Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Leonard Mlodinow:
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives [2008]

      Our group gave this book a collective rating of 5.83 on a scale of 0 to 10. Given that we tend to be hard graders, that’s a moderately positive endorsement.

      Barbara said that the book was not as interesting as she would have liked. She thought the subject was too generalized. She said she read it easily enough, but didn’t quite understand the whole concept. She liked the last chapter, however, but only gave the book a rating of 2.

      Ron, though, liked the book a lot. He thought the author did a very good job of explaining probability theory to people. Ron summed it up as a very interesting book, very nice, and very readable. He gave it a 7.

      Rosie said she did learn a lot of stuff from the book, but in the first several chapters she sort of “glazed out”. She thought it was too dense, but agrees with Ron’s summation. She liked the last chapter especially, and the general conclusion that people need to rely more on their gut level reactions to things, rather than dubious statistical analyses. Her rating was 6 on our scale.

      Kevin and Rich didn’t read the book, Kevin because he has just been too busy with all the computer classes he is taking, and Rich—egad!—because of a failure of our group to properly communicate which book we were doing this time.

      Kirby missed the discussion, but emailed in his review:

      As I read it I couldn’t help but compare it to The Black Swan. The message seemed somewhat the same… be prepared but, in the end, we’re all victims (or beneficiaries) of chance.

      I think this book was better written and far more interesting than Black Swan. I finished it knowing that I was not going to be able to be at the meeting… so that says something at least about its style. That being said, I can’t say I learned much from the book; there was very little in it that I would even call surprising. It was good, in its way, of pointing out how we read too much into certain chance happenings. But, like Swan, I think this author has found a hammer and goes somewhat overboard searching for nails. (And I’ll try not to use that analogy again, lest I be accused of doing the same thing!)

      He says many things I’ve believed for years. I especially like some of his stuff about people who rise to the top in their field as much by chance as by anything they actually do. He failed (I think) to mention our last President, who is an excellent illustration of this fact. However I think a few of the nails he goes after are off the mark. For instance, although he may not claim he meant to say this, the impression from reading this book is that talent, ability or knowledge matter hardly at all.

      Sometimes he tries to prove this with fancy math and graphics. If you first look at the graph on page 198 and then the one on 200, he says the graph on 200 ends up looking like random noise. Maybe it’s just me, but I can still see a bit of a pattern here, and it roughly corresponds to the one on 198. Specifically at the extremes (say the top 100 and bottom hundred), it seems that the REALLY GOOD pickers still did better than “average” over the next five years and the REALLY BAD pickers still did, as a group, worse than average. The ones in the middle look very random, but I would expect that. I’d like to know if any of you see that, or is that my tendency to find patterns where none exist? Carried to its illogical conclusion, it sounded to me like he wanted to leave the impression that, on some totally random day, given that enough games were played, at some point the Vacaville High School football team would, by chance, defeat the Green Bay Packers. That’s not something I would bet on. Ever!

      In other words, I think he gives practically NO credit to ability….at least, he does not give enough to leave an impression on me that he thinks ability plays much part in our lives at all. As I said, I agree with him that chance plays a large part…. I am just arguing with him here that he has the ratio skewed way too much to the chance side and away from almost all skill, ability and knowledge. (Perhaps he’s gotten too many book rejections in his day and this is his way of “getting even”!?!?)

      He did redeem himself a little in the last chapter. He pulled stuff together and made his point. I think it was just that he gave up trying to “prove” his arguments with numbers (which, given his examples in economics and athletics I don’t think he was successful doing) and got more philosophical. I liked the last chapter. He tells a good story.

      So, while I found it a “fun read” and easy to finish, there didn’t seem to be much substance to it. As some of us have said about some of the other books we’ve read “It would have made a good pamphlet!”

      I’m going to rate it a 6 … realizing that I tend to rate books high anyway. That’s a fairly low rating for me. It means I would NOT recommend it to someone … but that it had a smidgen of interest and wasn’t a total waste of time.

      John, who gave the book a 6, said he agreed a lot with Kirby’s review. He said he grasped Pascal’s Triangle, but his eyes glazed over with some of the material. John understood and agreed with Mlodinow’s explanation of the notorious Monty Hall puzzle, though, which might be one of the trickier topics in the book. John also liked the commentary on how movie studio CEO’s are commonly praised or blamed for things which were actually just matters of random luck. He liked the stories near the end of the book, and enjoyed reading it. But he concluded that while the book was good and enjoyable, it wasn’t earth-shattering. He also gave it a 6.

      Scott was the person in our group who was most enthusiastic about the book, and gave it an 8. Given the low level of mathematical education of people in this society, and with regard to probability and statistics in particular, Scott views the book as something of a public service, and marvels that it was on the New York Times best-seller list! Oddly enough, the part of the book that most people thought was the best, the part near the end, Scott thought was the weakest. Scott agrees with a number of the points Kirby made, but thinks they are secondary matters. One of several other small defects in the book is a tendency toward philosophical agnosticism. However, the main thing is that this is an excellent, very well written and enjoyable book to read, summarizing some key features of probability theory and statistics and outlining the story of how these mathematical theories developed. Scott thinks that people would be very hard-pressed to find a better introduction to the topic. If it hadn’t been for all the business and stock market examples which betrayed the bourgeois ideology of the author, Scott says he would have bumped up his rating even another notch!

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      For those who would simply like to view a condensed hour long version of The Drunkard’s Walk, in the form of a Commonwealth Club video interview with Leonard Mlodinow, check out this link:

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