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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Making Sense in a Random Place

Interesting little article on the BBC website on the human tendency to make patterns out of randomness - and why our idea of "random" is actually better described as "roughly evenly distributed". Reminds me of my friend who complained her CD autoplayer wasn't truly random, as it regularly played songs twice in succession. I worked out for her that, based on the number of tracks she was playing, she could expect this to happen on average once an hour. Which was about the length of her commute.

It also reminds me of the story about the Founder of the John Lewis Partnership. It's said that some people visiting the Odney Club at Cookham, where the Partnership has a country house / training centre, saw the gardener throwing conkers on the ground. But half were painted, When they asked why, the explanation was that the gardener was planting a mixture of different coloured crocus bulbs and had to ensure they looked random. So he threw down the conkers until they looked random enough, and if they didn't look particularly random he threw them down again. Then planted the bulbs in their colours according to the paint on the conkers.

Spedan Lewis also gave away a great fortune by making his employees Partners in his shops. Which means he was a genius and/or a madman. But it shows the power of pattern making in our minds. We take apparently - or actually -random things and coincidences and try to make sense out of them. Maybe that's why humans developed magic, religion and science - ways of trying to make sense out of what is the totally random around us. 

Sometimes, a strong act of a confident person based on what is actually a random event can make a giant leap forward. I think, for example, of the scientists who noticed a bunch of sick ferrets. They concluded - correctly - that influenza can transfer between species. A really important piece of knowledge, informing us of the way that the disease mutates and disseminates in the wild. And all based on poor evidence, as the ferrets actually had canine distemper. But it just goes to show - we make patterns and, if they're strong, we act on them. I mean, the sheer chance appearaance of the words "In this sign conquer" to Constantine caused him to assume that God was, in some sense, on his side and of course to become Emperor.

It's our pattern-making that contributes to our humanity. It can also lead, like a badly-coded piece of DNA, to some fairly odd conclusions. Take tomorrow's supermooneqinoxaurorapoceclipse, for instance. Obviously we have some American fundamentalists telling us that it's a sign from God of our evil ways. That's what fundamentalist self-appointed prophets do. Interesting that they blame things like gay weddings and the rise of Islam. God never does these things to warn us that we're half-enslaving half the world to make our cheap blouses and shoes. Nor that the reason why the population of Northen Europe is being supplemented by so many Muslim guests is because their good ol' boy evangelical George Dubya, together with our war-obsessed Catholic convert, bombed the hell out of Iraq so Yanks could have cheap oil, and their successors followed up by destabilising the bits of the Middle East that were left.

On the whole, frackng would have been better. Less trouble all round.

But the point is, if God wanted to use a fairly rare line up of events to warn us of our evil ways, to tell us we're on the slippery slope to liberal vicars conducting gay weddings for Muslims in every parish in South London - well,  he's had this programmed this in since the Moon first orbited the Moon. All these facts could have been forecast decades ago - the eclipse in particular has been known for ages. So God must have known we would be particularly evil a long time ago.

So why didn't the evo prophets of doom? These are all perfectly calculable events. They could have told us we'd all be evil years ago, given us the chance to repent then. Not left it till this week.

But there's more, I think. 

Forecasting how things will pan out on earth by looking at what is happening in Space isn't really a prophetic method in the New Testament - or even the Old. And although the methodology of forecasting supermoons and eclipses is part of astronomy, working out what they mean isn't. I think that's actually called astrology. The Wise Men in Matthew's Gospel did it once, but I think they got away with it. If I were an American fundamentalist prophet, I'd look very carefully at the patterns I was discerning. And then worry who my companions were.

1 comment :

  1. Have you just had a spell working on 'Old Moore's Almanac' because when I were a Lad, this little booklet sold in it's thousands as it randomly predicted events to come. Randomness statistically meant that about 20 to 30 percent actually happened, which allowed the superstitious among us to go on buying it and Old Moore's publishers to Jet off to Lanzorotte on lavish pub crawls for years.

    Now, google is the modern equivalent of the Almanac or Directory, so beloved of Sherlock Holmes (or was it Arthur Conan Doyle?) and gives just as many random results, in fact, hundreds of thousands of them. Just type any word that pops into your head into google and you will have enough to keep you amused for the next five years.

    I actually put Arch Druid into google, and found the stories of them being boiled in oil? Does this fate await you?

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