The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

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In The Improbability Principle , the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every...
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In The Improbability Principle, the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.
     But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of “miracle” is thoroughly rational. No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need, Hand argues, is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.
     Together, these constitute Hand’s groundbreaking Improbability Principle. And together, they explain why we should not be so surprised to bump into a friend in a foreign country, or to come across the same unfamiliar word four times in one day. Hand wrestles with seemingly less explicable questions as well: what the Bible and Shakespeare have in common, why financial crashes are par for the course, and why lightning does strike the same place (and the same person) twice. Along the way, he teaches us how to use the Improbability Principle in our own lives—including how to cash in at a casino and how to recognize when a medicine is truly effective.
     An irresistible adventure into the laws behind “chance” moments and a trusty guide for understanding the world and universe we live in, The Improbability Principle will transform how you think about serendipity and luck, whether it’s in the world of business and finance or you’re merely sitting in your backyard, tossing a ball into the air and wondering where it will land.

 

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Multiple lottery wins. Unexpected financial meltdowns. Lightning striking the same person several times. These events, while astounding, are nonetheless to be expected, as mathematics professor Hand capably explains in this well-plotted book. The principle hinges on the idea that seemingly improbable events, from the individual to the cosmic level, are commonplace due to several factors. Academic but not dry, the concepts are presented in a relevant way and at a good clip, with some eye-catching examples. Hand notes the counterintuitive nature of certain aspects of probability, as well as the history of how understanding in the field has developed. A touch of levity goes a long way toward making the subject engaging. As Hand shows, probabilities are also about people—what we view as remarkable and why. Far from being disillusioning or removing the magic from these events, the elegant framework beneath marvelous events is something worth marveling at in itself. For those interested in an understanding of the principles of probability, this account is sure to be an odds-on favorite, even for those without much background in the subject. --Bridget Thoreson
 

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

"[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."
Publishers Weekly

"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."
Salon

"[Hand] leads readers through this unfamiliar land of probability and statistics with whit 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"
Success

"Enlightening and entertaining . . . an erudite but utterly unpretentious guide . . . ably and assuredly demystifies an ordinarily intimidating subject"
Kirkus

“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.”
—Andrew Dilnot, coauthor of The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life

 

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpfulBy R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Years ago my wife was looking through the books at a Goodwill store, and for a gag gift for my birthday she bought me a volume of poems by Rod McKuen, whose work I do not like. Helen brought it home and was going to wrap it when she looked inside. There was a dedication in the book signed by the author himself: “To Rob - May you always sleep warm. --Rod McKuen.” Now I have a volume of McKuen’s poetry I cannot throw away, but more to the point, how is it possible that completely by chance that she should pick up such a book bearing a dedication to someone of the same name? It just does not seem that such a thing could happen. It’s the sort of story told many times in _The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day_ (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by mathematician David Hand. Hand knows that it is tough to write about mathematics for the layman, perhaps even more so for probability which he says “is renowned for its counterintuitive nature, more than any other area of mathematics. Even the most eminent mathematicians have been tripped up by it.” Yet there are few equations here, there are many astounding stories, and many of Hand’s explanations are drawn from tossing a humble die.

The book starts with its main contradiction, only a seeming contradiction and one of many explained away within these pages: How is it possible that extremely unlikely things happen, and not only happen, but happen over and over? Hand gives satisfying answers, but besides being a book about extraordinarily improbable events, this is also a book that explains probability in general. Take the law of inevitability: Something has to happen.Read more ›
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpfulBy Book Fanatic TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Our intuitive beliefs in the probability of various events are notoriously unreliable. In this book, the author David J. Hand, does a brilliant job of explaining how and why we get all this wrong. Chapter by chapter Hand explains various laws of probability that explain how seemingly improbable things happen and how they combine to virtually guarantee they happen. The anecdotes are interesting and the writing is well done.

This book has Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and I recommend you preview it's contents before buying.

Recommended.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpfulBy G. Poirier on February 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a book on statistics but without the mathematical details. The author explains the occurrence of events that one would expect to be extremely rare but, do in fact occur more frequently that anticipated. The author’s “improbably principle”, which is at the heart of this book, is composed of several strands: the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever and the law of near enough. These laws are each carefully explained by the author and several useful examples are presented to illustrate each one.

No formulas are used in this book. To be honest, I found that a bit disappointing being an avid mathematics enthusiast. However, it seems clear that the author’s objective is to drive his point home in the simplest and most widely accessible way possible. And in this he succeeds admirably.

The author, a professor of mathematics with specialization in statistics, writes very clearly in a friendly, engaging and often lively style. Because if its wide accessibility, I believe that this book can be enjoyed by any interested readers, no matter what their background. Science and mathematics enthusiasts, like me, although possibly disappointed by the lack of mathematical minutiae, should still be in for a treat. I enjoyed this book immensely.

 

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