Flat Priors and Other Improbable Tales

Some collected and invented stories about erroneous thinking in probability.

A Visit

It’s night. You are coming downstairs for a glass of water. You hear a creaking sound and look around a corner to see a man in a ski mask opening your front door. “What are the odds?” you think. “Normally that guy would have set off my burglar alarm and been scared off by the loud wailing, but he happened to stop by for a visit just one minute after the power went out.”

Feynman

You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight. I was coming here, on the way to the lecture, and I came in through the parking lot. And you won’t believe what happened. I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!

Immortality

About 100 billion people have ever lived, and there are about 7 billion people alive now. Therefore about 7% of people are extremely long-lived.

Astronaut

A man makes it through a long battery of physical and psychological tests and finally achieves his lifelong dream of joining the astronaut program. He immediately takes up heavy smoking. “What gives,” asks his friend. “I thought you were a health nut.”

“I am,” replies the man. “Anybody who smokes a lot will probably die of lung cancer.”

“Why would you want to die of lung cancer?” his friend asks.

“A shuttle explosion will kill you in two seconds,” he replies. “But now I’m gonna die of lung cancer, and that’ll take at least forty years.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide

It is known that there is an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the product of a deranged imagination.
-Douglas Adams

Foreign Lands

In a certain country, people always name their first child a name that starts with “A”, their second child a name that starts with “B”, etc. Families in this country are anywhere from one to ten children; equal numbers of families have each. It is a tradition in this country for each father to randomly select one of his children each day to accompany him on a walk.

When visiting this country, you meet a man out walking with his daughter, who he introduces as Evelyn. You now know the man has at least five children. If he had exactly five, your chances of meeting the one whose names starts with “E” are 1/5. If he had more, say eight, your chances of meeting the one whose name starts with “E” are 1/8. Therefore, you conclude that it is most likely that Evelyn is the oldest child. You realize there was nothing special about Evelyn, and conclude that any time you meet a man walking with his child in this country, he is most likely to be walking with the oldest one.

Casablanca

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

DNA

While rummaging around in his parents’ attic, Sean comes across an old love letter to his mother. It’s from Rodrigo Valenzuela, a man he never knew, to his mother. It refers to “nights of fevered frenzy and mornings of muted passion”, is signed, “a mi amor”, and asks when her husband will be away again. The letter is dated eight months before Sean’s birth date. He looks in the mirror, wondering why he didn’t inherit his parent’s fiery orange hair and why salsa music has always stirred his soul.

Sean looks up information on paternity tests, and finds that if you send in one sample of DNA as the suspected father and one as the suspected child, the test will report a probability, which represents the probability that a man with the “father” DNA would sire a child at least as genetically different from him as the “child” DNA. Thus, a low percentage, like 0.001%, means that a true child would have only small chance of being as different from the father as the “child” sample is. This is the result we expect if the child is not from the father. A high percentage, like 60%, means the “child” and “father” DNA are very close, and is what we expect if the man is the true father.

Secretly, Sean collects a sample of the DNA of the man he’s always called “dad” and one of his own and sends them in for testing. As a control, Sean also collects a sample from his own son, and a second sample from himself and sends this sample in as well. Finally, Sean hunts down Rodrigo Valenzuela using Facebook, “friends” him, studies his “likes” and “interests”, uses them to befriend Roderigo in real life, asks to borrow his car, and steals a hair from the headrest. He sends in a third sample of Rodrigo and himself for testing.

Two weeks later the test results come back. Sean isn’t shocked. The probability for him and his “dad” is a scant 0.00004%. The probability from Roderigo and himself is 7%. Finally, the result from his son is 74%. Sean realizes that there’s some natural variation in the test, but the evidence is still clear: Roderigo is his true father.

The next day the clinic and says there’s been a mix up. They accidentally switched the samples from Sean and his son, so the 74% was actually the result of testing Sean’s son in the “father” role and Sean in the “child”. Sean is understandably upset. He goes to bed that night thinking that although Roderigo may be his father, it’s ten times as likely that his own son will, in the course of his life, discover time travel and go back to impregnate Sean’s mother.

Flat Prior

On whether or not the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole that would consume Earth:

John Oliver: So, roughly speaking, what are the chances that the world is going to be destroyed? Is it one in a million, one in a billion?

Walter Wagner: Well, the best we can say right now is about a one in two chance.

JO: Hold on a second. Is the, if, 50 – 50?

WW: Yeah, 50-50.
….
WW: It’s a chance. It’s a 50-50 chance.

JO: You keep coming back to this 50-50 thing. It’s weird, Walter.

WW: Well, if you have something that can happen and something that won’t necessarily happen. It’s either gonna happen or it’s gonna not happen. And, so it’s, the best guess is one in two.

JO: I’m not sure that’s how probability works, Walter.

from The Daily Show

Tags: , ,

2 Responses to “Flat Priors and Other Improbable Tales”

  1. Brett Says:

    Ha, I saw The Daily Show one; that was so funny…

  2. Shelley Says:

    Also when someone experiences something very unlikely (e.g. surviving being struck by lightning twice) and decides to buy a lottery ticket, reasoning that his odds of winning the lottery are higher than being struck by lightning twice, and since he’s experienced the latter, the former must also happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: