In this book, Mlodinow argues that in the majority of cases, successes and failures that have been attributed the clear causes are actually more likely to be influenced by chance. He gives us the anecdotal evidences of Bill Gates and Bruce Willis, both in the right place at the right time to launch their careers. I am one hundred percent with him on this. You can do certain things to put yourself in the right place at the right time, but such a lot of my own personal successes are down to luck rather than judgement, I cannot disagree with him.
The first half of the book deals with various scholars from years gone by and their theories on probability. This dragged a little for me, I am much more interested in the theories than the theoriser’s biographies, so I admit I skimmed a little here. Also, my work background has given me plenty of experience in calculating probabilities and making decisions under uncertainty so I am pretty familiar with the theory on this subject.
There are some nice stories in this book that illustrate a lot of Mlodinow’s points. There is one about a syndicate who calculated the return on an investment of buying every single lottery ticket in one US State in one week would be more than 300% so they attempted to do just that. There is another about a fifth century Greek philosopher called Zeno who said that if we want to travel anywhere we must traverse an infinite number of finite distances, which would take an infinite amount of time, therefore we never get anywhere. While I read this book I was also listening to Douglas Adams reading me his fabulous Restaurant at the End of the Universe (not at the exact same time, though, audio books are for walking the dogs to). Adams takes this a step further by saying that there are an infinite number of planets in the solar system with a finite number of beings on each one, therefore there population of the universe is zero.
There is a mind-boggling point about false positives in medical testing, where he tells us of the time when he get a false positive result for an HIV test. As he points out, the test that will be 100% successful in finding all cases of a disease will simply produce a positive result in 100% of the tests. He then compares hedge funds with coin-tossing, which I have to take points from him for doing, as an ex-trading analyst who truly believe that there is at least some skill in all that stuff.
So, this is the sort of popular science book that I like. There are new, challenging and thought-provoking ideas in here, told in a simple and clear way, with a few lovely anecdotes that I can steal. Oh, did I tell you about the wine that was given top marks by one “expert” and called the worst wine of the decade by another…?