Statistics is the lovechild of bullshit and mathematics. No other area of modern numerical study contains as much misleading bullshit as statistics. Data, its calculations, and presentation provides so many grey areas in which to make judgment calls that its results often reveal little about the data. Statisticians routinely disregard unfavorable data, ask loaded questions, overgeneralize based on poor data samples, misreport margins of error, or commit various logical fallacies such as confusing causation and correlation.
In short, you can crunch data to provide results to reinforce whatever world view you want to promote.
These shortcomings make statistics the most human of the mathematic disciplines. Statistical calculations are meaningless in a vacuum. You can take a Poisson distribution or the mean, median, and mode of a data set and come up with numbers. Those numbers are just numbers. Figuring out what those numbers mean requires judgment and thought.
Probability fuels statistics. Regardless of the study, a statistician’s only real job is to identify probability within a dataset and explain its nature. Statisticians dance with chance. Their ballet provides a view into human nature and the design of the universe. Simply put, probability is the likelihood of any given event.
The mysterious concept of probability is fundamental to our universe. The whole field of quantum mechanics hinges on the random character of physical processes on a sub-atomic level. In other words, physicists determined that sub-atomic interactions require statistical approximations to account for variances in observations. This discovery departed from Newton’s classical theories of a deterministic universe.
In short, probability is a force in our universe. Quantum mechanics deals with probability and chance as a major variable in many of its calculations. The cold, hard truths of mathematics meet the bullshit of randomness and happenstance.
What fuels probability? Why is there anything random in our universe? Logically, things should occur in an organized matter. For example, if you write computer code telling Excel [if you find X then do Y] then you know with 100% certainty what will happen every time the software finds X. So long as the software recognizes the data you feed it, then there will be only one conclusion.
Our universe does not work in this manner. On the large scale, we generally know where planets will be by calculating their orbits. We know what goes up must come down. We’re not really sure why any of this happens, but it happens frequently enough that we’ve attributed a name to the general phenomena: gravity.
On its face, gravity appears straight forward. Things go up and then back down. Planets in orbit continue to stay in orbit. Then, if you want to get more complex, you may describe gravity as the curvature of space and time. Perhaps the reason planets remain in orbit is because the Sun exerts enough pressure on the curvature of the universe that objects get stuck in an endless loop around the larger object.
Unfortunately, this description of gravity clashes with quantum field theory. Wikipedia summarizes the issue as an inability for physicists “to apply the usual prescriptions of quantum field theory to the force of gravity.” Nongravitational forces, which is adequately described by quantum field theory, require descriptions based in part on calculating an object’s probability of being in a certain place. This flies in the face of classical physics, which generally describes the universe in a deterministic fashion.
Of all people to address the issue of gravity and the other forces of the universe, Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, provides an interesting view. Mr. Adams has proposed in various books over the years that gravity may also be a function of probability. His view is that objects tend to move in the same direction they’re already heading due to the high probability of an object continuing its current path.
Mr. Adams describes gravity as a function of probability and time. Time consists of a series of eternal moments. The small eternal moments of time pass by us so quickly that humans interpret time as a continuous stream of events. Think of watching a film. You’re really seeing 28 frames per second on the screen, but your eyes interpret it as a continuous event. By analogy, time consists of an infinite number of eternal moments. Each moment leads to the next moment. So, if in moment #1 a ball is falling in the air, then it’s likely that in moment #2 the ball will continue on its path. The same holds true for planets, stars, galaxies, and so on.
Each of these moments are their own distinct universes. To a three dimensional being, each of these momentary universes are static and infinitely huge. Our perception of time stems from moving through these moments. Matter generally moves from one moment to another, but doesn’t necessarily have to do so.
That’s the key to Mr. Adams’ theory of gravity. Things do not necessarily continue on their current course. Matter may appear in one universe and then vanish in the next. This random chance accounts for quantum fluctuations on a small scale.
Voila! Physics is solved.
Okay, there may be some gaps in there. Regardless, the idea goes on to explain the multiverse. Matter existing in each moment continues into the next moment in a variety of universes. So, the ball falling in air may continue falling in universe A, but may hit a bird in universe B, may be caught in universe C, or may be blown away by a sudden wind in universe D. Mr. Adams contemplates a universe in our lives are lived simultaneously in an infinite number of ways.
Then things get weird. Mr. Adams suggests that our consciousness is not located in a single universe. Our lives generally head in a certain direction based on the law that objects headed in a direction tend to stay in that direction. However, we can change that direction through will power. In other words, your consciousness may freely float between universes as we march forward from moment to moment in time. He attributes much of his success in life to discovering this phenomena in the universe.
Mr. Adams posits that we constantly move between these various universes. Since we perceive time as a continuous event, we lose sight of the fact that we constantly float between these eternal moments. He then suggests that we can will ourselves into universes more in tune with our perception of the world. Apparently, Mr. Adams willed himself into a universe wherein he received an MBA from Stanford and became a successful cartoonist.
Remember how I started this blog post? Statistics is bullshit and mathematics. Regardless, statistics is a useful tool in our arsenal to help us interpret our world. Statistics concerns itself with the phenomena of probability, the occurrence of chance in our universe. Scott Adams believes that probability is a fundamental force of nature. Like other forces of nature, he believes that it can be manipulated and changed.
It really doesn’t matter whether probability bends to our will or whether we unconsciously create each moment around us. The reality is that our universe is a strange place. Why do we take ourselves so seriously when the universe can’t be bothered to arrange itself in a coherent manner? The value of studying chance, probability, and wacky thought experiments about nature of reality is that they provide perspective of our place in the universe.
“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” – Helen Keller