Saturday, March 27, 2021

Knock on Wood

What is luck?   Generally it is an outcome (good or bad) that is important to us, but outside our direct control.  There are rituals some go through to increase their chances of some desirable outcome.  Or others do nothing, but hope some desired event will transpire.

The author Jeffrey S. Rosenthal was born on Friday, the 13th in Toronto and after education including Harvard is now a professor of Statistics at the University of Toronto.  Statistics can be pretty heavy stuff, but Jeffrey has actually been a standup comedian with an appropriate sense of humour.  Statistics deal with probabilities and recognize that most occurences are random or predictable.  

Statistics are scientific, part of the natural world that in humans is sometimes in conflict with the supernatural world.  Florence Nightingale was an early user of statistics as she pressured British military authorities to recognize that more soldiers were dying from disease than enemy weapons.  Many thought disease was just bad luck instead of inadequate sanitation.

 We can all recall events that seemed a matter of "luck." and often find ourselves ritualizing habits to improve our chances of good luck or minimizing bad luck.  Jeffrey feels that we attach supernatural forces to random and even predictable events.  He identifies "luck traps" that confuse the issue.

Luck traps are tools for examining the truth behind a "lucky" event.  Jeffrey recounts several ways we can be deluded.  Bias, Alternative cause, many hits, many people different meaning.  You already know some of them and can readily understand of any you aren't aware of.

Before the 2016 election, although the author was supportive of Hilary Clinton and felt Trump unqualified he agreed to a bet that he would pay another person $1.00 if Hilary won, but the other person would pay him $2.00 if Trump won.  Jeffrey feels a bit guilty at the results, but doesn't feel he was a jinx.

Scientific experiments often herald new breakthroughs, but are sometimes overturned by later experiments.  The author points out that each experiement is subject to randomness, biases and have possible alternative explanations.  He cautions that each research paper be regarded as a preliminary assessment subject to later confirmation or refutation.  Experiments should be replicatable.  Author feels those who successfully replicate an experiment should get more recognition.

Lotteries are one tool that people feel luck can help pull them out of their ordinary life.  There are many systems of picking numbers, but Jeffrey makes us aware that the odds are almost impossible for any individual.  But that doesn't stop people from buying tickets and developing their system.  He discusses March madness and its incredible odds.  Warren Buffet once offered one billion dollars for anyone who could predict each game and no one was able to claim it.  It may be fun, but the odds are incomprehensible.

Jeffrey got involved with a lottery retailer scandal.  It started with a complaint from a customer in Coboconk, Ontario who felt his retailer seller had cheated him out of his winning ticket.  He was able to convince Lottery Ontario to give him the winnings, but with a request to keep it confidential.  Other people began to question the process which concerned the lottery administration. Jeffrey was called in to do a statistical analysis where he discovered that retailers were winning an improbable number of  lotteries.  Statistically he could not prove any particular person was guilty, but it became obvious that the retailer had an advantage by hiding from the actual winners.  Changes were given such as a mandatory bell when a winning ticket is run through the checking machine.  Other jurisdictions in Canada and the United States uncovered cheating

There can be a comfort in accepting randomness.  The author met parents of a man who had died of a rare cancer.  They had read one of his articles and recognized that their son's death was not punishment for something they might have done.  The randomness was a comfort.

You may think his statistics take all the fun out of living, but he disagrees.  "I firmly believe that the world can be and should be the way it actually works without appeals to supernatural forces.  I think this leads to more logical thinking and better decisions while still allowing for incredible and wondrous experiences on this vast planet we all inhabit."

 A summary of how I feel you can best control luck comes from an ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca.  "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Opportunities are everywhere, often disguised as problems.  Search for them and be open to other facts and opinions.

An earlier blog based partly on "The Luck Factor" by Dr. Richard Wiseman who had some interesting observations one of which mentioned by Jeffrey.  Read:

How I met my wife has elements of luck, but also of reacting to opportunities.  Many of you might have similar stories.  How we have met important people in our lives often involves unfathomable number of events.  Read more:

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