Why waiters (or their guests) can’t predict the weather

by Sunny Bindra on April 22, 2012 · 13 comments

in Sunday Nation

I was sitting by my favourite ocean (there is only one) the other day (I was on a break, remember) and I noticed some ominous-looking dark clouds over the ocean. I asked a passing waiter whether he thought it might rain.

He looked at the sky, and said with gratifying certainty: “No chance. Those clouds are not coming here.” Reassured, I re-immersed myself in my book, ignoring the fact that the sky was darkening and the wind was becoming more insistent. Half an hour later, I was sitting in the hotel lounge soaked to the skin, having just managed to protect my book.

The book itself truly deserved saving: it is called Fooled by Randomness, and it is written by that very entertaining and erudite iconoclast, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I love iconoclasts of all shapes and sizes; their being entertaining is an additional bonus.

Taleb tells you that if you place an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters and let them clatter away, it is CERTAIN that one of them will produce an exact version of the Iliad. This is not very interesting, because the probability of any one monkey doing it is ridiculously low.

But here’s the thing: should one monkey pull it off and present you with the Iliad, would you now be willing to consider the possibility that he could next write the Odyssey? No? What if you knew nothing about this experiment with infinite monkeys, and were simply presented with this hero-monkey who had just (verifiably) written the Iliad: would you not be rather disposed to expecting another great work from this remarkable primate?

The waiter was confident because his last couple of predictions about the rain had been correct. He was on a run, and thought he had exceptional skill in weather forecasting. The point though, is this: pretty much every waiter I’ve ever met on any beach thinks the same thing. They all think they’ve got the weather figured out; none of them actually do.

This is because the underlying process by which it rains on a particular beach at a particular time is pretty random. It is influenced by humidity, cloud formation and winds in ways that is very difficult for even a professional weatherman with proper measuring equipment to forecast. So the correct answer to the question, “Is it about to rain on this beach in the next half-hour?” is, “Who knows? Take precautions in case it does.” That is the answer almost no one gives you.

As you may have worked out, this column isn’t really about waiters or monkeys. It’s about you. Don’t you have the same irrational confidence in your forecasts – about the stock market, business performance, exchange rates? Don’t you feel that a string of successful predictions make you a forecasting guru – when in all likelihood that string was just a run of luck?

If the underlying process creating the result is stochastic, you have no reason to be confident. And many more results – share price performance, currency rates, business and personal success – have strongly random underlying generators than most of us imagine.

So abandon your bravado and get real. You may know much less than you think. Think more deeply, and get other opinions. Don’t make big bets on your (or anyone else’s) predictions. Be prepared for forecast failure, and be prepared for the possible consequences. Stay humble, and recognize the huge role of luck in your life. We are quick to extol the virtues of a businessperson who has had a successful run, and quick to forget the many others who failed by doing the exact same things as our “winner.”

My waiter friend learned from his forecasting error, and refused to attempt a prediction the following day. He’s wiser than many overconfident business leaders I know.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leonard April 22, 2012 at 10:05 am

Well said Sunny :)


2 Pauline April 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I can gues where this happened,but it so hard to predict the weather from that region.Funny enough,it can rain in the nearby town and in the hotel it does’nt even drizzle!


Sunny Bindra Reply:


That’s the point: it IS hard to predict, and no one can really do it. We can predict months when it will rain, but not times of day.

And that’s the folly of making predictions in other areas of life: no one can really do it, but everyone tries.


3 mmnjug™ April 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm

The word here is PREDICT! Humans no matter how knowledgable cannot foretell the future….even when past occurrences are the basis of the ‘prediction’ because factors at play are usually very different. Pole for being rained on.


Sunny Bindra Reply:


Doesn’t seem to stop them trying, though…


4 Warue Kariuki April 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Welcome back! And glad it was a hard earned break. I had been afraid that you had been persuaded to take a permanent break (tongue in the cheek).


5 Janet M. April 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm

This is so true Mr. Bidra, but it takes quite some humility to see things this way!!


Sunny Bindra Reply:


The sort of humility that is sorely needed in the world…particularly at the top.


6 wamoronjia April 23, 2012 at 12:26 am

Karibu back from ‘exile’ Sunny. Reading today’s piece, especially that section on luck,reminded me of a video I watched yesterday (link below). Warren Buffet agrees that luck has played a role in his success.


Sunny Bindra Reply:


It’s true for all of us (but some deny it)…


wamoronjia Reply:

Sunny, my apologies for the wrong clip. I think I should also take time out by the ocean.


7 Christiano Kwena April 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm

You friend the waiter uses a logical thinking process. If it worked before = it will work now (unless new parameters are introduced). The world is heading towards a creative thinking process. Edward de Bono has explored it on his book Lateral Thinking. Here, he informs us that with lateral thinking, the waiter would recognize the past predictions as proven possibilities. However, to make the present prediction, he would ask himself, “how else should i look at the situation?”


8 Ouma Okech June 3, 2012 at 11:06 am

No one knows tommorrow, i have always been baffled by some overflowing with bravado and megalomania saying they are sure to be president, governor , etc.


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