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The Improbability Principle

Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

By David J. Hand
15-minute read
The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand

The Improbability Principle illuminates the scientific background of chance and probability. Ultimately it demonstrates that even those events which we would otherwise consider “miraculous” are actually to be expected, as long as we have the right information.

  • Anyone who’s interested in probability theory
  • Anyone who wants to know how probability affects our daily lives
  • Anyone who has ever seen an event so unlikely that it had to be a miracle

David J. Hand is an professor emeritus at the Imperial College London as well as former president of the Royal Statistical Society. He is an expert on financial mathematics, measurement and computational statistics, and has authored several books, including Information Generation: How Data Rule Our World and Statistics: A Very Short Introduction.

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The Improbability Principle

Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

By David J. Hand
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand
Synopsis

The Improbability Principle illuminates the scientific background of chance and probability. Ultimately it demonstrates that even those events which we would otherwise consider “miraculous” are actually to be expected, as long as we have the right information.

Key idea 1 of 9

Extremely improbable events are anything but miraculous. In fact, they're commonplace.

Have you ever witnessed an event which seemed so improbable and so unlikely that you had to ask yourself: What were the chances of that happening? One in a million? One in a billion?

And yet, there are many real life examples that suggest that events with vanishingly small probability happen every day.

Consider this strange coincidence from 1972, when the actor Anthony Hopkins was signed to play a role in a film based on G. Feifer's novel The Girl from Petrovka. He traveled to London to buy a copy of the book to study the part, but unfortunately, none of the popular bookstores had a copy.

On the way home, however, Hopkins saw a discarded book lying on the seat next to him in the subway station. That book’s title? The Girl from Petrovka. When Hopkins later told Feifer about this strange occurrence, he learned that he had found the copy that Feifer once lent to a friend who lost it!

The chances of this happening seem dizzyingly small, and yet there are many other such examples:

  • A woman from New Jersey won the lottery twice within a few months.
  • Liz Denial from Nottingham won a prize every single day from October 2012 until June 2013. These prizes weren’t trivial either, including things like a 37-inch LCD TV, a home cinema     system, two Xboxes, a five-star holiday trip to Kenya and ₤16,500 on a TV game show.
  • Roy Sullivan, a park ranger in Virginia, was struck by a lightning seven different times and survived.

It’s tempting to look at each example and think that each is nothing short of a miracle. After seeing events of vanishingly small probabilities, we might wonder if the scientific laws of nature and causality occasionally break down. In order to try to explain such rare events, some look to superstition, prophecies, gods or miracles.

Yet, as we’ll see later, we don’t actually need to appeal to the supernatural to explain these highly improbable events.

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