There’s a great big hole in our understanding of probability and risk.
When the author phoned his colleagues to tell them he was going to Tobago, this is what they told him: “Watch out for Ramona!” Ramona, it turned out, was a foreigner who had caught AIDS from a local while visiting the island as a tourist, and had returned to seek revenge by spreading it as far as she could. What was the risk, then, of a local catching it? Working with a guess at Tobago’s small population, of the percentage of willing and able men, all within the time limit of a police manhunt — or womanhunt, in this case — leads to a really small risk. In Pierre’s own words, “Ramona has to get cracking” if she’s serious about revenge.
These calculations of probabilities, based on guesses about populations and purposes, during a six-hour wait for a delayed airplane in flowering tropical airport, took nothing away from the savagery of the tale. But the tale will end, whether we predict the ending or not. And the idea, through this book, is to look at the gap between odds and outcomes. We know the math is incomplete, but we pretend it’s so because the gap can’t be modelled on a computer…
It’s like abiogenesis, the spark of life. We don’t know what brings it about, but we know a lot about what follows it. Like the Big Bang, too: we don’t even know if there was a “before” to the Big Bang, but we know lots of what’s followed, even though quantum mechanics makes everything probable, not fixed. A sort of black box. But is it?
And so to risk, which entwines skeins of colliding probabilities. What are the chances of your meeting a snake on your doorstep? What, indeed, are the chances of your having come into existence and lived long enough to meet the snake? Equally, what are the chances of the snake coming into existence and meeting you?
Behind the calculation of probabilities is working of a lush and entangled universe: the measure of probability is only superficial. Beneath lies vivid maths. In a casino in the West Indies, the numbers 1 to 36 on a roulette board become real life figures. The number 1 is a centipede, 2 an old lady, and so on to 27, which is a little snake (possibly venomous) and 35, a big snake, ending tamely with a donkey for 36. And this is only the first level. A further level “attaches body parts to the mystical icons…” But the thing is, they come alive.
Vivid maths is something you feel, something you know instinctively. It’s different for different people, in different places, at different times. For you and me, in a forest or a desert. And so, “What we seek in this inquiry is the home of the spark that decides which one of us will win. Which outcome is the next to be born here.”
Against arid conventional statistics are the findings of Harvard statistics PhD Persi Diaconis, a different kind of magician: a coin launched heads will most probably descend heads. Diaconis trained himself to do it ten times out of ten. But those arid numbers still hold sway, and while they do, Diaconis is a magician.
And so Pierre, an Australian whose real name is a much more mundane Peter Warren Finlay, narrates a cascade of events exploring the nature of real-world risk, or, if you would prefer, luck. First, he himself, age four, is set to keep an eye on an extremely venomous snake while his mother telephones his father to tell him of the snake. His father turns up in half an hour and shoots the head of the snake off. The snake’s body whips and wriggles long after its head is gone: legend is that the snake dies only at dusk.
Cut to Trinidad and Tobago where he went shooting a movie involving a parrot, and instead bumped into surprises like the difficulties of a postal worker in climbing a hill to deliver a parcel and a different level of gambling. Indeed, he mentions his mentor at backgammon, a Vietnam veteran with “a crocodile smile and a husky chuckle”, who confronted him with the “lethal doubling cube” of the game, and taught him to use fear and confusion against dry probability and win far more than chance would allow. The numbers we see as probability, he says, are manufactured, and guide us into believing that somehow, modern society makes progress.
The writing is rich and lush — vivid, indeed, as the land in which it is set — and energetic and persuasive, but it’s hard to grasp. I had to read some of it thrice to begin to get it and there are swathes I might not have understood yet. And, regardless of the vigour of the writing, there are parts where the evidence is thin. The claim, for instance, that life expectancy has gone up mostly because of the decrease in infant mortality might be questionable. A look at obituary notices in my hometown suffices. Back in the 1980s, people who made it to the obituaries died in their sixties and seventies: the odd octogenarian stood out. Now, they’re in their eighties and nineties, and the odd centurion stands out.
So, if you like vibrant and provocative writing, and you’re interested in the nature of the gamble that life is, with occasional doses of modern physics and other science, you might like to dip into this book. You’ll have to spend some time with it though, to get through the metaphors to the reality underneath.
Excerpt: (p. 26, last paragraph)
“I think Little Snake’s point here is that our clinging as a culture to numbers on paper without meeting the eye of the snake has even defeated our handling of the numbers on paper. Because we snubbed our friendship with real-world maths and tried to make it with our cash-cow bitch.
Little Snake is also saying that vivid maths might manifest differently from place to place. An island might be so powerful and such a mathematical Eden that it changes the way people perceive their chances, if not alters their chances as well.”
Little Snake Big Snake: An Inquiry into Risk
By D.B.C. Pierre
pp. 161, Rs. 799