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Probably

by on December 3, 2021

Probably

by Marco M. Pardi

Some things have to be believed to be seen.” Ralph Hodgson

All comments are welcome and will receive a reply. All previous posts are open for comment.

While in college I had an acquaintance with a Professor of Mathematics and his wife: he, Ph.D. Princeton; she, Ph.D. Columbia. Although I was in my twenties and they in their sixties we got on quite well. We several times met for dinner and long conversations at restaurants near the university. He did have a somewhat disconcerting habit: Either in appreciation of his meal or in an effort to make room for more he would expel several cubic feet of military grade methane from his large intestine, announced by what sounded surely like a beginning student of the Tuba. This being before smoking was banned in restaurants I did have initial fears of a nearby cigarette blowing the dessert cart across the room or of nearby diners having their then raised eyebrows singed. But I told myself: Probably not.

One evening, as I hesitated mid-sentence, he interjected with the statement that he knew of a computer program which could predict the next word I would speak. This being the late 1960’s I was remotely aware of computers. I was also in my fourth year of field operations with technical support from an agency which did almost all its work with computers. So, I was keen to learn more. But the conversation proceeded and I was left with a simple impression that a probability formula had been programmed into a computer.

However, this aroused my interest in just how much of our behavior is based on assumptions of probability. And what do we learn from surprise. Thinking back, I remembered how my mother, new at driving an automobile, said a prayer before even turning the key. Did she assume that would probably safeguard us from a crash? And that St. Christopher medallion pinned to her sun visor. Would that fetish object perhaps come to life should we take a wrong turn and probably guide us to our destination? I never saw him waving his hands to get her attention so I guess it worked.

The fear of a crash would have been more supportable had we been in the habit of driving places late at night. One State where I lived ran almost nightly public service broadcasts outlining how the risks of encountering a drunk driver increased exponentially with each passing hour into the night. And I actually did witness what appeared to be impaired drivers while driving home from teaching college night classes. Or maybe they were my students trying to regain equilibrium after two or three hours of listening to me. Either way, I seldom caught myself connecting the hour of the night with the driving styles of oncoming traffic. To me, a drunk was just as likely, or unlikely, to be driving home from tailgating at an afternoon football game, at least on week-ends, celebrating some event, leaving Happy Hour, or just supporting an addiction.

Somewhere in my development I began an effort to avoid using terms like: Never, Definitely, Can’t be, Must be, and others when asked to assess the likelihood of an action or event. I preferred to visualize a horizontal axis with the ultimate and seldom occurring negative at one end and the ultimate and seldom occurring positive at the other. The long axis in between allows for a scale running from very improbable to highly probable. While that may seem evasive, like “hedging one’s bets”, it seemed to disarm Life’s malicious habit of springing unpleasant surprises. Thus, when circumstances allowed for marriage, a “soft” disclosure that I had already been the embedded principal whose work had put six men in various federal prisons was called for. These cases being before going completely black, I had been required to appear in court for each trial and each sentencing hearing. Some people serve their sentences and straighten out their lives, some return to their former activities and are either re-imprisoned or killed, and some hunt the person who put them in prison. It was just a matter of weighing the probabilities, and factoring that into considerations of becoming a spouse and a parent.

But drama aside, how many probability calculations do we make each day. Do we buckle our automobile seat belt to avoid a ticket, to minimize injury in a crash, or some scaled combination of the two? How often do we order some outrageous meal at a restaurant while saying, Just this once probably won’t kill me. How many onces do we run up in a week, or a month?

I have never liked gambling although I’ve been in some well known casinos around the world. I was there for things other than gambling. But I observed the rows of cadaverous gargoyles perched atop stools in front of slot machines. Pallid complexion, hooded eyelids, their only necessary sense was hearing, to detect the clatter of coins dropping in the machine tray, ensnaring them to play just a while longer…..probably the next try…or the next. I wondered if some sophisticated viewer was embedded in the machines, reading the faces and guessing when the player was about through, then feeding the tray with more coins to keep them playing.

My point (probably) is that we go through daily life on a steady stream of probability calculations, most of which are other than conscious. After all, we are more often told that worry is bad for us, not good for us. But sometimes we can find quiet amusement in calculating a probability. A decades long interest of mine is quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. Years ago I read that even the hardest substance known to Man is not really solid; the substance consists of sub-atomic particles (which in one perspective are simply waves) that, relative to their size, they are as far or farther apart from each other as the stars in our galaxy. The particles are not fastened to each other; they are held together by an attractive force in a kind of force field which is ordinarily imperceptible to us. I think of this sometimes as I am lowering myself onto a hard chair. My much softer – and getting softer, butt is about to encounter a force field through which, probably, my much less dense butt is unlikely to pass. Probably. But maybe……just this once… I can hear Scotty on the intercom telling Captain Kirk, The force field is holding Cap’n!

Years ago I heard it said, Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed. Seemed like good advice. But what about all those platitudes advising us to “look on the bright side”, “aim for the stars”, and all that maudlin stuff. A colleague once asked me why I always walk around looking down. I said, I find money that way. He immediately starting walking around looking down. I don’t know how successful he was, but he probably never tripped over anything again. We often hear interviews with people who lived to unexpectedly high ages, as if they wanted to. Oh, what’s your secret?! the interviewer asks. And they reel off some formula like keep a happy disposition, think positively, and consume a quart of Scotch and two packs of cigarettes a day. I talk back at the television and say, It’s probably that the telomeres on your chromosomes are unusually durable. Anyone who has had 9th grade biology knows that. But nobody hears me.

Still, I do tire of people who are consistently negative. I even tire of me as I pound out another monograph on the rapidly emerging AFP, American Fascist Party (formerly known as the Republican Party). It’s objectively a simple fact. Some of us see it as bad, but nearly half the voting public saw it as good in the 2020 elections. Looking at that scale I mentioned earlier, and calculating the likelihood of an awakening of democracy or a complete loss of democracy in the U.S. (or a Russian or Chines style sham democratic election), where would you place the probability that the marker would move toward stronger democracy or weaker to absent democracy? Or would you rather go shopping. Where should I put the marker on the scale for you, toward shopping or toward involvement in calculating democracy’s future?

Another calculation that has me wondering concerns action about climate change. Again, it’s objectively a simple fact, registered in a variety of measures. Yet people, whether major players in the AFP or simply ignorant followers of AFP disinformation, are just not reacting in ways which would suggest they understand they are hastening the destruction of much of life on this planet. If they bother to place the marker on the probability scale – which I doubt unless it is toward the improbable end – do they think severe consequences are improbable? And, even after they have been shown the certainty of gravely deteriorated conditions for their children and grandchildren, are they still unwilling to move the marker – which would be an admission? It may be that some of the uber-rich think they can retreat with their families to protected enclaves, able to afford the rapidly diminishing food needed to survive. But I suspect those people have never lived under circumstances of hardship.

Which is not to say they are reluctant to dole out hardship on others when they think it benefits them. The mock entity formerly known as SCOTUS, the Supreme Court of the United States, is currently leaning toward disempowering abortion rights through most of the United States, even in cases of rape or incest. What’s a probable why? Under the cloak of religion and pseudo-science the AFP would thereby disempower low income women and families in a way which will assure an absolutely desperate work force, willing to accept subsistence wages and deadly working conditions because they were unable to assert control over their own family size. At the same time, the AFP advocates the reduction or elimination of socio-economic programs which would assist these families in raising the children they were forced to bring into existence. But of course they would attack these programs.

An article published in Scientific American November 30, 2021 is titled Humans are Doomed to go Extinct. In precise and clear statements, figures and examples it cites and explains the factors I have mentioned for months if not years. But I’m very far from the only one having done so. Yet, how many people do you think will ever read this article, and who are these people? The problem is we have probably been talking to each other; the AFP, the ignorant masses who follow them, and the growing numbers of people too disempowered to do what they know is right won’t or can’t take the actions needed to reverse this accelerating process. That’s not even a probability; that’s a self evident certainty.

Oh, there I’ve gone and done it again. Some people say I see the worst in people. Er, well, yes. Because it’s there. And probably is simply too dangerous a concept to continue to accept.

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15 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Marco – one of your best – thought provoking – and even the cheap laughs are delightfully executed. coming from someone who once played the Tuba.

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  2. Thank you, Ray. I’m very glad you found it worthwhile, and even amusing in places. I do enjoy writing, and I very much appreciate knowing that someone found it worthy of comment.

    Like

  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, this is from Tilly in Canada:

    “Thank you Marco, for some interesting and though provoking writing on the subject of probability. Your observation about “just how much of our behavior is based on assumptions of probability” got me thinking. It seems to me that much of our “assessment of the likelihood of an action or event” has to do with risk, and our willingness to bear various degrees of it. As we go through our day we are so often making decisions based on an assessment of the degree of potential risk a choice might have on our person or situation. Of course, some people are extremely risk averse and some seem willing and able to bear high degrees of it. How risk and probability are intertwined in our decision making process I do not pretend to understand, but certainly your article allows me to exercise my brain a bit as I ponder these questions!”

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    • Thank you, Dana and Tilly. Yes, we calculate along a number of parameters but, as you say, it comes down to risk. We have often heard someone described as a “risk taker” and we often hear “no pain no gain”. In a related sense it reminds me of how I view culture as an approximation; we assume someone who speaks and acts like us thinks and feels like us – until we look deeper. On a personal level we can see this playing out in divorce situations where some observers of the couple say “they drifted apart” while others say “they were never matched to begin with”.

      Obviously, we could wander into a hall of mirrors and question our ability to make even the simplest of plans. Or are we living a plan which has already been laid out for us.

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  4. Too many points of agreement by me to enumerate all of them, Marco. It’s late, and I’ve spent much of today pondering how best to counter the simple fact that a lazy electorate in a democracy inevitably leads to authoritarianism. And I fear that we’ve grown far too lazy in this particular democracy.

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    • Thank you, Marcia. (P.S. to readers: Marcia’s excellent writings can be found at fireoverfifty.com I very strongly recommend them)

      I certainly agree about the laziness and what it brings. As you know, I’m also very concerned about what appears to be poor education. This is worsened by the fact that right wing/fundamentalist groups have infiltrated school boards and library boards across the country. And, they have learned to apply very effective pressure to schoolbook publishers.

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  5. My other favorite instructor (a high school history teacher) once said that words denoting absolutes were (ironically) always going to indicate that (on his tests anyway) the answer was false. There are apparently no absolutes, only extreme probabilities.

    I took a statistics class in college, and while I don’t remember a lot about it, what I do recall tells me that the odds never change; every roll of the dice or flip of the coin has the same probability of landing on any given result. From you I learned that the best indicator of possible future behavior is past behavior. From life I have learned that once someone’s mind is made up, and especially if their conclusion is in error (or at least disagrees with our own), they are deeply unlikely to be dissuaded of their error. I’ve made it a habit to avoid confrontations with a fool if at all possible. My brother starts and ends all such arguments with “Do you want to know the facts?”; oddly, few choose to learn.

    The odds are against us, Marco; there are just too many fools in this world for the thinking among us to overcome their twisted sense of reality. I’d like to believe otherwise, but I’ve seen what’s happened in this country over the past five years, and it seems highly unlikely that things will get better any time soon. I fear that our democracy, our way of life, is doomed unless people wake up and realize the error of their ways; unlikely at best.

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  6. Thank you, Rose. I share your concerns and I share your conclusions regarding the inevitable direction in which we are heading. As I’ve expressed elsewhere, it renews my interest in my idea that, like cells approaching apoptosis, societies have upper limits on size and complexity. Of course we can look at India and China as examples of dense and numerically high populations, but the complexity is there in different forms from ours and China makes no pretense about personal freedom.

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  7. Dana permalink

    “I observed the rows of cadaverous gargoyles perched atop stools in front of slot machines. Pallid complexion, hooded eyelids, their only necessary sense was hearing, to detect the clatter of coins dropping in the machine tray, ensnaring them to play just a while longer…..”

    What a terrific description, Marco. It cracked me up! Cadaverous gargoyles! 😁

    But seriously, reading this I can’t help but recall all of the anti-mask and anti-vaccine people I’ve heard for nearly two years: “I haven’t gotten sick from Covid yet!”

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    • Thank you, Dana. Yes, we are surrounded by people playing the probability game, and many of them are losers.

      Like

  8. Vampirella permalink

    Sometimes when you upload a new post I almost feel as though you wrote it with me and some of my risky behaviours in mind. Are you intuitive? Probably!

    -V.

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    • Thank you, V. In fact, my MB score (for what it’s worth) lists that as one of my traits. It Probably saved me a few times.

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  9. Dana permalink

    “I even tire of me as I pound out another monograph on the rapidly emerging AFP, American Fascist Party (formerly known as the Republican Party)…”

    Marco, you and I have signed countless petitions (though I could never reach your level of activism). Thankfully we have seen occasional successes, such as elephants moved to sanctuaries after decades of abuse in captivity. Keep pounding out your monographs. Admittedly I often feel uttlerly useless (“What can I possibly do to war agaisnt Fascism?”), but I support your worthwhile and tireless efforts. And I know I’m not alone in saying that, though I won’t speak for others.

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