On July 3rd, nearly a dozen humanists met at Our Town Cafe to discuss Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk.
The central premise of the book is about how randomness, probability, and statistics govern so much more of the human experience than many of us are aware of. Ranging from sports, to the stock markets, to CEO's performances, many things are far more random than we'd like to assume, and given our limited datasets (we only tend to observe things briefly), we often make over-reaching judgements about success or failure that may not be warranted.
Overall people found the book very readable and enjoyed the various examples provided. It affirmed many of our view's that people are unable to accurately judge probabilities and the absurdity of our arrogance in our own infallibility (even in the freethought community). We noted how much more important persistence and dedication seem to be than actual skill as most success seems attributable to luck.
The book also provided a glimpse into the lives on many of the mathematicians who developed these theories. Many were quite interesting characters, including Blaise Pascal who swore off mathematics in favour of religion and developed his infamous wager about belief in God. His piety became so strong he wore a belt of spikes pointed inward so he would never be comfortable. Unfortunately, the book didn't go into any of the numerous refutations of his wager, including the error in assuming a 50/50 chance of God existing or that you happen to choose the correct one to believe in.
On of the first criticisms of the book came from Mclean, who in his graduate work in mathematics found the introductory paragraph to be a bit far-reaching and over simplified. He did enjoy the examples through the middle of the book though. He also questioned whether randomness truly existed or if there were perhaps hidden fundamental laws governing even quantum mechanics. Others noted that the EPR Paradox and Bell Inequality proofs and experiments later proved that quantum mechanics is a fundamentally random theory and that there could be no hidden variables.
Overall it was a fascinating and enjoyable discussion, even though many had not quite finished the book (as is typical of the book club).