From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability

By Peter Coles | Go to book overview

11
Summing Up

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but
if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in
certainties …

Francis Bacon, in The Advancement of Learning


Statistics on Trial

I have taken a very circuitous route around the Natural World so far but in this final Chapter, I want to come back to Earth and discuss some broader aspects of the role of probability in everyday life. I have wandered through such esoteric subjects as chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and the anthropic principle, party because they are topics that I have to work with during my working life as a cosmologist, but also because they are 'safe'. What I mean is that, while these subjects may be greeted with mild interest by the person-in-the-street, they are generally thought to be so distant from the mundanity of human existence that they are not perceived as being threatening. This is one of the reasons why so many popular books on cosmology do well. Other branches of science, such as microbiology, are treated with suspicion or even outright hostility because the outputs of their study may have the potential to influence our lives in a harmful way. While the journey may have taken me in strange directions, I hope the perspectives we encountered on the way will assist in developing a deeper understanding of what goes on in our own backyard.

One particular area that I would like to explore is the role of probability in the courtroom. This subject fascinates me, although the level of my knowledge of legal practice is limited to daytime re-runs of Perry Mason. The first thing to say about statistics in jurisprudence is that, generally speaking, it is a complete disaster. Since the person in the street understands so little about probability, it seems obvious that the person in the jury box will fare little better.

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From Cosmos to Chaos: The Science of Unpredictability
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • 'The Essence of Cosmology Is Statistics' George Mcvittie v
  • Acknowledgements vi
  • Contents vii
  • List of Figures viii
  • 1: Probable Nature 1
  • 2: The Logic of Uncertainty 7
  • 3: Lies, Damned Lies, and Astronomy 31
  • 4: Bayesians Versus Frequentists 48
  • 5: Randomness 71
  • 6: From Engines to Entropy 95
  • 7: Quantum Roulette 115
  • 8: Believing the Big Bang 138
  • 9: Cosmos and Its Discontents 161
  • 10: Life, the Universe and Everything 180
  • 11: Summing Up 199
  • Index 213
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