Thought of the day

You apparently don’t understand what randomness means. ‘A bias in the probability’ of something is pretty much exactly what we mean by non-random. Throwing dice is proverbially a random process. If you throw a die a thousand times, you expect to get a series of random numbers. If a particular die was biased towards, say, even numbers, it would deliver a non-random series of numbers. If natural selection is a bias in the probability of reproduction with respect to phenotype, that is equivalent to saying it is non-random. Do you really seriously not understand that?

~Richard Dawkins

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6 Responses

  1. I disapprove of this “thought”, you’re wide of the mark this time and it’s a shame, I’d prefer to see it retracted. I believe the quote is from a discussion on the RD.net forum with mathematicians who have a sophisticated understanding of technical randomness, not a layman’s fuzzy understanding. By arguing about what “randomness” means Richard entered the domain of statistics and being unaware that actually rolls of a die biased towards even numbers would still be considered a random process – simply because it isn’t deterministic, and if you don’t agree with this then you too do not understand what a “random process” is – he was met with disagreement from the mathematicians, resulting in this quote.

  2. He later goes on to note that people can use their own idiosyncratic definitions of “random”, and if they do that, then some uses of it may never work for them. However, this definition is useful.

    The fact that it isn’t deterministic is essentially said – he speaks of “bias in probability”. He obviously isn’t using the sort of definition you demand. Not all terms are used equally in all sciences. It just doesn’t work like that. Professor Dawkins gave you a term and his definition of it and how this all has a functional parallel in the real world; it shows how complexity comes to exist through natural selection.

  3. He did indeed go on to note that and it’s clear what everyone meant in the discussion in the end and that nobody disagreed, but the context of the quote given in this Thought of the Day was Richard telling mathematicians they were wrong about what random means, when they weren’t – even if they were using a different definition. They might equally have responded “We’re using different definitions of random. Do you seriously not understand this?” – and how would that come across?

    In so far as the quote addresses those who believe evolution is random in the layman’s sense – “completely” random, if you like, with no bias – then it is a good quote addressing an important misunderstanding, but I would have looked for a better one, that’s all I’m saying.

  4. I disagree. I see him correcting what someone thought randomness meant in the way he has consistently used it for at least 33 years.

    They might equally have responded “We’re using different definitions of random. Do you seriously not understand this?” – and how would that come across?

    It would have been nonsensical. Professor Dawkins isn’t the one raising the challenge to the word, so it isn’t up to him to show these mathematicians how they are using it. The only onus on him is to show what his meaning is. He precisely did that in this quote.

    Furthermore, in both The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable (the latter of which he quotes), he goes to length to describe what he does and does not mean by “random”. If someone retorted that he doesn’t understand that others are using different definitions, it would be like a bowler describing a strike and then being berated by some baseball fans who say “We’re using different definitions of strike. Do you seriously not understand this?” It isn’t up to the bowler to define all possible uses of his term when such a description is not relevant to the point.

  5. I appreciate your replies, Michael. But I still disagree and maintain that choosing this quote for your Thought of the Day is regrettable.

    You’ve quoted Richard replying to someone with “you apparently don’t understand what randomness means” after they’d said it’s wrong of Richard to call natural selection “the very opposite of random chance”, clarifying in the same post why they thought so: “Natural selection is a bias in the probability of reproduction with respect to phenotype. Would you care to explain how that is not random?”. The quoted response by Richard was simply inaccurate, although he didn’t realise it and meant well. All I’m saying is that amongst the previous entries of Thought of the Day it’s a misfire, it wasn’t a response to dung-for-brains Creationists but Richard misunderstanding someone using a different – but accurate – definition of random.

    Does that seem fair to say? Again, I appreciate your thoughts on it.

  6. Perhaps that is fair when viewed within that particular context. However, we do know how Professor Dawkins intends the term, so for general purposes I think it works here (and, unlike creationist quote-mines, it reflects what he actually thinks).

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