If Life Is Random, Is It Meaningless? (with Brian Klaas)
Jan 22 2024

61u0UOP4xIL._SY522_-199x300.jpg How did a husband-and-wife vacation end up saving a city from the atomic bomb while destroying another? And how did a century-old murder of one family bring another into existence? Easily, explains political scientist Brian Klaas of University College London, who points out that history is replete with chance events that profoundly shaped both society and individual lives. Listen as Klaas discusses his book Fluke with EconTalk's Russ Roberts. Klaas argues that recognizing the randomness of everyday life and history can lead to a newfound appreciation for the meaning of every decision, and to a focus on joyful experimentation instead of relentless optimization. </p

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Jan 22 2024 at 9:39am

One point only. The idea that everything we do matters seems to me incorrect. Most of what we do doesn’t ultimately matter to us or anyone else. We do all kinds of things all the time we have no real consciousness of, no memory of and which have no real effect on anyone.  One or two extreme examples of actions which change lives or even change the world do not cover most of what we do most of the time.

krishnan chittur
Jan 22 2024 at 10:13am

This is by far the most bizarre podcast I may have ever heard (!) …

Yea, sure – a connects to b connects to c connects to d – but a could have connected to c and then to b and then to z and then to alpha …

I mean, what was the point?

Yes, interesting example upfront of the murder and consequent events – but that is also beside the point – how would one know that whatever happened later may not have happened in some different way – different people and so on and so on …

I truly am wondering as to what the purpose was … yea, things happen and yea, it is random or not random or whatever …

Bizarre really.

Matt Ball
Jan 22 2024 at 10:52am

I agree with the other comments. I think the distinction is between what has an impact on our lives and what has a real impact on the course of history. Writing this in 2022, I came to recognize several butterfly wing flaps that completely changed my life. (Not an exaggeration, and I’m not just talking about times I almost died.) But I also realized that despite dedicating my life to reducing suffering, the net impact of my life is very close to zero, and probably negative if not zero.

Bob Dock
Jan 22 2024 at 12:41pm

This is an interesting academic discussion but I don’t see how it has much practical value in real life other than highlighting the old mantra “control what you can control.” I’m envisioning someone reading this book and then overanalyzing every mundane task of daily life like they’re walking through a potential minefield because of the possible random outcomes.

Overthinking causality in hindsight and projecting that forward as a life strategy can be just as destructive as living recklessly.

Jan 22 2024 at 1:53pm

There is a 1998 German movie with the name Run Lola Run (original title Lola rennt) which is basically about the snooze effect Russ and his guest discussed. The movie depicts 3 scenarios corresponding to almost identical initial points, leading up to drastically distinct outcomes.

Ben Service
Jan 22 2024 at 6:27pm

There is also a book by Ben Elton called Time and Time Again which deals with the start of World War 1 and different potential outcomes.  It is a pretty interesting take and funny as well.  Ben Elton would be a good guest he does have lots of good comedic takes on things from an economic and social point of view and deals with serious topics, his books are memorable, to me at least.

Jan 22 2024 at 4:17pm

Walt Whitman covered uncertainty and a life approach to deal with a similar topic over 170 years ago.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855

I have heard what the talkers were talking . . . . the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

On a random note, I grew up 10 miles from Jamestown, WI and had friends/acquaintances with your guest same last name in our small town. Possibly his father, aunts and uncles, or more likely your first cousins once removed.

Erik Van de Water
Jan 22 2024 at 6:53pm

Taking this to it’s conclusion – Even if you are insignificant, your actions are very important in terms of the big picture.  But you will probably be long dead before the ripple affects of your actions make any meaningful difference, and the effects of your life may have the opposite consequence of what you think they do.  For example, if 1,000 years ago a boy did not vandalize his neighbor’s house, perhaps Stanislav Petrov would not have been the one working the night shift at the Oko command center on September 26th, 1983 .  Perhaps his counterpart would have followed procedure and informed his commander that the United States had launched nuclear weapons, and the Soviets would have launched nukes themselves, creating the ultimate catastrophe.  In this context, is any action right or wrong when the ultimate consequence is so uncertain?


Regarding quotes:
My point here is that I think there’s this aspect where we can’t know the ripple effects, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend they don’t exist. (41:55)


It’s to say that the way that those questions actually should pivot in our minds is based on whether we believe that individuals drive history or whether trends drive history. And, I’m of the view that individuals can very much drive history, because I think much smaller effects change history, as you see with the Kyoto and Hiroshima example. (~18:05)
People don’t pretend ripple effects don’t exist as much as they think the expected value of the ripple effects nets out to zero.  For example, if Kyoto is bombed instead of Hiroshima, is the world better or worse today?  It’s very hard to say.

Steve Bacharach
Jan 22 2024 at 7:51pm

Russ – do you have a link to the study that Brian mentioned where the 76 research teams all got the same data and reached the different conclusions? I’d love to check that out. Thanks.

Russ Roberts
Jan 23 2024 at 4:37am

The study is: N. Breznau et al., “Observing Many Researchers Using the Same Data and Hypothesis Reveals a Hidden Universe of Uncertainty,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (44) (2022).

[The url is: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9636921/. Note that we routinely do our best to list links to items mentioned in the podcast in the Delve Deeper section on the page.–Econlib Ed.]

Lori Thein Brody
Jan 25 2024 at 12:16pm

Thanks for the link to the study. This was fascinating. I teach Evidence Based Medicine and will use this.

Joe R
Jan 23 2024 at 5:43pm

Observing many researchers using the same data and
hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty

Jan 23 2024 at 10:39am

EconTalk listeners have been educated for years to cringe at the supposed credibility of studies. In the podcast, both Russ Roberts and his guest Brian Klaus downplayed the impact of social science research on legislation.

Russ commented that “Social scientists like to think it does, but I have a feeling that, most of the time, politicians, it’s an after-the-fact ex-post comfort for them to wave around something that they claim helps to show whatever they’re doing. But, it’s not obvious that social science has much effect.”

I disagree. If one watches legislative debates (obviously immobile without a remote control), one will routinely see legislators using social science research to promote bad legislation. The research will be referenced on the local news and other media outlets without any caveats or context and is launched on a journey toward conventional wisdom. And while it is impossible to know the motivations of legislators, reelection appears among their highest priorities.

In the abstract of the referenced study it states, “More than 95% of the total variance in numerical results remains unexplained even after qualitative coding of all identifiable decisions in each team’s workflow.”

If unbiased research teams can’t produce repeatable statistical / modeling results, what does that say for biased research teams? It brings to mind the old saying that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” According to Quote Investigator, when Carroll Wright used the phrase in 1889, he suggested that the new saying should be that “liars will figure.” This new saying is where we are today whereby the perceived ends (with lots of bad assumptions) have justified the production of biased studies that support policy initiatives enacted via bad legislation.


Antonio Jesus Gonzalez
Jan 23 2024 at 11:43am

Alex Wellerstein looked into the Stimson story b/c he was having a hard time finding evidence of it in his research. He wrote about it on his blog and it turns out to mostly not be true. https://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2023/07/24/henry-stimson-didnt-go-to-kyoto-on-his-honeymoon/

Kevin Ryan
Jan 24 2024 at 5:49am

Those who wish that Hitler had not been born, but are squeamish at the idea of killing children, might feel better to know that it would be sufficient to travel back in time and chat to his mother for a few minutes some time prior to his conception;  as that would be enough to prevent the birth lottery being won by the combination that produced Baby Adolf.

(Well, they do also have to believe both that backwards time travel is possible, and that it is possible to change the past).

More generally I thought this was a great episode, not least of course because it aligned with my own previous thinking on some of these issues.

In particular I muse over the fact that each and every one of us exists only because we are the incredibly lucky recipients of a combination of events (with infinitesimally small probability) in the lives of our ancestors.

However the consequences of this can be pretty hard for people to stomach.  For example, I wouldn’t expect many descendants of slaves to react well to the idea that they (as individuals) and their families would not be alive if their ancestors had not been enslaved.

Similarly I would be reluctant to point out to Pro-Choice advocates that some of them would never have been born if their mothers, grandmothers etc had been willing and able to exercise the option they insist women should have.

John Pinkerton
Jan 24 2024 at 5:49pm

Why cling to the particular world that past radical uncertainty has produced?

The philosophical argument that minimizes any regret, or any questions about the past, rests on the presumption that who you are today is better than a random alternative.

What justifies that presumption? It’s consistent with gratitude, a wise attitude. Perhaps that’s the source of the intuition. But is it true?

Here’s one answer. Say you were a typical student at your college. If you feel grateful for how things turned out as of your 20th reunion compared to your average classmate, I suppose you should feel a bit lucky and be grateful for the aggregate daily millions of random forks in the road of your life. Given the asymmetry of tragedy, perhaps most people would be wise to reject a random re-roll of the dice. But, sadly, not all.


Marc Saegesser
Jan 25 2024 at 11:19am

I really enjoyed this discussion and I have to say that I agreed with almost all of what Brian Klass has to say.

Something I find very interesting is now many of Russ’ guests are essentially classical stoics without seeming to realize it. For example, the discussion that there are things that are in our control or out of our control. That we derive our true happiness (or tranquility or eudaimonia) from what is in our control, and that those things are naturally free. That is pretty much Epictetus’ Enchiridion 1 in a nutshell.

Other than Ryan Holiday, have there been many other interviews with people who explicitly acknowledge these stoic roots?

Bill Allen
Jan 26 2024 at 9:39am

I enjoyed this discussion very much. I’m an old guy and I’ve seen many instances in which things would have turned out very differently if not for chance events (e.g. how I met my wife, how I got into my profession – little things like that).

But, what I wanted to comment on was the topic in which they discussed the value of trying new things instead of settling on doing things that were familiar. I work in a form of AI called reinforcement learning (i.e. teaching robots to walk, playing chess  – that kind of thing). This concept (exploration vs. exploitation – that is choosing a new path instead of going down a path that has given good results in the past to see if the new one might be better) is one of the most important research topics of the field. I have to admit in my everyday life my revealed preference tends to be to go with the safe, known path instead of trying something new.

Jan 29 2024 at 8:33am

I’ve enjoyed this episode so far. Thanks to Brian and as always, to Russ.

My comments here are beside the point of the conversation, but isn’t the claim about how the extinction asteroid arriving a moment later 40 million years ago could have changed the course of history an example of “over modeling” that Brian critiques? I mean, do we really know that? (My ignorance on the subject may be showing).

I also thought of Martin Gurri’s work when hearing the Kyoto story. If true, can you imagine the public’s (possibly justified) uproar if that story was revealed in real time?

Feb 5 2024 at 1:50am

Delve deeper list should include a link to Erik Hoel, on free will.

[Nice idea. Thanks! Done.–Econlib Ed.]

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: January 4, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 4th, 2024, and my guest is author Brian Klaas of University College London, where he is an associate professor of global politics. His latest book, which is our topic for today, is Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters. Brian, welcome to EconTalk.

Brian Klaas: Thanks for having me on the show.

Russ Roberts: I want to remind listeners to go to EconTalk.org, where you can vote on your favorite episodes of 2023. Thank you.


Russ Roberts: And now, Brian. You open your book with two remarkable stories. One is about Henry Stimson, and one is about yourself. Let's start with the Stimson story and how it illustrates the idea behind your book.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, the Stimson story starts with a vacation in 1926 to Kyoto, Japan, and it's a couple, Mr. and Mrs. H.L Stimson, who go on this vacation and just fall in love with the city. And, this is relevant, because 19 years later, the husband in the couple, Henry Stimson, ends up being America's Secretary of War, who's overseeing the Targeting Committee, which is tasked with deciding where to drop the first atomic bomb to end World War II. And, all of the generals, all the people on the Targeting Committee, basically agree that Kyoto should be destroyed, but Stimson and his wife like Kyoto. So, twice, he intervenes with President Truman to get Kyoto taken off the targeting list.

And so the reason why--the immediate reason why--the first bomb was dropped in Hiroshima is effectively because a couple that happened to be in the right place and right time 19 years later, took a vacation there in 1926.

And, the reason I opened the book with that is because I think it illustrates how very small changes--decisions about where to vacation two decades earlier--can cause the deaths of a hundred thousand people in one city rather than another.

And, that's the idea behind the book: is that there's a lot of randomness, chance, chaos, and contingency that diverts our lives and our societies more than we often think it does.

Russ Roberts: And, for completeness, because I found this also quite interesting, the targeting of Nagasaki, the second city that the atomic bomb was dropped on, also had a fluke aspect to it.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, this is where the other city that was chosen for the bombing on August 9th, 1945, it was called Kokura. And, the reason why the bomb ended up being dropped on Nagasaki instead was because of brief cloud cover over Kokura.

So, they thought there were forecasted clear skies. They sent the bomber up. These brief clouds flit across at just the right time. It obscures the bomb site, and they don't want to accidentally drop the second atomic bomb in history not on the target. So, they decide to go to Nagasaki instead. And so, even in Japan to this day, people say 'Kokura's luck' refers to unknowingly escaping disaster.

And this is--one of the other themes in Fluke is that we often think about the sort of chance, contingent events that divert our lives or our societies, a lot of the time, we're unaware of them. And, in Kokura, they would not have been aware, until much later, that their city was almost incinerated, except for a cloud.


Russ Roberts: And now, tell the second story. As dramatic as those are and thought provoking, the second one might be even more so. Go ahead.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, this story starts in 1905 in a little farmhouse in Jamestown, Wisconsin. And, it's basically the story of a woman who has four young children at home and snaps. She has a mental breakdown. We'd probably call it postpartum depression today, but of course, in 1905, they weren't making those diagnoses. And, tragically, she decided to kill her four children and then, take her own life. And, her husband comes home after a day on the farm and discovers his whole family dead. Right? All four kids and his wife.

And, the reason I put this in the book is because this is my great grandfather's first wife, and he[?] remarried to what was my great-grandmother.

Now, I had no idea this story existed until I was in my twenties. And, my dad sort of sat me down and showed me this newspaper clipping. The headline was, 'Terrible, active, insane woman,' from the 1905 newspaper. And, I had this realization, and maybe subconsciously--this is one of the origin stories of this book--but I had this realization that, but for that mass murder, I don't exist. Right?

And, not just that, but I don't talk to you. No one is hearing my voice, unless there is this mass murder in 1905.

And so, what I start thinking about--this informs of my social science research, but also my philosophy towards life and so on--is that you start to realize that, when you actually unpick causality, there are just these series of things back and back and back in history, that, if they were slightly different, the world would be radically and profoundly changed. And, I am a living testament to that, because the only reason I exist is because of a mass murder, 118 years, 119 years ago in Wisconsin.


Russ Roberts: And, what's the lesson of that? You mentioned both social science and your own life. And of course, the book alternates between these two perspectives, how we should look at the world trying to understand it, which is the social science part. And, then, the second part is, how should we live? And, we'll be, I'm sure, talking about both of those. But, start with that. How should this affect the way we think about social science?

Brian Klaas: Well, I think, when you think about how we try to understand the world, we model it. Right? And all of us started modeling it with this idea that we understood--I mean, it was obvious--that this is not the real world. This is a crude, sort of funhouse, mirror reflection of it.

And, what I think has happened along the way is we've gotten so consumed with modeling that we've forgotten how reality actually works.

And so, when you think about trying to model, for example, why did the United States drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima instead of, say, Kyoto? If you were trying to identify variables in a model to choose, the vacation histories of various U.S. government officials would be like 10 millionth on the list that would come to mind. Right? It would be so far down the list.

And yet, in that instance, it was the main cause. It was the main diversion at the last minute that diverted the bomb from its intended target of Kyoto to Hiroshima.

And the same is true--you know, when I think about my own life history--I think we have all these sort of neat and tidy stories we tell about our lives. We made good decisions. We take credit for wise choices and so on.

And yet, I think that not only do we sometimes lose sight of the fact that there's all these contingent moments that could have turned our lives differently, but more profoundly than that, there's unknown moments. Right? I sort of say, the invisible pivots in life.

And that's because, until I was 20 something years old, I had no idea I was the byproduct of a mass murder. And so, I lived in my life with that ignorance, and that was fine. But it meant that I didn't understand the actual trajectory of my life history, because I didn't have the information necessary.

And so, I think this is the kind of stuff where, when you think about Social Science and we try to understand social change, most of us are actually pretty good at doing this with our own lives. Right? We think about those pivot points. We can't think about the invisible ones, because we can't know they existed. Right? But we think about the ones, 'Oh, if I had just turned left instead of right, I might not have met my spouse,' or, 'I might have gone to a different college,' or whatever it is.

When we start to model the world, all that just flies out the window. And it makes sense, right? It's a pragmatic choice.

But I think it has reflected back on us a false image of how the world actually works.

So, the idea of the book is to say: Okay, if all these small contingent events add up to profoundly different societies and also diverted lives, then everything that we do is constantly reshaping the future. And that's why the third part of the subtitle is Why Everything We Do Matters. Because I believe that even these small chance and seemingly insignificant events do reshape history in profound ways.


Russ Roberts: Well, let's think about the social science part for a minute. One conclusion you could draw from your book--and you mentioned this as a possibility; you reject it, but it wasn't so clear to me why you do reject it--we can't really understand the world. One response to these kind of observations would be there's an infinite number of variables. We can never control for them statistically in any significant way, useful way, meaningful way. And there's an enormous random element in both history and our lives.

And, I think most of us would say that's true about our lives. But we have, I think, trouble--certainly as a trained social scientist in economics, it's troubling to think that, while we know that our models are simplified, and even sometimes the point of being simplistic, the idea that we cannot understand the world--because of its randomness, because of the influence of small things that are unobservable--does suggest a very pessimistic view of social science. Now, you say explicitly, I think in the book, that that would be a wrong conclusion to draw. So try to walk me through that nuance.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, I think that modeling is--I agree completely with the statement that all models are wrong, but some are useful, right? But I think there's questions about whether there can be models that are harmful.

So, models that are useful are ones that are trying to tease out aggregate patterns that may or may not hold true in the present moment based on past data. Right?

I think you get into trouble where you try to model the future from past data, if the world has actually changed. The problem of non-stationarity, where you're actually modeling a different world from the one that the data you collected previously existed.

But, I also think you get into trouble when you start to model things that are part of the realm of what Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, calls Radical Uncertainty, where literally, no matter what you do, you cannot understand it very effectively.

And one example they [John Kay and Mervyn King in their book titled Radical Uncertainty--Econlib Ed.] use, which I bring into the book, is whether or not it's a good idea for Barack Obama to order the raid to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. And, the point was that all the probabilistic estimates, all the forecasts they could make, they didn't have the information they needed, which is: Was he there? Would the raid work? And would the Pakistani government attack the U.S. Special Forces if they discovered them in time? Right? And, they had no--there was no data points for this. It had never happened before. Right? You could look at all the data from SEAL [Sea, Air, and Land] Team 6's success stories in the past, but that doesn't actually tell you anything you don't know already. Which is just: they're very effective. But, you still don't know whether it's a good idea to go there. You don't know if the guy is actually there, etc. It's radical uncertainty. There's no information you have that can inform the choice.

Now, this is where I split the world into problems that are must-answer problems from the ones that need-not-answer problems. Right?

The must-answer problems are--you know, you've got a health problem and you need to treat it because you're dying. You can't just, say, throw up your hands and say, 'Oh, it's radical uncertainty. We don't know what this rare disease is. Let's just let you die.' The same way that Obama had to make a decision.

But, I think there are problems that we forecast, which we don't need to. I mean, why do we forecast what Burundi's economic growth is going to be in 2030? I mean, we don't know. It's impossible. Right?

And, I think what is the problem with the latter kind of modeling is that it creates a hubris that I think is dangerous, because when you reflect the world that is swayed by randomness, chance, and contingency, back at you, as this neat and tidy set of models, you start to think you can control it. Right?

Because if the world actually was five or six variables that create this causal outcome that you understand, then you're going to play with the world in ways that you sort of think you can control.

And so, one of the aspects of why I'm writing this: One is just the philosophy of how the world works is interesting and important to understand.

But, in terms of pragmatic advice, it's to say, let's think carefully about whether we actually have reached our limits on some of these areas. And, if we have, we should have less appetite for optimization, more appetite for experimentation, and more appetite for resilience. Right?

So, it's how you interpret the results of a more uncertain world, that causes you to make wiser decisions and avoid catastrophe, basically, by the hubris of certainty that's embedded in some flawed models.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm a big fan of humility in the face of hubris and certainly humility about the reliability of empirical work. You tell the rather remarkable story of the attempt to measure--76 teams were given the same data on the impact of, what was it, immigration on--

Brian Klaas: Social support safety net programs.

Russ Roberts: Right. Excuse me. And whether the size of the immigrant population affected the political support for safety net that would benefit immigrants, who, quote, "weren't like you" possibly. Tell what happened in that study. I had not seen that. It's in 2022, I think.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, to me, I hope that more people come across this study, because of my book, because it's excellent, excellent research. And, to me, this is the kind of study that should have the ripple effects that the replication crisis had a little over a decade ago.

So, basically, what they do is they send out 76 research teams who are not in communication with each other. They give them the exact same data. They say, 'Here's the data to work with, and we all need to answer this empirical question of: Does an increase in immigration basically cause a change in support levels for the social safety net?'

Now, what they found--all these different teams used different methodologies. They plotted every single choice they made, methodologically, said exactly what they were doing, etc., but they didn't communicate with each other. So, there's no group-think. Come up with 76 different ways to model the data.

And what they found was about half of the teams, roughly speaking, found a null result--no effect. Or at least they could not discern an effect statistically from the data. Roughly a quarter of the teams found a positive effect, and roughly a quarter of the teams found a negative effect, both of them being statistically significant.

Now, this shakes my faith in social science profoundly, because the problem is that, normally, when social research is done, one team does this and they pick their own data. They're not taking data that's ready-made and sort of hand-fed to them. They're making choices already about which data to use, what to include, and what not to. But, when they had the same data, there was still almost an even split between positive and negative results on this.

And, most of the time, what would happen is, if you got a null result, a lot of people would not publish it. Publication bias is a real problem. If they got a positive result, they would publish it; and it would become the accepted wisdom, if it was in a top-tier journal, that there was a positive effect. If they got a negative result, they would publish it in a top-tier journal, and there would be the accepted wisdom that there was a negative effect. And then, there might be years upon years where not only was this viewed as settled research, but that people made policy based on it.

And then, at some point, somebody else would come up with a new study, probably using different data, and maybe get a different result. And so, the 'Universe of Uncertainty' paper, which is what this one is called, to me, it signals what I call the hard problem of social research, that: even when you control the data, even when you try to plot the methodological choices and try to keep them in the realm of responsible methodologies, you get a scattershot result.

And, that worries me. It's something where I think it shakes the faith that we should have in the idea that a single study can establish definitively whether something is true or false in social dynamics.

Russ Roberts: Or five studies, if they all happen to be agreeing and they all happen to be on one of those quarter that found one side or the other. The phrase, 'Studies show,' is a phrase that I can no longer hear and just let it go by, mentally at least. I don't always say something.

But, if it's any comfort, Brian, I think there'd be--I've never seen a study done on the following: Does social science research actually affect public policy? Social scientists like to think it does, but I have a feeling that, most of the time, politicians, it's an after-the-fact ex-post comfort for them to wave around something that they claim helps to show whatever they're doing. But, it's not obvious that social science has much effect.

Now, I don't think that's literally true. Keynes's famous quote about listening to madmen is, I think, relevant. I think there are, every once in a while, intellectual movements and books and insights that do affect the course of the world.

But, sometimes I think we're just over here in this sandbox over here, this group of young children of an older age playing with statistical packages. So, I share your unease that this can lead to overconfidence about the impact of, say, X on Y, but maybe it's not as big as we worry about.

Brian Klaas: I think that's definitely true, by the way, for my realm of political science. I don't think that we sway policy as much as we like to pretend we do.

And, I think some of that, by the way, is because of some of the flaws that I suggest. I mean, I think there are some aspects of social science that could be improved. And, if they were, then maybe people would put more faith in our research.

But, it's still very worthwhile to do. I'm not trying to say we throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's still worth trying to understand the world, and social science is our best tool to do that. So, even though I have what I think is a rather provocative chapter title, "The Emperor's New Equations," for that chapter, I actually very much believe in the mission of social science. I just think that we need to improve how we do it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm more cynical than you, but that's okay. We'll save that for another conversation.


Russ Roberts: Talk about--one way to organize one's thinking about this that you use is, which I really like, is contingency versus convergence. Talk about those two terms and how they illuminate these issues.

Brian Klaas: So one of the joys--this book was so fun to research, because I really went down the rabbit hole of evolutionary biology, which is--it's an historical science. It shows us how change happens over time and how trajectories shape future pathways.

And so, the contingency versus convergence are very easy to understand in evolutionary terms. The best example of contingency is the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and gave rise to the mammals. Right? Because if the asteroid had been delayed by a few seconds, you probably wouldn't have had the mass extinction events of the dinosaurs. Mammals might not have become dominant, and humans probably wouldn't exist. So, a span of a couple seconds, 60 plus million years ago--if that had been different, humanity probably wouldn't exist. So, that's contingency. It's where very small changes can create profound effects.

Convergence is the sort of idea that things happen according to patterns that are relatively stable and ordered, because there are pressures on them.

So, in evolutionary terms, for example--I love this example--if you look at an octopus eye and you look at a human eye, they're extremely similar, and they've been evolving on separate lineages for the better part of 400-plus million years. And the reason that happened is just because there's only so many ways that vision can work, and the human eye is one example of a very effective way that vision can work. So, when nature accidentally stumbled across this sort of solution to a problem of how to navigate the world, it stuck. And so, convergence is basically this sort of more ordered viewpoint of the world.

And, I think, by the way, that social science mostly lives within the convergent worldview. And, contingency is the worldview that small changes can throw things up that radically divert history and the course of human social change and so on.

So, I also like to use it in our own lives. So, contingency would be the idea of, like, a snooze button, where you decide it's a Monday morning and you're tired; you slap the snooze button and sleep for five more minutes. If your life unfolds basically the same way as it would if you didn't hit the snooze button, then that would be a convergent pathway. Right? It didn't really matter. If your life changes, because you get in a car accident, for example, or something shifts--

Russ Roberts: Or you avoid one--

Brian Klaas: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So, that's a contingent event.

So, it's in a framework that's both applicable for our lives and for our societies.

Russ Roberts: I thought you have a really nice example in there in the book about thinking about history, and we can think about fundamental trends that are inexorable or whether individuals, through their own actions, can offset those trends or create different ones. And, you have this thought experiment, which is--it's not yours--it's a thought-provoking, though, thought experiment of: If you could kill Hitler as an infant, would you? So, talk about why that's trickier than it might seem.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So this is like Philosophy 101. There's this sort of question of: Would you kill baby Hitler? And, it's supposed to be a thought experiment to figure out your views on utilitarianism. Would you kill a baby in order to save millions and millions of people?

And, the reason why I include it is because that thought experiment actually pivots much more, to me, on your views about historical causality and how the role of individuals may or may not play a role in diverting trajectories.

So, if you have a highly convergent worldview where you think the sort of rails of life are not diverted by individuals, then the baby Hitler question is actually one that doesn't affect the outcome of history. Right? Because you figure, 'Well, the structural factors for Nazi Germany to emerge were there.' And, so, if it hadn't been Hitler, somebody else would have done it, and therefore, there's no reason to violate your Kantian ethics and kill baby Hitler.

On the other hand, if you think that small changes can have profound effects--and of course, Hitler is not a small change; he's an enormous change--then the contingency worldview would say, 'Okay, killing baby Hitler would radically change the course of history and may also make it much, much better. Save the lives of millions of people for this one baby.'

So, it's that kind of question.

There was a book written by Stephen Fry, who sort of imagined this world in which, actually, Hitler was never born, but the outcome of Nazi Germany was worse. Now, this is very hard to imagine, but the premise of the book is that the person who ends up becoming the leader of what was effectively a Nazi-style regime was actually more disciplined than Hitler. And, so, they acquired the atomic bomb sooner, and they won the war. Right?

So, the point that I'm bringing in is not to comment on the various virtues of killing or not killing baby Hitler. It's to say that the way that those questions actually should pivot in our minds is based on whether we believe that individuals drive history or whether trends drive history. And, I'm of the view that individuals can very much drive history, because I think much smaller effects change history, as you see with the Kyoto and Hiroshima example. So, surely, if a different person was in charge, I do think it would divert history.

Russ Roberts: Go back to the snooze button for a minute. And I think most people intuitively believe, whether they're right or wrong, give or take--most people intuitively believe that: Snooze-button-type things rarely derail the path of my life. Sleeping in for a few minutes here or there, stopping to eat at the buffet rather than having a sit-down dinner I was planning, having a drink--not sure whether I should have a drink before I go to bed, a scotch. So, I have on one night, not on another. Maybe I wake up with a slightly thicker head, foggier morning, the next morning. And it's, of course, possible that, because of that, my presentation is awful; and I get fired: I become a drug addict, homeless, fill-in-the-blank. Or, I'm fired, and, it turns out I find an incredible job that I wouldn't have even thought to look for.

So, life is full, obviously, of some random events.

But I think most people would say that those are rare. That they're not the--I'll say it a different way--this convergence and contingency in our daily lives, there are many broad patterns that persist, regardless of small choices or interactions we have with the world or with others. And, there's many that are serendipitous, both for good and for bad, and we don't know what those are.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So basically, I agree with you that most people think about the world this way, right?

And the way that I would sort of counteract that is by bringing up--I have this in the introduction of Fluke--but it's this example where I say, 'You know, everybody sort of intuitively accepts this notion that, if you were to travel back in time: don't change anything. Don't squish the wrong bug, be very careful, because you might accidentally change the future in such a way that you get deleted out of the present.' Right?

Russ Roberts: And, there's a Ray Bradbury short story, we'll link to, if we can, called the "Sound of Thunder," that's magnificent, that deals with this.

Brian Klaas: Exactly. And, The Simpsons also riff on this idea off the Bradbury story.

And so, I think most of us sort of intuitively think, 'Yeah, okay,' like, 'Fair enough.' That's probably good advice. Like, if you do squish the wrong bug, if you travel back 800 years or 2 million years in history, you might actually change the future of the species or your own life.

And, we don't think about that in the present. But, of course, historical causality doesn't change: whether it's past or present, it's the same thing. So, if squishing a bug in the past can divert the trajectory of history in the future, then surely squishing a bug in the present can divert the future as well.

Now, what I would say in the more realistic world of our lives is that we just simply are blind to this. I think that you're right that it's very hard for us to discern these, and our brains have evolved to make pattern detection the prime aspect of what we do cognitively. So, we overlook a lot of this stuff.

But, just examples, like: I've had situations--I'm sure you have--where somebody makes an off-handed remark that has stuck with me, either a profound witticism or sort of a cutting jab that really made me feel bad. That person has no idea what it's done, but maybe it put me in a bad mood. Maybe then I snap at somebody else. There's ripple effects that happen even on the tiniest things. When you hit the snooze button, you meet different people that day. Right? When you meet the person who becomes your best friend in your life, a series of things had to happen for that exact occurrence to take place. Right?

Now, you might say there's convergence because you were going to end up at the same school or whatever it was, but I think the ultimate contingency is where this becomes crystal clear is when we start to think about which humans get produced. Because, without going into graphic detail, the exact moment of when a baby is made, if it's a microsecond difference, a different human is born. Right? And so, it's obvious that, in that day, even slight variations are going to affect which person is born. But, if you keep going back, why do you end up on that exact date in that exact situation? Well, it's a series of events that each have an infinite regress basically back to the beginning of your life.

So, my view of historic causality is actually that--when I say everything we do matters, I'm not trying to make some cute statements about we should care about ourselves. I literally think that everything that we do affects the shape of the world in some way. We're blind to how it's diverting the future of our trajectories.


Russ Roberts: And I think that's a very beautiful idea. Of course, most of the time, we don't know what that direction will be. If I'm having a bad day and I struggle to overcome it, and I fail, and I snap at someone, that puts them in a bad mood and that has these ripple effects you're talking about. And, it is possible that, by snapping at them, I cause them to reflect on their own lives in a positive way. But most of the time, we would argue that that's bad--that, snapping at people, being rude, arrogant, pushy, obnoxious, self-centered--that produces bad ripples. The challenge, of course, is, is that many of these small things that do make a difference, we don't know how they make a difference.

So, the snooze button's a good idea. Now, whether I push the snooze button, if I push it, I may meet--encounter is maybe a better word--different people along the way on my, say, bus ride or walk to work, or whatever thoughts I'm going to have and so on are all going to be different. They might be good, they might be bad. I have no idea. It is a bad idea to push the button eight times every morning, because you'll eventually waste large chunks of your life maybe, and maybe lose your job if you're constantly late.

But, I think I would want to make a distinction between things that--because we are all connected, I have an idea of causation, even though it's imperfect. As I said, sometimes what seems like good behavior could lead to bad outcomes, or vice versa. But, most of the time, I have a theory about those ripple effects, and many times, I don't. And, the ones that don't are relatively, I would say, they have impact, but they don't guide my life, because I can't anticipate them.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, that's a perfect encapsulation, because I think you have to differentiate between how the world works and how we should live within it. Right?

So, I think that how the world works shows that these ripple effects are interconnected. And this means--I find this a profoundly moving idea--that all of our best moments in life are inextricably intertwined with all of our worst moments in life. And the way I explain that is to say: I am quite literally the byproduct of a gruesome mass murder, one of the most horrific things that happened that year in Wisconsin, these four young children. Everything good in my life is directly derived from that. My life is directly derived from that. Every positive impact I've made is directly derived from that. So, this horrible event had these consequences that I find--subjectively--very, very positive. Now, that doesn't mean you should go out and mass-murder people and hope that it produces good effects. Right?

So, because there is no way to anticipate the invisible ripples, we should live according to basically a code of ethics, trying to be decent to each other. But, sometimes, people doing horrible things does produce very good outcomes. Sometimes, people doing really good things produces terrible outcomes. This is obvious. But, I think that there's something that's still valuable, at least in the way that we process how our lives work--and also, think about social change--in understanding that there is no free lunch: There's no action that doesn't have an impact.

And I think, once you start thinking that way, you start to view yourself slightly differently in a way that can be very helpful for people who are thinking about their lives and are going through, for example, a very dark time. You think: Okay, well, quite literally, in my view of causality, that dark time is the cause of all the good times that are going to come. Now, if it were different, you would have a different life. Now, some of it might be better, some of it might be worse, but that sort of interconnection and unbroken strands of causality, I think, is something that can sometimes be comforting when terrible things are happening.


Russ Roberts: Well, you have a concept you mentioned--I don't know if it's Nietzsche's concept or whether he was using it from other folks--which I think is very provocative. It's very relevant to some things I'm thinking about these days. It's the idea of amor fati--I don't know how to pronounce it--it means love of one's fate.

So, if we look back, and my favorite example of this is-- I won't spoil the story--but I think it's called "The Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang. It's a short story that deals with this question, and it's a magnificent story. He uses the basis for the movie Arrival, a movie I didn't particularly care for; but the story that it's based on love beyond words. The idea is that: If you look back on your own life and you see all the mistakes you made or the cruelties you endured--in your case, it's a cruelty that happened before your birth that enabled you to be here--but if we think back on those things, often, we're tempted to regret them. We say, 'I wish I hadn't done X,' or, 'I wish that person hadn't done Y to me, because I was traumatized, brutalized by it.' But, there is a tendency, I think, in the human heart--and I think religious people think about this differently, but if you're not religious, there's still a strong tendency in the human heart--to say, 'Well, if that bad event hadn't occurred, I wouldn't be me.'

And I realize--and this is, I think, the profound part of your book--I realize that who I am in this moment and my outlook and my sense of self, my consciousness of self, that's the product of all these thousands of small things. Absolutely. And, I can't pluck out one of them by itself--and you use the idea of a thread--I can't pull one thread out and leave the rest of the cloth of the fabric unchanged, so I just didn't have to suffer from that moment, say, of humiliation in seventh grade or the terrible decision I made to do XYZ on vacation, that caused me weeks of pain and I lost a friend, etc., etc.

I love the idea that those things should change, but when I face the reality of confronting the fact that, if I change any one of those, that butterfly stepped on back 70 years ago, it was 55 years ago, I won't be me.

And, I think that's probably a fallacy, but I think it's a very human way that we think about our lives. By the way, it's not a fallacy, rationally. I wouldn't be me: the idea that I've embraced it--the amor, the love of fati, of my fate--that is, I think, it might be a fallacy, but I think it's incredibly human for us to cope with that suffering we've endured.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. So, I don't think it's a fallacy. I think it's quite literally true. I think that, if anything different had happened in your life, you would be a different person.

Russ Roberts: Well, that's true.

Brian Klaas: And I think that this is--it's applying chaos theory. It's not to say that you'd be a completely different person. It's not like you have no genetic makeup, no character or personality. But some things would be different about you. And, you would be different in this moment, right?

And this--to me, it's just applying chaos theory to humans. Chaos theory is a pretty effective and validated scientific theory, and it shows that many complex systems--which I would include the human mind as well as human society--are sensitive to initial conditions, and slight changes in those initial conditions going forward in time can create profound effects.

The origin of chaos theory is the weather. And of course, we intuit this when we think, why isn't the weatherman making a forecast ten days in the future? It's because tiny fluctuations can create totally different weather systems.

I think that's the same for humans. And, I think, actually, there's a difference here between what's socially useful in a sort of aggregation and what's individually useful for processing terrible things that happen to us.

So, I think you're right that it's quite literally true, and also that it's a coping mechanism to confront terrible things by understanding that they make you who you are. But, I actually believe this scientifically is a literal truth.

Now, on top of this, there is some social usefulness to regret, because when we do stuff that inflicts pain on other people and we feel bad about it, that's socially useful. Now, of course, the fact that we did that does make us who we are. It's unavoidable. There's no way where you can rewind your life and delete that little bit of your history. And, it then causes you to behave better in the future, because you internalize that regret. And then, it changes the way that your neural network processes new information, and then you behave differently the next time that you encounter someone--maybe you're a little bit kinder.

So, I think you can have a parallel idea in your head at the same time that: Yes, it's actually useful to go back over your life and think about what could have been different, what could have been better, as a thought experiment, because that allows you to adapt and be more proactive in terms of making decisions that you're more happy with over the long run. But, I also think it's not a fallacy to use it as a coping mechanism, because it is quite literally true. I am the byproduct of everything that's happened to me, and this is partly because I believe that my mind is basically a physical object. I don't believe there's a difference between my mind and my brain. So, if that's the case, then every single thing that has affected my brain structure is every experience I've ever had. And therefore, if I hadn't had some of those experiences, my brain would process the world differently and I would behave differently.


Russ Roberts: Just to be clear, first of all, I think--I used to agree with you about regret. I don't believe that anymore. Although I think regret plays an important role in potentially affecting our behavior, I think it's very difficult for our brains to process regret in that thoughtful way. And, I'm not sure that regret is that helpful in helping me be better in the future.

Put that to the side for a minute. I just want to make clear what I meant when I said it's a fallacy. If some of the bad things that I did or that happened to me were pulled out of the fabric, I would be a different person; and I love who I am. But I'd also love who I am if I were a different person. That's all I meant. And I might be even happier. I think it's interesting, your example of--there's a long chapter in your book on free will, and I told you before we started recording, we probably wouldn't talk about it, because we'd already gone in great depth with Robert Sapolsky on it.

But, there's a fascinating parallel between a William James essay and your origin story. So, William James' defense of free will, he talks about a horrific murder, and he says, 'Do we really believe that that murder, that the world would not be a better place if that murder didn't happen? Is there any possible way for that murder not to have happened? Wouldn't the world be a better place?' Now, it turns out--of course, he understands that many, many other things would then happen, that might be good or bad. In your case, you seem like a fine fellow, Brian--I'm glad you're here--but I think the first wife of your--great-grandmother or grandmother?

Brian Klaas: Yeah, my great-grandfather. Yeah, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It would have been a better thing, certainly in a utilitarian sense--on the surface; we have to be careful, because if those four children had lived, one of them could have grown up to be a Hitler. The world's complicated. We can't reliably say that. But I think our sense of morality--and this James' point--is that, if we can't judge that, James is saying we have to be able to say, all of us desperately want to say, 'I would prefer a world where that didn't happen.' And, the alternative view is to say, 'Well, it's all determined': that nothing could freely change anything. And so, we want to live in this world right now that has many beautiful things and some not so beautiful things. We have to accept all the mass murders of the past, all the cruelty of the past; and all the good things of the past. But, I think the idea that there are some bad things that happen is important to say, and I know you agree with that, so I'll let you say it.

Brian Klaas: Yeah, no: this is the kind of thing where, because you can't know the ripple effects of any individual action, the only rational way to live is to try to be as ethical as possible.

Now, the question about free will is more of a question of, where did the cause of those events come from? So, whether I am able to freely control my mind separately from my brain, that's a question about causality and free will and the sort of dynamic nature of matter. Right? But it doesn't change how, because I don't know the answer to that question, then I should try as best I can to behave in an ethical way.

I agree basically with Robert Sapolsky's viewpoint on this: I don't believe in free will, and I'm a hard determinist in this sense. But, I don't think that it actually pragmatically affects the ways that we should think about our own lives, because we just simply can't know.

To me, it's more of a question about: What is the ultimate origin of human behavior? Not: What is the right kind of human behavior? And, the right kind of human behavior is obviously extremely ethical.

Now, one of the things that I think--just to pick up a thread that we were talking about before that relates to this--when I was talking to, whenever you write a book, you kick ideas around with smart people, and I was talking to a historian about the Hiroshima and Kyoto example. And what he said to me was, he's, like, 'Yeah, but the war was going to end anyway, and the United States was going to win anyway.' And, it relates to this idea about the unknown effects. Because what I said to him was, I was, like, 'Yeah, you're right. They would have bombed Kyoto, the United States still would have won the war, etc. But the world doesn't have categories with binary outcomes.' Right?

So, the way he was thinking was, like, the effect of that action was indifferent, because the war still ends. I say, 'Yeah, but if a hundred thousand different people die and Kyoto no longer exists and Hiroshima does, Japan is going to develop differently.' People who go to Kyoto now, who have been--some of your listeners probably have been to Kyoto--they wouldn't have gone there. They might have gone to a different city.

So, the idea that there's these, like, categories of change that we impose on the world--like, did the war end in the way that we expected or not--isn't actually how I think this thread works. I think, if one person lives and one person dies and you swap them, I think the world changes. So, obviously, if a hundred thousand different people live or die.

And, that's an interesting situation, because in the William James story you reference, obviously, it's a choice between murder or no murder. This is a choice between which a hundred thousand people live or die.

And, I think the thing that makes us so uncomfortable with the idea that it was because of a vacation is just because it's so arbitrary. But, like, is it better if the reason was because there was a Japanese aircraft manufacturer in Kyoto? I mean, maybe. But that's also the choice that some random Japanese guy made, that caused these people to die.

So, my point here is I think that there's this aspect where we can't know the ripple effects, but that doesn't mean we should pretend they don't exist.

And, that's the sort of philosophical aspect of this. Everybody else then has to internalize, 'What does this mean for me?' And, I write about, in Fluke, what this means for me. But the reader is, I think, hopefully, going to have a different reaction to it and how you make sense of a world that's more swayed by chance and contingency and randomness and chaos and all this stuff. I hope that I'll get lots of responses that are radically different, because I think that's the beauty of the human condition, is all of us take an idea and interpret it in our own brains very, very differently.

Russ Roberts: Well, if you're right about free will, it doesn't matter, because it's all pre-determined already. It's in what James calls the iron wall of one event coming after another inexorably.


Russ Roberts: I want to read--and by the way, I think the claim that we would have, quote, "America would have won the war anyway," is--it's an untenable claim. There's no way of knowing. And of course, the bomb was dropped not to, quote, "win the war" versus lose it. That's the binary part I think you're a hundred percent right about. That's the wrong way to think about it.

The reason the bomb was dropped, whether this was moral or not--obviously, it depends on what you consider moral--but it was dropped to save what was thought to be the loss of hundreds of thousands, if not a million lives, in an invasion.

Of course, that might not have been necessary, either. Maybe the emperor could have had a heart attack and things would have changed.

But, these are the issues, I think, that are much harder ex-ante than ex-post.

But, I want to read a beautiful paragraph that sums up what we've just been talking about, and you can expand on it if you want or not, but it's a beautiful summary.

You say, quote:

Our best and worst moments are inextricably linked. The happiest experiences of your life are part of the same thread in which you suffered the most crushing despair. One couldn't follow without the other. That may sound strange, but I obviously wouldn't exist if my great-grandfather's first wife hadn't murdered her family. So, my most joyous moments are unavoidably tethered to that horrific tragedy. In a literal sense, our most euphoric moments couldn't exist without their suffering. That doesn't mean that we should celebrate suffering, but that future elation--elation will emerge directly or indirectly from seemingly senseless suffering can be a consoling truth that blunts our worst moments of pain. Conversely, my joyous moments will, in some way, lead inexorably to someone else's agony or my own. That's just the way it works. For good or ill, I find this mind-bendingly beautiful, providing the most vivid sense of interconnection between all things intertwined across space and time.

Close quote. Want to add anything? It's a beautiful quote, beautiful paragraph.

Brian Klaas: Thank you. No, I mean I think that sums up the main ideas.

I just--when I talk to people who are dealing with problems in the modern world--and I think there are a lot of people who are dealing with problems in the modern world right now--it's this idea, I think, is one that is both true and comforting.

But it's also something where it's derived from a sense, for me at least, that, if the world is intertwined in this way and if our lives can be swayed by forces seen and unseen, sometimes random, sometimes small, we have a little bit less control than we think we do. Right? And, I think we're sold this world where, like, you are in control. Right? So, the self-help industry is basically an industry that tells you, 'It's your fault you're not happy, because here's the recipe to being happy and wealthy and so on.' And, the world just doesn't work that way.

And I think it lets us off the hook a little bit. I think that's the other aspect of this that I find helpful, is--I repeatedly use this quote, and it's sort of this idea that we control nothing but we influence everything. And, when you start to think about it that way, combined with the aspects of what you just read, I think it lets humanity sort of be a little bit messy and be a little bit imperfect. And it's okay.

So, it's funny--it's really nice to chat with you as someone who has so clearly read the book. Right? This is very rare with interviewers. But it's so nice to chat about it. Because the thing that I found so interesting reading, researching all this, was I think these ideas are actually really linked across disciplines. And, it's rare to have someone, like on your show, where you'll have a trained social scientist that's thinking critically about the philosophy behind these things and also the science behind them and so on.

And, we're all grappling with the same puzzles. We're just totally different silos. And, the passage that you read is actually linked to questions of physics, right? There's like, 'What is this actually about the way the world works in terms of causality?'

So, yeah: I think the passage you read sums up my views on this. But I do love that there is philosophy to be derived from physics. There is sort of import for the way we live our lives from things that we think about social research and so on. And they're not as separate as we pretend they are.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, most of the social science things that we read, as you point out in talking about self-help books--which are often based on research and studies that show that this will make you happier, this will lead to a better life, and so on--those are not reliable. But they're deeply appealing to us. We deeply want those magic formulas to get rid of uncertainty, to assert the feeling of control, and so on.

And, I think a lot of those theories are simply just misleading. And the real--those of you out there read my book, Wild Problems, part of my theme in that book is that--and it's a theme in your book, Brian--is: uncertainty is not something to be conquered. It's something to be embraced. It's the essence of life. And, as you point out--I think I pointed out also in my book--you don't want to know how the story ends. Uncertainty is--actually would be deeply disturbing if you were to know the date of your death or how you're going to die. There's an EconTalk episode about that. I've forgotten who it was, but that's deep. It's Michael Blastland, who is the guest.

So, that would be deeply disturbing. And yet, we are constantly trying to overcome this unease that we have at being unable to control things.

So, I think the lesson for how to live--I think I know what the answer is. It's not an answer that's easily accepted, I think, for us as human beings. So, maybe talk about that a little bit.

Brian Klaas: I completely agree with everything you said, but in addition to that, I think we also don't know what we actually want necessarily. What I mean by that is not to sort of suggest that people can't understand themselves, but rather to say that, sometimes, forced experimentation in a world of uncertainty is a very good strategy. I think this is true, by the way, in business and economics, but I think it's also definitely true in people's lives.

And, one of the examples that--Tim Harford originally popularized this, but I think it's just a beautiful example--is the story of Keith Jarrett and the rickety piano. And basically, he comes to the Cologne Opera House for this packed crowd to play, and they've screwed up the piano order. And so, there's no grand piano for him. There's just this practice piano that's really terrible. And, as a result, he has to play the concert on it. But he adapts himself to the piano, changes things a little bit, plays with it, basically experiments. And, this is the best-selling jazz album of all time, because this unexpected, forced experimentation actually produced something really beautiful.

And, the same story--the story right before that in the book--is about the London Tube strikes, where they have this, all of a sudden, the way that you get to work is shut down for a day. And, when economists tracked mobile phone data, geolocation data, they found 5% of commuters who had to choose a different route because of the strike stuck with the new path after the strike. Which suggests they had found either a better option. It may not have been faster; might've just been more pleasant. Maybe they walked instead of taking the Tube the next time, etc. But, it forced people out of this rut.

And, I think there's a lesson there that, yes, uncertainty actually has some upsides, because as you say, scripted lives are boring and sad. The idea that we already know exactly when we're going to die or exactly which partner we'll end up with and so on takes a lot of the serendipity out of life. But also, that the experimentation aspect is a way to live within this. Because, you don't know, and the false sense of certainty causes you to optimize in ways that sometimes are unintentionally harmful, even if they are efficient.


Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think the--one way to think about this is to think about downside, upside, and the magnitudes of those. I write about this, the idea of optionality. If there's a downside to a decision you make, but you can stop it--you can cut that downside short and not be stuck with it--it's a very different world than one where you're stuck with it for a long time, or you can only reverse it at a horrific cost.

And then, the same is true, of course, for upside. Many of the decisions we make, upside is very small, very limited; it might be unlikely. But most of the things we do--a lot of the things we do anyway, in my experience, maybe I'm lucky--is there's a small chance of something happening. If it happens, the upside could be enormous, and you have no idea what that's going to be. It's a whole different level of uncertainty; but you open yourself to that kind of opportunity.

And, so many of the best things that have happened to me in my life were unimagined. They weren't planned, they weren't predicted, they weren't predictable. And, certainly, most of the best conversations I've ever had--outside of EconTalk--the random encounters I have with people, that were deeply meaningful to me, were chance encounters. They weren't where I said, 'Oh, I bet that's going to be a really interesting person. I'm going to have a meeting at two o'clock with that person.' And often it's just a chance encounter with a stranger. And, I think it's a wonderful thing to be open to that kind of uncertainty, knowing that, if the person is not interesting, you don't talk as long. And, if they're fascinating, you dive in deeply. And, I just think so much of the good things in life come from embracing that, rather than running away from it.

Brian Klaas: Yeah. I agree. And I also think that the downside discussion you just had is also where I think that the worldview you have about how uncertain the world is, or how uncontrollable the world is, is proportionate to how much resilience you build into systems. Right? And, this is where I think there's the danger of overconfidence in the variable-driven life, where you sort of say, 'Okay, if we just get these five variables in place, so everything will be fine,' or the self-help recipe for improving your life. When you have that false sense of certainty, you discount resilience. You discount those sort of exit ramps that you talked about in the downside.

And so, I think this is where, even if it's something where we can't necessarily know where the chance encounters are going to come, if you accept that they do actually play a significant role in our lives, you plan differently. And so, it's where the idea, the philosophy, the worldview can actually affect your decision-making in a positive way, simply by accepting that you don't have as much control as you thought you did.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to read another quote that you alluded to it a minute ago, the idea--and I think it's a very provocative idea, and it comes a recent conversation with Paul Bloom, had a similar conversation with Agnes Callard; I probably had others--but this question of whether we're making progress or not in humanity and whether our societies are better than they used to be. And, this is your quote. Quote:

This is the paradox of twenty-first-century life: staggering prosperity seems to be tethered to surging rates of alienation, despair, and existential precariousness. Humans have constructed the most sophisticated civilizations ever to grace the planet, but countless millions need to medicate themselves to cope with living within them. We can control more of the world than the ancients could have imagined, scraping minerals out of the earth, powering them with a flow of electrons we can direct or disrupt, conjuring up images on our screens of wizards and aliens and superheroes that once existed only in fanciful minds. Now, we're even starting to be able to invent other minds, capable of producing their own art and literature. Where has it got us? On every measurable metric, we're better off than ever before, but many of us feel worse off for it.

Close quote.

Talk about that. That might be true. Part of me accepts that summary of modern life. I worry that I'm 69 years old and I've just become an old curmudgeon who thinks that everything is worse, even though it looks better. But I think there's some truth to it. So, what are your thoughts?

Brian Klaas: I think there's some of this--aspects where I do think this is tied to this sort of optimized view of the world, this sort of constant optimization, the hustle culture. And, I think lots of people live what I call a checklist existence, which is where every goal yields another goal. There's lots of people who have written about the hedonic treadmill and how you sort of are constantly trying to keep up with your everlasting stream of goals. Because: 'Just this one change and I'll finally be happy.' I think there's a lot of stuff in life where accepting a lack of control and accepting uncertainty is actually the most useful way you can spend your time, and trying to get to that point.

This is where this book also has changed how I think about lots of things. I looked, in the Pandemic--I'm sure for a lot of people, as for me, did this as well--where I sort of grappled with my mortality a little bit more than I usually would.

And, I look at, you know, sort of February 2020, and it's funny. It's like my Google Calendar is just full of stuff I didn't want to do, because there might be some unknown benefit to my career at some point. And then, I started to think, 'I'm going to die at some point and I'd rather do things I enjoy.'

So, there's some of that aspects where I think intrinsic enjoyment of life is something that we're often told is actually something you should put on hold, in order to complete the checklist and achieve the everlasting supply of goals.

So, it's not to say: Don't strive. Humans are naturally striving beings, and we should be. We should always try to improve our lives however we can. It's just to sort of focus on what actually matters to us. And, I think that that's something where, again, when you start to think philosophically about some of the ideas in Fluke, you start to grapple with the question of, like, 'Is it really the stuff that I've been told is important? Is it the fancy car, the big house, and so on?'

Some of that might be important to people, some of it might make people happy. But for others, I think they're being sold a recipe that doesn't actually deliver what they want.

So, there's aspects of the last few chapters of the book where I'm trying to grapple with the meaning of some of these aspects of interconnected contingency, and so on.

But, I do think there's this pretty predominant Western worldview about individual agency, where you basically are in control of your own world. You're the main character in life. And you're supposed to go through that sort of game of life, accruing the largest slice of the world you possibly can, which is the most stuff, the most prestige, etc. I think a lot of people live their lives that way and then feel quite empty with it.

So, you know, if that's not you--if that's how you feel happy--then by all means, like, live the way you want.

But, for me, it's just to provocatively challenge some people and say, 'Think a little bit about that.' And, if you do have a little bit less control and you aren't able to order off the menu of life everything you're supposed to want, what can you make yourself happy with?

And, for a lot of people, those things are actually free and available. They're with other human beings, they're with other experiences that are free. And, I wrote a lot of this book right after I went on walks with my dog, which was where I started thinking, and that was free. And, it was really enjoyable, and it's something that gave my life a lot of meaning to grapple with these ideas.

So, I don't know--it's funny--this is the only book I've ever written that I think has changed who I am. I'll put it that way. The other books, I felt like I was transmitting knowledge I already had, and this is one I was talking to people and engaging with concepts, the kinds that you talk about on your show all the time, that I just, frankly, as a political scientist who was sort of sheltered, hadn't really read evolutionary biology and physics and all these other things, and some of the deeper questions of philosophy. And, they made me think more critically about some of the things that I thought intuitively were correct about how the world works.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Brian Klaas. His book is Fluke. Brian, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Brian Klaas: Thanks for having me. It was a serious, serious pleasure.