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April 26, 2012 / suyinnn

A Chance Occurrence? Think again.











Have you ever wondered what are the odds of winning the national lottery? Or even the odds of two people having the same birthday in our science communication class? Not to mention the odds of being positive for the dreadful HIV virus?

Naturally, people would concur these chances as coincidences. The first and foremost sensation that people often rely upon is their feeling, before any logical explanation comes into place.

Any random event or occurrence would make a person think twice, and shrug it off as mere coincidence. As it seems, anything could happen as we live in a world full of surprises. The only question is: how often would that special something happen to us?

In the chapter, ‘Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves’ from the novel, ‘The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’, Natalie Angier uses multiple anecdotes to illustrate the usefulness of statistics. Anecdotes are literacy tools that help the reader to understand a complex concept.

As Angier suggests, ‘The more one knows about probabilities, the less amazing the most woo-woo coincidences become.’ (p.50).

These questions that lead the reader to ponder upon are answered by the calculations of probabilities. By using statistics to calculate probabilities, the notion of random occurrence starts to dissolve while a distinct pattern slowly arises.

In the Birthday Buddies situation, finding someone who shares the same birthday as you is not some kind of cosmic intervention. The ‘coincidence’ can be calculated through the means of probabilities, as probabilities show that ‘small numbers can take on grand airs’ and be ‘more meaningful than they are’.

Another example would be the flipping of a coin. As there are two sides to a coin, there is a fifty percent chance of tossing a head (or a tail). Out of a hundred flips of the coin, there is a chance of getting a string of six or seven heads or tails in a row. As probability suggests, the likelihood of getting the same side of the coin decreases with each toss. Yet, people do get suspicious when the pattern repeats itself.

‘Most of us are not accustomed to a probabilistic mindset, and instead approach life with a personalized blend of sensations, convictions, desires, and intuitions. (p.53).

Even though probabilities do justify the occurrence of these coincidences, the notion of its randomness just makes people queasy. It is inevitable to control the human emotion, as everyone is subjected to different perceptions and emotions.

‘Yes, life is full of miracles, minor, major, middling C.’ (p.51)

All in all, the whole idea of statistics, numbers and probabilities just brings about a cold shiver down my spine. I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I majored in psychology, never expecting to calculate a probability sum or letting statistics haunt me again. But, I guess I was wrong. Statistics and probabilities do play a crucial part of our lives, and there is no escape from it. What do you think?



Angier, N (2007) Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves. In The Canon: A Whirligig of the Beautiful Basics of Science (pp.47-70). Scribe publications pty ltd, Australia.

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Leave a Comment
  1. elenav90 / Apr 26 2012 10:22 am

    There I was, hoping that you were going to tell me exactly what my odds at winning the national lottery were… but nope, I guess that question will remain open for a long time, since I guess I believe they’re too low to bother playing 😉

    There’s a really fine line, isn’t there, between what occurrences people are willing to attribute ‘science’ or ‘logic’ to, and when this becomes strangely coincidental, suspicious, even magical. I do agree that people would get queasy. What would you guys’ reactions be, if they were tossing that coin and got 15 consecutive heads? I think I might even allow myself to buy a lotto ticket.

    I think it’s funny how we like to interpret these ‘coincidences’ (if they are just that, and not a message from a divine force!) according to how we’d like things to be. Picture the teenage girl who has a huge crush on her school friend, and just keeps bumping into him everywhere at school… she might think it’s “meant to be”! She might actually be overly enthusiastic about seeing this guy, and not really notice that she sees other individuals more often than him – they just aren’t significant enough to her. Also, she will be more likely to make a move, or make the guy notice her, than the pessimistic girl who convinces herself she has no chance with him and hides away.

    Studies have proven that feeling lucky actually makes you luckier! So maybe it’s a good thing after all, that these coincidences occur and make us wonder… what if… it really is my lucky day today 🙂

  2. annagardiner / Apr 26 2012 3:09 pm

    It makes me kind of sad to think of chance as a bunch of probabilities, but I agree that we all tend to read into such things with our feelings more often than logic and jump to all kinds of conclusions. elenav90, I love your example with the school girl, I couldn’t agree more.
    A well written post overall, I liked the rhetorical questions you led with, I was intrigued straight away – but it did leave me wanting to know the actual figures!
    Good job!

  3. markforeman92 / Apr 26 2012 4:30 pm

    Love the picture! Saw it many times in year 12 calc so i had a laugh immediately, which is actually pretty effective because you got me to read your post! so good job there! Personally, i didn’t mind statistics at school, but uni changed that. Stat1400 did my head in! But doing a science degree, i think statistics are really important because whenever we’re discussing results we need proof, which often includes probability tests.

    I think you’re right though. “There’s no escape from statistics”. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing though. Statistics are often helpful, for example in sport and weather. Either way, good job on the post!

  4. djasudasen / Apr 27 2012 7:44 am

    I don’t know about you but I’m DEFINITELY buying a lotto ticket this week – $50 million! I don’t care how low the odds are but the small price of a ticket is a small risk for a huge return.

    I thought you chose an excellent quote for your post. These days, probability is summed up in a simple (perhaps not so simple) mathematical equation. So it’s not actually that “woo woo” afterall. It always used to baffle me how airlines are able to oversell seats every single day? But it’s not that hard if you think about it. Algorithms. The airlines have years and years of data that helps them predict to a good degree of certainty how many “no-shows” there will be because of a change in plans, health issues, travel agents or insurance agents who book double book flights for their clients and so on.

    So while the probability of you staying out late, sleeping through your alarm and missing your flight might be low, out of a plane full of passengers, someone’s not going to make it.

  5. michaelpetersen1 / May 2 2012 11:36 pm

    I agree with your post statistics are important. I always see statistics and chance as understanding the implied probability that is reflected in the given odds. Essentially we try to bet odds that have a lower implied probability than your own personal assessed probability of that particular result occurring. I suppose this is where our feelings come into it and we think that certain chance events were just a coincidence or as elenav90 said we see this as something that was meant to be, when in reality there is always a probability associated with an event happening. Great post really enjoyed reading it.

  6. suyinnn / May 3 2012 12:53 pm

    Hello! Thanks for all your comments! So, did anyone manage to win the lottery? :p

    Well, I have to say that I personally felt that my thoughts were all over the place after doing this article. I begin to think whether I would be even writing the article had I not choice to do this unit, or taking up a science major, or even coming to UWA. There were so many different ‘what if’ that begin to play in my mind.

    Even though life is all about choices and possibilities, there are so many different chances and probabilities that are out there and can be calculated. This reminds me of an American television show ‘Numbers’, whereby the main star uses probabilities and statistics to calculate out the intentions and hidden agendas of the murderer.

    I guess it is sad to say that we cannot see life as full of ‘surprises’ now. But, then again, we only live once, so we should make the full use out of it! 😀

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