Friday the 13th

I’m not superstitious by nature, I’m too much of a rational materialist for that sort of thing.  Math and science have more impact on my mind than rabbit’s feet and black cats. I was born on a Friday the 13th (November 1959) so I tend to think of it as my lucky day. But luck is like beauty as it’s in the eye of the beholder. If wildfires wipe out your neighborhood but leave your house standing, that’s good luck for you and bad luck for your neighbors. So I prefer to think in terms of random variation.

If you hit .400 for a month you stand a good chance of hitting .200 in a different month. Guys don’t hit .400 for a season very often and they don’t hit .200 for a season very often, either. They tend to swing back-and-forth between those extremes and even out somewhere north or (mostly) south of .300 for the year. That’s random variation. If you bat ten times in any weekend series and hit five balls as hard as you can you might wind up with five hits or five outs. It’s not entirely up to you or your skill level. Once the ball leaves the bat you have no control over it and the baseball gods take over. That’s random variation.

We don’t like random variation. We like to think we make our own luck. That’s true to some degree. A batter has to practice and keep improving his skills, and he has to make good decisions in the games he plays. He has to swing at pitches he can hit and he has to make solid contact. But he can do all that and still go 0-for-10 and be the goat.

In America if you are down on your luck you don’t get much sympathy. Poor people are considered weak and foolish. Their lot is their own doing and has nothing to do with luck. If they were just smarter or worked harder they would see their lives improve. The American success ethic has no place for randomness. You are a winner or you are a loser and that’s that.

But nature is not like that. And we humans are as much a part of nature as the birds and the fishes and the trees. When a volcano erupts and spews gas and lava over the landscape some living things get buried and some escape. That’s mostly a random phenomenon. The village or forest that gets immolated is not lacking in courage, fortitude, brains, or heart. It’s just unlucky. Your genetic package is not under your control. The assortment you get from your parents is the result of random variation, the outcome is not anyone’s doing.

With so much randomness around you’d think we’d be more focused on process and less focused on outcomes. But we are an outcome-oriented people. We like to assign credit and blame for things even if those things are too big for any one person to get the credit or the blame. Presidents get credit for a good economy or blame for a poor one but they may have nothing to do with it either way. Economies are very big systems with a lot of inputs and despite all the Nobel Prizes folks really don’t understand them. It’s not science as you can’t run proper experiments and thus you can’t test your hypotheses. And when economists get tangled up with politicians all bets are off. Politics is about as irrational a business as humans can come up with and people who are good at it know that feelings and attitudes are way more important than facts.

Facts are over-rated anyway. We are believing and doubting creatures. We believe some things and doubt others and most of the time it has little to do with actual events. We are products of our upbringing and environment and it is really hard to see the world in any other way but the way we’ve always seen the world. Prejudice, or perhaps I should say bias, is more important than objectivity. In fact objectivity is impossible for humans, as no matter how hard we try at least some of our preconceived notions will be part of our world view.

So what is one to do? I think the key is to recognize our inability to see the facts in a situation and accept that we are opinionated as hell. What we can do is try on some of those other opinions and try to see where they come from. They come from somewhere, they are not entirely random or without foundation. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you might see the world a little differently than you did before and that is, in my mind, progress. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is empathy. When you can feel what another person might be feeling even if you’ve not had the experiences of that other person you become a larger version of yourself. You enrich your own humanity.

Empathy can only come about through humility. We have to recognize our own weaknesses and limitations. We have to accept that sometimes it is luck that gave us what we have and not our checklist of virtuous behavior. The mystic believes that god is in everyone and that anyone who accepts that fact cannot hate another person or be indifferent to their suffering because that would be an affront to god. I think that might be the hardest thing in the world, to see god in everyone. Too hard for most of us I expect.

For us ordinary mortals, those of us without the necessary spiritual equipment to see god everywhere, we could try something a little easier. How about seeing that the process is more important than the outcome? That random variation doesn’t discriminate and thus we are all subject to it. That bad luck could be just around the corner no matter who you are, and that most of us don’t “deserve” it when it happens. How about letting go of opinions? That’s all they are, opinions. They aren’t universal truths or bits of wisdom or guidelines for ethical living. They are just opinions. We love our opinions and think they define us. They don’t. They come and they go and we change our minds and then we rail at others for changing theirs. Seems pretty stupid, don’t you think?

One thing I know is true: we are all the same. Forty-six chromosomes made out of the same stuff, DNA. We are different, the DNA says that too, but the differences are not as great as the similarities. That’s one of those things worth keeping: what divides us is a lot less than what we have in common. That’s biology, man, and you can’t argue with that.

12 thoughts on “Friday the 13th

  1. If you had become a priest, rabbi or minister, your little sermon (and I mean that in a good way) would have worked well before any congregation. However, you must remember to capitalize God’s name. The small g will send you and your ilk to HELL FOR ETERNITY! Bring on the brimstone!


  2. So I think in random access mode most all of the time, so reading this I, for some reason, remembered a lunch I was involved in with an different thinking type of voter, an old fariend of the ancient family who was, um, rabidly discussing politics. The man across from me said, ‘Well, YOU are going to vote for Trump, right, Nancy?’ and quietly said, ‘No,’ at which he really did get quite excited and said, ‘YOU AREN’T
    VOTING FOR TRUMP???’ ‘No.’ His face got very red and he honestly had tears in his eyes, and he said, quite sadly, ‘You know you are going RIGHT to Hell, don’t you?? Don’t you believe in GOD?’ and I allowed as how I wasn’t very sure about that, either. He whipped out his handerchief and literally cried into his hankie and kept saying, ‘Oh Nancy Oh Nancy……’ So for some reason I every so often have this little, strange vignette bouncing around upstairs and I still find I have to say , ‘Who knows?” And I really don’t think I can argue with that.


  3. Mark O’Connor: “(Economics” is not science as you can’t run experiments to test your hypotheses”.

    Would you agree that the efficient use of resources requires some form of calculation? (Why not make telephone poles out of aluminum?)

    Would that be a scientific statement even though its truth cannot be tested in the lab?

    Wouldn’t the hypothesis that “full employment” of resources (regardless of what resources are employed where) will increase wealth (the things that people value) be scientifically wrong?

    Economic science in large part addresses the need for and methods of economic calculation.


    • Certainly you have to have analysis for complex problems like resource utilization. But things can be “true” and yet “scientifically invalid.” The existence of god is not testable, yet is true for many. People accept Freudian notions of the ego, unconscious, and Oedipus Complex yet none are testable in a scientific sense. Economics has a lot of hypotheses (incorrectly called theories) about how markets work, or taxes, or whatnot, but none can be subjected to controlled environments and thus can’t be verified as working scientific “truths.” And the overlap of psychology–the behavior of crowds, for example–cannot be separated out either. So we rely on empirical results and trial-and-error which is only half the battle because this information is judged against prevailing political attitudes (“lower corporate taxes means increased growth”) rather than a sound theory that can actually make predictions. I have a deep respect for math and it’s power to inform us and show us paths to solutions. But I’m still waiting for an economic theory that has the predictive power of say, Newtonian mechanics, which is 400 years old.


      • So in your view Economics is not a science because it involves the human mind rather than just a test tube of chemicals. To you, apparently, human action conforms to no absolute laws. You believe that nothing involving the study of thought can be “scientifically valid”.

        Profit and loss (and derivative concepts like “growth”) do by definition involve the mind. They are a part of the very nature of human action. They are a way of describing every action without exception.

        All action involves economic calculation. Action always seeks to exchange a less-preferred state of things for a more-preferred state of things. Otherwise, no action would occur (of course, action may result in losses). Why not call this a :”scientific fact”? Its truth is self-evident.

        It is a scientific fact that in a “free market” prices tend to reflect the degree to which in general the participants in the market value each good. This is not an empirical observation. It follows from a scientific analysis of human action: people try to act as profitably as possible (buy as low as they can and sell as high as they can). It is a scientific fact that in a free market the likelihood of greater profit will (everything else being equal) result in more action to take advantage of that fact. This comes from the very nature of human action. This is why lower taxes on profits result in more action (investment and “growth”). (Of course every “economic theory” starts out with the words “Everything else being equal.” In the individual case the general rule may be counteracted by extraneous circumstances or motives).

        Action within the market economy involves very elaborate modes of calculation by means of prices (which reflect the wishes of the consumers). Why not call the obvious fact that successful action in a market economy requires calculation a “scientific fact”?

        If an “economist” declares (like the Federal Reserve) that “the economy” can “grow” merely by merely achieving “full employment” (without necessarily any economic calculation!), why not call this statement a denial of science? Why define “science” so that it cannot encompass unquestionable truths about human action?

        If, neglecting economic calculation, the state nonetheless creates “full employment”, one could never know “empirically or by trial and error” the real (scientific) truth–which is that it has wasted (through misallocation) resources which could have enriched the country if wisely invested. The only reason economists know this, and know it for sure, is that it is scientific fact that the most efficient use of resources for maximum benefit of the consumers requires calculation based on prices (of course projected future prices, not present prices!)


  4. I accept that economic and psychological models offer descriptions of aspects of complex systems and that these are useful. I just think that a “scientific fact” is something that is true ALL the time given the same set of initial conditions. It has to be repeatable to be science. Not all knowledge is scientific. Economics and psychology are descriptions of (and proposals about) human behavior, and there are as many such descriptions and proposals as there are kinds of people. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, we don’t even know how dogs work, and they are a hell of a lot less complicated than people, so maybe we could start with dogs.


    • So again, you believe economics is not scientific because it involves the human mind. As far as having to be true for every human being anywhere, at any time, that’s exactly what I alleged with regard to the very nature of human action–which is what economics derives from.

      As far a psychology not being scientific because it doesn’t involve experimentation, my own view is that maybe a different protocol should apply: If someone describes for you regularities he perceives in his own mind, and contends that through certain modes of thinking these regularities would become apparent to ANYONE, then that opens the way for someone like Mark O’Connor to do his own personal experiment to see for himself!

      Of course then Mark himself would be in the position of not being able to convince anyone else except by saying: Try this yourself and you will see!

      So this is a bit different from test tube verification, but maybe it is the only verification we can have for regularities in the mind. Everyone can do his own little experiment at home!

      Take as an illustration my contention that cognition is unconscious. Suppose I could teach you to be your own personal tachistoscope by momentarily putting all your knowledge out of your “conscious mind” and looking at things as if you had never seen them, or anything like them, ever before; and suppose I contended that if you did this then you would find that I am right about cognition being unconscious. I think it is unlikely that you would ever do this because you might find it somewhat like jumping off a cliff. The experience would be of letting all the knowledge you have acquired over so many years dissolve momentarily (Trust me, it’s only momentary!); which is perhaps so terrifying you would never try it. But who knows? Lots of people tried LSD.

      This might be the same as what Hindu mystics prescribe for reaching “enlightenment”. What I have never understood is how someone can become enlightened without looking at any book or anything else; just sitting there in the dark and trying to dissolve his knowledge–which I know the mind is set up for one to be able to do, but probably not while just sitting there in a cave. Its purpose is obviously to help the organism adapt to new things in the outside world.

      But they’re on the right track.


      • Science is also a product of the human mind, and we can be just as fooled by its conclusions as anything else. Scientists have just as much trouble letting go of their cherished notions as anyone else even if the experiments tell them otherwise. This is why I am generally skeptical of things like psychology and economics: it is hard enough for physicists not to have have biased ideas about subatomic particles, think of how hard it is to be un-biased about our own behavior and that of groups of fellow humans. It’s not that I don’t believe such people aren’t smart or serious, it’s just the nature of the task. It’s enormously complex and we are still banging away at it with hammers.

        I’m certainly willing to accept that I can be taught lots of things to do with my mind, from the mystical to the mundane. That only illustrates that I can be taught things, and we already know humans can learn. We can learn to be Hitler or learn to be Jesus. If we do all have such regularities in our minds as you suggest then we must all be capable of being either one. I don’t discount any kind of human knowledge. I just like to sort out stuff that I’m more sure of from stuff I’m less sure of. And the more assumptions I have to make, the warier I get. (People are familiar with Einstein saying “God does not play dice” in one of his many critiques of quantum mechanics, but Bohr’s reply, although less known, is more to the mark: “don’t tell God what to do.”)

        I think of knowledge and ideas like helium balloons, all floating around. Science is the pin that pops them. The balloons keep coming, and some float longer and higher and further–they resist the pin-prick because they are robust balloons. Science is about finding those more robust balloons and taking them for a ride. They are still balloons, though, and one day we’ll find a stouter pin. Or perhaps they’ll float beyond our reach. And some balloons can’t be pricked because we can’t get a hold of them.


      • So because so many countervailing factors are at play in “the economy” and given that, economics cannot predict the future, you are “leery” of economics and disparage the claim that lower corporate taxes means increased growth and call it a “political attitude” rather than “sound theory”. Even though I have suggested the sound theory behind it (you haven’t bothered to specifically critique what I said) you believe no theory is sound if it cannot predict the future.

        Therefore as you see it, any hypothesis about economic matters is just as valid as any other. Given this stance, why do you implicitly suggest that the hypothesis that lower corporate taxes means increased growth is not valid? Is that just a “cherished notion” or “political attitude” of yours? By the way, can you define “growth”?

        Hitler and Jesus? Give me a break. I have merely suggested that cognition is unconscious. Any and all cognition. (I distinguish cognition from merely memorizing words}. I have not suggested that by learning to deal with this truth someone can become in any way like Hitler or Jesus. What does that even mean? It seems Hitler was rather knowledgeable on some minute details of military equipment and on the geography of Europe and Russia, but I’m not aware that Jesus was much of an intellectual in any way. Without doubt he knew some ancient texts, but I wouldn’t associate that with “cognition” as cognition suggests a personal knowledge of reality. If one wants to become an “expert” in any field or on any subject great or small, one has to realize that somehow the reality of the thing needs to get into his head in a way that is different than just the ability to recite something out of a book. You cannot force this to occur. But if you persist it may somehow occur by itself.


  5. A “theory” can only be “sound” if it works. I don’t know if lowering corporate taxes increases growth–it might, it might not. I’m only arguing that economists don’t really know, either, because their “theory” cannot account for EVERY example and they don’t have a laboratory for testing that is insulated from other factors.They could just be suffering from post hoc ergo propter hoc. I’m not for or against raising or lowering corporate taxes or for or against any particular economic “theory”. I’m just recognizing that they don’t have the same repeatable scientific basis as, say, rocket science, which can actually test postulates in controlled conditions. That’s what science is. Some things, to me, aren’t science. That doesn’t mean they can’t be useful or valuable, they just can’t be stated with the same certainty, or perhaps it’s better to say the uncertainty can’t be quantified as precisely.

    My difficulties with psychology are precisely the Jesus-Hitler problem. A “theory” of the mind, of personality, of development, of learning, or whatever else is the purview of psychology must account for ALL human behavior. The fact that both of those men existed is proof that humans are capable of a huge range of behaviors and attitudes. I can learn to be either one. So can you. I’ve no doubt that cognition involves a variety of processes and experiences, some we are aware of and some we are not. I don’t think I said cognition cannot be unconscious (by that you mean we are not aware of it, I think). I’m not a fan of Freudian lingo (he may have been a very bright fellow but few of his notions are testable) and I don’t know if contemporary psychology still uses his terminology. Learning is a very mysterious thing–I taught teenagers for 30 years and I’m still mystified!


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