by William H. Benson
August 16, 2001
There is a word that has inspired more hope and opened more new lands than any other, and that word is gold. On August 17, 1896 three guys (whom no one today remembers) — George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie — discovered gold on Bonanza Creek in the Canadian Klondike. Of all the thousands of golddiggers across the western United States who patiently panned for gold in hot weather and cold day after day, it was those three guys who found it. It makes a person stop and wonder. Why were they the lucky ones?
At the rodeo last week I watched calf-ropers and saddle bronc riders and barrell racers and bull riders. I had to ask myself: why does one cowboy stay on a bull for the required eight seconds and another is immediately tossed aside when barely out of the chute? Is it skill of the rider or is it how the bull moves and bucks and jumps? Or is it the luck of the draw, of chance, of which cowboy sits on which bull?
Football season is rapidly approaching, and in five months it will be over. We wonder now: which teams will earn the championships? Those with the best players? Or those with the most determined players? Or will a variety of other factors (some unknown even now) taken together dictate who will win? Do we even dare predict?
The wildly improbable happens everyday. The remarkable brings us up short, and the miraculous takes our breath away.
For example, fifty years ago Life magazine published a picture of a group of deer that included three albinos. The photographer Staber Reese took the photo in northern Wisconsin where there lived an estimated 850,000 white-tailed deer, of which no more than twenty were albinos. Reese calculated the odds of him taking that picture with those three albinos at 79 billion to 1. Perhaps.
We are mistaken when we under-rate the influence of “chance” in our lives, for anything can happen to anybody–both the good and the bad. There is no complete defense against the sea of improbabilities that surrounds us, but there are weapons–probability theory and statistics.
It is possible to face calmly this world of coincidences and seemingly miraculous events. The statistical approach is helpful because it teaches that a person cannot always expect the average one hundred percent of the time. After all, the average is just one single point on a curve. The bell-shaped normal curve shows that ordinarily there are more medium cases than either those from the extremes–the far left or the far right. But the extremes exist nevertheless.
Clear thinking means that in this world there are multiple causes for why things happen, that there are imperfect correlations between events and people’s behaviors, and that sheer unpredictable chance is what we live with everyday. That type of clear thinking pushes aside the simpler idea that everything and everyone can be categorized into two camps–the good guys or the bad guys, the winners or the losers. It also shoves aside the idea that everyone-knows-that-this-is-due-to-only-that kind of thinking.