Surrealpolitik: The Improbability Principle

Author: David Hand

London: Corgi Books (2014)

Quick Summary

Explains concepts relating to coincidence, risk, and probability, e.g., why things that seem highly unlikely or unpredictable in the particular are virtually certain or predictable over time and/or in large numbers. There are various kinds of probability, the three most widely used being frequentist (or aleatory, depending on the throw of the dice, external factors), subjective (or epistemological, internal factors, the belief an event will occur), and classical (based on symmetry). There's also logical probability aka rational degree of belief, credibility, or degree of confirmation.


There are 8 quotes currently associated with this book.

[Borel's] law says, 'Events with a sufficiently small probability never occur.'...Borel is relating 'very small probabilities' to human scales, and that's what he means: in human terms the probability is so small that it would be irrational to expect ever to see it happen; it should be regarded as impossible. (page 22)
Tags: [Rationality, Probability]
Even if one event follows another surprisingly often, it doesn't necessarily mean that the first causes the second. Statisticians have a sound-bite for this: correlation does not imply causation...There's a Latin phrase that philosophers and logicians use to describe this fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning 'after this, therefore because of this'. (page 32)
Tags: [Probability]
We tend to note only evidence and evens supporting our theories, and ignore any pointing in the other direction. This is called confirmation bias...In his Novum Organum (The New Organon), Francis Bacon, who was a pioneering in laying down the principles of science, said:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion...draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects ... men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. (page 35)
Tags: [Rationality, Probability]
The great philosopher David Hume had something relevant to say about miracles. He wrote that 'no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.' In other words, the evidence for a miracle is convincing only if alternative explanations are less probable -- and these alternative explanations include fraud, mistakes and so on. Hume went on to say:

'When any one tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover I pronounce my decision and always reject the greater miracle.' (page 44)
Tags: [Rationality, Lead Quote Candidate, Conspiracy, Probability]
The 1662 book La logique, ou l'art de penser (often called just Logic or Port-Royal Logic, after the Jansenist convent of Port-Royal) by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole included a criticism of the principle of 'probabilism'. This referred to how issues should be decided by appealing to authorities. The book also included one of the first usages of the word 'probability' in a more modern sense. In this single book, we can see the transition from medieval notions of truth derived from authority to scientific notions of truth derived from evidence. (page 63)
Tags: [Rationality, Conspiracy, Probability]
It's a major conceptual advance to recognize that, while it's completely unknown which of heads or tails will come up on any individual toss of a coin, about 500 out of 1,000 tosses will nonetheless show heads. It's on a par with the intellectual leap which led to the concept of gravity as a universal force acting between objects.

The size of the giant intellectual advance is demonstrated by the difficulty many people have, even nowadays, in understanding some of the properties of chance events. For example, knowing that the tossed (fair!) coin is expected to come up heads about half the time, and observing a preponderance of heads among the first ten tosses, many people expect to see this counterbalanced by a preponderance of tails in later tosses. But that's not what happens. This misunderstanding is so widespread it has a name: the gambler's fallacy. (page 68)
Tags: [Probability]
[O]nce the attempt to understand natural physical laws was no longer regarded as blasphemous, it would also no longer be blasphemous to see through chance events to predict likely outcomes, even if they were regarded as representing the hand of a divinity. (page 70)
Tags: [Conspiracy, Probability]
The consensus now is that nature is indeed fundamentally driven by chance -- that uncertainty lies at its very core...We live in a universe dominated by chance and uncertainty. But as we've seen, chance has its own laws. Those laws are the foundations of probability. (page 98)
Tags: [Probability]