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I woke up this morning to yet another incorrect weather report. Rhode Island has notoriously fickle weather, so it makes sense that the weatherman is wrong most of the time. It got me thinking, however, about the all-encompassing role that probability and prediction play in our lives.

From the moment of birth to the moment of death, from when we open our eyes every morning to when we close them every night, we are betting. We are wagering that we will wake up in the morning, the sun will rise, the food served in the Sharpe Refectory will be healthy and the straps on our bags won’t break on our way to class. We are favoring one outcome over another. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking wagers we have to make involve the information contained on an exam or the painful game that is shopping period.

But when carefully considered, all of these wagers reveal themselves as highly irrational. In the philosophy of science, there is a persistent question of whether assuming that a past event will hold true in the future counts as knowledge. Just because everything I have ever dropped has fallen down, the next thing I drop will not necessarily fall down. This is known as the problem of induction. Of course, now we have the theory of gravity, so we “know” that the next thing I drop will fall down, but we don’t know that “for sure.” This is a scary idea for us humans.

To combat this idea, we generalize and stereotype. While highly irrational in a logical sense, this practice is also highly functional. After having enough experiences with dogs, apples and chairs, we begin to assume that all dogs bark, all apples are edible and all chairs can be sat on. Yet there are dogs that don’t bark, apples that are poisonous and chairs that are art exhibits only.

This irrational, but functional, practice is also responsible for more harm than virtually any other element of humanity. It is the scourge of racism, genocide and the mechanism of psychological trauma. We, via this uncanny ability, conflate the total physical features present in a person and call him or her a “criminal,” even when this person has done nothing to warrant that label. 

In the exact same way, we conflate the total physical features present in an apple and call it “edible.” Both are examples of stereotyping.

When used in the context of race, rule formation is fundamentally unjust and risks producing the outcome of missed opportunities or friendships. Voluntarily choosing to forgo essentially gratis benefits is the full crime of stereotyping, while potentially saving one’s own life by offering a prediction of the future is its shallow payoff.

Essentially, the solution is evidence. By never having the evidence necessary to form a rule, one never forms a rule. Thus it is beneficial to expose children to people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and so on. The stories of, say, crimes by black people in the inner city, picked up and broadcast by undoubtably sensationalist news anchors, won’t suffice as evidence for formation of the rule that all black people are criminals if a person has many black friends, teachers and role models who are upstanding members of society.

Likewise, a victim of psychological trauma can ill afford to let that traumatic event be the rule-forming event that binds the trauma to its “trigger.” If a woman had the horrible misfortune of being sexually assaulted in a taxi cab, then in the absence of any opposing evidence, she would likely associate taxi cabs with the experience of being sexually assaulted and refuse to see, hear or interact with them out of fear for her safety. This would spell disaster if a taxi cab caught on fire and she could not bring herself to pull the driver and passenger from the car.

How this can be helped, abetted and avoided is to never let there be sufficient evidence to form a negative rule. A person triggered by taxi cabs must spend time around taxi cabs. A person with any trauma must prove that there are good and safe experiences to be had at the triggering location or with the triggering object to avoid stereotyping taxi cabs as unsafe places where one is likely to be sexually assaulted. This is one of the basic tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy for trauma victims. (I work with veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and this topic comes up a lot). Cementing relationships between the object of a stereotype and the stereotype itself is never rational, rarely beneficial and extremely functional when safety and self-preservation come into consideration.

Betting on the outcome of a future event is something we humans do too well. It causes a lot of problems, and it isn’t logically consistent. But if we are to function in the world, we must, with our evidence, bet on the future, even if all that means is betting on the existence of a future. For the future is the source and definition of hope. Perhaps this is key to our humanity as a whole, and an essential reason for monuments to be built, wars to be fought, technology to advance and civilizations to rise and fall. To be hopeful and to have faith is to be irrational, to never “take the hint” and to believe in a better tomorrow, even when today looks pretty bleak.

M. Dzhali Maier ’17 is concentrating in science and society.


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