[Opinion] A likely story

lifespinnerRoll up, roll up
And take a spin
There’s naught to lose,
And all to win

I think chance is only complicated when humans get involved.

Now, I may not be the most qualified person in the room to comment on this subject. After all, I have an honors degree in physics, and I can’t even tell you the chance of that ever being useful! But I have done enough statistics and seen enough people ‘massage’ their numbers (a weird mental image, though I bet 7 would be unpleasant while 8 would be nice and smooth) to have made a few observations. And hey, in a world where almost 83% of statistics are made up, my opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. Right?

On the face of it, the probability of a certain event or outcome is an ordinary and uncontroversial thing. A ‘fair’ coin has a fifty-fifty chance of heads or tails; a meat raffle ticket in a pool of a hundred has a one in one hundred chance of bringing home the bacon; it’s certain that the sun’ll come up tomorrow (and if it doesn’t, we’ll be far too dead to care). Unsurprisingly, most of these chances exist in a space independent of humanity — no matter how much I will it with my psycho-probabilistic powers, the odds of my nauseatingly lukewarm cup of Earl Grey spontaneously heating itself up remain stubbornly at zero. As much as it hurts to admit, our astonishingly uninterested universe has no sense of ‘fairness’ — or perhaps an overdeveloped one — meaning that there’s no guarantee your car won’t continue to be wrecked by a vengeful meteorite from the Kuiper Belt for the third time in as many days, even if you just got the paint redone. No, the universe doesn’t have it out for you, and no, there isn’t some malevolent Plutonian taking potshots at your 1970 Chrysler out of spite (unless the New Horizons mission missed something). It’s simply Bad Luck.

The issue is that we, as humans, find it very hard to accept a run of Bad Luck. In small quantities, of course, when it’s a minor inconvenience or an isolated incident, we can shrug it off with a breezy c’est la vie. “Accidents happen!” we lament, when we knock our sandwich to the floor, or “Such is life!” when it starts raining just as we’re about to leave. It’s when Bad Luck compounds or comes in large doses that we become unable to reconcile our misfortune with a not unkind but instead uncaring universe, and begin to attribute agency. “Someone up there doesn’t like me!” we exclaim, when we get a parking ticket even though we were just there for a minute, or “The universe is out to get me!” when our car breaks down halfway to the middle of nowhere. The more important something is, the more we exaggerate the odds of it happening or not happening — “I know! I can’t believe it! There’s only like a one zillionth percent chance!” — demonstrating a clear relationship between perceived chance and our emotions. Bad Luck doesn’t just happen: it’s somebody’s fault (and never our own). I blame you, nameless entity who for some reason hates me and can make bad things happen!

This makes me think about how much our perceptions and attitudes actually influence probability. Perhaps they do, but maybe only when it comes to other humans. For example, does someone who faces a negative cultural stereotype that they are more likely to steal have a higher chance of snatching an unguarded handbag? If we stopped someone from being bullied would it lower their chance of depression? These are complicated to evaluate (though the answer to the latter is probably yes), and I’m not even sure that probabilities like these can be treated so simplistically. Then what about more indirect connections? Does my mood when stacking boxes change the chance that they’ll fall over later? Does getting angry at my laptop make it more likely to break?

I admit that these questions are, in a way, ridiculous. You could argue rather easily that it’s not my frame of mind that matters, but the way in which I do something — and after all, what difference does it make? It’s not like quantum mechanics where — in the case of Schrödinger’s cat, at least — it’s a matter of life or death. Nonetheless, I find it interesting to ponder. We profess to have such mastery over the world, to be able to control the vagaries of life and love and likeliness, but we’re still quite unsure whether it’s our hands or minds or mere existence that’s important.

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