Rational Explanation

In the first lecture I attended on probability at university, the lecturer tried an experiment with us to show us how badly human beings understand and estimate probability. He asked us to do one of two things, toss a coin 50 times and write down the results or write down a series of results that could have come from tossing a coin 50 times. Meanwhile, he left the room for 10 minutes. When he returned, he asked people to show him their results and, in every case, he could tell from looking at the written results whether the person had actually tossed a coin or whether they had just written down some results.

The reason for this is that Nature is far more random than people think it is. For example, a coin landing on the same side 5 times in a row during 50 tosses is actually quite likely. However, this looks ‘wrong’ to people so they would never write this down as a possible series of results (unless they’ve encountered this experiment before!).

Similarly, people tend to notice and remember things that reinforce their world-view, the difference between the glass being half-empty and the glass being half-full.

The reason that I mention all of this is that I’m trying to convince myself that I haven’t been experiencing a run of unusually bad luck recently. Firstly, using the results of the first experiment, just because it feels like an unusually long run of bad things, doesn’t mean that it’s in anyway significant and things will probably balance themselves out in the end. Secondly, because bad things have been happening, I’m more likely to notice the bad things and dismiss good things as irrelevant when they do happen.

I should point out that nothing seriously bad has happened. I more appear to be the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law, in that anything that can go wrong has. Now, some of these things are in some way my fault, like getting on the wrong train and being 40 minutes late meeting Steven after work; some of them are at least partially Steven’s fault, like the car battery being flat so that I had to bring my wedding dress home from central London by public transport and some of them are just things that happened, like sitting on chewing gum on my way to a course last Monday morning.

I had decided this weekend that I was going to stop complaining about the world being out to get me and just get on with life while waiting for these things to stop happening.

Then I tried to get into work early this morning.

First, I got on a train, which travelled to the next station where it stopped and an announcement was made that it was going to be held indefinitely since a passenger had been taken ill. So I got off the train. As I made my way along the platform to switch to the Docklands Light Railway instead, they suddenly announced that the train was leaving, shut the doors and left. Undeterred, I decided to stick with my plan to take the DLR since there had been various other problems with mainline trains this morning. I get to the DLR station, get on a train, it leaves and three stations down the line they announce that the station I want to go to has been closed because of a security alert, the train will be stopping at a station that is still a couple of miles from where I need to get to and that I should change at Canary Wharf to get the Underground. So, I change at Canary Wharf, can’t get on the first Underground train that comes because there’s no space but get on the second one without having to wait too long. That travels almost all the way to the next station where it is announced that there are going to be severe delays to the journey because of a passenger being taken ill on another train.

Now, I realise that Londoners like to complain about transport and I’m certainly proving no exception to the stereotype but I live 6 miles from the office and what is usually a 45 minute trip took 2 hours. I could have walked it in that time.

The only rational explanation is that the world really is out to get me and until someone can convince me otherwise I’m going to go hide under a rock.

One thought on “Rational Explanation

  1. oh, yes, probability. isn’t it weird how it so rarely seems to fit the facts? the rational brain will never rule the other brain….for better and worse!

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