Monday, August 11, 2008

Doggerel #161: "Random"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

There's no shortage of fundies who love to throw around the word "random," especially when it comes to topics like evolution. Closely related to this is "chance," a concept many people don't really grasp. I thought probability was a required part of everyone's math classes. I may have taken statistics courses, but I don't need that to know that it's not unusual for someone, somewhere to win a 1-in-500 million lottery.

First, to cover the obvious: Evolution and abiogenesis are not attributing everything to chance. You don't start with abiogenesis and claim flat odds of humans coming out. Start with lots of chemicals and time and see if any of them become self replicating. Once you've gotten past that hurdle, it's established, and those replicators can move onto other adaptations, which will then get established if they're beneficial, and the process repeats. Each of these steps has a reasonable chance of happening.

The problem comes from IDiots trying to add them all up. Imagine you've just won a board game by rolling exactly what you needed to win at the end. Each die roll has 6 possible outcomes. Your last roll had a 1-in-6 chance. A little unlikely, but well within reason. Now, imagine someone claiming the game is fixed because the exact outcome of the game was unlikely, citing the hundreds of rolls and how they would all have to come out right. That's what Creationists are doing when they make up numbers about the odds of things "spontaneously" forming. Evolution didn't require this particular outcome. There were plenty of other possibilities.

Moving on to other popular uses: Far too many woos think that we're overeager to attribute alleged psychic intuitions to dumb luck guesses. Sometimes psychics do get lucky, but most of the time, they're tilting the odds in their favor, using techniques like cold reading to gather information when the mark latches onto a vague comment or the fast-talking aspect to make sure the mark dismisses the wrong guesses when he stumbles on a hit. On top of all the mentalism tricks at their disposal, there's one fact that many people have trouble acknowledging: People have a lot of similarities. One Sylvia Browne fan stopped by here not long ago, asking me how she could possibly have known her mother wanted to get back to a painting hobby. Lots of people have artistic hobbies they wish they could get back to, and painting probably tops the list.

We live in an orderly universe that obeys certain rules. Philosophically, I know that "randomness" may just be an approximation of mechanism we don't yet understand. But even if the universe plays dice on some level, the game still follows rules, and science has given us a great understanding of those rules. If there's any leaning we scientifically minded people have, it's for order and predictability. Dumb luck is generally a guess of last resort, and we repeat experiments to try to cancel that out.

1 comment:

Dark Jaguar said...

I've recently read a post on a biologist blog (can't find the link, sorry) that went into detail about abiogenesis and how the line between that and evolution isn't so clear cut as our side sometimes says. I thought it was very interesting myself.

Basically in talking about the standard model of abiogenesis, he explained how inheritance and natural selection is still a vital component of the process, even if the inheritance is not 1 to 1 so much as "statistical inheritance" where one set of chemicals raises the chances of another coming up which in turn raise the odds of the first coming up. I may have some of the details wrong, but one thing I can say is I found this site via a link over at Pharyngula, so you could search them for it at some point.

Anyway, the main point of it was that a lot of us tend to make the mistake of drawing a clear cut line of saying "well that's abiogenesis and evolution doesn't cover that" when natural selection actually does apply to many stages of the process. I didn't really agree that evolution applies to star formation or something like that though, as that really doesn't have a selecting factor (nothing about a star really cares if others show up or fine tunes itself, to the best of my knowledge).