Thursday, May 14, 2009

Randomness and Supreme Court Nominees

My Internet. Is. So. Slow. Right now.

Mostly just Blogger. I’ve tried all that my non-technical brain can think of right now: signing out and re-logging in, restarting Firefox, and restarting my computer. It still wants to take 30 minutes to bring up my “Compose Post” page. My new strategy is to leave it alone and hope that it fixes itself. Really proactive, right?

Except that I had some thoughts swirling around this morning that I really wanted to get down in my blog. I am so determined not to let this moment of clarity pass that I am writing this in Word to copy and paste into Blogger later. Total commitment.

I’ve always been a curious/intellectual/nerdy person. Learning “why” something happens has always fascinated me. Some curious/intellectual/nerdy people are interested in the mechanical and technical reasons “why” things happen. They study science, computers and engineering to learn “why” things have happened and how to use that knowledge to create/influence a whole new generation of mechanical and technological wonders. My interest in “why” tends more toward the personal and intimate. I majored in International Relations, the study of how countries interact with each other. In this field, the answer to “why” something happens is often at least partly based on personal feelings and perceptions. Why did Hitler invade the Soviet Union? The complete answer must take into account Hitler’s unique psychology, the feelings of his closest advisors and the diplomatic conventions of the time period, as well as the military capabilities of the German army.

More and more, I’m beginning to appreciate the effect of random or arbitrary advantage/influence in my field. I was especially struck by this as I watched the news this morning and saw CNN report on President Obama’s “short list” of nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Souter. Of the eight candidates, seven are female and the single male, Carlos Moreno, is Hispanic. Basically the story is, if you’re a qualified white male, sorry, this just isn’t your time. Obama has effectively created another job requirement for filling this particular vacancy: you must contribute diversity to the bench. As far as I am aware, it is extremely difficult to choose your own gender and pretty much impossible to choose your own race. So by inserting the diversity requirement, Obama has given women and minorities a greater advantage and influence for something they have no control over. I don’t intend to set hearts ablaze in a debate about whether setting this kind of job requirement is right or wrong, merely to point out the random set of circumstances that will bring one of these candidates to prominence and power. The timing, the President, the current makeup of the court and the politics involved decide who will be nominated and confirmed, not simply who is the “most qualified.”

I can think of four books I read in the recent past that espouse this thesis of randomness in one way or another. A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power argues that political leaders are more inclined to fight genocide in a far away country if they have some personal connection to the conflict or know someone affected. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond argues that the confluence of those three advantages are what led to the rise and dominance of Western Civilization in the last 500 years. Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers that almost any successful person or venture had some random nudge and happened to be at the right place at the right time. Most recently, I’ve been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan which begins with a chapter on the way a unique mutation in corn that would have been disastrous in the wild, led it to be mass cultivated here in America and become pretty much the foundation of our diet. (Obviously, these are extremely limited and generalized statements about these books and their arguments are much more thorough and nuanced than I’ve made it seem.)

So pretty much, I’m not breaking any new ground here. But I am really interested by the idea of finding random causes for other phenomena and especially the idea of addressing such random advantages as they happen rather than in retrospective. I think the possibilities are basically limitless, but I also think it’s possible to find correlation without just cause.

I know this might seem a little intense or out of the norm of my regular blogging, but I’ve been mulling this over most of this morning, and writing it down really helped solidify my thinking. I don’t mean to be boring, but if I’m just myself it’s bound to happen sometimes. ☺

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