By Chet Yarbrough
By: Leonard Mlodinow
Narrated by: Sean Pratt
The Drunkard’s Walk explains a discomfiting truth. Prior to the discovery of quantum physics, most of the scientific community believed cause and effect ruled reality; i.e. scientists like Einstein insisted that God would not play dice.
To pre-quantum physics scientists, the only reason “cause and effect” are not perfectly correlated is because a unifying theory remains undiscovered. Leonard Mlodinow, explains that chance or, at best, probabilities are the foundation of reality; i.e. cause and effect are only correlated in the sense of probability; not certainty.
Mlodinow’s inference is there is no unified field theory. Einstein went to his grave believing the contrary. Einstein believed there is a unified field theory. Einstein believed quantum physics would eventually become a part of Newton’s “cause and effect” theories but that science had not advanced enough to discover the truth of a Bohr, Einstein, and Newton concordance. Some Scientists suggest string theory is the answer to Einstein’s undiscovered UFT. (Mlodinow notes that string theory is the hottest research area of modern physics.)
Despite reproducible proof of quantum physics as the foundation for reality, the human mind continues to correlate cause with immutable predictive effect; e.g. an investment guru argues that stocks rise or fall in a particular year because either the AFL or the NFL wins a Super-bowl; one manufacturer of vodka is presumed better than another because it is more expensive; if a person is rich he is presumed smarter than a person who is poor, and so on and so on.
There is a mind bias for seeing patterns of correlation, whether there is correlation or not. However, Mlodinow explains truth and reality are based on a scale of probabilities; not certainty. Mlodinow is not abandoning correlation but arguing that there is no such thing as certainty.
Even with the advent of computers (and the optimism of geniuses like Turing, Von Neumann, and Veblen), the amassing and organization of data only offers accurate correlation between cause and effect with degrees of probability. In the mid twentieth century, Von Neumann believed it would be possible to precisely predict the weather, months in advance, with the advent of the computer.
Modern history shows weather prediction to be better but often wrong. There is always a chance (probability) the next day’s weather will be different from what is expected. Add belief in the “butterfly effect”, and it would seem unlikely that any amount of data will guarantee what happens in tomorrows’; let alone next week’s weather.
Patterning by the human brain is an obstacle to the way of seeing the nature of reality. Mlodinow refers to Kahneman’ and Tversky’s study of Jewish air force trainers that argue performance of trainees improve when they are criticized and decline when they are praised. Kahneman suggests this is an intuitive misconception because there is a law, first identified by Sir Francis Galton, called “Regression to the Mean”, that explains the error in believing abuse improves performance.
Kahneman argues that every human being performs tasks at varying levels of expertise but all human beings regress to a mean performance standard. When one performs unusually poorly and is criticized for it, he/she performs better the next time because of a regression to a mean performance level. The same is true for someone who performs extraordinarily well one day, and is praised, but does less well the next day. The truth is that praise works better than criticism because performance extremes are less likely to occur. Some will have a higher mean performance than others but no one will always perform at their peak, or at their worst.
There are many more insights offered by Mlodinow; e.g. there is the illusion of small numbers that results in sampling of a population that is misleading because it is not representative of the entire population. Mlodinow’s conclusion is that persistence is the truth of success. The examples he gives are authors that are rejected many times before their books are accepted. He identifies writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, and John Kennedy Toole who were rejected many times by many publishers but became famous writers. Toole, of course, gave up by killing himself before “A Confederacy of Dunces” was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Mlodinow’s point is to never give up. He quotes Thomas J. Watson (IBM founder), “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
Until (or if) a Unified Field Theory is discovered, Mlodinow’s discomfiting truth is probability, chance, and persistence are all that make life poorly or well lived.