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How the Internet Makes the Improbable Into the New Normal 191

Posted by samzenpus
from the you're-not-going-to-believe-this dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark. Now Kevin Kelly writes that in former times these unlikely events would be private, known only as rumors, stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed but today they are on YouTube, seen by millions. 'Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today,' writes Kelly. 'As long as we are online — which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.' But when the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains only the impossible, then the 'black swans' don't feel as improbable. 'To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things,' concludes Kelly. 'A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences.'"
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How the Internet Makes the Improbable Into the New Normal

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:01PM (#42584169)

    ... as the first post? ;-)

  • God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

    by llZENll (545605) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:02PM (#42584173)

    Does this hail the rebirth of religion? Or perhaps the renaissance of sci-fi in 5-10 years?

    • by ByOhTek (1181381)

      Don't think it has squat to do with either. It just means people are getting used to absurd things that we would have previously wrote off as urban legends.

      I doubt anyone is going to see God, Mohammed, Buddha or Jesus on youtube without it being an obvious mockup or hoax, regardless of whether or not any of the do/did exist.

      As for sci-fi... Youtube isn't going to change the fact that the hands that guide that station are a bunch of retards that like to pump out and/or watch cheap overly-formulaic "sci-fi" a

      • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Golddess (1361003) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:57PM (#42584711)

        I doubt anyone is going to see God, Mohammed, Buddha or Jesus on youtube without it being an obvious mockup or hoax, regardless of whether or not any of the do/did exist.

        It isn't about seeing them personally, but rather "look at all these miraculous events! How can you possibly claim that my particular flavor of deity does not exist?"

      • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

        by icebike (68054) on Monday January 14, 2013 @05:52PM (#42585875)

        Mod Parent Insightful.

        The fact that everyone and their brother has a camera at the ready these days, or, more likely, the odds that at least someone is recording live video is increasingly common.

        The videos of strange events, as mentioned in the story, or a line of airplane seats coming across the highway [youtube.com] and smacking a car, just happening to get caught by a driver recording his trip with his mounted cell camera, are becoming common. As cameras become more ubiquitous, there is virtually nowhere you can go these days and NOT be near someone who has a camera.

        But taking your same line of reasoning from a different direction: Why haven't we got ANY (non-faked) pictures of Big Foot yet, or Aliens landing, etc? ?

        Can it be that, after a suitable period of time with a sufficient number of observers, the Absence of Evidence actually becomes Evidence of Absence? In a world where virtually every unusual event has a high probability of being photographed, can the Appeal to Ignorance [wikipedia.org] continue to be hand-waived away?

        • I like the line of reasoning at the end there, but you'd need to put it in more mathematical terms. Given a n number of observers , If an event has not been observed for a time period of t, then the probability of it happening must be p.

          Its pretty much what physicists do when looking for particle behaviors. Like proton decay.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Can it be that, after a suitable period of time with a sufficient number of observers, the Absence of Evidence actually becomes Evidence of Absence?

          Even if it doesn't, it will probably have that effect for the majority, and thus it will still kill those memes.

    • by bondsbw (888959) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:22PM (#42584351)

      It seems to me that ordinary people are finally catching up with mainstream media.

      School shootings and jetliner crashes make big news, but account for an incredibly small percentage of preventable deaths. The perception is that something must change immediately to keep these things from happening so often. But few people care about, for instance, the fact that automobile crashes and abuse accounts for a large proportion of the preventable deaths for children.

      • by Synerg1y (2169962)
        Your argument is absolutely devoid of logic...

        Do you realize jetliners are inspected pre and and post flight? Or that there's a lot more cars than jetliners?
        There's steps that can be taken to prevent school shootings, even if it's arming the teachers...
        But, car crashes and abuse? Everybody has to look only to themselves to prevent those and that'll never happen. Abuse is a dark side of human nature, car crashes are mostly coordination fails, whether sober or not. Perfect humanity and get rid of both
    • Re:God and Star Wars (Score:5, Interesting)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:28PM (#42584433) Journal

      I don't know about sci-fi; but I'd be inclined to doubt any significant effect on religion.

      To the degree that religions bother with making truth claims about the world, they tend to focus on a very well-honed version of the sort of "stories a friend of a friend told, easily doubted and not really believed" that TFA contrasts with the new internet-enabled transmission. You tend to see belief spread, or at least persist, by means of strong social connections(the traces of 'to tie/bind together' in the latin root of 'religion' are not by accident), emotionally intense personal experiences and group ritual union.

      For the assorted, somewhat irksome, 'something vaguely in my favor happened, it's a Sign and/or My Guardian Angel Intervened' brigade, the fact that humans don't know probability from a hole in the ground(even statisticians have trouble on a gut level, and everybody else doesn't have an alternative to the gut level) probably helps spice things up; but that phenomenon doesn't seem to scale: people who have already been influenced by the very old, affectively powerful, personal methods are more likely to interpret random events as possessing meaning or representing some sort of supernormal intervention(unlike, say, a gambler who also falls prey to nonsense about 'hot streaks' or 'my number is due to come up'; but doesn't experience their shoddy grasp of probability as metaphysically invested).

      If anything, broad access to the improbable would actually seem to damage traditional attitudes and beliefs about 'miracles' and the like. "It was a head-on collision on an icy road and she was thrown clear, what a miracle!" will meet "I'm glad she's ok, here are 1800 dash cams of people escaping horrible accidents without a scratch, and it looks like the American road kills about 35,000 people a year, I guess god just hates them and their families, eh?"

      (Now, I don't actually expect any change, a bunch of abstract numbers and facts are so pale and lifeless in the face of emotion and experience, so I doubt that there will be any major shift from this source.)

      • by Jeng (926980)

        I wouldn't be too quick to say that no new religions would be formed, after all look at the beliefs of the Rastafarian.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastafari_movement [wikipedia.org]

      • Yep, from what I have seen so far the internet is where religion comes to die. Religions and cults works best when the brainwashing targets are young and don't have any alternative sources of information. Most of the kids at "Jesus camp" will grow up just like their parents, a handful will "read too much" and abandon their childhood beliefs.

        Thing is when you run a "Jesus camp" there will be video of your brainwashing methods all over the internet. What was previously difficult information to obtain is no
    • "Does this hail the rebirth of religion?"

      The reports of religion's death have been greatly exaggerated.

    • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

      Does this hail the rebirth of religion? Or perhaps the renaissance of sci-fi in 5-10 years?

      I would think it is just the opposite. Religion(s) formed prior to mass communication, the the relaying of the improbable to the masses causing a change in belief would not be in effect. Likewise, that would probably be evidence that the premise of the article is, well, improbable, too.

    • by fatphil (181876)
      Everyone knowing the weird is frequently going to happen somewhere should be the death of religions, which have long preyed on people's inability to judge how unlikely unexpected, to them, things are.
      • by fatphil (181876)
        Oh gawd, I hate being so wrong...

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-21009301
    • by jxander (2605655)

      Yes and no...

      The next time someone walks on water, we'll be able to record in on our cell phones and upload it for the world to see.

      But most people will still think it's some Cris Angel style publicity hoax.

  • silly example, kinda brings into question the premise of the article

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They were prior to the discovery of black swans in 1697.

      • They were for Europeans prior to the discovery of black swans in 1697 by Europeans.

        FTFY.

        The original Australians certainly knew about them and wouldn't have found them at all improbable. Though they might have been a bit surprised at white swans...

    • 'black swan' is a term of art: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory [wikipedia.org]
    • by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:25PM (#42584389) Homepage Journal

      In case that wasn't a joke and for those who didn't click the wikipedia link:

      The black swan theory [wikipedia.org] or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that is a surprise (to the observer), has a major effect, and after the fact is often inappropriately rationalized with the benefit of hindsight.

      The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

              The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology
              The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
              The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

      Unlike the earlier philosophical "black swan problem," [wikipedia.org] the "black swan theory" refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.[1]

    • by sycodon (149926)

      What brings the article into question is the gratuitous labeling of a group as "uninformed".

      • by tibman (623933)

        I agree. There have always been skeptics and gullibles. Pics or it didn't happen!

    • by fermion (181285)
      Exactly. What is impossible depends on experience, surroundings and time frame. It is impossible that I will travel on supersonic aircraft. It is impossible that I will see a penguin in the native habitat. These are things that are possible but not likely for me.

      Is it in any way impossible that a brides hair will catch on fire. Of course not. Probability says it will happen somewhere. Is it impossible in any particular persons life. If the chance is 1 in a million, and one goes to hundred weddings

  • It is interesting that the age of enlightenment was about rational certainities, it is printed in black and white after all, but the information age allows an older style of open view of the world, which can only be a good thing in my humble opinion. However, there are always people doing stupid things and equally stupid people (like me) like to laugh at them.

    • by fotoguzzi (230256) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:28PM (#42584437)
      I didn't read the article, but the bloopers keyword in the subject reminds me: in the last one or two centuries we had National Geographic, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the Guiness Book of World Records. Our analogue forebears would know viscerally that there were women with discs in their lips the size of coffee can lids; they might have believed thirty percent of the Ripley's books; and they would have photographic proof that the heaviest twins went riding on motorscooters and the tallest man could look down on a "no parking" sign.
      • by mattack2 (1165421)

        The Guinness books really have gone downhill. Now they're big "coffee table" books, and IIRC, have way less overall information than the packed paperbacks. I'm not even sure if they still have the "heaviest twins went riding on motorscooters" pictures anymore, but those you mention (and the "coffin the size of a piano case") are the ones we mention from the long ago Guinness Books of Records.

  • A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences.

    Or it will train people to stop believing that those coincidences are meaningful. You know, like every rare occurrence that we already know that is actually common and unrelated.

  • by Tackhead (54550) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:12PM (#42584255)

    'Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today,'

    The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Arduinopentamillenuova-5007 Sub-Microcontroller to a Markov chain generator driven by a strong RNG [lavarnd.org] (say, a nice lava lamp and a photodetector) were of course well understood - and such generators were often used to acquire a first round of venture funding by photoshopping all the pixels in the hostess's undergarments simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance to the theory of Rule 34.

    Many respectable developers said that they weren't going to stand for this, partly because Web 2.0 was a debasement of technology, but mostly because they didn't get hired by those sorts of startups.

    Another thing they couldn't stand was the perpetual failure they encountered while trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to propagate a meme across the bandwidth-draining distances between the farthest minds, and at the end of the day they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.

    Then, one day, an intern who had been left to sweep up after a particularly unsuccessful startup found himself reasoning in this way: If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, it must have finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to virtualize one is to work out how exactly improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh round of really hot funding... and turn it on!

    He did this and was rather startled when he managed to create the long-sought-after golden Infinite Improbability generator. He was even more startled when just after he was awarded the Y Combinator 2013 Prize for Extreme Agility, he was lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable developers who had realized that one thing they couldn't stand was a smart-ass.

  • Therefore, I will gain the power of flight.

    I'm not going to argue that humans aren't good at rational analysis of probabilities - there's reams of data to show that our instincts which kept our ancestors safe in the wild actively work against us when it comes to rational, long term decisions. It also shows us that the associations we make are usually shallow and immediate. The knowledge of one improbable thing only impresses upon us that that same improbable thing is not as improbable as we once thought.

    S

  • Apparently.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phrackwulf (589741) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:16PM (#42584281) Homepage

    The Internet makes stupid people more stupid..

    What were the odds?

    • "The Internet makes stupid people more stupid..

      What were the odds?"

      Well they were highly improbable, but the internet has changed all that.

  • But with modern CG and video-editing, you can't just trust any video on the internet.
    For example, see the recent Eagle Baby Attack [huffingtonpost.ca] video.

  • by paiute (550198) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:21PM (#42584347)
    This may be one of the times where we underestimate the ability of the masses to cope with selective information. After all, America's Funniest Home Videos has been on the air for over twenty years and people have adjusted to not having grooms collapse at every wedding and nutsacks being pummeled by every wiffle ball hit.
    • by Synerg1y (2169962)
      Good example... I remember watching AHV, somehow seeing somebody jump off the roof to break a table looks a lot different on the internet than on AHV, I'm sure there's a few reasons for this: comments, lack of introduction, no laughing audience. So, this is different imho, a more raw view into people doing stupid things with the filters removed...
    • I suspect though that many people who regularly participate in online communities, such as slashdot, reddit, yahoo answers etc, have a lower opinion of people in general though, thanks to trolls.

      Although, you could alternatively argue rather that they have a deeper understanding of humanity, since when people are anonymous, they act different than face to face.

      Either way, people here seem more cynical than people in the real world. I wonder if that's causation and not just correlation.
    • "people have adjusted to not having grooms collapse at every wedding and nutsacks being pummeled by every wiffle ball hit"

      That may be true, but I'm still a bit disappointed when it doesn't happen.

  • We could always just switch over to exclusively showing videos of normal boring everyday stuff.

    Along those lines, news would cover the same junk that always happens. Today at 4, traffic goes past the elementary school and cats spend most of their time sleeping. For our late edition at 11, old people playing bingo and tomorrows weather report.

    Then again, who wants to waste the time watching that, or even uploading it.
    • by neminem (561346)

      I dunno what you're talking about... seems to me, every time I've turned on a regular cable news station, doesn't matter which one, it seems the format you described is already one they've adopted. So people *must* like watching crap like that, or why would they all be pushing it, instead of actual news?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Whenever I hear of things like this, especially on the internet, I always remember:

    1) believe none of what you hear
    2) believe half of what you see

    And since that saying was coined many years ago, it may need to be adjusted to meet today's world. Many things can appear real, but be false. In this way, the truth is even more hidden, because "...yeah yeah, it's real, I saw it on youtube". I've posted false stuff on youtube before, you can too. Of course, I'm anonymous though. Maybe if it's real people....

  • With Video Editing and Rendering software being ubiquitous , now we have to ask, "Is it real, or is it CGI?". There are plenty of examples on YouTube that look real, but are 100% fake. So the paradigm has shifted from "Is the rumor real" to "Is the video real".

    • by alen (225700)

      you just described porn

      half the crazy shite you see in porn movies is edited from different takes with lots of breaks

      • by ArcadeNut (85398)

        you just described porn

        half the crazy shite you see in porn movies is edited from different takes with lots of breaks

        Guess I better do some further "research" to confirm or deny this...

  • The Example Rule (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dangermen (248354) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:27PM (#42584423) Homepage

    The book "The Science of Fear' calls this the example rule. The rule that somehow because something just happened, that it is now likely to happen again. People are wired such that they usually act this way(gut), only your head can override your gut when you know you are following this rule.

    • Which makes sense. If your buddy walked over into a bush and a saber-toothed tiger ate him, you would probably want to avoid that bush forever. The problem is that our wiring is fundamentally unchanged since our caveman days, and technology has introduced a host of problems that we are ill-equipped to deal with. As much as we like to think of ourselves as "enlightened" our fundamental reactions to base stimuli (food, sex, violence, fear) have not and likely will not change in any appreciable degree.
  • That's what this kind of information encourages, but only among those who do not understand statistics. However, magical thinking has already been around for so long (just think of all the world's religions) that I doubt YouTube can make things any worse.
    • If you think that people who understand statistics are immunized against magical thinking I have a bridge to sell you.

      A suitable knowledge of mathematics allows you to calculate correct answers to problems that intuition provides lousy answers to; but that doesn't make intution shut up, unfortunately.

      If you dangle somebody from a crane, hundreds of feet above the ground and all those teeny little figures walking about, does that person's heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline levels, and similar fear respon

      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

        If you think that people who understand statistics are immunized against magical thinking I have a bridge to sell you.

        A suitable knowledge of mathematics allows you to calculate correct answers to problems that intuition provides lousy answers to; but that doesn't make intution shut up, unfortunately.

        If you dangle somebody from a crane, hundreds of feet above the ground and all those teeny little figures walking about, does that person's heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline levels, and similar fear responses have any useful correlation to their knowledge of the tensile strength of the steel cable they are attached to?

        Actually, intuition is pretty darn important, even in math, at least theoretical math. Stephen Hawkins relies on intuition. So did Einstein. So do numerous others. Intuition isn't always correct, but without it, analytical thought can't really develop.

        Besides, even mat itself isn't as concrete as we want to make it. Math tells us that the square root of a number is a value that, when multiplied by itself, gives the number. No magic involved there. However, much of physics relies on imaginary numbers (t

        • Oh, I don't mean to deny the value of intuition generally; but just to note that mere 'knowledge' doesn't have the same ability to grab you by the amygdalae and squeeze until you sweat bullets. In suitably gifted and trained individuals it can deliver correct answers far faster than conscious thought, and without visible effort(observe any reasonably coordinated child who doesn't even know pre-calc compute the trajectory of a thrown ball in time to catch it); but if a hardwired response contrary to your ana

  • by methano (519830)
    I've been meaning to write a blog on the "Media Magnification of Unlikely Events" for some time now but never really got around to it. Looks like someone beat me to it. Oh well.
  • by MarcoAtWork (28889) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:37PM (#42584525)

    ... in a study that applied this concept to things like lottery winnings (would people buy lottery tickets as much if they didn't know anybody who won?) fear-based behaviors (would people be avoiding running in parks so much if they very rarely heard of related crimes?) dishonesty/narcissism (would people try so much to 'get ahead' by dishonest means if they didn't think that 'everybody does it' which is validated by watching the national news?) etc. etc. etc.

    It seems that we spent many, many, many hundreds of years being routinely exposed only to a very small set of other people (the ones living in our village) which gave us a push towards conformity with our limited surroundings and its values and calibrated our 'probability meter' with that amount of 'throws of the dice' in mind. Nowadays no matter what you want to think/believe it is trivial to find many people sharing your point of view and/or finding events that validate your belief/magical thinking.

    As I was saying before, if you had never ever met anybody in your life who won a lottery, you would be a lot more likely to look at lottery tickets as a very frivolous use of money, while nowadays where every few weeks you see in the news (with a special interest story, that makes you think you "know" these people) somebody wins a significant amount of money somewhere it's a lot easier to 'magical think' that lottery tickets are instead a lot more worth it (in statistical terms) than they really are.

    Just like a lot of people I know that will not run alone in a park because somebody somewhere was victim of a crime and so they are afraid of doing so (without obviously realizing how low the probability that something like that would happen to them, much lower than the probability of them being run over by a car when they run along a road instead).

    I don't think that we are equipped to extrapolate probabilities from the small to the large: when it comes to 50 people we are fairly capable of distinguishing normal occurrences, low probability occurrences and once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences, but when it comes to several hundred millions we really can't cope and cannot relate how something that happens to 10 people on a nation-wide level (say, win a lottery jackpot of 100+ millions) is way, way, way unlikely that will happen to us or to somebody we know personally. This is definitely affecting most people's behaviors, in some cases positively (say, rare disease sufferers can find somebody else somewhere that has their same symptoms and can get care, instead of being dismissed) but in many cases not overly so unfortunately.

  • That someone will be knocked off their bike by an antelope -somewhere in the world- is not improbable.

    If the sample size is reduced or specific by reference to the actual case at hand, such as dreaming of being knocked off your bike by an antelope, and then a week later, it actually happening, it becomes extraordinarily improbable.

    Most people are not confused by this, even if it serves skepticism to insist they are. Few are unclear on the distinction in probability between "someone will win the lottery" a

  • by Jmc23 (2353706) on Monday January 14, 2013 @03:50PM (#42584641) Journal
    Catching the 'improbable' on film makes it easier to study and to reduce the improbability of the event occuring again.

    This is especially true when the improbable are human achievements. It shows us exactly what the human body is capable of even when constrained by physics. If anything, this wealth of data allows us to be more critical and logical to discern what exactly is going on.

    The human brain is an awesome knowledge digester, if you feed it truth, it's not going to produce untruths. For example, athletes viewing recordings of themselves or of competition. There is a tendency in olympic sports to standardize on certain technique aspects that have been proven to work for others. There is a higher congruency of movement in athletes today than there was in the early filmings of the olympics, and higher inter-disciplinary congruence as well as we discover the simple physical truth. Humans are subject to the laws of physics, as such there are optimal paths for the human body to be all it can be.

    Of course, there's always people too stupid to recognize they do not have the necessary knowledge and control to execute a movement and there's thousands of compilations of these failures. That's a good thing though, just more data to feed into the path optimizer.

    • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

      Catching the 'improbable' on film makes it easier to study and to reduce the improbability of the event occuring again.

      Heisenberg, if he were alive today, might argue otherwise.

  • a Guy Opening his Ass To Show Everyone
  • A similar comment was made when British newspapers started publishing minor news items telegraphed from far away places in the 19th century. There's a classic quote on this which I can't find at the moment. Must be a slow day at the meme factory.

  • You're saying that 60% of drives ending in car wrecks and drunken debauchery in Russia is the "New Normal?"

    Okay then. Off to the liquor store at 50kph over!

  • “Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.
    But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

      Terry Pratchett, Mort

    So the internet has made Pratchett's rule a reality. Now all I want it to do is give us giant turtles and ambulatory luggage.

  • Hogwash! It doesn't matter how many improbable things appear online. It won't actually change the probability of something that is improbable happening. If the likelihood of being thrown through the windshield and landing on your feet and running away is 1 in 1,000,000,000, then it is still the same probability regardless of how many people saw a clip of it on you-tube.

    So, unless the original post is positing that somehow observing the improbable event by millions of people on you-tube is going to cause a

    • by tverbeek (457094)

      The probability may be 1 in 1,000,000,000, but in a world with 7,000,000,000 people on it, it becomes... likely.

      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

        The probability may be 1 in 1,000,000,000, but in a world with 7,000,000,000 people on it, it becomes... likely.

        Oops, that was supposed to read 1 in 6,000,000,000! but even at a 1:7 ratio, that is still only a 14.7% likelihood, so not likely at all, and far from "normal" as the article stated.

        • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

          The probability may be 1 in 1,000,000,000, but in a world with 7,000,000,000 people on it, it becomes... likely.

          Oops, that was supposed to read 1 in 6,000,000,000! but even at a 1:7 ratio, that is still only a 14.7% likelihood, so not likely at all, and far from "normal" as the article stated.

          I need to go to bed. I don't know where the 14.7% comment came from. 1 in 1,000,000,000 would imply 7 people on the planet could pull it off, not very likely at all.

  • by tverbeek (457094) on Monday January 14, 2013 @06:23PM (#42586211) Homepage

    This is essentially the same phenomenon that TV news has been performing, and which has convinced many people that there is an epidemic of child abductions and other violent crime in our society. (And there is not.) The improbable events of 7 billions lives are being condensed into our individual (vicarious) experience – but with the average person being unable to instinctively grasp that vast context – and we're losing our sense of perspective. Little wonder that people are locking themselves and their children inside gated, armed enclaves.

  • "A burglar gets stuck in a chimney, a truck driver in a head on collision is thrown out the front window and lands on his feet, walks away; a wild antelope knocks a man off his bike; a candle at a wedding sets the bride's hair on fire; someone fishing off a backyard dock catches a huge man-size shark

    Links or it did not happen

  • by jimbirch (2621059) on Monday January 14, 2013 @10:28PM (#42588145)
    Unlike other animals we have some specialized biological equipment to handle very low probability events, but then we are special. If you're a nematode worm you're pretty much restricted to "Death learning" aka genetic learning where the species learns by individuals being ejected from the gene pool. Over time the species comes up with a time-integrated behaviour function that produces optimum responses to what the environment is chucking at you. So you tend to eat the right foods, mate with the right guys and avoid the nasty guys. The behaviour function is strongly weighted to the probable events, for obvious reasons. Rare events can kill you, but not as often as probable events.

    The next big step up the evolutionary ladder is "Suck It and See Learning" where the individual modifies behaviour based on its past experience: that stung me, this tasted good, etc. The individual no longer has to die to learn something. Progress. An extension of this mode is learning not just by personal trial and error but also by watching other members of your species, usually mom and or dad. A baby bird learns how and where to catch worms not just by endlessly scratching around in random patches of dirt until it jags a worm, but by doing the rounds with its parents. It can also learn signs of danger so it doesn't need to be eaten by a cat to find out why cats are interested in birds.

    Humans add another even more sophisticated layer on this, which might be called Narrative Learning. This is basically creating and swapping stories. It might also be called knowledge, but isn't knowledge just stories that happen to be true, or true enough to be useful. This is what allows us to handle very low probability events, things that might occur once a year, once in a lifetime (water flowing underground) or even once in several generations. If you happen to be living out on the plains of Africa half a million years ago this kind of stuff would give you a wild advantage over all the monkey-see-monkey-do types around you. How to choose a good spear, how to predict the seasons, when to shift camp, what plants can kill you, etc. Science is the ultimate form of narrative learning; stories are picked not because they sound right/are interesting/are sexy/worked once, but by relentlessly grinding them up against reality.

    And this capacity for narrative learning is, of course, why we find the improbable events on You Tube - or the Bible - so very compelling: we have evolved to love and collect the improbable, just because it just might save us one day. I know that next time I crash a truck, I'm going through the window, and landing on my feet. It works.

[Crash programs] fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month. -- Wernher von Braun

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