Animals and Statistics

I have just finished reading two books that could not be more different from each other—and the difference makes me profoundly sad.

The first book is Becoming Animal, by David Abram. An intricately textured, deep breath of a book that blurs the boundaries between human and animal, mind and earth, says the front cover blurb. A back cover blurb by Bill McKibben says, A wild book in every sense of the word, full of stories that will leave you trembling, but even fuller of ideas that will send you out into the world with new eyes.

For once, I fully endorse the blurbs. Abram’s argument, plea, demonstration, dream and vision for and of a contemporary animism, a view that sees the world as alive and that wakes up our senses and our sensibilities to meet that aliveness, is not only serious and rigorous stuff, but is a beautiful therapy against the loss of vigour and intelligence (yes) that characterizes much of contemporary life. Wake up!

The second book is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics. While Abram’s book lives, this one is dead. It points out many of the fallacies our reasoning tends to, and the causes of those fallacies, and the utter ineptitude for statistical thought even of most statisticians. Much of it is mildly titillating, if you happen to be, like me, a former math teacher. Kahneman throws many short puzzles at us and asks us to solve them, and his assumption is that most of us will get the wrong answers. My long experience analyzing such questions with high school kids happens to make me particularly adept at them, and most of them failed to throw me for a loop. If a bat and a ball together cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, I know immediately that the bat cost $1.05 cents, and not a dollar. It’s cute, and it’s kind of fun, and if you follow his precepts you might make decisions in a more rational way than if you don’t.

But here’s the problem: the implied, and sometimes explicitly stated definition of rationality in this book is depressingly blindered. Even when Kahneman gives a nod to quality next to his overwhelming interest in quantity, it is quality of so conventional a type that it hurts. The world of this book is so manipulable, so inert, so dead, that I picture poor Dr. Kahneman sitting in a little black box in the corner of a room in a corner of a house, while outside the birds are singing, completely unheard, a wisdom so  powerful and mysterious that the box becomes an eyesore in the imagination.

And even within that pathetic box, Dr. Kahneman is sometimes way off the mark. Take the famous existence or non-existence of the “hot hand“ in basketball. There is no such thing as a hot hand, says Kahnemann—it is an illusion based on nothing more than a coin toss weighted to the player’s past stats. This is patently ridiculous—it derives a player’s performance from his or her stats, rather than seeing that the stats derive from the performance. If Jane has a 50% chance, based on career stats, of hitting her next shot, these very stats come from the combination of all the times she’s been hot and all the times she’s been cold and all the times she’s been mediocre. Far from rendering her hot hands unreal, it’s only the hot (and cold) hands that render real the stats. Whether she hits her next shot depends on how well she shoots it (how hot she is), and not on how often she’s been hot or cold in the past. That these two interpretations—the stats derive from the hot hands or the supposed (but unreal) hot hands derive from the stats—yield entirely equivalent results as far as sequences of sunk and missed baskets go hardly means that they are equivalent realities.

This little argument, however, takes place entirely within Kahneman’s box—and is, comparatively, of little consequence. Of far more consequence is the construction of the house in which Kahneman’s box finds itself. K’s book is largely about decision making, and how we often get things wrong. If we were only to consider the right factors, he suggests, we would make more rational decisions—that is, decisions that would lead us more reliably to our goals, whatever these may be (and they may be altruistic as well as self-serving). But what if the entire construction of the house—the house made of decisions that lead to goals—is called into question? The people I know who live most intensely do not live in that house. They do not have goals that they want to achieve. They do not even see a reality in such a concept. Rational decision-making in order to achieve certain goals would destroy the deeply lived quality of their existence. They don’t want goals—they want a deeper, more richly lived life. One of the most impressive of my acquaintances is a woman with crazy frizzy black hair who lives by seeing signs and reacts to them rather than practicing rational decision-making. She sees and knows, and goes where the sign tells her to. Her life is, even on the conventional level, hardly less “successful“ than that of the most rational person I know. And on the level of intensity of living, it is far higher than what I experience in my more rational acquaintances.

Of course, you can now say that a deeper, more richly lived life is her goal. In fact, I was hoping you would say that, because if we now look at that as a goal, what is the best way to attain it? What is the most rational way to get there? Clearly, it is not to think in terms of rational decisions leading to desired goals—precisely because such a mode of thought itself inevitably destroys the richness of the signed, lived life.

The house has thus collapsed. As so often, rationality leads to its own destruction, if we only follow it far enough. And let the house collapse, and look: we are left listening to the birds. Only so, perhaps, are we truly capable of listening. The listening of the first book, and the deafness of the second, are what made me sad.





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