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How quantitative thinking shaped our worldview

Over the past couple of months or so, I’ve had a few opportunities to speak with individuals and groups about “us” — who we are and how we came to be ourselves. By “us,” I do not mean self-reflection and the introspection of following self-help conventions; rather, I mean the “us” to be our worldview: our thinking, acting, and doing. Ordinary actions that are part of our daily living, like looking at the weather to decide what to wear before dressing; or starting our car and driving a familiar route (knowing in advance that this is not the most direct course but does have less traffic); or, occasionally, checking the stock market averages to see the current value of our investments or a retirement account; or even—when anticipating an Amazon delivery, worrying about who to call if you think you package was stolen.   Nowadays these things can be reliably forecast. Weather, at least for the next few days, is nearly-always accurately known. Driving routes are predictable events (just ask the delivery services person for his route map, which is updated each day or even hourly).

Each event demands a new outlook—one that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. By these events we have a quantitative outlook as our frame of reference. We view things as calculable (that is, reliably predictable) – and typically in terms of odds or likelihood of occurrence. We are now quantitative beings. Quantitative thinking is our inclination to view natural and everyday phenomena through a lens of measurable events, with forecasts, odds, predictions, and likelihood playing a dominant part. Mathematically-based estimates are much more accurate than the mere guesses of years’ past.

But how did we get this worldview? And, how did it come about so quietly and quickly? We were changed and did not even notice until the change was so complete it was our perspective on all things.

This worldview is unlike anything humankind had before; and, it came about because of a momentous human achievement. Namely, we had learned how to measure uncertainty. Probability as a science was invented.  By probability theory we now have correlations, reliable predictions, regressions, the bell-shaped curve for studying social phenomena, Bayesian estimation (MS Windows is based on this) and the psychometrics of educational testing (something that effects each one of us).

Unexpectedly and surprisingly, we came to this worldview only recently, within the past two hundred years or so, compared to more than 6,000 years of human history.  Even more astonishing is the fact that the change to the new worldview can be traced to just a few (about 50 or so) people. They, almost single-handedly, invented probability theory: the science that gives us methods for calculating odds, probability and reliable forecasts.

Imaginably, this worldview impacts each of us. Quantification is now everywhere in our daily lives, such as in the ubiquitous microchip in smartphones, cars, and appliances. Quantification is also essential in business, engineering, medicine, economics, and elsewhere.

I was watching TV where a prominent ad ran that touted Microsoft’s use of artificial intelligence to raise crop production, thus one acre of land can now feed such-and-such many more people than before. My thoughts immediately went to probability theory; which is the very basis of AI. (Hence, by the ad, more food)—all directly stemming from the imaginative work of Adrien-Marie Legendre and Carl Gauss, Thomas Bayes, and others. I am very glad to tell their story.

Later that day, I watched a full episode of the popular game show Deal or No Deal (originally broadcast in England and later transferred to America). It’s a perfect conditional probability! Once again, probability theory in action. And, it fits neatly into our contemporary, quantitative mindset.

Featured image by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash.

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