Belief in Probability – Part 1

Years ago in a meeting on design of a complex, redundant system for a commercial jet, I referred to probabilities of various component failures. In front of this group of seasoned engineers, a highly respected, senior member of the team interjected, “I don’t believe in probability.”

His proclamation stopped me cold. My first thought was what kind a backward brute would say something like that, especially in the context of aircraft design. But Willie was no brute. In fact he is a legend in electro-hydro-mechanical system design circles; and he deserves that status. For decades, millions of fearless fliers have touched down on the runway, unaware that Willie’s expertise played a large part in their safe arrival. So what can we make of Willie’s stated disbelief in probability?

Friends and I have been discussing risk science a lot lately – diverse aspects of it including the Challenger disaster, pharmaceutical manufacture in China, and black swans in financial markets. Risk science relies on several different understandings of risk, which in turn rely on the concept of probability. So before getting to risk, I’m going to jot down some thoughts on probability. These thoughts involve no computation or equations, but they do shed some light on Willie’s mindset. First a bit of background.

Oddly, the meaning of the word probability involves philosophy much more than it does math, so Willie’s use of belief might be justified. People mean very different things when they say probability. The chance of rolling a 7 is conceptually very different from the chance of an earthquake in Missouri this year. Probability is hard to define accurately. A look at its history shows why.

Mathematical theories of probability only first appeared in the late 17th century. This is puzzling, since gambling had existed for thousands of years. Gambling was enough of a problem in the ancient world that the Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors and Achaemenid satraps outlawed it. Such legislation had little effect on the urge to deal the cards or roll the dice. Enforcement was sporadic and halfhearted. Yet gamblers failed to develop probability theories. Historian Ian Hacking  (The Emergence of Probability) observes, “Someone with only the most modest knowledge of probability mathematics could have won himself the whole of Gaul in a week.”

Why so much interest with so little understanding? In European and middle eastern history, it seems that neither Platonism (determinism derived from ideal forms) nor the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions (determinism through God’s will) had much sympathy for knowledge of chance. Chance was something to which knowledge could not apply. Chance meant uncertainty, and uncertainty was the absence of knowledge. Knowledge of chance didn’t seem to make sense.

The term probability is tied to the modern understanding of evidence. In medieval times, and well into the renaissance, probability literally referred to the level of authority –  typically tied to the nobility –  of a witness in a court case. A probable opinion was one given by a reputable witness. So a testimony could be highly probable but very incorrect, even false.

Through empiricism, central to the scientific method, the notion of diagnosis (inference of a condition from key indicators) emerged in the 17th century. Diagnosis allowed nature to be the reputable authority, rather than a person of status. For example, the symptom of skin-spots could testify, with various degrees of probability, that measles had caused it. This goes back to the notion of induction and inference from the best explanation of evidence, which I discussed in a post on The Multidisciplinarian blog. Pascal, Fermat and Huygens brought probability into the respectable world of science.

But outside of science, probability and statistics still remained second class citizens right up to the 20th century. You used these tools when you didn’t have an exact set of accurate facts. Recognition of the predictive value of probability and statistics finally emerged when governments realized that death records had uses beyond preserving history, and when insurance companies figured out how to price premiums competitively.

Also around the turn of  the 20th century, it became clear that in many realms – thermodynamics and quantum mechanics for example – probability would take center stage against determinism. Scientists began to see that some – perhaps most – aspects of reality were fundamentally probabilistic in nature, not deterministic. This was a tough pill for many to swallow, even Albert Einstein. Einstein famously argued with Niels Bohr, saying, “God does not play dice.” Einstein believed that some hidden variable would eventually emerge to explain why one of two identical atoms would decay while the other did not. A century later Bohr is still winning that argument.

What we mean when we say probability today may seem uncontroversial – until you stake lives on it. Then it gets weird, and definitions become important. Defining probability is a wickedly contentious matter, because wildly conflicting conceptions of probability exist.  They can be roughly divided into the objective and subjective interpretations. In the next post I’ll focus on the frequentist interpretation, which is objective, and the subjectivist interpretations as a group. I’ll look at the impact of accepting – or believing in – each of these on the design of things like airliners and space shuttles from the perspectives of my pal Willie, Richard Feynman, and NASA. Then I’ll defend my own views on when and where to hold various beliefs about probability.

Autobrake diagram courtesy of Biggles Software.

2 thoughts on “Belief in Probability – Part 1

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