1 THE MYSTERY
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.
—William ShakespeareSimply Unbelievable
In the summer of 1972, the actor Anthony Hopkins was signed to play a leading role in a film based on George Feifer’s novel The Girl from Petrovka
, so he traveled to London to buy a copy of the book. Unfortunately, none of the main London bookstores had a copy. Then, on his way home, waiting for an underground train at Leicester Square tube station, he saw a discarded book lying on the seat next to him. It was a copy of The Girl from Petrovka
As if that was not coincidence enough, more was to follow. Later, when he had a chance to meet the author, Hopkins told him about this strange occurrence. Feifer was interested. He said that in November 1971 he had lent a friend a copy of the book—a uniquely annotated copy in which he had made notes on turning the British English into American English (“labour” to “labor,” and so on) for the publication of an American version—but his friend had lost the copy in Bayswater, London. A quick check of the annotations in the copy Hopkins had found showed that it was the very same copy that Feifer’s friend had mislaid.1
You have to ask: What’s the chance of that happening? One in a million? One in a billion? Either way, it begins to stretch the bounds of credibility. It hints at an explanation in terms of forces and influences of which we are unaware, bringing the book back in a circle to Hopkins and then to Feifer.
Here’s another striking incident, this time from the book Synchronicity
, by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He writes: “The writer Wilhelm von Scholz … tells the story of a mother who took a photograph of her small son in the Black Forest. She left the film to be developed in Strassburg. But, owing to the outbreak of war, she was unable to fetch it and gave it up for lost. In 1916 she bought a film in Frankfurt in order to take a photograph of her daughter, who had been born in the meantime. When the film was developed, it was found to be doubly exposed: the picture underneath was the photograph she had taken of her son in 1914! The old film had not been developed and had somehow got into circulation again among the new films.”2
Most of us will have experienced coincidences rather like these—if not quite so extraordinary. They might be more akin to thinking of someone just before she phones you. Strangely enough, while I was writing part of this book, I had precisely this sort of experience. A colleague at work asked me if I could recommend some publications on a specific aspect of statistical methodology (the so-called “multivariate t-distribution”). The next day, I did a little research and managed to identify a book on exactly that topic by two statisticians, Samuel Kotz and Saralees Nadarajah. I had started to type an e-mail to my colleague, giving him the details of this book, when I was interrupted by a phone call from Canada. During the conversation, the caller happened to mention that Samuel Kotz had just died.
And so it goes on. On September 28, 2005, The Telegraph
described how a golfer, Joan Cresswell, scored a hole in
“Human beings are a superstitious lot; we see patterns everywhere. But as Hand makes clear in this enlightening book, it all comes down to the math.”
—Jennifer Ouellette, The New York Times Book Review
“Very engaging . . . If you wish to read about how probability theory can help us understand the apparent hot hand in a basketball game, superstitions in gambling and sports, prophecies, parapsychology and the paranormal, holes in one, multiple lottery winners, and much more, this is a book you will enjoy. I will go further. The statistician Samuel S. Wilks (paraphrasing H.G. Wells) said that ‘statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.’ With that laudable goal in mind, The Improbability Principle should be, in all probability, required reading for us all.”
—John A. Adams, The Washington Post
"[A] lucid overview of the mathematics of chance and the psychological phenomena that can make probability seem counter-intuitive to so many . . . Hand has written a superlative introduction to critical thinking, accessible to everybody, regardless of mathematical ability."
"[An] ingenious introduction to probability that mixes counterintuitive anecdotes with easily digestible doses of statistics . . . Hand offers much food for thought, and readers willing to handle some simple mathematics will find this a delightful addition to the 'why people believe weird things' genre."
"Lively and lucid . . . an intensely useful (as well as a remarkably entertaining) book . . . It can transform the way you read the newspaper, that’s for sure."
"[Hand] leads readers through this unfamiliar land of probability and statistics with wit and charm, all the while explaining in layman's terms the laws that govern it . . . We predict there's a very good chance you'll enjoy this book"
"Enlightening and entertaining . . . an erudite but utterly unpretentious guide . . . ably and assuredly demystifies an ordinarily intimidating subject"
“In my experience, it is very rare to find a book that is both erudite and entertaining. Yet The Improbability Principle is such a book. Surely this cannot be due to chance alone!”
—Hal R. Varian, chief economist at Google and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley
“Considering that The Improbability Principle comes from the keyboard of David J. Hand, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be a certain winner!”
—John Pullinger, president of the Royal Statistical Society
“Written by one of the world’s preeminent statisticians, The Improbability Principle provides you with a sense of what chance and improbability really mean, and engenders an understanding that uncertainty rests at the core of nature. I highly recommend this book.”
—Joseph M. Hilbe , president of the International Astrostatistics Association and ambassador for the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology
“As someone who happened to meet his future wife on a plane, on an airline he rarely flew, I wholeheartedly endorse David J. Hand’s fascinating guide to improbability, a subject that affects the lives of us all, yet until now has lacked a coherent exposition of its underlying principles.”
—Gordon Woo, catastrophist at Risk Management Solutions and author of Calculating Catastrophe
“The Improbability Principle is an elegant, astoundingly clear, and enjoyable combination of subtle statistical thinking and real-world events. David J. Hand really does explain why ‘surprising’ things will happen and why statistics matters.”