Randomness, Divinity, Strange Reasoning, and Faith

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.


One of the reasons that many believe in a god is because they cannot embrace the concept of randomness.  In many religions, things happen for a “reason”, whether it is god’s plan, a test, karma, even sins from a previous life.  Apparently making sense to some extraordinarily sharp minds, the reasoning is not something that mere mortals like myself can possibly comprehend.  For example, the reason that the cat got eaten by the dog next door MUST be because God is punishing you, I mean your cat, for the Twinkie that you swiped from your coworker’s desk.  After all, things do not just happen, so it must be God acting in another one of those mysterious ways specifically designed to baffle and confuse and to test your faith.  Yeah.

How arrogant would one have to be to think that a God would not only be testing you personally on purpose, but also interested in your eventual choice, and doling out consequences should you make the wrong one? Why would a God, who allegedly knows everything, be interested in a non-perfect being’s thoughts and actions, which he technically should have already known anyway?

My theory is that our brains have not evolved sufficiently to handle multiple choices well.  In the old days you had two choices mostly; fight or flight, eat or be eaten.  It wasn’t that complicated.  Consequently, our brains function best when there are only two choices.  Try it for yourself – the best way to flabbergast someone is to present a myriad of choices.  This leads to a common logical fallacy called the false dichotomy.  If one is not true, then the other must be.  It is black and white, right or wrong.  Unfortunately that is not how the modern world is.  There are tradeoffs and compromises and gray areas.  Just because you can’t prove something 100% doesn’t mean the opposite is true.  Just because science is not perfect and cannot fill ALL the gaps and provide all the answers, does not mean that all scientists don’t know what they are talking about and a god is the answer, however comforting that may be.  Just because there seem to be holes or phenomena not fully explainable yet, does not mean that it absolutely cannot be explained (and by a huge leap in reasoning, MUST have been designed by god), and certainly does not necessarily prove that the Earth was created by god a few thousand years ago as the Bible claims literally and taken so by some Extraordinarily Sharp Minds.  It also does not mean that the “young earth” theory deserves equal time in the classroom, just because evolution is not 100% absolutely positively proven (very few things can be absolutely positively proven).  The weight and quality of the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution and a universe that is far longer than the Bible claims.  Otherwise by creationist’s logic, the Flying Spaghetti Monster should also deserves equal time in the classroom, as that cannot be 100% conclusively disproven either.  For example, if you fail at a quiz, there are multiple possibilities.  The most likely one is that you didn’t study enough.  Another is that you studied enough but god *made* you fail.  Just because the latter is also a possible (but highly improbable) explanation doesn’t mean it merits equal time for discussion in an educational setting.

It is a lack of critical thinking skills that lead people to absurd conclusions.  Someone sees a light hovering in the sky, and instantly believes with strong conviction, that it is a visit from aliens in a saucer.  It fits into a comfortable spot in the person’s mind and becomes “evidence” due to preferential bias.  Because it’s not anything that the person can explain, therefore it MUST be the most absurd and improbable explanation, which is an extraterrestrial being with advanced hovering technology with superior technology that remains neutral, non-threatening and visible to a human.  I’m not sure I follow that line of reasoning, but to some Extraordinarily Sharp Minds it makes perfect sense.

Religion and reality do not mix well.  Religion is based on a virtual hierarchy that heavily depends on unquestioned authority.  In the old days especially, a strict social hierarchy had its advantages for survival.  The alpha male or female is the leader of the pact and carries responsibilities, authority, and dominion.  However authority and dominion do not necessarily imply correctness.  But nonetheless the urge to follow and believe in authority blindly, regardless of evidence to the contrary, is deeply ingrained into our brains, and messes with our ability to reason clearly.

It is human nature to try to make sense out of something that has none.  It is simply pattern recognition, which is discussed in another blog article.  People remember the extraordinary events and not the mundane, regular ones.  Inherent randomness ensures that extraordinary events will occur, like royal flushes and quad aces, and those are what people remember, not the junk hands.

“Random” is more of a western word and concept.  Strangely enough, I cannot think of an equivalent word in Chinese that correctly conveys the message. As in, “that was so random”. Embracing randomness means that you accept that sometimes, shit just happens. There’s no one to blame, and not a higher cause or puppeting by a mischievous deity.  It doesn’t mean that it is fate and final and you can’t do anything about it, it just means that it’s nothing personal, it’s random.  You deal with it.  Eastern philosophies view it more as karma or fate or luck or whatever.  Personally, I think it is way too deterministic and passive.

“Faith” is also more of a western word and concept.  It is defined, by Merriam Webster, as “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof”.  It is also hailed universally, at least in the western world, as a virtue.  That is something I strongly oppose.  I think that belief should only be based on best available and highest quality evidence.  It should be subject to revision, especially if there is newer, higher quality evidence that is discovered.  Nothing should be so sacred that it cannot be examined, challenged, and revised, be it religion, a concept, a medical procedure, a relationship, or a policy.  That, I believe, is a much better virtue than, say, faith.

Why We Suck at Risk Assessment

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.


It is no secret that we suck at risk assessment.  We make bad decisions every day, individually and collectively, based on bad risk assessment.

For example, someone might smoke and chomp on a burger while talking on his cell phone while driving to the Santa Cruz beach, only to decide not to enter the water because of this report he saw last night about deadly box jellyfish.

Never mind the fact that he was thousands of times more likely to die from the drive over than getting hit by lightning.  Or the fact that in reality box jellyfish rarely kill.  Or the fact that box jellyfish aren’t even found in Santa Cruz.

Another example is that Americans are spending over a trillion fighting wars far away, at a cost of close to $10,000 per household, to “fight terrorism”.  If the goal is to save lives of Americans, it would be about the worst return on investment in the history of mankind.  It’s only slightly better than burning $100 bills in the fireplace to keep the house warm.

Why is it then, that we suck at risk assessment?

Simply put, our brains are not ready yet.

Most animals have a fight-or-flight response, which is arguably the most important decision for survival, and it is done almost instantly, based on the immediate circumstances.  There is no time for calculation of long term consequences.  You flatten the squirrel and run from the tiger.  It is raw emotion and reflexes.

Over time, our brains have evolved to have a different type of decision process, which is more nuanced and calculated.  It takes into account future rewards and consequences.  This ability to predict events and recognize patterns (separate blog on this) and make decisions based on them is what separates humans from the beasts.  It’s what enables people to slow play or bluff at a poker hand.  This decision process is more about reasoning and logic.

Clearly when it comes to major decisions, the latter type is more advantageous.  However oftentimes the immediate fight-or-flight part of the brain gets in the way of our decision process, leading to poor risk assessments and decisions.  It’s like calling an all-in bet with nothing simply out of anger.

My theory is that the reasoning part of the brain has not existed long enough to overcome the primal impulses of the brain.  Our brains have not caught up to the rapid technological development and incredible amount of information that is being conveyed.  In the past what was local and relevant information, today can spread globally in the blink of an eye, where it is often not relevant.

There is no shortage of risk assessments being biased by the fight-or-flight response:

Spectacular, unusual, gruesome and unfamiliar risks are over-emphasized.  After 9/11 people were paranoid of flying, especially if there were people dressed in Muslim garb on board.  A news report of someone decapitated by a tire strip shot through the windshield from a blown tire from the truck in front will make you stay away from trucks.

Recent exposure will increase emphasis, while long term risks are deemphasized.  If you see someone in Muslim garb on a plane now, are you as afraid as you were the days after 9/11?  In the other example, a month later, you will be fearlessly tailgating that truck.  Yet the risk has not changed at all, only they way it is perceived.

Perceived control over a situation, or a risk voluntarily taken, or possible benefit from the risk will also distort the assessment of the risk.  One feels more secure driving (in control) than flying or being driven (not in control).  A smoker/drinker/drug user will subconsciously underestimate the risk for the reward.  A gambler will go for a long shot even if the odds are extremely bad (think lottery).

A higher risk is perceived for things that are not understood clearly or easily, and by extension, a man-made item carries a higher risk than a naturally occurring one.  To a layperson it is not obvious how a microwave oven works, and thus it might seem riskier than a stove top, which is actually far more dangerous.  A burning plastic bag invokes more fear than say, an all natural and 100% organic death cap mushroom, ricin, or a cute Komodo Dragon.  The sun emits radiation in a spectrum and an intensity that in terms of danger, is several orders of magnitude higher than say, gluing cell phones all over your head and sleeping in a cell phone base station next to a high voltage power line.

Another influence is anecdotes, and somewhat associated, immediately available or vivid memories.  If one reads multiple “personal accounts” of a product on the web that allegedly has caused harm, he will likely think the product carries more risk than it actually does.  If you’re in the Vatican City and all you hear and read is that the condom is a product of the devil, you’d think twice about wearing that raincoat, before you bless the lord and plunge forward.  If you see pictures of a flattened human jigsaw puzzle, you’d be more careful crossing the street.  The mind is a strange thing; it remembers vivid details of a scene and snippets of information, while forgetting where it came from and even if the information is correct or not.  You don’t forget a flattened human jigsaw puzzle easily, but you will likely over time, forget where you first saw it.

Unscrupulous marketers and politicians exploit this quite readily.  After all, it’s an easy way to make a buck, and even easier way to obtain power.

The products that are out there range from small devices like so-called EMF shields to large establishments like doomsday shelters and underground condos.  Of course in the event that nuclear annihilation actually occurs, it’s unknown how one is supposed to drive hours into the wilderness to get to that shelter without dying first.  However, dubious products would be the topic of another blog and I won’t elaborate here.

Politicians use the trick all the time, trumpeting issues from “war on terror”, “war on drugs” to “secure the border”, just to name a few.  Climate change is another issue that gets raised often but there is some legitimate debate on that so that is partly justified.  The PATRIOT act, one of the worst acts ever written in history, was passed in record time by Congress, without even being actually studied, based on irrational fear and poor risk assessment.

People would not be people without emotion, and it is an integral part of humanity.  It is what separates us as a species.  It also enables us to live, love, enjoy, and experience life to its fullest.  But when it comes to assessing risk and making serious decisions with long term implications, the best decision is always from a careful analysis of the best available information.

Special thanks to David Ropeik and George Gray, as some material is blatantly pilfered from their book “Risk”.  Please don’t sue me.