Why randomness doesn’t exist.


We live our lives – more than we would imagine – hastily believing in a concept called randomness. I don’t just mean that we chalk up things that we don’t understand as random (though, we do). We also believe that there is such a thing as randomness.

Dave Lee, a technology reporter at the BBC, has accidentally recently written about his devotion to the term. It’s the same way most of us are devoted to it: through the ‘shuffle’ program on our Ipods and phones. His article itself describes an interesting move by Spotify to make their ‘random’ service less random in order to please its listeners. Except, of course, he also believes it was random to begin with. It wasn’t.

When developers come up with a function for creating a random playlist, it’s a formula like any other mathematical equation. It is smart, thereby making it incredibly unlikely for the same ordered playlist to appear twice consecutively (dependent on how many songs are on your Ipod). Nowadays these might use a unique date or time snatch within them at the exact moment you select ‘shuffle’, rendering the exact formula unrepeatable in normal circumstances. But, nevertheless, it’s still a knowable formula. If you knew what the formula was, or how it was programmed, you could know what order the songs would come out as. This isn’t random, it’s just unknown to the listener.

You might – quite rightly – argue that the modern concept of ‘shuffle’ is not our deepest philosophical understanding of randomness. I agree: our misunderstanding and loyal belief in this concept goes much deeper than that. In evolutionary biology for instance, even the great (twitter not withstanding) Richard Dawkins can be found using the term ‘random’ to describe genetic mutations. We science advocates also like to think that the radioactive decay of an unstable atom can be ‘random’. A more accessible example would be flipping a coin – surely that is random? Well, no, of course it isn’t. None of these things are. So long as things don’t just appear, but are caused by some other event, or set of events, then nothing can be random. If we knew enough about any of these events, we could know when a genetic mutation would occur, or when an unstable atom would decay. Similarly, if we were precise and observant enough, about both the conditions and our movements, we could predict which way a flipped coin would fall.

Sure it’s a great word, random, but we misuse it. We might have no clue at all when an unstable atom will decay, but it has not been implanted with the mythical concept of randomness. Something happens, there are processes at work, and even in the counter-intuitive world of quantum mechanics, our lack of knowledge or understanding doesn’t mean that randomness suddenly happens. Indeed there might be things we never know how to judge or predict: that speaks about our human limits, not the existence of a concept that cannot be rationally justified in a world where things seem to be caused by other things.

Do great scientists really believe in randomness, or am I stating the obvious? Am I missing a socially understood definition of the word – that ‘randomness’ actually means ‘unknown’ to most people? Dictionary.com – the best dictionary, of course, by virtue of being first in google results – even has this definition of random listed second. Second to actual randomness, though. 

I’m not at all convinced. In a world where there are people who do actually believe in the healing power of homeopathy (or unquenching amounts of water, which flouts both evidence and thirst) I find it difficult to believe that we all understand randomness to be a false concept. And either way, I’m a great believer in honesty – if you mean ‘unknown’ say ‘unknown’. Do you really want to be responsible for the BBC technology department’s inaccuracies? Given their last great technology project was scrapped, wasting £98 million, we should give them a break.