Sciency Words: Stochastic

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

STOCHASTIC

There are no true synonyms, according to American writer Roy Peter Clark.  Sure, two words may mean basically the same thing.  Two words may be so similar in meaning that you could use them interchangeably.  But there will still be some subtle difference between them, some slight shade of connotation that separates them.  The word “stochastic” is almost a synonym for “random.”  Almost.

Definition of stochastic: In statistics, a stochastic process is a process that is best modeled using a random probability distribution.  The process being modeled may, in fact, be random, or it may not.  The important thing is that a stochastic process is a process that scientists have modeled as if it were random.

Etymology of stochastic: The word comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to aim in the right direction” or “to guess.”

Lots of things in the world are not truly random, but they may as well be.  The weather.  The economy.  Chemical reactions.  Changes in animal populations.  The orbital drifting of asteroids and comets.  Modeling these things in a strictly deterministic way would be mindbogglingly complicated and utterly impractical.  So scientists create stochastic models instead—models that include some random element to represent the super complicated parts that are impractical to model any other way.

These stochastic models are not perfect, but (as the etymology suggests) they aim us in the right direction, and they allow scientists to make pretty good guesses about what might happen with the weather, or the economy, et cetera, et cetera.

I try to avoid telling you to just go read Wikipedia, but the article about this on Wikipedia is actually pretty good.  Most of the other sources I looked at (or tried to look at) were super math heavy.  And you know how I feel about math.

11 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Stochastic”

1. True enough. Science is still a really useful tool, though, so long as we remember there is some margin for error.

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1. I think I intuitively understood this distinction, but not sure I could have articulated it. Thanks! I’m with you on math.

Wikipedia tip, in case you’re concerned about the quality of Wikipedia editing. If you link to the permalink address (middle left pane), it locks in the current version of the article in your link. (I’ve had a case or two of an article getting changed out from under me.)

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1. Thanks for the tip! I did not know about that.

I did a Sciency Words post on this word before, but I felt like I didn’t really do it justice. I’m glad my second try made sense!

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2. Dear Mike and J.S. Pailly,

There is also stochastic music, coined and pioneered by the late composer, music theorist, architect, performance director and engineer Iannis Xenakis, with whom I have been very familiar.

Happy September to you!

Yours sincerely,
SoundEagle

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1. I love that. The Wikipedia article has a brief section on stochastic music, and it mentions Xenakis. I really want to learn more about this. I love seeing this sort of mingling of the arts and sciences.

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2. Dear J.S. Pailly,

Reading Xenakis’ own writings and certain biographical books will shed much more light on his approach.

Yours sincerely,
SoundEagle

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2. what might happen when a new element is introduced in the equation? and/or a different element?
makes me think of how our lives too change when a new element is included, something that changes the situation, meeting a new friend, starting a job…hobby… counselling…

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1. Human behavior isn’t random, but it is one of those things that’s very hard to predict. Something worth bearing in mind, whether we’re talking about the social sciences or just the people we meet in our daily lives.

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3. just people we meet in our daily life…? Well if science is applied it is also applied to each and every person, J.S. no matter what our little egos may suggest… Everyone matters and the science is there for them too, for each and everyone of us, otherwise it’s not science…

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