How Odd Are the Odds on That?

“What are the odds of that happening?”

It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves, and I seem to be asking it more frequently these days. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been taking notes for a magazine article about coincidence–but wait, wait: Before you think I’m hearing the old Twilight Zone theme music, or setting up a seance in a darkened room with Madame Marie, let me explain.

I’m not intrigued by coincidence because I think it’s God’s way of winking at me, or because a coincidence is proof of the co-hypervelointroorgic theory of parallel universes. What  I’d like to know more about is this: Is it even possible to establish the “odds” on some of these strange occurences, and if so, how would we go about it? What would we need to know in order to say, of Event X, that there was a 1 in 345,000,000 chance of that happening?

When we’re in the realm of firmly understood numbers, it’s easy to fix the odds. If you buy a Texas Lottery ticket and 32 million other people also buy one, you have a 1 in 32 mill chance of winning. We all know that. If Dallas’s American Airlines Center holds 42,000 people and you buy a ticket, you have a 1 in 42,000 chance of getting Seat 1 in Row 1 of Section 1, or any other given seat.

That’s the easy stuff. But what intrigues me more are the fuzzier categories. For instance, a few months ago I blogged about this. I got up on a Sunday morning and opened the closet door that holds the lawn sprinkler controls. Sitting on the shelf by the controls was a book written about 7 years ago by the engaging populist Jim Hightower, former Ag Commissioner of Texas. I hadn’t looked at the book in ages. I  opened it, read a couple pages and put it back.

I then walked to the kitchen, turned on the radio, and the first voice I heard was that of Hightower being interviewed about some new project. That gave me a mild jolt. It wasn’t some life-changing window into the universe, but it was strange, and I wondered: What are the odds?

Now I am no mathematical rocket. Barely escaped Algebra I. So for all I know, the question is statistically meaningless.  But assume for a moment that odds could be set for such a question. What would we need to know in order to set them?   Would the answer require knowing. . .

1. How many books I own by living writers who, theoretically, might have been interviewed on the radio that day????

2. How many people are interviewed each day on that radio network???

3. And what about my part of the puzzle? Would we need to include how many times in a given month or year I look at a book and then immediately turn on the radio? Answer: almost never.

Or take another odds oddity. A couple weeks ago I vowed to surprise my wife and take her somewhere we had never been together. I mulled around and came up with the name of an Irish bar a few miles away. I was there once in, I think, 2000, but she has never been. So I decide on that bar.  An hour later I’m standing in line at a grocery store. I see a local magazine I haven’t read in a couple years. To pass the time I open it at random and. . . there by my thumb is a review of the very  bar I had picked for the evening.

Odds? Again, would we have to know. .  .

1. Total number of bars in Dallas area, or total number I know about, and

2. Average number of bars reviewed each month in that magazine, and…

3. But what about the other part of the equation? Wouldn’t we also have to know the likelihood of my picking up that magazine, and

4. The statistical likelihood of opening to any given page out of the 175 pages (I checked) of that issue?????

My brain hurts already. And it may be that when I interview some real math types/statisticians, they will kindly explain that nailing down such variables is simply impossible.  But if it is, how in the world do they figure the oft-quoted chances of being struck by lightning? Do we really know exactly how many times a year lightning strkes the earth? Who counts it all?

More, and Dick Cavett’s role in all this, to come.

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