The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

Disclaimer: I am writing this at midnight. My thoughts may or may not be coherent.

The Drunkard’s Walk is an extremely thought-provoking read on a topic most of us tend to overlook-randomness. As the title suggests, the book discusses probability and how randomness applies to most aspects of our lives, from the corporate world, to pop culture, to medical studies, to history, to our personal lives.

Cover from Goodreads

For me, the biggest gain in reading the book was recognizing the logical fallacies that humans tend to make when using probability and underestimating the role of statistics in the world. Starting with the Monty Hall problem from a game show, the book highlights multiple instances in which we tend to follow the wrong train of thought. In the case of Monty Hall,hundreds of thousands of Americans were outraged by this correct answer to this problem, including many PhD’s who were later proven wrong.

Court cases are also explained in this book, taking seemingly sound “evidence” and showing how the “statistics” are unrelated to what is being asked for, deceiving everyone in the courtroom, as well as myself. In most cases, the faulty logic resulted in the wrong verdict, just one instance where lack of mathematical knowledge harms society.

A whole chapter of The Drunkard’s Walk is dedicated to the history behind probability and how the formulas and theorems were first proven (Hint: It’s usually because of gambling.) The beginning is pretty basic, but my brain began to hurt as mathematicians’ knowledge of statistics deepened and began to consider how to accurately collect and interpret data.

Another fault of our brains pointed out by Mlodinow is that we like to find patterns in everything, whether they exist or not. Our brains have a hard time grasping the concept of randomness, and we tend to believe that every result has a cause and can be foreseen, which seems true in hindsight, where we can cherry-pick evidence to support the result. However, when predicting the future, so many factors are involved that a minor change in any variable could change the outcome significantly, known as the butterfly effect. From the motion of molecules to the stock market, the butterfly effect makes it impossible to predict to the future.

The Drunkard’s Walk concludes by showing the biases humans have towards perceived “successful” people, even with proof that success (aka fame and money) is mostly random.

As a math nerd, I enjoyed reading The Drunkard’s Walk, even if it was a little brain-busting at times. The information will stick with me for a while and is surprisingly “real-life”


One thought on “The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

  1. Pingback: 2014 Resolutions | afanofideas

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