PERCEIVING THE IMPROBABLE: ANTHROPOLOGICAL SERENDIPITOUS INSIGHTS TO MATH AND THE HARD SCIENCES

 

Wednesday, November 16

4:00 PM – 4:15 PM

Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 200H

Presenting Author(s): Sydney Yeager Southern Methodist University

With an acute awareness serendipitous events, the anthropologist’s own consciousness is an ideal and necessary observational tool for examining unscalable human variables. This capacity for perceiving the improbable makes anthropologists well suited observing extra-ordinary cultural phenomena, offering insights into ordinary human experience. This paper will build on a lesson anthropologists know well. As the observer slowly fades into the background, a community temporarily forgets they are being observed. While the anthropologist dutifully goes about her fieldwork, she remains conscious of her surroundings, waiting for a serendipitous event that reveals a deeper truth. For generations now, anthropologists have known that serendipitous events can teach the vigilant observer more than months of careful note taking. Anthropologists deal in what mathematicians call unscalable variables, questions best defined by the rare exception rather than regression to the mean. Mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these rare and extreme data points “Black Swans.” He argues that they are so hard to study and impossible to predict because most humans, including scholars of all stripes, are blind to these events until long after their changing impact. Taleb argues most people fail to see the impact the rare event has on the whole of human experience. But anthropologists, with their uncanny attention to serendipitous events, are themselves a great exception. This vigilant openness to serendipitous observation offers powerful insights for mathematics and the hard sciences. Putting anthropologists at the forefront in the study of what is possible rather than what is probable.

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