Sometimes you write something. An idea. Not sure about it. Bit outside your academic field. Given it a lot of thought, but hey. Probably being stupid.
And then, hey presto, you were probably right.
What a life eh?
Well, some of it is clearly genuine stupidity. While, it is well-known, not all stupid people are conservatives, it is undoubtedly the case that all conservatives are stupid. Add to that natural stupidity the pungent anti-science of the Tea Party style no-nothings in recent years, and you have the perfect recipe for believing any kind of crap nonscience that people of ill-will feed to you. If some clown pretends that there is a link between wind farms and an imaginary disease, then no matter how much proper science disproves this pretence, British Conservatives and Australian Liberals and Nationals will believe the clown every time. If only someone would tell them that gravity is a communist plot and a chap calling in to Alan Jones say it is well-known you can jump from high buildings but our socialist prime minister has covered it up!
A small herd of pigs arrived on the farm a week or so ago. Destructive creatures, destroying the world they live in as if they had an alternative in mind. Haven’t seen them before, looks like they have moved out of the forest up in the hills to the East, and down on to the lower plains to pillage. Perhaps they will become adapted to the soft lotus-eating life down here.
On the occasions when those of us on the Left dare to question the rise and rise of libertarianism, neoconservatism, conservatism, drown-government-in-a-bathtub-but-promote-the-combination-of-church-and-state, corporations-are-people nastiness, we generally get told we are wishy-washy idealists who have no idea of human nature which is red in tooth and claw and the devil take the hindmost because there is no-such-thing-as-society.
In the mid-1970s I received an unexpected phone call – could I come and check out a museum display. The unexpected part was not the checking out, but the nature of the display I was to check.
In those distant times the only “museum” in Canberra (leaving aside the War Memorial) was the “Institute of Anatomy”. I don’t now remember its history, but it had been established early in Canberra’s history in a splendid Art Deco style building. I presume they funded research, conferences etc, maintained collections of anatomical specimens, but the main function by 1976 was their display area which was like a Dickensian museum of glass display cases full of all sorts of bits and pieces of flora and fauna and rocks and humans.
I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)
When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.
My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.
He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.
But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?
What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].
The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours
Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).
Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.
But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?
Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.
Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.
Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.
Questions for creationists:
1. Given anoxic conditions, water, variety of chemicals, electrical discharges, complex organic molecules arriving from space, how did/does “god” STOP life emerging on planets all over the universe?
2. Since all species are variable, how does “god” STOP evolution happening?
3. Since populations of species constantly become isolated geographically, how does “god” STOP speciation occurring?
4. Given two extreme genetic bottlenecks for humans – Adam and Eve (the latter being cloned from the former!), then “Noah’s family” – how do you imagine the human race became so diverse, and abundant, in just a few hundred years?
5. If “all the animals” were each represented by a single pair on the Ark, how did they all become so abundant and diverse in a few hundred years
6. How did “Noah” collect animals from the then unknown continents of Australia, Americas, Asia, southern Africa, northern Europe?
7. Why did Noah have an inordinate fondness for beetles?
8. If the whole earth was covered with water of sufficient depth to cover mountains, how did any plant species survive?
9. If any plant species did somehow survive, how did they reform complex ecosystems all over the world in a few hundred years?
10. Given that all the other people of the world had different ideas how they came to exist, and that none of them “remember” the Flood, what makes you think … oh, forget it, I know your answer to that one.
And here’s a bonus question, if you finish the others early:
11. Name any two of the hundreds of thousands of biological scientists who have worked on aspects of evolution since Charles Darwin. To make it easier you can include geologists and physicists. Struggling? OK, I’ll give you a start, Alfred Russell Wallace. Over to you.
[Note this was written to follow on from discussions which began in comments on post "When you wish" below and continued into those of "Extraordinary". One of my most regular commenters on this blog, Eric, is trying to understand evolution. I, we, are trying to help him. This post arose from Eric's comment that "I don’t get the 'every generation' being a transition between the species at all." So, Eric, let's try it like this.*]
I don’t know if you are interested in your family history, but let’s assume you are. And let’s assume that you know all your ancestors, way way back (will come to how way back soon). And let’s imagine that not only do you have photographs of your ancestors going back 150 years (when the camera was actually invented) but there was a previously unknown mechanism which enabled photos of all your ancestors going way way back.
So you start to arrange the photos on your table. Parents first, then grandparents, great grandparents and so on, back through the generations. And let’s assume (last assumption, promise) that you have not only told your immediate family what you are doing, but have told your more distant family of cousins etc, your community, and, through the internet, the whole world.
OK, with me? Right. You are putting your great grandparent’s photos on the table, your children remarking how much you look like them and you not being sure if it is a compliment, when in walks your second cousin and says, hey, they are my great grandparents. You chat for a while and keep working. Down go the photos generation after generation.
Back to six generations and a previously unknown cousin from Germany drops in and points out you share a great great great great great grandparent. He still lives in the same village your ancestors migrated to America from (I have a real example of that, a sixth cousin living just a few miles from the village in England my six times removed grandparents lived in).
I don’t really know your background so I will switch to me now. I keep adding more and more generations (roughly 4 per hundred years). Back a thousand years. All those people, all 45 generations look much like me – variation in hair colour here, different height there, shorter nose over this way – all residents of the English Midlands.
About a thousand years ago a bit of a change – more men and women seem to be of strapping solid build with red or yellow hair. Just as I am putting their photos out, trying to keep track of which generations I am up to, there is a knock at the door and a couple of strapping red haired gentlemen tell me that I have just identified some common ancestors of their’s which means I now have Danish and Saxon distant cousins.
Another 500 years back and a knock at the door tells me those dark haired olive skin ancestors are the reason I have Italian cousins. And so on, back thousands of years. Little differences between generations, but all recognisably the same group. Tens of thousands of years, still the same, and if you put any of them in modern clothes they could drink in my local bar unnoticed.
Oh there are changes, as you [that is me, "I" became awkward!] realise when you look back to your recent ancestors, and when you hear knocks on the door from people from Germany, Hungary, Turkey. But still, generation to generation, no obvious change. And then as more tens of thousands of years tick over you get vists from Australian Aborigines, Asians, South Americans, and finally Africans. Still no obvious change from generation to generation, but your ancestors are now recognisably different – shorter in stature, with curly hair and darker skin – from those ten or twenty thousand years later or those today. You realise if you put the photos in a bundle and flicked them like those old children’s moving picture books, you would see a gradual change over time to the present day.
And still you go back, ancestor after ancestor. You’ve lost all sense of time. What is it, a million years maybe, gosh, that’s, um, 2500 generations. Curious, you hadn’t noticed change, but these G G G G …. Grandfathers of yours are much heavier built, more muscly, bigger jaws, bigger brow ridges. Other cousins drop by from Indonesia, far east Russia. Similar but a bit different again.
And still we go on, another 2500 generations and another. Is it your imagination or do these ancestors seem shorter, darker, more, well, hairy? No it’s not. You look along the table, can’t see the change, until you jump forward a couple of million years (big table this) and compare. And then you get a phone call from zoo, chimpanzee there wants to tell you that you and he are 10,000th cousins, sharing a 9999 great grandparent. Seems odd, he looks quite different to you when you arrive at the zoo, but on a table he has arranged all his ancesors going back same number of generations as yours. You look at his photos and notice the same pattern. The later ones all look just like him, “typical chimpanzees”, but as you get further back you notice small changes – slightly shorter arms perhaps, jaws a little larger, hair colour a little different, slightly more upright. He points at another slightly different looking chimpanzee, and you discover that when your friend got back to about a million years ago he got a visit from a Bonobo chimp who said he was his long lost cousin, just like the calls you had along the way. By the time you look at his ancestors and yours from about, say, 9000 generations ago, there’s not much difference at all, and when you get back to the shared ancestor they are of course identical.
Seeing that you are a bit puzzled your Chimpanzee cousin points at you and points at the ground, then points at himself and then at a tree outside. Light dawns – your common 9999 great grandparents were mainly ground dwellers, but around 4 million years ago his direct ancestors were in a group that became separated from yours, and while your ancestors adapted more and more strongly to ground living, his were in an area where tree living was all the go. Adaptation proceeded in the two directions in different parts of Africa, and by the time conditions changed and the two groups were in contact again they had become different enough not to interbreed.
You go home, pleased to have discovered more long lost cousins, and keep working through your photos. Back to 7 million years, 17500 generations and another zoo call, this time the gorilla wants to say hullo to his cousin. Same thing. A line of photos on a table, call from a distant gorilla cousin (separated in east Africa), not much change from one photo to next, but change over longer time. Seems quite different to Humans and Chimps initially, but doesn’t look that much different to the common human-chimp grandparent perhaps 5 million years ago, and as you get further and further back they converge in appearance (and genetics of course) until they look more and more like a kind of generalised ape – Australopithecus (again with various cousins).
And… Well, you get the idea. You can continue generation after generation through the other apes, then back through the early mammals, the reptiles, the amphibians and so on. Not much evident change from one generation to next but over immense time substantial change. No modern species the direct ancestor of any other modern species, just like your cousins are not your grandparents, but all are cousins to some degree.
There you are Eric, evolution over four billion years in a short post – gradual adaptive change, and equally importantly, geographic separation of different populations forming new species. What a wonderful world that has such potential in it.
* I’d love to claim the credit for this idea of how to present evolutionary change, but saw it (in the marvelous illustrations by Dave McKean) and read it originally in Richard Dawkins 2011 “The Magic of Reality” Random House, London. However I have added the calls from cousins, and the zoo, as my own piece of originality.
It’s an odd little misunderstanding, just a minor difference in the way of looking at the world, but it has played a disproportionately huge part in making seven billion people content to allow a few energy companies turn off the world’s support systems and let them all die.
So, what is it, this misunderstanding that has the people who know what’s happening talking past the people who need to know what’s happening? Well it is just a different use of words like certainty and probability – a scientific use and a common use.
The general public thinks that things for which they have little or no evidence, just anecdote or faith, are certainties. Scientists think that nothing is certain, that all we have is the probability that something is true based on amount of evidence.
The public will use all kinds of language based on nothing but gut feeling and personal ideology to express their belief that something is true “exactly right” “certainly true” “absolutely no doubt” “no doubt” “probably” “possibly” “don’t think so” “nah, don’t believe that” “c’mon, pull the other one, that one has bells on it”.
Scientists, recognising that the presence or absence of bells is a bit hard to define precisely have by contrast developed an exact measurement for the likelihood of truth based on assessment of number of observations. It is a mathematical concept in which you can approach (by repeating an experiment over and over) more and more closely to 100% certainty but never quite reach it. For practical purposes though a probability somewhere in the 90% plus level is thought of as being a pretty sure thing (although it depends on the discipline and particular kind of experiment, physics for example demands much higher certainty than, say, the social sciences).
As well as the mathematical component though, the idea of scientific probability represents the scientific mindset – no result can be certain because the very next experiment may overturn it in whole or in part. If a writer is only as good as his last novel, then a scientific theory is, in a sense, only as good as its last experiment.
For the public though lots of things are certain, have to be otherwise you wouldn’t get up in the morning. These certainties are based on religion, ideology, common sense, authority, repetitive observations. Sun rises in East, there is a “god” or two, capitalism is the end of history, some people have psychic powers, the Liberal Party is there for the battlers, vitamin C cures colds. Then there are uncertainties where the outcome is merely probable – will my football team win next week, am I having a drink with friends on Friday night, are UFOs real, can acupuncture cure cancer, is Kevin Rudd challenging for leadership or is it a media invention.
So, the stage is set. When scientists are asked about climate change in general or particular aspects of it, they reply, as good scientists do “well there is a high probability that X is the case”. When asked “are you certain?” they reply “well, no nothing in science is ‘certain'”. They mean by this that certainty can never, mathematically, reach 100%, and they are obliged to repeat this fundamental tenet of science endlessly, thinking to themselves “well, of course there is no such thing as 100% certainty in science, don’t these idiots know anything?” Or they formalise this the way the IPCC does, saying that the chances of Y event happening in Z time have a probability of “90%” or “95%”.
Now in both cases the scientists are also thinking, and assuming the listeners are familiar with the concept, that for all practical purposes the projected outcome is certain. Will almost certainly in fact (because the scientists are sick of being called alarmist) be much more likely than the probability being quoted which will have been deliberately set on the low side.
The scientist leans back and relaxes at this point, happy in the conviction that he has merely restated the bleeding obvious about the scientific method and that everyone will totally understand what he means – and get on with saving the planet which he knows with absolute certainty is under its greatest threat in millions of years.
The listener or reader however, Joe Public, hears something quite different. They hear that things aren’t certain, just probable, and they interpret the “probable” as their own version of that prediction. Climate change becomes, in their own minds, no more likely than, say, the reality of UFOs. And you wouldn’t want to spend billions of dollars defending against UFOs now, would you.
This continues on to the details. Is this particular massive storm; record-breaking drought; record high temperature; record flood, the result of climate change? “Oh, we couldn’t say that with certainty”, says the scientist. Joe Public hears this as “No”.
Now while the scientists are maintaining scientific purity on the questions of certainty and probability, there are people, with vested interests in the short-term outcome (we all have a vested interest in the long term outcome, but most of us don’t know that), who have absolutely no scruples in pretending that scientific “uncertainty” is real uncertainty and therefore no one would want to do anything when everything is uncertain. So they add in bits and pieces of questions and comments on the siting of thermometers, melting of glaciers, troposphere temperatures, mediaeval warming periods, the north west passage, deep sea temperatures, climate sensitivity, snowfall in Chicago, cosmic rays and the like. None of them mean anything much in themselves, none of them have the slightest relevance in general to the overall pattern of rising CO2 levels causing global warming and consequent climate change.
The scientific community, realising (in some cases very belatedly) the con trick being played on them and on the community at large, and seeing the consequent failure of politicians to take any meaningful action to pull back on CO2 production, have at last begun to fight back a little. Oh they still talk about uncertainty and probability, but a few brave souls have begun to say “the science is settled”.
To see what they mean by this it is worth exploring an analogy. The theory that explains how evolution occurs (involving variation, natural selection, and geographic isolation) was extensively debated in the years after 1859 (when it had been simultaneously proposed by Darwin and Wallace after they arrived at it from different data). Some scientists (like Thomas Huxley “why didn’t I think of that”) instantly recognised its validity. Others were more cautious, looking for contradictions, wondering about mechanisms for the variation (in the years before either genes or DNA were discovered), debating the religious implications and so on. But over the next few decades the science became settled. That is the truth of the theory was clear, and now research was mopping up the details (again genes and DNA in particular) relating to the exact mechanisms. And also investigating both the comparisons and relationships between living species and their fossil records with new eyes that greatly fleshed out the actual path that the evolution of living organisms had taken on this planet.
The science of evolution is settled. There remain arguments over details of particular evolutionary sequences, whether there are other speciation mechanisms apart from the dominant allopatric one, exactly how genes interact during development and so on. But the science is settled and forms the basis, directly or indirectly, of all the sciences to do with life on the planet, and conversely is supported by all the other sciences (notably geology, chemistry, physics). Oh there are one or two scientists, brains addled by religion, who purport to believe that there is evidence for god in bacterial flagellae. But their argument (that some feature is too complex to have evolved) was one that Darwin was familiar with, and has been demolished thousands of times in the subsequent 150 years. It is amazing how otherwise apparently smart people can have their brains addled by religion.
In exactly the same way the science of climate change is settled. The fundamental elements (Milankovitch cycles, greenhouse gases, sun activity, geography) have been known for decades (in the case of greenhouse gas not much less than evolution). The science forms the basis for all the other sciences to do with the surface and atmosphere of this planet, and in turn is supported by all the other relevant sciences. Scientists argue over details of exact time frames, precisely how some mechanisms interact, likely impacts on ecology, historical sequences, and so on, but none of that has any effect on the fundamental science. Oh there are one or two scientists, brains addled by libertarian and neocon ideology, who purport to believe that climate sensitivity is a bit lower, or that clouds are going to roll in to our rescue, or that there is nothing new in the astonishing warming of the planet over the last 3 decades, but their arguments have been demolished thousands of times. Amazing how otherwise apparently smart people can have their brains addled by libertarian and neoconservative nonsense.
Look I am a scientist, OK? I understand the need to maintain the fundamental core of the scientific process, that nothing is ever 100% certain. I get that, ok? And I know that scientists are naturally shy and reticent (me too) and reluctant to involve themselves in public slanging matches and political debates, wanting to remain pure and above all that. But listen, this is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the planet. Cast aside your Clark Kent clothes in a handy phone box. Start speaking out. There will be death threats. The last thing the ideologues and the energy companies want is for scientists to discover they have a voice – they have already been trying to discredit science as a whole in case you ever did start to speak out, but you are still just in time if you hurry. Make it clear that the science is, sadly, settled, the data in, the planet in really big trouble. You wouldn’t say “oh, nothing certain about evolution” so don’t do it about climate change. Whatever the fine details that remain to be sorted it is absolutely irrefutable that adding more and more CO to the atmosphere is warming the planet rapidly, changing the climate, buggering up the ecology, causing damaging weather events, and it is going to get so bad that we are, not to put too fine a point on it, stuffed as a species. Nothing more certain.
There used to be, and still may be, a computer facility that allows you to program particular function keys on the keyboard to produce a whole phrase with one keystroke. Particularly useful for politicians (“there is only one poll that matters”, “I can’t comment on this because it is now the subject of legal proceedings”, “the leader has my full and complete support”, “this study was based on figures from last year/last month/yesterday and things have now changed”) but also useful when reporting science matters (“chocolate good for you scientific study shows”) or social ones (“Discovery of artefact rewrites history books”). In particular there is one that is used over and over again “New find rewrites evolutionary theory” which is more inaccurate than even the political ones. There was another example the other day where a discovery of a minor detail of the eye structure of a very ancient fossil might result in a minor change to our ideas about the exact sequence by which the two main groups of animals respectively developed eyes by using more of one cell type than another (the eyes of octopus and humans, for example, are based on different cell types). Yes, that’s all. Last year there was the find of a fossil primate which far from “rewriting evolution” (or “rewriting human evolution”) as headlines around the world trumpeted, merely filled in a small detail in one minor branch of the early primate evolutionary tree.
Every time you see a headline “rewrites evolutionary theory” mentally substitute “may result in minor change to some minor aspect of a hypothesis about evolutionary sequence in one minor group of species” – yes, I know that is longer, but it will be much more accurate. You see the time to “rewrite evolutionary theory” was in the first few decades after 1859, and only one discovery, that of genes, has ever done that. Not because it proved anything wrong about Darwin’s work, but because it provided a clearer understanding of the mechanism of genetic inheritance, something that was still unclear before Gregor Mendel started growing pea plants in a monastery garden in the 1850s (his work remained unknown for decades).
That’s it, nothing else in the last 150 years has “rewritten” evolutionary theory, and it is quite clear that nothing will now. That is because the fundamental mechanisms proposed by Darwin – variation, natural selection, adaptation, geographic separation, are as fundamental as the axioms of any mathematical theorem. His supporting observations, of different distributions of different plants and animals across the surface of the planet, and of fossils buried in the ground that showed the stages of evolution of life on Earth, are also so fundamental that they can’t be altered. All that does change, occasionally, is the finding of a new fossil that more clearly illustrates the exact sequence of the evolution of say, whales, or snakes, or birds, or indeed primates including that species particularly dear to our hearts, Homo sapiens.
So why does the media do it? Well, to sell newspapers and tv programs obviously – here is something new and exciting and revolutionary. But in the case of evolution I think there is another factor involved. The journalists appear to believe that there is a significant part of the Australian population that doesn’t believe in evolution (and writing that seems as silly as “doesn’t believe in gravity”) and that if they put up a headline suggesting that evolution has been challenged in some way people will rush to have their prejudices reinforced. If you were an American journalist this assumption might well be correct, but I think the Australian public is still a bit more scientifically savvy than that. However there are religious forces beavering away to have “creation science” (an oxymoron much worse than “military intelligence”) taught in Australian schools, and they are making inroads in some schools, especially in Queensland (“smart state one day, dumbed down the next”). The constant headlines in the media about “rewriting evolution” can only reinforce that campaign and take us down the slippery American anti-science slope.
It’s only a little thing I know, but it does matter. Next time you see or hear a headline like this let the media outlet concerned know you are not happy about it. Unless of course you believe that Gillard and Abbott really never look at polls, and that they are both fully supported by Rudd and Turnbull.
Or that chocolate really is good for you.
There is a media ritual when there is a big lottery prize looming that involves an interview with a “number expert” who can tell you what the “lucky” numbers are, ie those which have come up most often. The number expert can protest until blue in the face that every number, every time, is equally likely or unlikely, by chance, to appear. Makes no difference. “What are the lucky numbers?” will be asked, over and over. When the winner is announced comes the trip to the “lucky” outlet that sold the ticket. This outlet, is the suggestion, will be worth buying from again. But it won’t be of course, every outlet is equally likely, or unlikely to sell the next winning ticket. But the use of “luck” and the suggestion that some people are “lucky” is encouraging belief in the paranormal on the one hand, and belief in people being “rewarded” by a god on the other. There is no luck, there is only chance.
Whenever someone reaches a milestone like 100 years another narrative comes into play – “to what do you attribute your long life?” Well, in reality their long life can only be attributed to a chance allocation of pretty good DNA and a lot of luck through the decades, they have reached an advanced age by chance, just the far tail of a normal distribution of age at death – a few die very young, a few die very old, most die in between. Life’s a lottery and then you die.
Road accidents too. The media (and politicians) tend to react to an individual accident by blaming someone or something for it. But for a given number of cars on the roads, and therefore for a given number of chances of them coming into contact with each other or some object beside the road, there will be, by chance, a given number of accidents, and you, by chance, may be one of them. And those accidents will range, by chance, from those where a car and its occupants are scarcely dented, to major pile-ups and death and everything in between.
The inability to recognise or accept chance events has led to the idea of “miracles” raising its ugly and misleading head again. In any major accident or catastrophic natural event involving many people, there will be, by chance, quite often, survivors, perhaps only one survivor, perhaps two or three. Whether it is plane crash or train crash, tsunami or earthquake, the fact that many people die and one or more don’t is always headlined and described as a “miracle”. People don’t want to believe in chance, want to believe that good things happen to those who deserve them, that there is a “reason” for a survival (other than a reason involving a chance sequence of events or spatial relationships), and that if they, I suppose, were involved in such a disaster then they would be the ones walking out of the cloud of smoke, the wall of water. If only they knew what the secret was. And there will be plenty of people to tell them – money up front.
The constant reiteration of the “miracle survival” nonsense by television reporters encourages this sort of irrational thinking and comes full circle when they almost always, as the punch line to the survivor story, say to them “You should buy a lottery ticket”, taking the failure of logic full circle. The suggestion, of course is that having walked away from a plane crash the person has been blessed with good luck, and that while the “effect” lasts the person should take advantage of the residual glow of good vibrations and have them influence the way that lottery balls tumble, chaotically, randomly, in a big glass ball, in order to create a sequence of numbers that match, miraculously, with those on a piece of paper that the lucky person has bought. Does the reporter really believe this? Does the audience?
The alternative narrative is that some people are subject to “bad luck”, or, in the religious narrative, have behaved or believed (or failed to believe) in such a way that they will be magically propelled into path of speeding car or train, will be crushed by landslide, eaten by shark, have a roof tile land on their head, catch, at the last moment (perhaps by an exchange of places with another, lucky, person), a plane that then crashes. In these cases the event is deemed to be so rare that being killed by it must have a cause, an explanation, people “doomed” by some unexplained mechanism of heavenly forces. But all such events become possible given 7 billion people on a planet as small as ours. And all of these bad luck narratives, the “what were the chances” scenario, depend on a misunderstanding of the nature of chance. What are the chances that “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” so that Humphrey and Ingrid meet? Pretty good actually. I mean if you multiplied the number of gin joints by the number of people in the world at the time (3 billion?) the odds look astronomical. But only because Rick has decided after the event which has already taken place that this was a significant meeting. If you were to ask what is the chance of any man and any woman meeting in a gin joint somewhere the odds are, well, 100%, any night of the week. Since Rick was in the bar every night, it was the most popular bar in Casablanca, and there were few American women in the city, the chances of the lovely Ms Bergman walking into his gin joint were also very very good.
So there are many things that people, with the guidance of the media and religious leaders, think are not chance events which are in fact sheer chance. On the other hand people think some things are chance which are not. The creationists among us are constantly asking how you can “assemble a 747″ by chance in a “junkyard”, how “random mutations” could give rise to human beings from “primordial ooze”. But evolution works much as Bergman found Bogart, the odds aren’t some multiplication of the remote chances of single events with those of other single events, but a gradual refinement over time. Imagine that in Rick’s bar gambling was going on (you’d be shocked, shocked, I know). And they were playing a kind of poker in which each player kept one good card and discarded four and picked up a new four, and then kept the best of those and discarded three, and picked up three new ones and so on. You would eventually finish up with some very good hands, all round the table. Small chance on any one card, but chances improved as you discard and pick up, discard and pick up.
Drive by shootings are presented by the media as if they are totally random events, that at any moment your house, chosen at random by gangsters, will be peppered with bullets. What are the odds? Number of houses in Sydney, say, divided into the number of shootings? But rarely, it turns out, is the shooting actually random as distinct from being aimed at a rival bike gang, rival drug dealer, loan defaulter, love triangle rival. Not random, targeted. Chances of a small number of people being shot at, very high; chances of the rest of Sydney houses getting bullets through their front wall, virtually nil. Shark attacks, same treatment in media, reality that the number of attacks is tiny, the great bulk of them not “attacks” but accidents, and the result of risky behaviour by the swimmer or surfer, not random moments of doom.
When there are stories of unethical behaviour by a corporation – declaring bankruptcy with no money left for worker’s entitlements; dumping pollutants into a creek; moving overseas to evade tax; selling goods known to be harmful; funding political parties to obtain favourable treatment; sacking workers and outsourcing overseas; cutting prices to farmers – they are always treated as if these are singular events, a bad apple, no historical context, no implications for regulation or political action. In fact such behaviour is not random but is a direct consequence of laissez faire unregulated capitalism as practised in the last 20 years or so.
Finally climate is portrayed by deniers as being just a sequence of random fluctuations with no meaning or implication for action now or disaster in the future. The reality is that the ever rising trend line of temperatures, and the ever increasing consequences seen in melting ice, acidifying oceans, moving species, is what tells us we are in trouble.
James Randi said “To recognize that nature has neither a preference for our species nor a bias against it takes only a little courage”. Takes a lot of courage actually, more than politicians or religious leaders possess. Now, if only we could give the media courage to call random events for what they are and talk about the causes of non-random events. They have been getting this precisely back to front.