# A very silly calculation

I think I hate this graphic. It purports to calculate the odds of your existence, and concludes that the chance is 1 in 102,685,000: So the odds that you exist at all are: Basically zero. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.”

Graphic, and why it’s bullshit, below the fold.

(Also on Sb)

by visually via

It’s a very truthy list of calculations. Sure, you can multiply out the probabilities of all the many events that led directly to you after the fact, but this wasn’t a process that began with the goal of making you. You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events.

It’s simply making the lottery fallacy. The odds of winning the Minnesota state Powerball lottery are 1 in 195,249,054 — why, it must be a miracle that anyone wins!

It also gets remarkably silly early on where it calculates the odds that “every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age” as 1 in 1045,000. Wait. What? I think the odds of my being here if even one of my ancestors had failed to reach reproductive age is zero…therefore, I must not exist.

If the odds that I exist are basically zero, and those are the same odds for each and every person on the planet, doesn’t that mean that 7*109 (the number of people on the planet) * 1*10-2,685,000 (the probability that each person exists) imply that the population of planet Earth is actually basically zero? Nice to know. The price on real estate should be dropping fast.

So while the odds that the concatenation of chance events that led to me are really low, that’s not the same as saying that the odds of a person, or something, being here are low. You are one of 7 billion people, occupying an insignificant fraction of the volume of the universe, and you aren’t a numerical miracle at all — you’re actually rather negligible. Maybe you should go forth and feel and act like you aren’t any more special than anyone else on Earth.

1. says

If the universe is deterministic, wouldn’t the probability of anything existing become 1?

2. greame says

Yes, and if you take a glass of water, place it on the table in front of you, and calculate the odds that any specific hydrogen molecule, born in a supernova millions of years ago would end up in your glass, the chances are also pretty much nill. Yet there you have a glass of water…

3. says

It’s the same thing that annoys me with the “fine tuning” argument where supposedly the universe and our world are made to fit us, instead of us being the fortunate products of the universe and world being as they are. If I flip a coin and it lands heads, I don’t tell the head to act like the miracle it is that it’s not a tail.

4. dferrantino says

It is known that there are 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 whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

-Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

5. greame says

Atom, sorry, not molecule. Hydrogen atom.

6. eric says

It is exactly the lottery problem. Any particular outcome has really low odds, but the odds that a low-probability outcome will occur is ~100%.

7. Peptron says

I always thought that the odds that you exist when you do are 100%. If I didn’t exist I wouldn’t be there to think about it.

The same thing that the odds that Earth supports life is 100%, not some small number.

To me that’s like confusing the odds of getting a certain hand of poker versus having a hand of poker at all. The latter is 100% while the former is one in about 311 millions.

The odds that I am human is some small number, but another small number that didn’t get selected could have had me as a human/cat hybrid stuck in some imperial/rebel intrigue.

8. MrPG says

Awww…
Maybe we just want to feel special?
Also, we are special, unique in fact, but so is everyone else. This train of thought always left me confused, so I’m going to conclude my actions make me awesome!

9. Snapp says

Reminds me of the license plate analogy. Driving along a road you see GBQ 7198 on the license plate of the car in front of you. You slam the brakes and swerve off the side, crashing into a tree. There’s smoke rising from the crumpled hood, and blood is running out of your left ear, but you don’t notice. You’re still stupified with amazement. “GBQ 7198! Out of all the possible license plates, in all the cars in all the world, what are the chances? I can’t believe this actually happened!”

10. says

It’s a lot like IDiocy/creationism, try to make things out to be “special” and “meaningful” because they’re supposedly unlikely. Not, show that purpose or meaning is behind “creation” and then figure out how this happened, just “show” that, say, the bacterial flagellum is unlikely (and special because it helps the bacterium to infect you, I guess).

We’re food for worms, viruses, and bacteria, also “miracles” by this junk “reasoning.”

Or we’re much more, if we make it so.

Glen Davidson

11. Scott says

Is anything really random? Even a die roll is determined by the position of the die on release, the height from the rolling surface, the condition of surface, etc., as well as minor factors such as temperature and any wind that might be present. It’s not so much random as not easily identified, quantified or understood.

12. Rob says

Thanks for articulating what I’ve been thinking for a while whenever I see this line of reasoning. I’ve just never been able to put it into words, cos I suck at that sort of thing, as is illustrated by the first half of this sentence

13. Ing says

SO if you have a computer program that shuffles a deck of cards, but keeps track of each card and their order in the pile, what are the odds that you will get the card that you got? The odds are 1, you would have gotten that card no matter what you did, the only time there would be any odds to calculate in the situation is if you didn’t know the order of the cards.

14. Ing says

Is anything really random?

15. says

Another way of putting it: You were born instead of another Beethoven or Isaac Newton.

Now doesn’t that make you special!

Glen Davidson

16. Kaintukee Bob says

I have some serious qualms here – they ASSUME your parents exist (at the very least your father) and that there exists a pool of females with whom he can date (within which exists your mother).

Thus, the existence of your parents is assumed as a starting point for the problem. Ergo, the existence of all your ancestors is assumed.

Then they say (within the same calculation) that these cannot be assumed, they are indeterminate (and thus the possibility must be calculated). Right there, the calculation falls apart mathematically – the assumption must hold throughout the entire calculation, or it is an invalid assumption.

Thus, the entire calculation is invalid, as it cannot consistently assume it’s own starting assumptions. QED.

My second problem? Whoever made this was absolutely, 100%, crazy.

That said, by their own logic, the odds that they actually exist approach zero. Thus, I won’t pay them any more attention.

17. The Science Pundit says

@greame

The odds are zero. It’s the oxygen atoms that are made in supernovae, not hydrogen atoms.

18. says

Jerry covered this at WEIT as well. The odds of you being here = 1.

You can’t backtrack statistically to calculate the odds of something happening after it happens, as the answer = 1.

I believe darkmatter2525 did a video on this topic as well, where he did the calculation of a specific leaf falling on a specific spot at a specific time, and showed how working out the odds afterwards was ridiculous.

19. Ing says

Another way of putting it: You were born instead of another Beethoven or Isaac Newton.

Now doesn’t that make you special!

Now I’m thinking of Red Dwarf

20. says

The fact that there are 7 billion other rare events coexisting with me doesn’t change the fact that I am a rare event too.
I am always going to feel pretty lucky to be alive.

21. Larry says

“Is anything really random?”

Pretty much all of quantum mechanics is random. A chemical bond just means that 2 electrons have a high probability of being somewhere between the atoms being joined.

22. Ben, Houston, TX says

A corollary of this is that if I take 1.5 million 100 sided die, and roll them all at once, I have produced something more miraculous than a human being!

23. KG says

If the universe is deterministic, wouldn’t the probability of anything existing become 1? – Kel

Only if the initial conditions could only have been exactly what they actually were.

24. Ing says

The fact that there are 7 billion other rare events coexisting with me doesn’t change the fact that I am a rare event too.
I am always going to feel pretty lucky to be alive.

I’m not sure you understand what the word “rare” means.

25. Schroduck says

“It is known that there are an infinte 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. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near 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 whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely products of a deranged imagination.”

At least when Douglas Adams did this, he was intentionally being silly.

26. says

The probability of being dealt any particular bridge hand is one in 365,000,000,000. Therefore, being dealt a bridge hand at all is virtually

27. Schroduck says

Whoops, just noticed dferrantino beat me to it while I was trying to find the quote.

28. says

The probability of being dealt a particular bridge hand is about one in 365,000,000,000. Therefore, the chances of being dealt a bridge hand is virtually zero. Therfore, being dealt a bridge hand requires a miracle, and without miracles the game of bridge is impossible.

29. Glodson says

Actually, since I do exist, wouldn’t the odds of all my direct ancestors reaching reproduction age be 1? Yes, at the time they have have had different odds they were facing, but once they reached the correct age for reproduction, then the odds that they will reach said age will be 1.

While you can go backwards and figure odds for events that have already happened, it is largely masturbatory. The fact is the odds of my being here is 1. The odds of each of my direct ancestors living to reproduce is also 1. The odds of this planet existing is 1.

Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Now, this doesn’t change the fact that my ancestors had to face challenges to reproduce, and it doesn’t change the fact that the universe is full of wonder. It just shows that people who produce these kind of things don’t really understand what they are talking about. And instead of concentrating on the concrete, they want to glorify their magical sky wizard at every chance.

30. d cwilson says

But they’re assuming that every event leading up to your birth is independent of every event that preceded it. That’s not the case.

I see the same fallacy in creationists, who claim that every gene needed to form a whole organism has to come together all at once due purely to random chance, ignoring the fact that natural selection loads the dice.

31. Randomfactor says

I’ve seen this sort of crap used as an anti-abortion argument: “well, what if your parents had decided to abort YOU? YOU wouldn’t exist!”

Yeah. Exactly the same as if dad had worn a condom, or mom had a headache that night, or they’d gone to bed five minutes earlier or later, or a meteorite had crashed through the wall of the bedroom, or I had gone back in time and killed my grandpa before he had kids, or…

32. Brownian says

Another way of putting it: You were born instead of another Beethoven or Isaac Newton.

Why, Glen: I didn’t know you knew my father well enough to paraphrase him.

33. Clausentum says

34. Brownian says

Nonetheless, anyone who thinks the above poster is compelling should be sentenced to six months’ mess tent duty for the folks who work on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

35. Yea – isn’t the chance of you existing actually 1 out of 1? Cause… you kind of do?

36. says

@ Ing
7 billion is still rare compared to the sample space of all that could have been with just a slight tweak in history.
I’m not saying everyone here is very special and unique.
Just that it could have been a different set of very similar people who populated the earth.
Whats wrong in acknowledging that the probability of any individual coming to life is pretty small ?
Doesn’t Dawkins acknowledge this as well
http://richarddawkins.net/articles/350

37. Ing says

@Katherine

Roughly the same question as shuffling a deck of cards face up.. The odds are 1 because you know what the order is.

38. Jer says

With just a slight variation in the numbers (not enough to be significant for the point at hand), this same progression towards a miracle works for your dog. Did you ever think that your dog was a little miracle? Well, now you have proof!

It also works for the cow that gave you the hamburger you had for dinner last night. It also works for the soybeans that your vegan friend had in his veggie burger. Each one a tiny little miracle just waiting to be explored.

(Honestly, I liked this probabilistic miracle description better when Alan Moore did it in Watchmen. And even there it felt less like Moore was trying to establish some kind of profound truth and more like he was stuck with trying to find a reason to get his douchebag God to intervene in human affairs and just came up with this to fake it…)

39. Ing says

7 billion is still rare compared to the sample space of all that could have been with just a slight tweak in history.
I’m not saying everyone here is very special and unique.
Just that it could have been a different set of very similar people who populated the earth.
Whats wrong in acknowledging that the probability of any individual coming to life is pretty small ?

What’s the point of doing so?

40. Francisco Bacopa says

I must mention that Richard Dawkins has made similar points as this infographic has. He does like to point out that each of is a member of an extremely small subset of possible persons who might have existed.

Of course, when Dawkins says is, he doesn’t draw any woo-ish conclusions from it.

41. says

Pointing out that an event is rare is not the same as saying ‘miracle’ . Extremely rare events happen all the time simply because the universe provides such a huge sample space.

42. says

I think you are being a little unfair. The graphic isn’t fallacious even though the lottery comparison is apt. If you or I won the lottery, even though we understood the probability behind it, we would still feel lucky and special. To some extent the particular you or me that ends up existing is something of a lottery in across the vast sample space of potential people/things.
Secondly it emphasises the contingent nature of our existance. Now, of course, a theist may look at those odds and declare that god(s) must therefore be involved. But that is OK because it is noteworthy that they would have to cite god’s intervention even on this more basic of biology (the chance of a particular reproductive outcome). That may help the more airy-fairy hand-wavy sort of theistic-intervention (say of mainstream Catholicism) but it undermines creationism. If somehow low odds disproved evolution (which they don’t) then they would also ‘disprove’ basic reproductive biology.

43. says

Uh, gais? I don’t think “miracle” is meant to be taken literally here. This is just a bit of fun. I had #41’s thought that Dawkins has said similar things, but I don’t see the “woo-ish” ness of this.

44. Clausentum says

Maroon #42
ok thanks, but it seems to be an individual, and being Harvard.law, we can see our prejudices against the legal fraternity confirmed.

45. Ben says

Alan Moore did a better job of this in Watchmen.

46. Rey Fox says

It is known that there are 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.

As clever a dick as Douglas Adams was, I always have to balk at his notion that infinity – a finite number = a finite number.

47. says

Cool. I commented on this at Digg four days ago.
I’m winning, and I’ve got tiger’s blood in my veins!

48. AB_CA says

“Here’s another idea that should be punctured, the idea that childbirth is a miracle. I don’t know who started this rumor but it’s not a miracle. No more a miracle than eating food and a turd coming out of your butt. It’s a chemical reaction and a biological reaction. You want to know a miracle? A miracle is raising a kid that doesn’t talk in a fucking movie theater . . . I’ll go you one further, and this is the routine that has virtually ended my career in America. If you have children here tonight—and I assume some of you do—I am sorry to tell you this. They are not special. I’ll let that sink in. Don’t get me wrong, folks. I know you think they’re special. You think that. I’m telling you—they’re not. Did you know that every time a guy comes, he comes 200 million sperm? Did you know that? And you mean to tell me you think your child is special? Because one out of 200 million sperm connected . . . that load? Gee, what are the fucking odds? Do you know what that means? I have wiped entire civilizations off of my chest, with a grey gym sock. That is special. Entire nations have flaked and crusted in the hair around my navel. That is special. And I want you to think about that, you two-egg-carrying beings out there with that holier-than-thou, we-have-the-gift-of-life attitude. I have tossed universes, in my underpants, while napping. That is special.”

-Bill Hicks

I do think life is miraculous, but I have a appreciation for dark humor too.

49. joed says

seems pretty amazing that there is anything at all.

50. Blair says

A long while ago I was helping out a friend set up his church (he no longer believes but that’s beside the point). There was a number on a white board, a ratio of 1 to a number with a huge amount of zeroes. I asked him what the number meant and he said “That’s the chance that life could have spontaneously occurred on earth” and I thought to myself “oh, so you admit there’s a chance.”

It’s just statistics abuse, the chance of any randomly chosen event happening to me in this exact time and space is extremely small but as you expand the location and time the chances begin to drop away rapidly.

By the way, my friend, now as much of an aetheist as me, has some very interesting insights into the church mindset, he used to be a minister.

51. jan says

And of course we could do all the math in the opposite (reverse) direction which would imply that of necessity we are all great grand offspring of Julius Caesar, Djinghis Khan, Mary Magdalene and Shaharazad

52. Pris says

One of my Professors had an apt way of putting that:

‘Strange how a cat has holes in its fur where the eyes are…’

53. Cartomancer says

The chart also has a factual error on it. My brother came from exactly the same sperm and exactly the same egg as I did.

54. What a Maroon says

You know what would be a miracle? If you didn’t exist, and you were aware of your non-existence.

That would require some ‘splainin.

55. chigau (...---...) says

…six months’ mess tent duty for the folks who work on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

I’d do that! Pick me!

56. hf says

If the universe is deterministic, wouldn’t the probability of anything existing become 1?

Well, if we want to represent our uncertainty in a rigorous way and apply logic to it, we basically have to use probability. So it makes sense to talk about the likelihood of something based on the set of evidence and background assumptions you’re currently using.

It would also make sense to use probability as a way to evaluate whatever theory the authors of this graphic want to push. To do this rigorously, we’d have to find the logical probability of all the available evidence based on the assumption that their theory is wrong — that seems like what they’ve tried to do here — and then we’d have to compare it to the logical probability we’d get if we assume their theory. You see the problem.

Probabilistic comparisons have no meaning if you don’t actually compare your pet theory with anything. This seems like the principle underlying controlled experiments.

The other number they’ve improperly left out of the graphic would tell us the prior probability of the theory before we look at the evidence, i.e. the logical chance based on our root assumptions. (Such as, ‘We should assume, whenever it seems internally consistent to do so, that what happens once has a greater probability of happening again.’ I guess the we need at least one other postulate to the effect of, ‘There exists a philosophically valid way to express the fact that X happened.’) I mention this only because creationists like to play a carnival trick called “overfitting” with this number. They confuse the issue by complicating their theory, concealing within it the assumption of exactly the evidence we observe. When you try to look at the evidence, they hide its improbability by moving it into the theory. When you try to look at the theory, they move all the improbability into the evidence (leaving a ‘perfectly simple’ deity). But the simple version of the theory doesn’t seem to give us an increased probability for the evidence, or for anything at all. (Not unless we go with Tegmark IV, which I’ll let you google on your own if you want to see it.)

57. consciousness razor says

Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.

How am I supposed to do that? I had already existed, so I was already feeling and acting like the miracle I am, which is not a kind of miracle, so is there anything in particular that I need to do? Do I get a prize or something? What’s the fucking point?

58. Aquaria says

I’ve seen this sort of crap used as an anti-abortion argument: “well, what if your parents had decided to abort YOU? YOU wouldn’t exist!”

By the same token, if the parents of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun or Hitler had aborted, none of those people would have ever existed. It would also mean children who would have died from starvation, disease, abuse or neglect wouldn’t have been born to suffer.

That’s the problem with that stupid argument. It assumes that only “good” people would be “saved,” or that being born to certain circumstances can’t be worse than death.

59. MTiffany says

“this wasn’t a process that began with the goal of making you.”
And that’s the deal-breaker right there.

60. says

I thought of posting “If it’s good enough for Doctor Manhattan, it’s good enough for me!” but the Watchman reference has been well-covered.

One thing that comes to mind in the comparison between oxygen turning into gold and the production of a particular human being: One is supposedly a single, unlikely event, while the later is very unlikely mostly because it’s made of lots of comparatively likely events. Abiogenesis and evolution are the latter category. There’s multiple ways they could have turned out if some combination of those individual events went a different way.

It’s just egotism that some people only care about the exact result that came about. I may be glad to be here, but I’m no “miracle,” no matter how much you want to crunch the numbers. I don’t need infinitesimal odds to enjoy living.

61. thecynic says

This makes me want to try some magic math too!

Let’s see, 1.2*10^7 sperm in the average adult male human ejaculate.

4*10^5 ovarian follicles at puberty

~60% chance (I picked the smallest figure in the literature) of chromosomal, genetic, or developmental abnormalities that either cause the zygote to fail to implant or later miscarry

= 1/8*10^12 chance of any particular person existing

And that’s ignoring things like meiotic recombination and the other fun stuff that increases germ-line genetic diversity

Just adding crossing over to the mix (thank Cthulu I still have my copy of Strachan & Read!)…

~50 chiasmata per cell during spermatogenesis

~70 chiasmata per cell during oogenesis

Fudging the numbers a bit to count only recombination hotspots, and assuming that recombination always occurs at the same site within said hotspots–not to mention fudging the numbers even further by evenly weighting all of these hotspots for ease of calculation

~7.9*10^269 potential recombinants per sperm

~7.1*10^307 potential recombinants per oocyte

Multiplying it all together gives us…

~5.6*10^577 potential products of fertilization from a single couple

and finally

~1/1.1*10^590 chance of a particular combination, occurring, surviving to term, and existing

Of course, this number is largely meaningless. Not only does it rely on so many assumptions that it is several degrees removed from reality, it also has absolutely no implications for the real world even if it were accurate. Fun bit of mental math though!

62. George Martin says

@17

The Science Pundit says:

@greame

The odds are zero. It’s the oxygen atoms that are made in supernovae, not hydrogen atoms.

Well actually, very little if any oxygen is produced in a supernova explosion. The primary isotopes oxygen — 16, 17, 18 — are created during the various phases of stellar evolution prior to the supernova explosion. The explosion just releases the oxygen already there into the inter stellar medium.

The collapse which causes a supernova primarily creates those elements more massive than iron 56.

George

63. thecynic says

@ #1 (with credit to #22)

The universe is NOT deterministic. I know of a certain zombie feline that can attest to that…

64. Hawks says

It’s simply making the lottery fallacy.

I’m not sure that we can file this under the term lottery fallacy.

It seems to me that in the lottery fallacy, one conflates the probability of person X winning given some random numbers (low probability) with the probability of anyone winning given some random numbers (high probability). Ali Binazir, however, conflates the probability of person X winning given some random numbers with the unconditional probability that person X won (i.e. person X exists, which has a probability of 1). For sure, both are examples of fallcious reasoning, but there are differences. Or maybe I don’t know exactly what is meant by the lottery fallacy.

65. wholething says

If you go back several thousand years, we all have the same ancestors many billion times over, so you don’t need to have a specific family tree to end up with your genetics. Most of it is rather common to everybody else.

On the other hand, even with the same genetics, at some point in development, some cells are going to become the human being and the rest are going to end up as afterbirth. What are the odds for the combination that end up as you versus your twin brother or sister?

66. NitricAcid says

Xkcd had a similar statement. Something along the lines of “Parenting can’t be that hard- all my ancestors managed it. Then again, that is the mother of all selection biases.”

67. jose says

Meh. Pick a random number between 0 and 1. Since there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1, chances that any given number will be picked are 0. Exactly 0. However we can pick one, can’t we?

68. robro says

Those odds aren’t correct. They left out a whole bunch of improbable events…modern humans emerging and dominating other humanoid species, mammalian evolution, comet taking out many dinosaur species, life coming into being (what are the odds), Earth positioned at critical distance from the Sun to support water as a liquid, gas, and solid, solar system having large outer planets to sweep away some of the deadly comets, Sun and solar system (w/ Earth) forming, molecular gas cloud coalescing and (perhaps) a nearby supernova squishing it together to form stars, first and second generation stars cooking up complex atoms and spewing them out, and…well so on.

And then, there’s the whole question of where did they come up with those odds. I think we know, but it’s not polite to say on a family show. My dad and mom met 64 years ago, not 20. What were the chances in 1947 of a particular couple coming together? Let’s see, after the war, fewer men in the States, except it was a Navy town so multiply by the sultry relative humanity of a southern city and we end up with Tennessee Williams.

It’s nil-er than they think.

Uh-oh. The folks at Visual.ly have a code of ethics. I know atheists don’t understand this ethics business, but here’s the deal: Visual.ly promises…Data will be accurate and verifiable—Visual.ly will not “lie with statistics.” I will assume that Edward Tufte has nothing to do with this organization.

It’s beyond me to understand how such pseudo-information and statistical bs is meant to cheer us up or on or whatever. The counter to Nietzchean nihilism isn’t the big cheery smiles of Up With People…at least, god, I hope not. I really don’t need to be a “miracle” nor filled with false “purpose” because of my special place.

69. Zinc Avenger says

The chances that the exact and particular atoms that make up the cupcake on my desk were arranged in such a way as to become this exquisitely unique cupcake are even smaller.

Therefore… God?

No. Therefore… Cupcake.

Update: No more cupcake.

70. says

Maybe you should go forth and feel and act like you aren’t any more special than anyone else on Earth.

That would certainly be a welcome change in the thinking and behavior of the churchgoing public.

Isn’t this the opposite of saying you are special ?
Isn’t this saying you are a happy accident and nothing more.
Doesn’t it feel good to know that the particular happy accident did occur, cos being alive despite all the trouble is still pretty awesome.
I fail to understand the “woo” though these stats I agree seem pretty random.

72. Gus Snarp says

Funny, I read this and come to the conclusion that I’m not special at all. Because if you were rolling dice and hoping to come up with me, the odds would be ridiculous, but if you were hoping for say, a sea slug, then I’m just one of the infinite number of losing dice rolls.

73. Tualha says

Maybe you should go forth and feel and act like you aren’t any more special than anyone else on Earth.

That would certainly be a welcome change in the thinking and behavior of the churchgoing public.

Not to mention the average American.

74. hf says

Meh. Pick a random number between 0 and 1. Since there are infinite numbers between 0 and 1, chances that any given number will be picked are 0. Exactly 0. However we can pick one, can’t we?

So says the Axiom of Choice. ^_^

75. Ed Seedhouse says

Well, even accepting the odds as stated, the probability for me right now that all these things happened is exactly 1, because here I sit.

76. B says

Yeah, they’re exploiting the fact that the universe (especially biology) is not a deterministic place for their own purposes. Kind of like people who confuse the idea of a “miracle” (improbable event) with processes that occur on a regular basis but have improbable odds attached to them (e.g. childbirth). For example, the idea that a “special” sperm fertilized a special egg is a straw man. More like this: lots of egg and lots of sperm are required to make a single human.

What are the odds that your lineage remained unbroken for the length of human history? What does this even mean, in scientific terms? As if human heredity were as it is portrayed in the Bible (or the Greek tragedies, as some one once told me that the Greek tragedies are largely about a series of people reciting their lineage before cutting someone else’s head off).

By the way, there IS a 1:1 chance that you will die at some point, so there’s that……

77. says

This might be better understood as the “blade of grass on the fairway” fallacy.
You’re teeing off on a golf course, you hit the ball down the fairway, and it comes to rest against one particular blade of grass among many thousands of blades of grass. The odds of the ball coming to rest against that particular blade are many thousands to one; so it’s a miracle, right?
Well, no–the ball was going to come to rest against one of those blades, no matter what. And whichever blade it rests against, that is an unlikely outcome. But it’s not a miracle–the result is always going to be one of those many unlikely outcomes. You haven’t beaten long odds–just selected one of many (roughly) equally likely outcomes.
If, on the other hand, you aim for one particular blade, and the ball indeed comes to rest against it, then you’ve beaten very long odds. Still not a “miracle” though–merely an unlikely outcome, odds of which are not zero.

78. hf says

Or maybe I don’t know exactly what is meant by the lottery fallacy.

It means one of the two mistakes I explained at #59.

79. macallan says

Christians(tm) fail statistics forever.
Take a D20, roll it 100 times, carefully recording each result.
The chances that you got Just This Sequence is 1:20^100, so close to zero it’s not even funny. Holy crap you just created a miracle!

80. Brownian says

Maybe you should go forth and feel and act like you aren’t any more special than anyone else on Earth.

That would certainly be a welcome change in the thinking and behavior of the churchgoing public.

Not to mention the average American.

The flip side to this is, assuming my Ego (for lack of a better word) could have been placed in any one of the ~four billion born in the year of my birth, what are the odds that I would have ended up where I am: a fairly well-off Canadian with a relatively stable government (too stable it would seem, in the case of Alberta) with access to clean drinking water, food, shelter, etc. and so forth. (And that’s not even considering my privileges as a white, male Canadian born to reasonably affluent parents.)

The miracle is not that I exist, but that my existence is among the most comfortable that any human living today has, and is certainly among the most comfortable of any human, ever.

Surprisingly, few conservative Christians ever seem to be thankful for the life circumstances to which they were born. Perhaps they think the fly-covered children in the World Vision ads are simply window-dressing for their opportunities to be thankful.

81. tms says

I think that Eric Idle of the Pythons said it best:

“…So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”

(The Galaxy song, from The Meaning of Life)

82. Brownian says

Perhaps they think the fly-covered children in the World Vision ads are simply window-dressing for their opportunities to be thankful charitable.

Oh, FFS.

83. Alexis says

Back in 2006, I read an even worse proof that god exists. Unfortunately, the link is now dead, but I saved the text in an e-mail:
Mathematics Proves Christ’s Resurrection?
It is faith, not proof, that makes Christians believe in Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the central tenet of the religion. Until now. Oxford University professor Richard Swinburne, a leading philosopher of religion, has seemingly done the impossible. Using logic and mathematics, he has created a formula that he says shows a 97 percent certainty that Jesus Christ was resurrected by God the Father, report The Age and Catholic News.
This stunning conclusion was made based on a series of complex calculations grounded in the following logic:
1. The probably of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.
2. The probability that God became incarnate, that is embodied in human form, is also one in two.
3. The evidence for God’s existence is an argument for the resurrection.
4. The chance of Christ’s resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.
“New Testament scholars say the only evidences are witnesses in the four gospels. That’s only five percent of the evidence,” Swinburne said in a lecture he gave at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. “We can’t judge the question of the resurrection unless we ask first whether there’s reason to suppose there is a God. Secondly, if we have reason to suppose he would become incarnate, and thirdly, if he did, whether he would live the sort of life Jesus did.” He says that even Jesus’ life is not enough proof. However, the resurrection is “God’s signature,” which shows “his approval of Jesus’ teaching.” The calculations that Swinburne says prove the resurrection are detailed in his book, “The Resurrection of God Incarnate.”

84. Alexis says

It is bad enough that silly people come up with poor logic and bad statistics. Why do news sources think they should pass this swill on to the gullible public with comments like “stunning conclusion”?

Where does he get his probabilities (or probablies)? How does he know that the probably of god’s existence is one in two? That is like saying the probability of a pink unicorn’s existence is one in two. It may actually be 500 to 1, or 1 in 1 to 28th power. The other probabilities that he cites follow suit. The probability that (a) god exists may be 1 in 1 to the gazillionth power. After that, shouldn’t he be dividing instead of multiplying? Ernest Hemingway was once asked what the most important asset was for a writer. He responded that one needed to build himself a good crap detector.

85. macallan says

1. The probably of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.

FAIL.
When I roll a D20 the result is either 20 or not 20, therefore the probability of me rolling a 20 is one in two.

86. says

The odds of any particular snowflake configuration are extremely low and yet we still have snowstorms and even avalanches.

87. Tom McCann says

I throw a dart at a dartboard, and measure the angle of the hit (as measured in clock terms from the 12 o clock position). There are an infinite number of possible angles, therefore the chance of making that precise hit is one divided by infinity. Yet it happened.

88. says

The State of the World Atlas referred to North America as “The Isles of the Blessed”–meaning that we are extraordinarily fortunate.

89. Amoeba says

I like how it is implicitly implying that you are less special if you were the product of a one-night stand, given the odds of a second date and odds of staying together long enough to reproduce wouldn’t be a factor.

90. hotshoe says

Isn’t this the opposite of saying you are special ?
Isn’t this saying you are a happy accident and nothing more.
Doesn’t it feel good to know that the particular happy accident did occur, cos being alive despite all the trouble is still pretty awesome.

Yep, it’s clear that is the original author’s intent. When you and everyone around you are the products of equally-unlikely “miracles”, then you (and everyone else) are nothing special. Although nothing special, it’s still wonderful that you happen to be one of the lucky ones.

As Richard Dawkins says:

To live at all is miracle enough.
— Mervyn Peake,
The Glassblower (1950)

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

http://richarddawkins.net/articles/91-to-live-at-all-is-miracle-enough

It’s no surprise that for Pharyngula’s fierce atheists, the author using “miracle” sets our teeth on edge. But Binazar didn’t mean it theologically, anymore than Dawkins does when he quotes Peake. Here’s Binazar again:

And no matter how you slice it, it’s pretty remarkable that you and I, self-absorbed scallywags that we are, stand at the end of an unbroken chain of life going all the way back to the primordial slime. That’s the point.

91. syggyx says

Hm, does anyone else see a gay wrestling ad below PZ’s post with 3 buffed half naked guys?

92. Julien Rousseau says

I like it for exactly the reason you hate it: “It’s simply making the lottery fallacy.”

This means that when a creationist comes and tells you that abiogenesis is impossible because the likelihood of it happening is 1 in 10^20000 (or whatever is their favourite calculation du jour) and events with a probability of 1 in 10^50 never happen you can point them to that poster and tell them there are billions of events with a probability of 1 in 10^2,685,000 running around the globe (and that’s only counting humans) and use his dumbfoundedness to start a conversation as to why those probability calculations are bogus.

Kind of use it as a reductio ad absurdum to show them the silliness of their claim.

93. says

I was watching one of those nature shows the other day in which a theoretical cosmologist or mathematician explained the ‘lucky universe’ by probability. She said that even if the odds of natural laws being fine-tuned so that matter and life could exist are 1 in 10**275 or some such, by her calculations there are are 1 in 10**500 parallel universes, so it’s no so surprising that some of them have matter and the conditions for life. (Pleae excuse the notation; I wasn’t sure if <sup> works. [102])

94. Jockaira says

Being alive is much better than the alternative…

95. Chris Phillips says

And the total energy in the universe = 0. So?
We are here, and there is a here to call here. So live with the wonders of probability and quantum mechanics, not fight the conclusions with a human lack of appreciation of scale.

96. Randomfactor says

“You are a fluke of the Universe. You have no right to be here, and whether you can hear it or not, the Universe is laughing behind your back.” –from The Deteriorata.

97. says

Being alive is much better than the alternative…

Being alive and in unbearable agony?

98. John K. says

Seems like an exercise in pretending things are unknown and part of chance when they are not. Otherwise known as the gambler’s fallacy. Just because there are roughly 2 outcomes of gender does not mean gender is determined by a cosmic slot machine designed to make probability curves nice and smooth. As pointed out above, the Fine Tuning argument has the same problems.

Odds and statistics are only a means of dealing with unknowns based on reasonable results. Throwing in extra unknowns only gets you to a basically impossible probability of no value at all.

99. I'mthegenie!Icandoanything! says

People, generally, love to be complimented – Twain noticed this tendancy “even among the French”.

STUPID people – and ALL Xians and ‘Mer’kins are stupid, by even the most reasonable definition – are slightly different in that they don’t want to be complemented so much as endlessly flattered, and will buy the sickest lie if flattered properly.

And will demand the persecution and death of those whose existence, much less opinion, seems to threaten to expose the falseness of such flattery.

They’re human beings. They as special as Michelle Bachmann or Herman Cain or remote-control murderer Rick Perry.

Would that a god that could forgive them, after instruction, existed.

100. Doug Little says

greame

place it on the table in front of you, and calculate the odds that any specific hydrogen atom, born in a supernova millions of years ago would end up in your glass,

Well hydrogen atoms aren’t born in a supernova they were created in the big bang but I still like your counter example, to further it why not calculate the odds of each specific hydrogen atom not only being contained in the glass but how they are arranged to one another at any particular time.

101. Alexis says

What are the odds? I’d say some of us are odder than others.

102. Brownian says

Hm, does anyone else see a gay wrestling ad below PZ’s post with 3 buffed half naked guys?

Strange you should ask since you continually assert everyone else here is an idiot, but since I’m feeling charitable the answer is “Go choke to death, fuckface.”

103. NitricAcid says

1. The probably of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.
2. The probability that God became incarnate, that is embodied in human form, is also one in two.

I see someone learned their probabilities from playing Toon.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toon_%28role-playing_game%29

104. Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis says

Since, according to this calculation, every new generation of people is so enormously less likely to exist than the previous one, the real miracle is that humankind doesn’t spontaneously poof out of existence more often.

105. John Morales says

[meta]

Alex @109, heh.

(Nice one)

106. says

By the same logic, every person who has ever existed is guilty of denying 10 2,685,000 others their life.

Wow, we’re so awesomely guilty, it’s almost like we deserve to be punished and should ask a savior for mercy…

See how that works?

107. Jockaira says

Tabby Lavalamp,

The alternative to being alive is being dead. It’s strange that you would assume the alternative to be agony.

Aren’t you enjoying life? …Your only opportunity to be.

108. says

There is an interesting question concerning the likelihood of our existence, but they ignored it—maybe because no one knows the answer yet?

What is the fraction of Earth like planets that develop life? (I’m betting pretty high.) And more importantly, what is the fraction of life-harboring planets with “Turing-complete” intelligence, (like humans)? I’m betting pretty low.

109. Mell says

Nomatter how small the number it is monstrously larger than the possibility of an invisible sky father.

110. says

syggyx, I see a “google a day” ad/link, and I noticed the other day after spending an afternoon looking at circular saw blades and router bits that I saw a lot of woodworking ads on unrelated sites, so I imagine your gay wrestling ads are probably related to your other internet behavior, browsing/searching.

111. nemothederv says

Today boys and girls we’re going to play a game.
It’s called fucking around with math.

I don’t know why but it reminds me of a song.

112. Brownian says

Aren’t you enjoying life? …Your only opportunity to be.

Wow: in the history of mental illness, I don’t think anyone has ever suggested simply willing oneself to be happy and content before. You should write a self-help book and put all of those psychologist frauds out of business.

113. JohnnieCanuck says

Syggyx,

Did no-one mention to you that the targetted ads use your previous website and ad-clicking activity as well as the contents of the current page to determine which one you get to see?

Now that’s a tell.

Though, of course it could have been the other person that used that browser on that computer recently.

114. Jockaira says

Brownian,

In the main, mental illness is ususally caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Attitudinal adjustments would be very unlikely to restore this physical problem, in fact might exacerbate it by supplying mechanisms to deal with the symptoms and leave the basic problem unaddressed and in a deteriorative state.

Willing oneself to be happy and content is such an attitudinal adjustment and ignores the necessity of dealing with physical reality, a common symptom of conditional insanity.

In my question above to Tabby Lavalamp. I only asked about her implied presumption that the alternative to life was “unbearable agony.” My remark about the “only opportunity” was intended only to point out the irrationality of failing to deal with reality on its own terms.

Forgive me for trying to squeeze basic truth into as few words as possible.

115. peterh says

My engineer friend often reminds me to “identify the variables.” It seems those who derived the chart above have a huge amount of identifying yet to go.

116. jt512 says

@PZ:

You’ve committed the lottery fallacy fallacy. You correctly stated the lottery fallacy, but incorrectly concluded that Binazir’s calculation is an example of it. Binazir is not calculating the probability that just anybody came into being, but the probability that you particularly did. Sure, someone had to win the lottery, but it was very improbable that it ended up being you or I.

@glenister_m #19:

You wrote:

You can’t backtrack statistically to calculate the odds of something happening after it happens, as the answer = 1.

You can calculate the probability of an event after the fact. If the probability of you winning the lottery is 1 in 10 million, then, even if you win it, the probability that you would have is still 1 in 10 million. This is the a priori probability of the event, and there is no reason why you can’t calculate it after the event has occurred.

@Clausentum #34:

Among those who propagated this “rubbish” were the likes of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Carroll tweeted, “We could quibble with details here, but yes: your particular self is pretty spectacularly unlikely.” Coyne dedicated a blog post to it and called it a “cool calculation.”

Exactly. Kinda’ sad that it took 75 posts for someone to finally get it.

117. Quidam says

This was explored so very well by Douglas Adams

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s definition of “Universe”:

The Universe is a very big thing that contains a great number of planets and a great number of beings. It is Everything. What we live in. All around us. The lot. Not nothing. It is quite difficult to actually define what the Universe means, but fortunately the Guide doesn’t worry about that and just gives us some useful information to live in it.

Area: The area of the Universe is infinite.

Imports: None. This is a by product of infinity; it is impossible to import things into something that has infinite volume because by definition there is no outside to import things from.

Exports: None, for similar reasons as imports.

Population: None. Although you might see people from time to time, they are most likely products of your imagination. Simple mathematics tells us that the population of the Universe must be zero. Why? Well given that the volume of the universe is infinite there must be an infinite number of worlds. But not all of them are populated; therefore only a finite number are. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, therefore the average population of the Universe is zero, and so the total population must be zero.

Art: None. Because the function of art is to hold a mirror up to nature there can be no art because the Universe is infinite which means there simply isn’t a mirror big enough.

Sex: None. Although in fact there is quite a lot, given the zero population of the Universe there can in fact be no beings to have sex, and therefore no sex happens in the Universe.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go off and have some non-existent sex

118. Kemist says

1. The probably of God’s existence is one in two. That is, God either exists or doesn’t.

Hmm.

Looks like Prof. Swinburne didn’t pass Introduction to Probability.

There should be a law forbidding nitwits who don’t understand relatively basic math to write equations. It hurts the brains of sane people.

119. says

I am pretty sure Bayes might have something to say on the issue of me existing given my ancestors lived to reproductive age.

120. A.farinosa says

It’s like when the Doors didn’t abide by Ed Sullivan’s edict to censor themselves and not sing the word “higher” from their lyrics.

Ed told them he’ll never ever have them on the Ed Sullivan Show. Morrison says “We just did Sullivan”.

The odds of any random person born when Jim was ever appearing on Ed Sullivan were extremely slim. Once it was accomplished, his reply was the only logical thing to say.

121. says

Either I was going to exist, or not. So it was 50/50.
Gotta like those odds.
Or not.

122. Okasen says

This isn’t amazing.

What would be amazing is if I somehow reset the earth back to when humanity just began, and then, assuming we have a clean slate and we’re not predetermined to repeat history, let it all happen all over again, and THEN it turned out that I was alive and the exact same person with the same ancestors and everything again.

But as it stands, it’s not that amazing. It’s just one of many equally probable possibilities.

123. gould1865 says

This odds stuff continues to be boffed and botched year after year. I blame reporters, who are botching everything.

Much of the misunderstanding of odds lies in the premise, eg. What are the odds that the sun will not rise tomorrow, um, rise, not rise, 50-50, so become a Mayan or Aztec, bcz what a scary world, ha…

So then what are “odds”? Say, what are the odds that a person running across the interstate will get hit? Say, one in a thousand for eg. So a person does get hit. What were his odds? 100 per cent obviously for him. We just did not know how to collect the factors on the odds for the future. For him, our “odds” mean nothing, and are now seen as meaningless for him. Future odds and past odds are not the same. They need to be sharply distinguished and demarcated.

So PZ is on to it, as almost always, congrats to all, him and his ancestors. The odds of his being here are and were 100 per cent.

We do not know the factors on chance except slightly in looking backward. These chances are a type of cause, and we hardly know what causes what. All our seemingly best info is in looking backward. “Equally possible chances” do not exist in the existence we know.

Indebted to Mr. Laplace.

124. says

Totally agree on this. Never-the-less, the following, from Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”, still makes a good point and is very funny to boot;

THE WAY I SEE IT, THERE ARE THREE REASONS NEVER TO BE UNHAPPY.

First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Did you know that each time your father ejaculated (and frankly he did it quite a lot) he produced roughly 25 million spermatozoa -enough to repopulate Britain every two days or so? For you to have been born, not only did you have to be among the few batches of sperm that had even a theoretical chance of prospering – in itself quite a long shot – but you then had to win a race against 24,999,999 or so other wriggling contenders, all rushing to swim the English Channel of your mother’s vagina in order to be the first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were. Being born was easily the most remarkable achievement of your whole life. And think: you could just as easily have been a flatworm.

Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. Soon you will cease to be once more. That you are able to sit here right now in this one never-to-be-repeated moment, reading this book, eating bon-bons, dreaming about hot sex with that scrumptious person from accounts, speculatively sniffing your armpits, doing whatever you are doing – just existing – is really wondrous beyond belief.

Third, you have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace and ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ will never be number one again.

If you bear these things in mind, you will never be truly unhappy – though in fairness I must point out that if you find yourself alone in Weston-super-Mare on a rainy Tuesday evening you may come close.

125. chigau (...---...) says

Bill Forster
If I wake up humming ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’, I will find you…

126. says

Fair enough chigau, in fact just let me know and I will punish myself on your behalf.

127. Brownian says

Forgive me for trying to squeeze basic truth into as few words as possible.

I don’t mind the brevity; I mind the wrong.

128. says

The chance of any particular lottery number coming up is very, very small. Yet strangely whenever they have a drawing some number comes up. Ponder this, christards, that ye be enlightened.

129. dictionaryatheist says

I wonder why probability is so poorly understood.

The points that most seem to miss are (1) probability is intimately bound to the notion of an arbitrarily defined class of event that can be generalized but for which we don’t have information about specific outcomes (e.g. coin toss).

And (2) the fact we personally don’t have information that would have allowed us to predict specific outcomes does not imply that the outcomes could have been any different from what they actually are.

130. TimKO,,.,, says

The odds of my parents meeting are significantly higher if they both come from a town of population 100.

131. Jett Perrobone says

These people need a maths lesson.

1 in 10⁴⁵⁰⁰⁰
That’s a 10 with 45,000 zeroes after it.

Actually, 10⁴⁵⁰⁰⁰ is a 1 with 45,000 zeroes after it.

Examples:
10⁰ = 1
10¹ = 10
10² = 100

…and so on.

I like the message that this graphic has at the end, though I am not that fond of the use of the word “miracle” – it seems to have supernatural overtones.

132. Ichthyic says

7 billion is still rare compared to the sample space of all that could have been with just a slight tweak in history.

I just have to say…

This is inane.

133. Ichthyic says

Sure, someone had to win the lottery, but it was very improbable that it ended up being you or I.

no, you idiot, the point is it is equally probably that it ended up being you or I.

in fact, YOU just committed the fallacy.

you should be headdesking right now.

134. Samantha Vimes, Chalkboard Monitor says

I read silly calculations; therefore, I am. That is, no one will read that who does not already exist; therefore the probability of the person reading it existing is 1:1.

135. John Morales says

Samantha, you consider the odds of an instantiation of a Boltzmann brain to be zero, then?

136. Roel says

Actually, the chance that people reproduce is quite big. Almost everybody I know reproduces. So the odds that I am here are not so bad at all.

137. puppygod says

@89 macallan

FAIL.
When I roll a D20 the result is either 20 or not 20, therefore the probability of me rolling a 20 is one in two.

Umm, may I borrow your dice for my next DnD session? It would be great help.

138. Kriss says

Probability is a mathematical concept which does not help you in real life. Whether you play lottery or throw a coin you cannot predict the outcome of a one time attempt. A better word for probability would be e.g. score quota as it shows that only things which already have happened can be quantified and only if large numbers are involved.

139. Snoof says

Probability is a mathematical concept which does not help you in real life.

Unless you’re an actuary, engineer, bookkeeper, broker, meteorologist or anyone else who uses statistical methods, which is everyone who uses any kind of empirical data. The p-value, a commonly used test for statistical significance, is a probability.

This particular calculation may be a load of crap, but that doesn’t mean you should throw away probability altogether.

140. Jerry A. says

I’m not sure that I see so much of a problem with the calculations as with the conclusion. Just about anything in this universe has a very low probability of occurring “just this way”. The high probability event is that a theist will use (whatever) to say “…and therefore God”.

The fact that our sun has a specific arrangement of certain atoms, and emits light at just the right intensity and spectrum to support our kind of life, has an extremely low probability… and therefore God.

Could just as easily be:

The sun shines, it’s a miracle… and therefore God.

So what is the real controversy here? Arguing about whether the statistics are good or bad is pretty much an exercise in futility, given the nearly inevitable conclusion of “…and therefore God”.

141. Brownian says

I wonder why probability is so poorly understood.

Arthur Benjamin suggests a reason why in this one minute TED talk. It’s because we teach math in such a way that emphasises the skills necessary to do calculus, rather than probability.

Probability is a mathematical concept which does not help you in real life.

That’s one of the wrongest things I’ve ever read. Aside from the professions Snoof enumerates which depend on it, everyone uses probability—or would, if they understood it—because it’s integral to assessing the likelihood of various outcomes: risks and rewards. Given the reported crime rate, should I buy a house in this neighbourhood for this price? How long can I expect this used car to last, and would I get a better return on my investment if I bought new? Should I smoke? Drink? Eat chicken wings? Buy these season tickets expecting to see my local team in the playoffs?

Even if you decide you’re too innumerate to operate a calculator, statistics are—well, not the bread-and-butter, but at least the peas of the news; without having at least a brief understanding of what they imply (or not), you’re at the mercy of journalists [shudders] to interpret them for you. You may as well be unable to read.

142. says

Growing up in New York we used to say, “In this town even if you’re one in a million there’s seven more just like you!”

143. jt512 says

What a pity that we can’t calculate the a priori probability of an event after the event has occurred, as the majority of this thread’s commenters believe. We’re missing out on so much. If we could only do such calculations we could conduct experiments in which we collect data, and then, after those data have been collected, calculate their a priori probability under some hypothesis. We could then use that probability to judge the plausibility of the hypothesis. If we could do this, we would probably have a multitude of journals publishing the results of such experiments and whole libraries containing large collections of these journals.

144. jacobfromlost says

Lots of math to make us realize we are special…just like everyone else.

145. anchor says

HAHAHAHAHA

The number of possible configurations of fundamental quanta comprising what any given human being may hang the title of ‘me’ on just over the last WEEK is stupendously larger than the strictly biological (potential genetic) contribution since that individual’s earliest (molecular replicator) ancestor 3.5 or so billion years ago.

Consider the number of quantum state switches down to Planck Time units (10^-35 second or so) in a week and the number of possible states of every quark and electron in all possible living-body outcomes which may spring from any precursory configuration + environmental circumstance one mere week ago (don’t even need to include the rest of entire universe, though those pesky cosmic rays do verily enter the fray, etc., but an honest accounting would include it all), not to mention the bosonic contingent of gluons and photons involved, virtual and otherwise…then scramble it all up even more with Heisenberg uncertainty to REALLY appreciate how ridiculous the attempt at pinning down the odds are, which is anything but instructive. (In other words, it’s colossally stupid).

The ‘calculation’ is not only idiotic, it is fraudulent. They can’t even supply a decent definition of “you”. There really isn’t any EXCEPT in the profoundly dumb and false superstitious sense which identifies a non-existent and eternally durable essence of ‘self’ – an alleged ‘personal spirit’ or ‘soul’ – that is somehow decoupled from material/energy reality which supposedly accounts for the Big Fat Mystery but fails miserably as an explanation. For example, eternal durability – changelessness – is equivalent to the total absence of time, and that rather tends to put the kybosh on the prospective property of ‘existing’.

The irony is that these considerations not only reinforce biological evolution, they highlight how intrinsic ‘CHANGE’ is to existence in time: literally NOTHING is changeless and we who exist are all compelled to ‘evolve’ like mad all the time, whether we like it or not. Can’t help it. Existence is a dynamic condition. Any consequent configuration of ‘you’ within ‘you-space’ must arise from a precursory configuration, but the attempt to pin down any PARTICULAR configuration down at a given MOMENT (i.e., stopping time to derive the ‘you’ at that point) is sheer folly mixed with nuts.

146. P. lonchitis says

Lots of intereting misconceptions here…

First of all, there’s been widespread misuse of the word “odds”. Odds =/= probability. Odds in favor of an event is the ratio: (probability in favor) : (probability not in favor).
Probability is: (number of ways to get favorable event) / (total possible outcomes).

One of the main problems with the original calculation and some other comments has been the distinction between theoretical and experimental (relative frequency) probability. The experimental probability that I exist is 1. The theoretical probability that I would come to exist would be impossible to calculate. If you’re looking at it in terms of “one out of the total possible outcomes” then you have a massive problem just trying to define the sample space.
If you’re looking at it in terms of multiplying the probabilities of a bunch of individual events together, you still have issues of sample space arising at each individual probability as well as the new problem of having to deal with conditional probabilities assuming that not all of your events are independent of one another.
Interesting problem, but waaaay too many unknowns to make any mathematical conclusions.

147. some Matt or other says

To everyone who criticizes this for being the “lottery fallacy”: If you actually won the lottery (or, if that’s not your speed, insert whatever favorable happenstance you would like to see in your life), would you regard it with stoic detachment, saying, “It would be fallacious of me to celebrate, since lots of people win lotteries all the time; in fact, the chance of someone winning this lottery today was a virtual guarantee. The fact that it happened to be me is of no consequence, like seeing any particular license-plate character sequence.”? If so, then what a drab life you must live.

Or, to look at it another way, consider someone who grew up in essentially a lottery-winning environment – say, a rich kid who thinks that having millions of dollars’ worth of goods and services given to him regularly is the baseline state of life. It’s a truism that he will fail to appreciate the relative value of his circumstances unless specific action is taken in his upbringing to counteract it. The point of the “thermodynamic miracle” statistics (as Alan Moore called it) is that we 7 billion living humans are a clique of rich friends who aren’t usually confronted with the details of just how many ways events beyond our control could’ve doomed any one of us to the “poverty” of nonexistence before we even got started. And that knowledge should give us pause to appreciate the value of basic existence, such an easy thing to take for granted.

There may be valid quibbles to be had over the specific statistics or the use of the word “miracle,” but seriously people.

148. jt512 says

@145 Snoof wrote:

The p-value, a commonly used test for statistical significance, is a probability.

Not only is it a probability, it is a probability about getting the data that we got, calculated after we got it—an example of the type of probability that most people in this thread either think cannot be calculated or must be equal to 1.

Jay

149. nesetalis says

just because the probability reaches towards 0 doesn’t mean the probability is 0… that is why we invented ‘real’ numbers, or floats and doubles :p
It certainly was improbable, but it did succeed, we are here. so I’m not sure what the complaint is.. the graphic is pretty silly, considering all the other variables involved that they didn’t account for, making that probability reach toward infinity.

150. Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis says

jt512,

The p-value is not the probability to obtain any particular result, it is the probability to obtain a result at least as extreme as the observed one given a theory and a distance measure on the space of outcomes. In the case of a continuous variable, the probability for any particular outcome is even always zero.

151. faithless says

Somebody else must have said this already, but this is a fallacy.

The odds of my existence are 1. Or, if you prefer, 1/1.

It is the same as the odds of all the ‘anthropic principle’ factors – ratio of weak to strong magnetic force, blah blah – the odds are all 1. If they weren’t, we’d not be here to think about it.

It’s called ‘conditional probability’ and if there isn’t a name for this fallacy, someone should think one up.

‘The anthropic fallacy’, perhaps?

152. faithless says

Having read some of the posts, there’s some nonsense being written.

The question, properly phrased, is ‘given that you exist, what is the probability that you exist?’ The answer is obviously 1.

The other question: ‘what is the probability that a particular person with all the unique attributes of a specific individual might exist in the future?’ is a non-question. It’s like the Star Trek transporter – it would take longer than the universe has existed to specify all the attributes.

Plus, a lot of the contributory probabilities are nonsense. Even if you argue that a particular person – me – has certain unique attributes, some are universal. For example, everyone who exists has a complete set of ancestors who were able to procreate. So the probability of that MUST BE 1.

153. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

This is a classic paradox in frequentist probability–if you throw a dart a dart board, the probability of hitting any single point is zero. However, you MUST (probability1) hit some point.

You can also have outcomes where an event or set of events has probability zero but is still possible.

154. jt512 says

@Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis wrote:

jt512,

The p-value is not the probability to obtain any particular result, it is the probability to obtain a result at least as extreme as the observed one given a theory and a distance measure on the space of outcomes. In the case of a continuous variable, the probability for any particular outcome is even always zero.

I know. That’s why I fudged and called it a probability about the data, rather than the probability of the data.

If the random variable is discrete, then the p-value is a sum of probabilities including the probability of the data itself, which according to the you-can’t-calculate-probabilities-after-the-fact crowd, would be impossible to calculate. If the random variable is continuous, then the p-value is a limit of such sums, so, in principle, would not be calculable either, according to this mistaken view.

Jay

155. Alex, Tyrant of Skepsis says

jt512,

I agree completely. I think the crucial thing here is that you have to decide (or admit) that you do have a theory or model for something, and clearly formulate a hypothesis, and then you can do this probability calculation. In the case of the above “what are the odds” thing, it’s not clear at all what the hypothesis is for you would test anyways, and what the theory is you use as a basis, which is what makes the whole thing annoying.

In any case, as Tim Minchin says “I think you are special, but you lie on a bell curve”. If one would attempt to use the gene pool of humanity as a “theory” basis, none of us would have a particularly bad p value, we all are perfectly compatible with the hypothesis that it’s just random crossovers and a mild mutation rate.

156. orsonzedd says

So, while we’re on the subject, i have to know, did it ever bother anyone else that no matter what doc and Marty did in Back to the Future, they never managed to affect their appearance or sex, let alone change any of the small events that would lead to the development of a time machine?