Wednesday, November 16, 2011

statistical in nature

Life is statistical in nature. I like to say it a lot. In fact, I would say it more than I already do, but it's hard to find appropriate non-Vegas times to say it without sounding a bit callous since it does seem a bit impersonal. What's interesting is that the phrase has only appeared in this blog twice before. The first time was several years ago to reference a tragic and freak accident that made the local news while I was working in Farmington. The second was last year while discussing the Deepwater Horizon and how risk is inherent in that type of activity.

There is no particularly new tragedy that is on my mind that prompts this. I made a note to post on this more than two months ago and have finally gotten around to unfurling it into something comprehensible. In fact, I have been desperate to get this done in the past couple weeks because there is a certain deadline I am trying to be ahead of. But as I pour over my notes and half-written sentences, I realize that there is a "got it" sense to this concept and I will struggle mightily to convey just how significant I think it is and why I believe in it. Anecdotal examples can be pushed, but that's not really the point as I would much rather you the reader leave with a deeper acknowledgment of this concept. I will still use one personal example, though I should better call it a familial example.

Life is statistical in nature. This is a difficult concept for most people to understand, let alone accept as part of their lives. As individuals, we do not have the luxury of being aware of what the statistically averaged-out experience of 7 billion people is like. We only have our own experiences, when we often mistakenly assume are “normal” or “average” but there is essentially no chance of that being correct. (Another problem that I’m not going to discuss is that human memory is astonishingly inaccurate.) Thus, we assign an excessive amount of weight to our own experiences and the result is that are concept of the big picture is almost always way too small, self-centered, and invariably does not understand how causation really works. This leads inexorably large numbers of people to turn to other sources for answers like religion or karma or luck or massive government conspiracies. Wrong. All wrong and all terrible as they lead people to reach false conclusions about cause and effect and how the universe, specifically this small planet, actually works.

One way in which life being statistical in nature manifests itself is that, given enough chances, individually low probability events have a high chance of occurring. The lottery is a great example that hopefully makes this idea easily accessible. A person (not you, as I want you to externalize this) buys a lottery ticket. That person's chances of winning the lottery are very low. But another person, let's say person2, also buys a lottery ticket. And then person3 through personN all buy tickets. The chances that any of them pick the winning numbers is very low. (For example, the California state lottery uses a system where 5 numbers out of 47 are chosen and then another number from a separate 27 is picked. The odds of getting all six numbers right on any given ticket is about 1 in 41 million. And yes, I had to look up the current format of the lottery since I do not play. And if you don’t trust me or your own calculations on the odds, then you can also find them here.) While each individual number combination has a low probability of winning, if enough tickets are purchased, then the odds that a winning ticket exists goes up. Eventually, someone (but not you) gets selected as the winner. In a sense, someone has to win eventually (though in theory, there also exists the low probability event of no one ever winning), but the chance of that someone being you is incredibly small.

A more familial example is that my brother and his wife are having a baby soon. In terms of health and prenatal care and following all the best practices that modern medicine has to offer us, they are doing an excellent job. They are from a low risk factor group, unlikely to pass on any genetic diseases, and are properly investing in the health of their child. I'm not here to create needless worry for my brother and sister-in-law. In fact, quite the opposite. You can do what you can do. Everything else is beyond your meaningful control. The statistical die is cast where it is. The child's genetics are already fixed. Worry does not help. In fact, since worry and stress can lead to physiological symptoms, then worry and stress can hurt. But the point is that things are what they are and you did what you were supposed to do. If some low probability negative event still occurs, it's not anyone's fault. These things happen. Perhaps that sounds worrying, potentially terrifying if the concept of things beyond your control is upsetting, but being comforting is not a characteristic I am typically associated with. However, they should take comfort knowing they are doing the "right" things, where “right” is defined as actions that statistically improve the odds of a healthy baby. For what it’s worth, this also includes a positive outlook as we are social creatures and the impact on our physical well being is meaningful. So have some positivism.

Life is statistical in nature and this concept shows up very clearly when it comes to medicine and health. In that sense, our lives are very statistical in nature. Our genetics are a semi-random mix of half of the DNA from each of our parents plus some handful of mutations. Many mutations are harmful and never lead to viable life, some are benign and exist within the regions of seemingly unused DNA, and fewer still have an effect, either positive or negative, that is not immediately fatal. Don’t worry, if you’re able to read this, your genes are more or less fine. However, the genetic lot you drew was entirely out of your control. You can engage in all the right activities, exercise, diet, and lifestyle choices but if you have a genetic predisposition towards high cholesterol or lung cancer or some other condition, then that predisposition increases the chance you will develop said condition. It’s not a guarantee that you will end up with said condition, but things are what they are. Conversely, some people can engage in all sorts of risk factors but still never develop whatever condition X happens to be. You live your life once, not some statistically averaged existence. This is why the citation of your uncle who smoked until he was 90 is irrelevant to me. Unless you are my brother and your uncle is also my uncle, and this uncle is biologically related to us, then his ability to smoke until he was 90 tells me nothing of value since I don't share any of his seemingly very robust genes nor his impervious lungs. Perhaps in 9 out of 10 parallel universes, that same uncle does develop lung cancer, but we don’t get to know that. We’re only here and we don’t get to play the ‘what if’ game with peoples’ lives.

As I mentioned earlier, this statistical spread to our lives might be terrifying to some. It certainly creates some potentially unsettling questions about the arbitrariness of the universe. Good things happen, bad things happen, whatever. Without weighing too much on what is good and bad, some things are irreversibly good or bad including death, but we should never let this paralyze us from action and restrict the choices we are willing to make. Play your cards, roll the dice, or whatever gambling metaphor of your choice and live life.

Edit: Following up on yesterday's post, I already feel much better now that this long-awaited post is out the door. Writing, regardless of quality, is very beneficial to my mental well being.

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