English on the Internet - English Magazine


April 25, 2000

If a person tosses a coin into the air, it may land on one side, or it may land on the other. There is no sense in analyzing the result, because it is a random chance event. Nothing can be done to influence the outcome. About half the time the coin will land on one side, and about half the time it will land on the other side, no mater how the coin is tossed.

In ancient times, people attributed almost anything that happened to them as an intervention by a divine power. Now, however, few cultures would attribute divine intervention to the outcome of such an insignificant event as a coin toss.

Many events of life are essentially events of random chance. Let us look at one example. You might be walking in Prague, and a pickpocket steals your wallet. Here are some different explanations one could give to such a misfortune.

  1. The Fatalistic one, popular in Arabic countries, would be that the theft was merely your fate, and could not be avoided. I often think "fate" is the realization that many things in life are merely random chance events. It is senseless to worry that you did anything to cause this event. It just happened that a pickpocket just happened to be in your vicinity, and your wallet was the closest one for him to steal. I cannot hide my bias: I think this is probably the healthiest interpretation of random chance events.

  2. In primitive cultures or regions where certain religions are prevalent, the interpretation might be that it was God's will for your wallet to be stolen. God was punishing you for a misdeed, or trying to teach you a central truth by inflicting this loss of money upon you.

  3. And lastly there is the interpretation I find increasingly common in Western societies. Any misfortune may be explained by a lack of precautions, or an error. An intervention on someone's part (usually the government's) could have prevented the theft. For example, you should not have walked in certain streets; you should have been more watchful. Or the government should have employed more policemen, or imprisoned more criminals. Misfortunes are not caused by random chance, but by incomplete care or control.

This latter explanation is seemingly gaining converts every day. One reason must be that it comforts people to rationalize their misfortunes, especially if it makes them seem blameless. ("If there were just more policemen, my wallet would not have been stolen.") I find this last interpretation amusing in one sense, and extremely harmful in another. If we cannot accept bad things ever happening to us, we must be willing to accept an infinite expansion of laws and government intervention in our lives.

Another example of unfortunate random chance events is an airplane crash. Modern airliners are extremely complicated machines. Often they crash due to an unusual confluence of random chance events. For instance, an oxygen canister ignites that just happens to have been loaded close to a main electrical cable. The plane spins out of control and crashes, killing all passengers.

I read a statistic that since the early 1970s, there has been a constant rate of about two fatal crashes per million airline flights. This rate remains unchanged despite massive increases in airline safety regulation. Planes are complicated and they will crash. They might always crash at the rate of 2 in one million flights, no matter what anyone or any government agency does.

Random chance also plays a role in dental treatment, of which I am a part. About one time in twenty when I inject a patient's lower jaw, I directly strike a nerve. This results in a frightening and uncomfortable shock to my patient. I never know exactly where the hidden nerve is, until I accidentally strike it with the needle. When this happens, I always apologize to the patient, and explain this was a completely unavoidable, random chance event. However, I often get a reply like this:

"Well, you should be more careful next time."

I hate to argue with patients, but it is impossible to avoid a random chance event by being more careful!

The final amusing example I wish to use is the lottery. Lotteries are nothing if not the embodiment of random chance. Their existence is unfortunate, but now almost universal in societies worldwide. I often call them "investment for people who are bad at mathematics." Actually, I am somewhat happy about the Lottery in my state because it ensures that the poor pay their share of taxes.

Anyway, what I find most interesting is not the number of lottery tickets bought, ensuring poverty for most of the purchasers, but the number of books written about picking winning lottery numbers. They fill the counter where lottery tickets are sold, and some people buy many of these guidebooks with their ticket purchases. Some of these lottery guides are even written by preachers. Now if any of you are mathematics professors specializing in statistics, please correct me. But I really do not think there is any way to write a book predicting random chance events like winning lottery numbers!

Believing intervention can positively influence most random chance events requires the belief that the human mind is infinitely powerful and crafty. If one believes that, it is a short jump to justify the infinite expansion of government power. After all, government authority is the powerful extension of many such infinitely powerful human minds. If random chance events are preventable, enough brilliant minds with enough control in government should theoretically be able to make life absolutely safe for us all.

This brings me to the point of this article, really. Even if it were possible to influence random chance outcomes by massive government intervention, it would not be desirable, because many precious freedoms would be lost in the process.

To admit one's limits in influencing events is no weakness, but a virtue. I really feel badly when a tragedy involving loss of life occurs. But if given the choice, I prefer weather events like snowstorms, floods, or tornadoes. Why? Because I have yet to hear any serious person claim that we could have prevented them!

by Kim Henry - USA, writes a lot of political and social commentary

© April 2000 English on the Internet www.aj.cz