90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Long Odds: The Science Of Probability

What are the odds? Nobody won the perfect March Madness bracket billion. We’ll look at the science and emotions of probability.

Stanford's Josh Huestis, left, and Dwight Powell, right, celebrate as Kansas' Tarik Black (25) watches in the background after in a third-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 23, 2014, in St. Louis. Stanford won 60-57. (AP)

Stanford’s Josh Huestis, left, and Dwight Powell, right, celebrate as Kansas’ Tarik Black (25) watches in the background after in a third-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 23, 2014, in St. Louis. Stanford won 60-57. (AP)

All you had to do to win a billion dollars was pick the winners in college basketball’s March Madness.  Fill in a perfect bracket.  Warren Buffet made a billion-dollar bet that nobody would do it.  And Warren Buffet was right.  We live in a world of probabilities and odds.  Of winning lotteries.  Winning the U.S. Senate.  Finding a downed airliner.  Picking the perfect bracket.  And yet, the reality of probability often eludes us.  It’s often just beyond our intuition.  Our quick assessment.  This hour On Point: from March Madness to Nate Silver’s political picks, to a lost airliner – the science and emotion of odds.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Peter Keating, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Runs the Giant Killers blog. (@PKStatsBlog)

Charles Wheelan, professor in economics and public policy at Dartmouth College. Author of “Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data” and “Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science.” (@CharlesWheelan)

Colleen Keller, senior analyst with Metron Scientific Solutions.

Eliot Tatelman, owner of Jordan’s Furniture.

From Tom’s Reading List

Five Thirty Eight: Having It Both Ways — “Our forecasts could be wrong in November. In fact, they probably will be wrong — it’s unlikely that Republicans will win exactly six seats. But we think it’s equally likely that our forecast will be biased in either direction. If Democrats retain just one more seat, they’ll hold the Senate. Or Republican gains could grow to seven seats, or quite a bit more.”

Vanity Fair: Nate Silver vs. the “Experts”: the War of Words Over FiveThirtyEight — “Of course, FiveThirtyEight is still in its infancy. Silver and Klein have promised revolutions in the way their companies will cover the news and thus set the bar almost impossibly high. It’s clear that Silver’s many critics don’t think he’ll reach that bar any time soon. Luckily for Silver, he probably thinks most of them are full of it. ”

Slate: Don’t Take Warren Buffett’s Bracket Challenge – “There is a chance, but the chance is so vanishingly small that it’s actually more rational to say there’s no chance. As Yahoo and Quicken note in the fine print of their rules page: ‘odds of winning the Grand Prize are 1:9,223,372,036,854,775,808.’ That’s 1 in 9 quintillion and change. “

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Oh bummer

    What is the probability Obama won’t be charged for war crimes for his illegal drone strikes which have maimed and killed many innocent people in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen?

    I’m not a gambling man, but I’d bet that Obama will be eventually charged for war crimes.

    • SteveTheTeacher

      Don’t know the odds, but war crimes charges should be leveled against President Obama, and those in the executive, legislative, judicial, and military branches of government who have taken a leadership role in Drone killing, computer algorithm driven killing (crowd killing), and the torturous conditions in Guantanamo.

      Same for those who, along with former President Bush, took a leadership role in war crimes associated with the launch of the terror wars.

      Former President Clinton, and his “death of 1 million Iraqi children is a price I’m willing to pay” Secretary of State should should also be held to account for their crimes.

    • SteveTheTeacher

      Don’t know the odds, but war crimes charges should be leveled against President Obama, and those in the executive, legislative, judicial, and military branches of government who have taken a leadership role in Drone killing, computer algorithm driven killing (crowd killing), and the torturous conditions in Guantanamo.

      Same for those who, along with former President Bush, took a leadership role in war crimes associated with the launch of the terror wars.

      Former President Clinton, and his “death of 1 million Iraqi children is a price I’m willing to pay” Secretary of State should should also be held to account for their crimes.

      • Oh bummer

        Agreed, if the leader of a nation tortures and kills innocent people as the current and previous regimes have, they need to be held accountable in a court of law for their crimes.

    • Floyd Blandston

      Probability of trolling given a non-sequitur response to today’s topic? A simple binomial!

  • Coastghost

    Bayesian basketball, anyone?

    • toc1234

      Bernoulli b-ball might be more like it…

    • toc1234

      perhaps Bernoulli basketball is more appropriate…

      • Floyd Blandston

        64! :D

  • SteveTheTeacher

    How about some sort of Hippocratic oath for those who go into professions that use these mathematical skills?

    Despite the Millennium goals, it seems like there is an increasing
    shoveling of wealth and resources from poor majority to the rich few. Mathematics and technology could be used to ensure a world where each child born has the same chances of having a high quality of life regardless of geography, race/ethnicity, and gender.

    Unfortunately, that’s not what I see happening.

    Many of those who graduated with me with higher degrees in Mathematics, Physics, and computer science went on to get high paying “Quant” jobs in the financial industry helping the rich get richer.

    Only a very few of us have been struggling to use Stochastic and Guassian modeling, Fuzzy logic, neural networking, and other statistical/pattern recognition techniques to develop methods for providing clean drinking water, energy, and means of food production for the several billion in the world living in abject poverty.

    • Floyd Blandston

      Totally correct Steve; you win today’s ‘Mother Teresa’ prize. Thanks!

  • Floyd Blandston

    Hooray!!! Please describe the ‘Mathematics Tax’ that lottery players consistently provide, or the ‘Statistics Tax’ on actual knowledge that most of our citizenry pays every day! :)

  • georgepotts

    Jordan’s Furniture is a lottery. If you have to pay to play, it is a lottery. They were not prosecuted because they must have paid off the regulators or the rules makers.

    Furniture has nothing to do with the outcome of a baseball game.

  • georgepotts

    The Republicans win the Senate! YEAH!

  • georgepotts

    Will the NSA and IRS release records of the Senate candidates to make sure that they don’t win?

  • tbphkm33

    Knowing the realities of probabilities is essentially for surviving and excelling in today’s world. Still, when that lottery hits hundreds of millions, the only reality most people see is that if they do not play $1, they are insured not to win. Still, most people fail to realize that spending that second dollar does not increase their probability any measurable amount.

    • JS

      Actually, doesn’t it double their infinitesimally small chances? I wonder if any of the big money winners bought just one ticket? I would like to see the stats on that.

      • WorriedfortheCountry

        Yup, unless they play the same numbers :).

        There was a dude you played the same numbers on two tickets AND WON. He split the prize with himself. He was kindof embarrassed but laughed himself all the way to the bank.

        • JS

          He should have claimed them in different tax years.

      • tbphkm33

        Nope, sorry, mathematics does not work that way. Think about it this way, if that 2nd dollar doubled your odds, then it would reason that the 4th dollar would double that again… fairly quickly, for not that many dollars, you would, by that logic, guarantee yourself of winning. The odds of the lottery are run by total number of unique tickets purchased, not by the amount spent.

        • WorriedfortheCountry

          Actually, the math does work that way. If the odds for 1 try is 1 in 14 million then if you purchase a second ticket (with new numbers) then you have a 2 in 14 million chance (or 1 in 7 million). You’ve doubled your chances — but your odds still suck. In this example you would need to purchase 7 million tickets (again with unique combos) to increase your odds to 50%.

          “The odds of the lottery are run by total number of unique tickets purchased, not by the amount spent.”
          Yes, this will give you the odds of ‘someone’ winning. They are not ‘your’ odds.

          Calculating return (for a given jackpot size) is a completely different matter because you may end up splitting the prize N ways. And of course you can’t forget the taxes.

          • JS

            ^ What he said.

          • John Cedar

            But he did not directly address 2^N being characterized as, “….for not that many dollars”,

          • WorriedfortheCountry

            Very true. Exercise left to the student; otherwise known as ‘how fast can you empty your wallet?’

  • John Cedar

    I have often noted that many people who otherwise are not mentally deficient, when assessing probability, are all too willing to assume there is equal chance for all permutations of outcomes. The part where you can take your odds from 1 in 9 quintillion down to one in 128 billion, alludes too many people.

  • Toni Zographos

    Have you ever considered producing a transcription in addition to just listening? There are times I’ve missed a great topic and not having the time to listen. Thanks.

  • JS

    The “Let’s Make a Deal” problem: I show you three closed doors, one has $1,000,000 behind it, and ask you to chose one. After you chose, I open one of the remaining doors, showing nothing behind it. I then offer you the chance to trade the door you picked with the remaining door. What do you decide? What are the odds?

  • E. Martin

    The notion of probabilities assumes an inherent randomness to the universe, but randomness is only an illusion. Modern physics shows us that everything in existence is just vibrating energy – all cause-and-effect are nothing more than wave interactions at the Unified Field level. We create the causal waves by what we emit from our thoughts, and emotions especially. Before you scientists reject this, keep in mind that Quantum Mechanics is showing us this now, and spiritual (not religious) teachings have been saying this forever!

    There are many random number generators around the world that produce statistically significant random numbers. However, the randomness of these numbers diminishes when a significant number of people are focused on the same thing. Take 9/11 for example: a huge number of people around the world were focused on the atrocities of that day, which corresponded to a much less random sampling of numbers from these random number generators. We can count less and less on randomness as human consciousness rises (which it is).

  • S David H de Lorge

    Making “bets” such as this is how Warren became rich. Making “bets” such as this as how a bunch of other people demonstrated their inability/refusal to think rationally.

    Duh.

  • Phredd Groves

    Ashbrook, your question about Krugman’s criticisms of Silver framed them as if Krugman had problems with SIlver’s political polling work, which he does not. I don’t know whether to attribute this to stupidity or malice, but either way you failed as a journalist with that question.

    Krugman’s problem with Silver and his new site relates to Silver’s hiring of a known and discredited climate change denialist, Roger Pielke Jr. to the 538 team. This issue has be covered pretty extensively elsewhere, so you have no excuse.

  • OnPointComments

    posted in error.

ONPOINT
TODAY
Jul 25, 2014
Pallbearers carry a coffin out of a military transport plane during a ceremony to mark the return of the first bodies, of passengers and crew killed in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, from Ukraine at Eindhoven military air base, Eindhoven, Netherlands, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP)

Secretary of State Kerry to Israel. Obamacare back in the courts. Mourning as remains of Malaysia Flight 17 victims come home. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

Jul 25, 2014
Guest Renee McLeod of Somerville, MA's Petsi pies shows off her wares. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

There is nothing more American than a piece of pie. We taste and talk pies.

RECENT
SHOWS
Jul 24, 2014
Orchid (Galileo55/Flickr)

We’ll look at the new science of what plants feel, smell, see – and remember.

 
Jul 24, 2014
Youths seen playing basketball through bars on a window at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Ethan Allen School in Wales, Wis. (AP file)

The cold hard facts about juvenile prisons. And the case for shutting them all down. Plus: former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is with us.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: July 25, 2014
Friday, Jul 25, 2014

Why the key to web victory is often taking a break and looking around, and more pie for your viewing (not eating) pleasure.

More »
Comment
 
The Art Of The American Pie: Recipes
Friday, Jul 25, 2014

In the odd chance that our pie hour this week made you hungry — how could it not, right? — we asked our piemaking guests for some of their favorite pie recipes. Enjoy!

More »
Comment
 
Hillary Clinton: ‘The [Russian] Reset Worked’
Thursday, Jul 24, 2014

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took time out of her global book tour to talk to us about Russia, the press and the global crises shaking the administration she left two years ago.

More »
1 Comment