Sunday, 29 June 2008

Sacred Sodding Cow

You'll sometimes hear that even the die-hard sceptics have a so-called "sacred cow", something which is excepted from their otherwise critical inquiry. The form of this can sometimes be surprising, like the otherwise-perfect scientist who nevertheless believes that the idea of God is perfectly compatible with their rationality. It recently occurred to me that I too have one, which no matter how rational I try to be, still nags at my intuition.

So I give you my holy cow: Sod's Law. Also known as Murphy's Law in the colonies, it concerns the perception of the world as generally contrary in nature. If something can go wrong, it will.

Clearly, this runs counter to the rational model of reality which would state that in a given situation in which there is an even chance of either of two outcomes, repeated trials should result in approximately even results. Sod's Law, however, states that if one of the two outcomes is less desirable than the other, that is the more likely to happen.

This is probably the result of a particular world-view, call it pessimism or cynicism perhaps. It would make sense that someone under the influence of this outlook would be more likely to commit confirmation bias, noticing only those times at which something does go wrong, and of course not mentally registering everything that goes smoothly. Even if one's mindset is less skewed than this, it is understandable that things "progressing as normal" would be less easily remembered than setbacks and general awkwardness.

I think this will just be an ongoing battle for me, having to continually remind myself of the actual odds involved, and that my desires do not have a direct effect on outcomes. It's comforting to know that I'm far from being the only one suffering from this misconception, and that it's really not all that bizarre.

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