Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What are the Odds of Hitting the Bullseye? Depends on When You Draw It

What are the odds of hitting a bullseye? It depends very much on when you draw it. Take this typical story of a person who thought she saw the future:

Arizona Cardinals’ fullback Terrelle Smith says that in April, when her cancer had spread to the brain, Smith’s mom said she had a vision of him playing in the NFC championship game. Nine months later, the Cardinals are hosting the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday for the conference title.

“Doctors say sometimes they get delusional and, at times, we thought she was,” Smith said on Tuesday. “But now it lines up. It makes sense, and it tells me want to fight for every week.”

A heartwarming story for sure, but as a miracle or sign of paranormal power, those like it are highly overrated. You'll notice that we never hear an athlete say "Wow, my mom had a vision, but it didn't come true." Yet are we to assume this never happens? Of course not. They just call our attention to the ones that hit, and ignore the rest.

But aren't the ones that hit still highly improbable? Taken as individual events, sure, but that is the key. Once one considers a huge data set, one must consider the probability that any such event will take place, not just the ones that do. It is the difference between the odds of someone winning the lottery and the odds that you will. Looking at the winning ticket and proclaiming the odds of that person winning is like shooting a ton of arrows at the wall, drawing the bulls eye around one of them, and shouting "What are the odds?!"

No telling what Ms. Smith dreamed about the Super Bowl, but methinks the Cardinals can use all the help they can get.

No comments: