Thursday, August 5, 2010

Odds of Astrology

If you watch the sky on a clear night, you will see millions of stars. It is hard to contemplate the vastness of the universe. Out of the many billions of celestial objects, astrologers hand pick a few, and claim that these objects have special powers to control human destiny. Why should these handfuls of celestial objects have so much of power? (Why Mars ? Why not Pluto or the Kuiper belts?)The deep dark space is full of objects: billions of stars, planets, comets, satellites, supernovas, black holes etc including manmade objects like space stations, abandoned satellites, bodies of astronauts, etc.
 A few celestial objects however seem to decide on every thing from birth to death. Yet no one will explain exactly how these celestial objects control human destiny and why and how they do it. Planets like Mars  is unable to control its own destiny but has the power to control the human life on earth! how?. Lifeless planets like Mars are dragged around in a pre-destined elliptical path over and over again, revolving pointlessly by the gravitational pull of the mighty sun. Comparing to Mars, I , a tiny human being, have more control over my destiny. At least I can decide where to eat my breakfast even if I do not have control at the cosmic level.

A friend of mine has a double PhD and his academic credentials are as long as my arm. He is a strong believer in astrology. He struggled to get a job for a while. After several attempts he met with his astrologer. The astrologer told him some mambo jumbo and the double PhD guy did some prayers to please the planets. Bingo! The next week he got an interview and he got a job. How do you explain that? I have heard many stories of this kind.  A millions of others follow the same logic. “ We don’t know how it works, but it works for me” is the classical response. Does it really work?

Intuitive Reasoning – Connecting the wrong dots!

Michel Shermer, a skeptic and psychologist, argues that we (humans) are natural pattern seekers. We connect the dots to make patterns. We intuitively assume things without doing a detailed analysis and this has evolutionary advantage. For example, if our stone- age ancestor in Africa heard a rumble noise in the bush, he is more likely to assume that it is a predator ( a lion or tiger), and he will devise his flight (run) or fight response. There is no time for rational investigation. If his assumption was right, then any amount of time spend in rational analysis would result in his own death. Such quick intuitive response is necessary from an evolutionary perspective. But we often connect the wrong dots!

I was driving along a highway listening to the radio in my car. I wanted to turn up the volume but I accidentally turned it too loud. Exactly at the same time, my windshield glass broke in to pieces. Since I knew very well that loud noise does not crack car windshields, I looked for other causes (see picutre on the right). If it was someone without any knowledge of car windshields he/she is likely to assume that the glass broke because of the loud music.Increasing the volume was an independent event, it is not the actual reason why the glass broke. Or you can call it as a coincidence. Most people readily agree with this conclusion. However if someone goes to an astrologer and get a job the next day, they are unlikely to agree the astrologer trip as a coincidence, as in the case my double PhD friend.

My double PhD friend assumed that  the planet was indeed responsible for getting him a job. How do we know that the astrologer's bla bla is not a coincidence? Easy,  my double PhD friend should resign his job and see if it works again! In real life we do not conduct such experiments. You are more likely to turn on the radio again and see if the windshield breaks! We do not therefore spot coincidences. There were several good reasons why my double PhD friend got a job. He ignored all of them and attributed his success to astrology. We connect the wrong dots!

The second question-  if  my double PhD friend is really talented and got a job becuase of that, why did he not get a job before? He had all the same strategic advantage in the past months, but never received an offer. That must mean that it has to do some thing with astrology, right?.
 Well, not actually. There is a thing called Luck Factor in life.

Some time no matter what you do, you never get what you want. Some other time, you may be walking on the street, a lottery ticket will fly into your hands and you might win a million $$s ( yes , I am being a bit dramatic, but you get the point). No matter what you do, whether you kneel down and cry to the almighty or please all the planets in the galaxy, things will not work. In other words, with or without astrology my double PhD guy would have got the job this time , not in the previous attempts. OK, but how can we rationalise something like Luck? I am really using a colloquial term, what I mean in mathematical terms is “randomness”. The odds must be in favour, and that is the next component.

Random Events - we don’t understand- we connect an imaginary dot!

Leonard Mlodinow's book  “ Drunkards Walk- how randomness rules our life” is an excellent book for anyone interested in understanding probability. He writes that we often miscalculate odds and most of us do not understand the idea of random events.
 Let us take a simple random event like flipping a coin. If you flip a coin and let it fall, you either get “head” or “tail”. The probability of getting a head ( or tail) is 50%. What does it this mean? It means nothing if  you are going to flip a coin to decide who will inherit your ancestor‘s estate! It is impossible to predict whether you will get head or tail in a single event. Suppose you flip a coin twice and you get head both times, your natural tendency is to assume that you are likely to get tail next time. "Wrong", says Mlodinow, the probability is still the same 50%. That means bugger all. There is no way to tell if the next flip will be head or tail. This is a random event. In our life, several things that happen are random. There is no reason behind it. Since we have a natural tendency to look for a reason, we assume some reason (act of god or angel or planet). We connect an imaginary dot!

What is this got any thing to do with astrology? Let us take the example of my double PhD guy. He attended the interview in which the company interviewed 6 candidates. Out of the 6 candidates, my double phd friend was the successful one. His odds of getting that job were 1 in 6 or 16.66%  ( if we assume that all the candidates are equally qualified and there are no real differentiators). Let us assume that he was in the same position previously. His odds of getting a job in his previous job interviews was also 1 in 6. So why did he get the job this time and not during the previous job interviews? If you role a die, the probability of getting number 6 is 1 in 6. However on some occasions you will find that you get six in the first throw but in some other times you have to roll it again and again. What is the reason? There is none. It is just the way random events work!
So how we do we deal with the randomness or uncertainty or luck factor associated with our real life events. Let us take the coin flip example again. Suppose you flip the coin again and again and noted the outcome in a sheet ( head or tail), and you do this say a million times. You will find that approximately 50% of the time, you get head (  An English mathematician found this the hard way. He was  put  in a prison by the Germans during the world war when he was lecturing in Copenhagen. He decided to conduct this experiment when he had nothing else to do!). In other words, the larger is your trials, the closer you are to the probability. While you cannot predict the outcome of a single coin event, if you were to bet for a million times, you will probably even out with your friend. This is how Casinos make money, this is how insurance companies make money. The Casino set the odds in its favour, so if a million people play, overall they win, even though once in a while a guy will hit a jackpot and walk out with a  suitcase full of money!

So if we are to be successful in anything ( getting a job, getting married etc) , we need to adopt the same Casino strategy. we need to do two things:
a) Increase the trials, roll the dice again and again- Never Give up, the die will roll in your favour. Some time the very first interview, some time after the 100 th interview , with or without an astrologer's help.
b) Increase your odds. If you are in competition with 6 other colleagues for a position, try and think how you can increase the odds in your favour, from 1 in 6  to 1 in 3. Still there is no guarantee that you will get the position. But an odds of 1 in 3 is better than 1 in 6. That is the practical use of probability! The best odds is 100%, that means you are the only person suitable for that job. This is a certain event! Hard to achieve in real life

Surrendering to Astrology and fate reduces human potential. We lose the ability to do a self evaluation. Instead of improvising by learning from our failure, we surrender and rely on random events. Our ability to do a honest and thorough self analysis is lost in the process of surrender. My double PhD friends  was downgrading his own talent  to justify astrology!

In summary: we connect the wrong dots, and sometime we connect imaginary dots. That is our human nature and that is why astrology, palmistry, tarot reading, etc thrives. Once we attain this realization, we will achieve our true potential.You will see how powerful and mighty we are.
When you look up in the sky you will see how tiny and irrelevant the stars are in your life!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I posted something about astrology as well. In my blog, I quote something you said that was very well put.

About Me

I am an Engineer by profession. Spritual and Anit-guru advice is my part time job!