The Improbability Principle by David J. Hand



The Improbability Principle by David J. Hand attempts to explain (as the subtitle tells us) why "coincidences, miracles, and rare events happen every day". This book caught my attention because I find myself wondering about this topic a lot. As a person with quite a few odd coincidences to my name, I find myself making theories about why some of this has happened.

Prior to reading this book, I made some guesses about what I thought might be included in this book. While my little theories were not stated so nicely, I am happy to report that many of them appeared here -- and much more was included that I didn't see coming.

Written by a professor emeritus of mathematics, this book was less of a narrative than I would prefer. I found myself zoning out when specifics of the numbers were discussed and rejoining the party when the summary was made regarding the relevance of the numbers. The author uses many examples of tossing dice -- certain types of dice (I never realized there were so many), certain combinations of dice, certain numbers of dice throws, etc. It became a little tedious for me on that point. But, other, really interesting points were made, which I will summarize here:

  • Part of what makes it look like coincidences occur more than they should (in our perception) relates to the way the human mind looks for patterns. There are times when we attribute more to a scenario than it warrants due to our tendency to see patterns, to generalize, to count near hits as hits, and ambiguity in the starting point.
  • Sometimes coincidences happen because something simply is going to happen. After considering the billions of different things that could happen, it is only natural to assume that some of the things will make for odd connections of interrelated players. In fact, given enough tries, we would expect that something coincidental would eventually happen and it would be even stranger if nothing of this nature ever occurred. "With truly large numbers, any outrageous thing is likely to happen." With this, you can think of the bell curve. While outliers are rare, the tails extend in each direction due to the fact that there are some cases of the extreme nature.
In a nice little twist, I noticed several coincidences while reading this book:
  • Monday night, when I took my son swimming, we made a detour stop on the way home at the Jackson Library and noticed a book on the new book shelf about coincidences. 
  • This book mentioned several concepts that I became familiar with while reading Future Babble last year. I believe it was that book (and this one) that discussed the fallacy of the "hot hand" in sports.  
  • Our inability to accept what we believe to be an unlikely coincidence has led to several wrongful convictions, which dovetails nicely with a book I read earlier this year. 
  • This book also mentioned Daniel Kahneman. I read one of his books in 2017. This would not be unusual if I had read all books of one type, but my reading choices are quite varied as you can see from my 2018 list
In case anyone is keeping track:
-I borrowed this book from a co-worker.
-This book was recommended to me.

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