Saturday, November 22, 2008


Quis tales sortes expectet?

Probability theory developed relatively late compared to other branches of mathematics. Two fun-loving French guys, Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal are considered the fathers of this terrible branch of mathematics. These boys, basing their theories upon the odds of an event occurring, began a simple quest for how to win at games and score with les femmes. This simple, joyful pursuit has led us to the horror of insurance actuaries who are spending most of their time trying to figure out what doomful things will happen to us and when.

We are all familiar with probability. We are so accustomed to its use that the phrase “what are the odds” is commonplace. What are the odds of getting tails when we toss a coin (1 in 2)? What are the odds of our winning in Power Ball (86,089,128 to 1)? What are the odds that we will be killed by being struck by lightning (300,000 to 1)? It seems so very useful and innocuous doesn’t it? But, as with most seemingly innocuous things, just beneath the surface lie confusion, chaos and danger.

Probability theorists are snobbish elites who delight in their arcane calculations and incantations. They puff up with pride when they describe the “counter-intuitiveness” of their field. What they really mean is by counter-intuitive is that the rules of probability make little common sense. For example, we know that the odds of getting tails when tossing a coin are one in two or 50 percent. So, if we toss the coin three times and it comes up heads each time, we are, due to the increased probability, virtually assured that it will come up tails the next time. WRONG! The smug purveyors of improbability will tell you that the chances of it coming up tails are still only fifty-fifty. What nonsense. You begin to see the treachery of this branch of mathematics.

But, the more you know about probability theory and its evil twin, statistics, the less you will like it. For example, it is the same foolishness that vexed the noble Einstein. Quantum mechanics explores subatomic particles and engages in other questionable activities. These people talk of “probability waves." What they are referring to is an attempt to determine the location of a quantum of energy in a specific area or the exact time when a decaying radioactive particle will throw off an electron. The answer is that you will never know where the quantum is hiding in your area until you observe it. And, you will never know when the radioactive particle will emit its electron until it does and you have measured it. They call this the collapse of the probability wave. What the stalwart and beloved Albert Einstein said was that God does not place dice with the universe. And, if such a figure as Einstein was confounded by this mess, so too should we.

No, probability cannot be used to comfort us and ultimately is a source of great angst to those of us who fully understand its concepts. For example, you are considering going to work today. You wonder what are the odds of being involved in workplace violence. Postal workers overall had an incidence rate of 2.1 per 100,000 in terms of being involved with workplace violence. So, you decide, not bad odds. But, you also realize that you will have to ride an elevator once you get to work and you know that the odds of dying in an elevator accident are 77,000 to one, not bad but not good either. Then, as you are walking to your car you realize that the odds of dying in a fatal car crash are 81 to one! That’s bad. So you return to the relative safety of your home and have a nice warm bath. But, as you bathe you realize that the odds of drowning in a bathtub are 8,000 to one, almost as bad as riding an elevator. And so it goes.

After careful thought you realize that probability theory and statistics are used primarily with large groups and large numbers and speak to “population” trends. But the heart of darkness rests in a probability analysis of individuals. For example, what are the odds that you will age over time? What are the odds that you will have a cavity in one of your teeth? What are the odds that something unpleasant will happen to you in your lifetime? What are the odds that something unpleasant will happen to you today? And, finally, and much worse, what are the odds that you are going to die? As you see, probability, applied at the personal level, can only lead to despair.

And as if this were not enough, things are even worse. Let’s suppose that you actually reach the end of the day without anything untoward occurring. The quantum physics sadists have now concluded that one way of explaining statistical randomness is that there are multiple or parallel universes. So, for every time something does or does not happen in this universe, it doesn’t or does happen in a parallel or multiple universes. So, even if you survived today in this universe without mishap, your probability wave collapsed in another personal universe and something dreadful did happen. Extending this, for every good day you have in this personal universe, you create another personal universe with bad days. So after a run of three good days, you have created three doomful universe days. What are the odds that tomorrow you will have a bad day in this universe? Go figure.

So, when the statisticians call, just remember your John Donne:

“and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”