THE BLOG

Death Reminds Us How Little Control We Actually Have

25/03/2013 20:14 | Updated 25 May 2013

I suppose it never changes, but there does seem to be plenty of death in the news, much of it looking alarmingly random. It's tragic, and humbling.

An eight-year-old boy has been killed at a U.S. airport by a sign falling on this head. A cabbie in Singapore plunges 9 floors to his death trying to retrieve his daughter's shoe from an adjacent balcony. We recognise life can be random--it's why we have words like "accident," "coincidence," "serendipity" and "surprise"--but we always seem genuinely shocked when death comes out of nowhere. I recall when I was living in Berlin in 2004 a car killing two people inside Tegel airport of all places. Improbable though it sounds, the driver lost control of his vehicle in the passenger pick up zone and ploughed through a wall into the terminal (turns out the man at the wheel had suffered a heart attack).

Sudden death reminds us of the illusion of control.

It's remarkable how much control we think we have over things that are governed purely by chance. One example of this is gambling in casinos. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer found in experiments that in games involving dice, most of us throw harder when we need higher numbers, softer when we want lower numbers. We also think our odds to win are higher when we toss the dice ourselves rather than asking a friend for a lucky roll. That's alarming self-confidence.

In his book "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets" Nassim Nicholas Taleb illustrates at length how we under-appreciate our fallibility in life and bend over backwards trying to explain a world that, despite our deepest needs, is simply, frequently, unexplainable. Taleb advances these ideas in "The Black Swan," a book in which he argues that history is often shaped by surprising events. After the fact, says Taleb, we rationalise these events, concluding that some could have been predicted.

Mistakes can change the course of history.

The opening of East Germany's border with West Germany is one example. The historic fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989 was precipitated by a misunderstanding, and a garbled message delivered by Communist politburo member Guenter Schabowski at an East Berlin press conference. Schabowski's superiors had actually intended new, regulated travel liberalisation for East Germans. But when West German television, which was watched by East Germans, ran with the story that the Wall was now open, tens of thousands of East Berliners streamed toward the border, overwhelming hapless guards and police.

The point in all this is not that we cease in our quest to learn, classify, systematise, explain and, where beneficial and feasible, control. It's why we study history and literature, comparative politics and economics. It's why we like statistics and probability. Yet knowing our limits can be useful, too.

In this vein Leonard Mlodinow's book, "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives," is a compelling case for humility. Take this passage:

"Most people consider that the greatest evidence of an event one can obtain is to see it with their own eyes, and in a court of law little is held in more esteem than eyewitness testimony. Yet if you asked to display for a court a video of the same quality as the unprocessed data captured on the retina of a human eye, the judge might wonder what you were trying to put over. For one thing, the view will have a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. Moreover, the only part of our field of vision with good resolution is a narrow area of about 1 degree of visual angle around the retina's center, an area the width of our thumb as it looks when held at arm's length."

Which is another way of saying, take even reliable eyewitness accounts with a grain of salt.

I have my own experience with this. I remember once witnessing a scene in Prague that somewhat horrified me. I was on one side of the street, looking at the side walk on the other. A couple, walking ahead of a young girl on forearm crutches, kept shouting back that she should keep up. The girl stumbled repeatedly, almost falling several times on the icy, slick cobblestones. What kind of parents treat a young disabled girl this way?! Fast forward. A minute later the girl picks up the crutches, runs to catch up to the couple and now, suddenly in my field of vision, there's also an elderly woman (the grandmother?) in a wheel chair, to whom the crutches are returned.

We make assumptions. Writes Mlodinow: "We use our imagination and take short-cuts to fill gaps ... [making] judgements based on uncertain and incomplete information." Indeed.

And yet we never stop yearning for control, be it over life, or death.

Last year in the November 2012 issue of the Annals of Neurology, scientists reported the discovery of a gene variant that predicts, apparently with remarkable accuracy, one's likely time of death.

Good luck.