Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Causation versus Random Events

I have read too many articles and heard too many people say things in which it was clear to me that luck was at work, but they attributed intent to animate or inanimate objects. BenS sent the latest outstanding example which says a dead goose got revenge on a hunter. I think of "revenge" as a motive, as something involving intent; I do not think of revenge as just deserts that might have occurred as a result of weird, low-probability events.

A Swedish hunter spent two days in bed after being knocked unconscious by a Canada goose that landed on his head moments after his son shot it dead, news reports said Wednesday.

The goose had been flying about 66 feet up in the air when it was shot by Carl Johan Ilback, who was hunting with his father, Ulf, along a stream in eastern Sweden in August.

When the goose dropped from the sky, it hit Ulf Ilback in the head and knocked him out, he said.

''It wanted to extract its revenge, I assume,'' Ulf Ilback told local newspaper Extra Ostergotland. ''If it had gotten a better hit, it could have broken my neck.''
As amusing as the story is, I wish this kind of nonsense were not disseminated by the media. The dead goose did not extract any revenge, at least not in any intentional, vengeful sense. There was no mens rea [loosely: guilty mind] since there is, presumably, no "mens" in a dead goose.

A major problem that many people have in trying to understand the world is that they attribute causation to random events. There is nothing wrong with accepting the fact that there is some randomness in our lives. The important thing is to understand the fundamentals of hypothesis testing and reasonable criteria for rejecting the hypothesis that an event was a random occurrence.

Otherwise maybe we'd all be Calvinists or Presbyterians, believing in predestination.
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