Combating Data Manipulation VII: Patterns and Randomness

What is “randomness”?

Something is considered “random” when it seemingly has no pattern and is unpredictable, meaning that if you rerun the same process multiple times, you will get different results even if everything remains the same.

How do we know if something is “random”?

Humans are notoriously bad at identifying randomness; in fact, humans consistently seem to find patterns even in perfectly random processes.  It is how the “monkey-flower” got its name (see and why superstitions exist.  When a student does really well on two tests in a row wearing the same shoes, instead of attributing it to studying or pure random chance, they carefully put the “lucky shoes” away in their closet until their next test.  When a Fortune 500 company loses a lot of money over a certain period of time, instead of suggesting that random processes in the market could have caused it, people fire the CEO because there needs to be a pattern and a reason for each event.

People are also pretty bad at identifying random processes when they are supposed to be random.  Leonard Mlodinow in his book The Drunkard’s Walk tells a story of the first few generations of iPods that Apple developed; they initially created the “shuffle” function to be purely random, as it is supposed to be.  However, purely random processes can repeat themselves, and Apple began to hear complaints that the “shuffle” function was not random because the same song would play back to back, or the same artist would play for three songs in a row.  Apple actually had to make “shuffle” less random so people would believe that it is more random.

There are a lot of mathematical ways to determine whether a process is truly “random,” but the simplest way is to just entertain the idea that not everything follows a pattern.  The process of finding great actors, hiring CEO’s, getting accepted to schools all are affected somewhat by random processes.  Who knows, maybe if big TV shows like Modern Family or movies that make a lot of money like Avatar or Frozen had been aired 10 years later or 10 years earlier or even if we had rewound time and done it all again, they wouldn’t have done as well.

For those still interested in the idea of “randomness,” I put a youtube video of Leonard Mlodinow giving a talk in the works cited section; you should check it out!

Works Cited

Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives


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