Show me a sign!

“Show me a sign!”

How many times in our lifetimes have we encountered a difficult stretch and wondered aloud if it was ever going to end, asking for a sign from above to give us hope? How many times do people turn to fortune-tellers, good luck charms, psychics or horoscopes for a hint of the future? Would we even know a divination sign if we saw one?

Humans are supposedly the only creatures capable of rational thought. Rational thought is analytical: identify, quantify, specify. During our lifetimes, we absorb a tremendous amount of information and we use that information to make decisions. We can take events from our past, remember the outcomes, and use that knowledge to make an informed decision. In most cases, past outcomes become the basis to determine the most probable outcome for a future event. Most probable, however, is not an absolute certainty. Unknown or highly unlikely outcomes called “Black Swan” events can arise, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. For example, matching all the numbers in a huge jackpot lottery on one ticket is highly unlikely, usually in excess of 120,000,000:1.

My area participates in a number of lottery games. The MegaMillions game recently had a jackpot in excess of $200 million USD. Even by taking the lump sum cash option and leaving almost half the money on the table, it would be enough for me to stay retired. A friend of mine was having an unbelievable run of positive events happening, so we joked about spending a dollar each and buying tickets. About an hour before buying my ticket, I found a four-leaf clover while out on a hike. Four-leaf covers supposedly bring the finder good luck because of a rarity of one four-leaf clover per 10,000 three-leaf clovers:

4 leaf clover

A four-leaf clover is supposedly lucky, so why didn’t I select the winning MegaMillions numbers on my ticket?

The day after the drawing, I found I had matched one number. Unfortunately, it was not enough to win anything. My friend fared worse by not matching a single number. So much for using a good luck charm to forecast the future. The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery with one ticket is 258,890,850:1, or roughly 2,589 times as rare as finding a four-leaf clover. I saw several people carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot buying lottery tickets. How can a rabbit’s foot be lucky because it came off an animal after an unlucky event? Other animals have fared poorly in our quest for divining the Divine. Goat livers or chicken entrails, anyone? At least other divination items like crystals look nice and brewed tea leaves is a healthy beverage.

Weather forecasting is seemingly a 50/50 proposition when projecting out over a week. Many people with a minimum of weather watching experience can predict if tomorrow is warmer, colder, or wetter than today. Those same people are unable to predict tomorrow’s temperature to within 3°F accuracy or precipitation within 0.1″. For most of us, a general guide to tomorrow’s weather is enough. Some occupations require accurate weather for ten days in the future. Certain types of concrete can handle small amounts of precipitation falling while curing; too much rain can damage or destroy it. Using a crane is not advisable during high winds. Planting crops before the final frost of the season will seriously influence harvest yield.

Weather very much affects farmers. A growing season stretches out over several months and a crop destroyed by an unexpected frost or torrential rain is a substantial loss of time and money. Weather folklore came about through thousands of years of observations and noticing certain natural phenomena. Some folklore roots are more wishful thinking (or wistful thinking if the year’s crop lies in ruins) rather than solid observation. In the Upper Midwest, woolly bear caterpillar stripe size is supposedly a harbinger of the upcoming winter. Woolly bear caterpillars eventually metamorphose into Isabella tiger moths, not meteorologists. Another forecasting myth involves the groundhog. If the groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog’s Day (February 2, exactly the halfway point between winter and spring), six more weeks of wintry weather should occur. With an accuracy of less than 40%, which is worse than the expected 50% of pure chance, perhaps the groundhog is better suited for predicting winning lottery numbers.

woolly bear caterpillar

Does this sort of stripe on a woolly bear mean a mild or frigid winter?

Remember that humans are mostly rational thinkers when they are not distracted with associating completely unrelated events into a prediction tool (see “woolly bear caterpillar” above). Accurately spotting future trends is a holy grail humanity has sought for millennia. Economic forecasts, actuarial tables, weather forecasts, and lottery number picks all strive for accuracy. Some of the supposed economic forecast signs are which team wins the Super Bowl, women’s skirt lengths, men’s underwear purchases (men choosing to “go command” must skew the data), and during the period when Alan Greenspan headed up the Federal Reserve Bank, the thickness or thinness of his briefcase.

Public safety is also at stake. Predicting the virulence and spread of a pandemic has many variables. Invasive species affect certain sectors of the economy. There is a delicate balance between erring on the side of caution and “crying wolf”. A far simpler example of future prediction is the invasive species warning sign that I saw in a park:

wild parsnip warning sign

Even though no wild parsnip is presently in the park preserve, there is a warning sign because wild parsnip spreads quickly.

There is no known infiltration of wild parsnip in the park. It does spread quickly and may appear in the near future. If people see the warning often enough, the hope is they will avoid contact with wild parsnip if or when it appears in the future.

Perhaps the best harbinger of future events is being in the present moment. Decisions made in the present influence the future. While we cannot change the past, we might change the future by being aware of the past and applying that knowledge to the present. It beats slaughtering a goat or maiming a rabbit. Be flexible with your plans because Black Swan events can and do happen. Have a good support team in place to help you through the rough times and enjoy the good times; be prepared to do the same for them.

Those of you who have a special someone in your life have won a lottery with odds exceeding 7,000,000,000:1. You have found the one person on this planet right for you, a person who makes you smile and laugh, who brightens your day when times are dark, someone whom you unquestionably trust, who supports your dreams, celebrates your victories, dries your tears and calms your fears. That is a prize more valuable than a nine-figure jackpot. Give that person a meaningful hug and I will make a 100% accurate prediction for the future: you both will smile and feel content every time it happens.

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by | October 26, 2014 · 12:58 pm

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