Understanding Randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk

Few things annoy me more than when people insist that an outcome must be attributable to some easily-identifiable cause. Life is full of randomness, why can’t people admit this? It may not satisfying answer, but it is frequently the correct answer.

A few weeks ago I was watching a baseball game, when a historically-bad relief pitcher entered the game. Instead of giving up a walk and a few hits, capped off with a homer, he recorded three straight outs. No doubt, this performance was well within the range of expected outcome for this pitcher: outs are common in baseball, and even the worst pitchers frequently record three straight outs. But, this couldn’t have been the answer to the announcer, oh no. “That extra side-work he’s been doing with the pitching coach must have paid off,” we were told.

As I was restraining myself from yanking my hair out in tufts, I glanced over at my copy of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow and thought of sending it to the offending announcer. It was recommended to me by a blog reader, and I have enjoyed reading it. Mlodinow, coauthor of A Brief History in Time with Stephen Hawking, uses his own life experience to explain the mathematical history of randomness while explaining its practical applications.

While it’s the type of book that I like, it may have some additional attraction to baseball fans. Mlodinow is clearly a baseball fan as he uses some baseball historical events to explain randomness. For example, he estimated likelihood of the Braves blowing the 1996 World Series to the Yankees….like I needed reminding. Though the baseball examples are few, they are appreciated.

One of the nice book features is the explanation of difficult concepts through simple examples, without resorting to typical mathematical notation. You may been exposed to these concepts before in a probability and statistics class, but the answer was difficult to grasp among the lines and symbols. In fact, if you know someone taking such a class, the book should clarify and reinforce many of the concepts learned in the course. If you’re a fan of pop-science books, then I think you might like as well.

7 Responses “Understanding Randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk”

1. Dan says:

Baseball gives many different things to many different people, and one of the gifts of the last 15 years has been the gift of statistical randomness to the casual fan of them.  Ever since its inception, perception of baseball has been controlled by writers, who understand everything as a narrative.  It was not until people like Bill James that fans started to understand that you can appreciate baseball in a non-narrative perspective.

When Moneyball came out, many falsely believed it was a book about on base percentage and drafting college players.  It was a book about many things, but the one which resonated with me and many of my like minded friends was the breaking of the narrative view of baseball.  No longer was I chained to the idea that every thing, every win, every out, must have some cause we can understand.  I could appreciate the sheet randomness and chance which dictates more of the game than the traditional writer can even understand, much less appreciate and communicate.

Alas, there are no broadcasters that I know who share this appreciation, and very few sportswriters.  Therefore I generally tune them out and forget about the whole cause and effect routine they have.  I hope someday, maybe in another 10 or 15 years, there will be a new breed of analyst who can appreciate the game in ways that I can, but for now I’ve given up trying.

2. Rick says:

Sometimes I hate that I am a semi-educated baseball fan. Whenever I watch a game on TV, my wife always asks me why I’m calling some announcer or PbP man an idiot. At this point, it’s a purely rhetorical question. Her eyes glaze over when I start telling her.

3. Matt says:

For any interested readers, I’d also recommend Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

4. uncle ran says:

“even a blind hog can find an acorn every now and then”.

5. Marc Schneider says:

No doubt that  a lot of randomness exists, not just in baseball but in life.  People don’t like to accept it, but many things that determine the course of our lives are not in our control.  And, really, every baseball game is random in some way–when a pitcher hangs a curve, whether a ground ball finds a hole, etc.  Many things are just random.

But I object when seemingly everything that happens is considered as random.  Jeff Francouer and the Braves are good examples.  Rob Neyer spent much of the season talking about how Francouer was just unlucky and that he would eventually rebound.  Well, he didn’t and one reason is, I believe, that his performance (or lack thereof actually) was more than just random unluckiness.  Anyone that actually watches this guy hit realizes he has serious problems that affect his performance; it’s not just random.

With the Braves generally, I have trouble attributing their poor record in one-run games simply to bad luck.  The luck or randomness was that many of the games they lost were one-run games.  But it wasn’t luck that they continually did things that caused them to lose.

Another thing is that, while it may be accurate to attribute problems in life or baseball to randomness or bad luck, that attitude can have pernicious consequences.  Everyone knows that some people have an easier road and that good or bad things often happen for no particular reason.  It certainly makes sense to recognize those things that are random.  But you can carry this attitude too far so that it becomes fatalism–a willingness to simply accept your seeming fate rather than trying to change it.

6. AC says:

freakin’ Leyritz

7. This book really is wonderful. I can’t recommend it highly enough.