The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


EPISODE # 400

Brian Klaas — Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters

Fluke: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters (book cover)

If you could rewind your life to the very beginning and then press play, would everything turn out the same? Or could making an accidental phone call or missing an exit off the highway change not just your life, but history itself? And would you remain blind to the radically different possible world you unknowingly left behind?

In Fluke, myth-shattering social scientist Brian Klaas dives deeply into the phenomenon of random chance and the chaos it can sow, taking aim at most people’s neat and tidy storybook version of reality. The book’s argument is that we willfully ignore a bewildering truth: but for a few small changes, our lives—and our societies—could be radically different.

Offering an entirely new lens, Fluke explores how our world really works, driven by strange interactions and apparently random events. How did one couple’s vacation cause 100,000 people to die? Does our decision to hit the snooze button in the morning radically alter the trajectory of our lives? And has the evolution of humans been inevitable or are we simply the product of a series of freak accidents?

Drawing on social science, chaos theory, history, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, Klaas provides a brilliantly fresh look at why things happen—all while providing mind-bending lessons on how we can live smarter, be happier, and lead more fulfilling lives.

Brian Klaas grew up in Minnesota, earned his DPhil at Oxford, and is now a professor of global politics at University College London. He is a regular contributor for The Washington Post and The Atlantic, host of the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, and frequent guest on national television. Klaas has conducted field research across the globe, interviewing despots, CEOs, torture victims, dissidents, cult leaders, criminals, and everyday power abusers. He has also advised major politicians and organizations including NATO, the European Union, and Amnesty International. His previous book, for which he appears on this podcast, was Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us. His new book is Fluke: Chance, Chaos and Why Everything We Do Matters. You can find him at BrianPKlaas.com and on X @brianklaas.

Shermer and Klaas discuss:

  • contingency and necessity/convergence
  • chance and randomness
  • complexity and chaos theory
  • Jorge Luis Borges “The Garden of Forking Paths”
  • self-organized criticality
  • limits of probability in a complex, ever-changing world
  • frequency- vs. belief-type probability
  • ceteris paribus, or “all else being equal” but things are never equal
  • economic forecasting
  • free will, determinism, and compatibilism
  • Holy Grail of Causality
  • Easy Problem of Social Research and the Hard Problem of Social Research
  • Was the original theory wrong, or did the world change?
  • When Clinton lost, Silver pointed to his model as a defense: 71.4 percent isn’t 100 percent! There was nearly a 30 percent chance of Clinton losing in the model, so the model wasn’t wrong—it was just something that would happen nearly a third of the time!
  • Special Order 191 and the turning point of the Civil War
  • Implicit in the baby Hitler thought experiment is the idea that without Hitler the Nazis wouldn’t rise to power in Germany, World War II wouldn’t happen, and the Holocaust would be avoided. It therefore assumes that Hitler was the sole, or at least the crucial, cause of those events. Many historians would take issue with that viewpoint, arguing that those cataclysms were all but inevitable. Hitler might have affected some outcomes, they’d say, but not the overall trajectory of events. The Nazis, the war, and the genocide were due to larger factors than just one man.
  • weak-link problem
  • complex world defined by tipping points, feedback loops, increasing returns, lock-in, emergence, and self-organized criticality
  • QWERTY and path dependency, Betamax vs. VHS, cassette v. CD v. streaming.

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This episode was released on January 27, 2024.

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