Steve Schafer's Reviews > The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow
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's review
Nov 25, 2011

really liked it
Read in November, 2011

A decade ago, the statistician author of this book tested positive for AIDS. The doctor informed him that the test was 99.9% accurate, so there was little hope for error. After an abysmal weekend, he began to question the relevancy this number. The incidence of AIDS (within his demographic—middle aged, non-IV-drug user) is 1 in 10,000. So, out of every 10,000 who take the test, 1 person will test positive and will have the disease. HOWEVER, with a .1% error rate, of those same 10,000 tested, 10 people will falsely test positive. To his great relief, he realized that even though the test is 99.9% accurate, only 1 out of 11 people who test positive actually have AIDS. It turns out, the author did not—both he and his logic were victorious.

Page after page, The Drunkards Walk turns numbers upside down, constantly highlighting the irony of something so concrete being so elusive, misleading and often counterintuitive.

Mlodinow’s approach is shotgun, encompassing a broad and fascinating history of the science of chance. He lays it all out in a very accessible manner, but make no mistake about it, some of his points require a minor ‘matheletic’ workout to understand.

As much as this is a how-to guide for solving questions of probability, it is more of a how-not-to guide. It is Mlodinow’s primary assertion that randomness plays a much stronger role in our lives than we realize. Probability has its place, but it’s in the backseat, where we seldom keep it. Our world is full of data we use to determine where our own best chances lie—when this is often a lie in itself. And in coming to this conclusion, the book sums to more than just an understanding of probabilities, but of the human condition. We are hard-wired to seek meaning, patterns and control in life—even in the (frequent) event that they don’t exist.

If you like numbers, it’s probable that you’ll relate to and enjoy this book.
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