Probabilistic Shifts – Cairns #76

Alysia helped me realize that I need to describe “probabilistic shifts”, a term I use to describe a certain thought pattern that plays an important part in the way I think of the world. The term came from the way runoff flowing through grass reminds me of a Galton machine.

For an example, see

The Galton machine is a model showing how thousands of instances, each unpredictable, can accumulate into a predictable pattern such as the “bell-shaped curve” of the normal distribution. Each bead cascading down can bounce either left or right at each level, theoretically ending up anywhere along the bottom. However, probability says it will usually end up somewhere near the middle (in the same way that if you flip ten coins, you will probably get between 4 to 6 heads even though 10 heads are possible).

In the same way, rain running off the land is like the marbles flowing down a slope and every grass stem is like a peg that keeps splitting the runoff to left or right. In this situation, however, I’m interested in how the Galton machine-like grass stems, through a series of probabilistic events, spread some of the runoff way over to the outer edges of this slope’s distribution curve, over far more surface area than if the grass stems were not there.

I like to help spread it out even more so that it flows more slowly. By shifting a rock high in the channel, I change the probabilities of how many water molecules will continue along the main path and how many will shift over onto paths more to the side. Though I can’t predict what each water molecule will do as it flows past the shifted rock, I have shifted the probabilities at this point and I can predict with absolute certainty that more water will end up over to the side. I have absolute confidence because I have watched it happen many times. If I move this rock up here, more water flows this way and several seconds later, I can see the water begin to rise in this pool off to the side. If I move the rock back to its former position, the pool soon begins to recede; its inflow has been reduced.

I call these moves “probabilistic shifts” because they are small shifts that simply alter the probability, at this one point, of how much goes one way, how much the other. But I know with absolute certainty that this will shift consequences downstream. This experience creates unstoppable optimism. If I shop at Costco rather than Walmart, more of my money is flowing into the pockets of employees. I can’t track it but I know with absolute certainty it is because of the different employment practices of the two organizations. “More of it is flowing to the 99%.” One does not need certainty to have certainty (if that makes sense). One does not need certainty that every molecule in the flow will be changed by my play to have certainty that the outcome of the flow will change. One does not need every shopper to switch over to organic food to cause changes in how food and money flow within this world. We make little changes, continually, knowing that they will create shifts (albeit small) downstream.

The world is like this flow of water. Each of our lives is like a molecule of water flowing through this world. Millions of choices, conscious and unconscious, are like the splits in the cascading flow shaping our lives and world. These little splits can seem random and therefore insignificant but they can accumulate into significance in an absolutely deterministic way. This is what I am doing when I go around Chrysalis before school starts greeting as many of our students as I can. Creating little shifts in the energy flowing through the emotional atmosphere at the head of the day.

We give up some of our power if we limit ourselves to only a few major decisions or if we don’t act because we think it won’t make a difference. There is a profound difference between “not making a difference” and “making many small differences.”


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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