How can maths help us make better predictions? – with Kit Yates

Find out how non-linearity and randomness can cause problems for our decision-making - and how can maths help.


Find out how non-linearity and randomness can cause problems for our decision-making - and how can maths help.

Watch the Q&A with Kit here:
Buy Kit's book 'How to expect the unexpected' here:

00:00 Intro and famously bad predictions from school reports
05:42 What is linearity?
10:42 How can linear thinking trip us up?
14:20 What is non-linearity?
16:54 How do positive feedback loops work?
24:57 What is exponential growth?
29:34 What does true randomness look like?
36:10 Why do humans look for patterns?
38:43 Why the iPod Shuffle algorithm wasn’t actually random
40:42 Why are humans bad at being truly random?
46:41 How to use randomness to choose lottery numbers
52:17 How to change your mind
55:26 Using maths to reason better in life

Ever since the dawn of human civilisation, we have been trying to make predictions about what's in store for us. We do this on a personal level, so that we can get on with our lives efficiently (should I hang my laundry out to dry, or will it rain?). But we also have to predict on a much larger scale, often for the good of our broader society (how can we spot economic downturns or prevent terrorist attacks?).

For just as long, we have been getting it wrong. From religious oracles to weather forecasters, and from politicians to economists, we are subjected to poor predictions all the time. Our job is to separate the good from the bad. Unfortunately, the foibles of our own biology - the biases that ultimately make us human - can let us down when it comes to making rational inferences about the world around us. And that can have disastrous consequences.

This lecture was recorded at the Ri on 6 July 2023.

Kit Yates is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath. He completed his PhD in Mathematics at the University of Oxford in 2011.

His research demonstrates that mathematics can be used to describe all sorts of real-world phenomena: from embryo formation to locust swarming and from sleeping sickness to egg-shell patterning. He is particularly interested in the role that randomness plays in Biology. His research into Mathematical Biology has been covered by the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, RTE, Scientific American and Reuters amongst others.

Along side his academic position, Kit is also an author and science communicator. His first book, 'The Maths of Life and Death', was published in 2019 and has since been translated into 25 languages.

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