Ask Professor Rosenthal 2 – By the Numbers, Boys and Girls: Happenstance and Chance of the Everyday

by | April 27, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Toronto. Here we talk about the statistics, life, and quality of life.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are some everyday examples of statistics, chance, and luck in action?

Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal: There are so many!  Randomness arises whenever we’re not sure what will happen next.  Will it rain?  Will we get a job?  Will the stock price increase?  Who will win the election?  Will we fall in love? 

All of these questions can be modelled, in various ways, as a random phenomenon where we don’t know the actual outcome, we just know various probabilities and can try to base our actions and understandings on that.

Jacobsen: How could knowledge of the nature of chance improve our livelihoods and quality of life – not simply thinking critically about bunk claims?

Rosenthal: An understanding of randomness — what I call the “probability perspective” — allows us to make better decisions in many ways.  We can avoid worrying about very low-probability bad events, like airplane crashes or kidnappings by strangers. 

We can stop counting on low-probability successes like winning the lottery jackpot.  We can also decide whether to walk or wait for the bus, whether to accept medical treatment, and so on. 

Best of all, we can better understand the world around us, such as news items claiming dramatic “similarities” of two long-lost relatives, or great “surprise” at certain coincidences which were bound to happen eventually by chance alone. 

In short, the better we understand randomness, and the more probability perspective we have, the better we can understand and react to our uncertain world.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Rosenthal.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Jeffrey Rosenthal.

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