hitchhiking moose hand puppet.

Take this as a cosmic reminder that you can easily see the illusion of a pattern in something that is essentially random.
Full Story

Musings > Monday, 25 January 2010 23:20:31 EST

How Microwaves Relate To Critical Thinking

Keywords: personal experience, experiment, statistics, uncertainty, randomness

I want to relate to you an incident that happened to me a while back.  I was going to melt some peanut butter in my microwave for a recipe, but the moment I turned the microwave on, it started sparking inside.

Alarmed, I quickly pressed the stop button and took my bowl of peanut butter out to examine it.  The bowl was one that I'd used before, no metal on it and completely microwave safe.  I'd melted peanut butter in the microwave before, and never had such a thing happened.

Perhaps there was something wrong with the microwave, I thought.  I filled a mug with water, put it inside, and turned the machine on.  Nothing happened, it worked just fine.

Then I tried the peanut butter again: sparks.

I performed the comparison over again just to be sure.  Only the peanut butter sparked.

What the hell was in my peanut butter that was making the microwave spark??
Full Story

Analysis > Tuesday, 12 January 2010 10:15:11 EST

On Predicting The Future

Keywords: statistics, predictions, religion, uncertainty, randomness

I often see predictions in the media attempting to predict the future.  Usually, these predictions are given out by the experts in a particular field, and we're lead to believe that they've actually got some sort of valuable insight into what the future holds.

What makes me crazy is that people seem to believe that these predictions have any kind of validity to them.  Some of them may be reliable, such as if the prediction is short term, or if it's based on unambiguous data whose properties are not generally subjected to random changes.

But this isn't the case for most predictions.  Randomness and uncertainty rule our lives, and to think that we can predict the long term future based on short term trends is to ignore this basic fact.  It's tempting to think that we can accurately predict the far future  based on what we observe happening today.  Unfortunately, predicting the future remains a very uncertain art.
Full Story


Latest Comments:
On 6/20/2017
at 5:35am
John Ahmed wrote:

We are Russell Financial Company Ltd located in America and other Europe countries, we offers both personal and investment...

On 6/5/2017
at 11:57pm
Bernie wrote:

This site is crazy :) <a href" ">motrin liquid gels coupon oise</a> The U.S. government was bracing for...

On 6/5/2017
at 1:57pm
Julian wrote:

Very interesting tale <a href" ">methotrexate injections for ra</a> Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist, thankfully decided that she'd...

On 6/4/2017
at 5:20pm
Wilmer wrote:

I sing in a choir <a href" ">cost of crocin advance</a> Falcone admitted wrongdoing and agreed to pay...

On 6/4/2017
at 2:57pm
Darryl wrote:

How many weeks' holiday a year are there? <a href" ">buy cheap clomid uk jsaonline</a> Of late, multiple...

Blog Entries: