Monday, November 05, 2012

More on the Skills Crisis: Probabilities

Along with math and science, throw in another field in which American skills have declined: probability.  

I read somewhere this morning (can't find it right now) that Americans envision two states of being: dead-shot certainty and "toss-up."  No nuance, nothing in between.  

From my experience trying to teach (in a desultory way) probabilities to law students, I'd sign on to that.  Even when you remind them of roulette wheels and such, they don't seem to get the idea of "odds," and that you may--or may not--beat the odds.

So, for example, if Mitt Romney wins tomorrow (or next month, whenever the election ends), it won't necessarily prove that the pollsters were wrong; it may prove no more than the fact that Romney beat the odds: that the odds were 5-1 against, and he pulled the one.

But note: I'm not saying merely that Americans are bad at odds.  My point is that they are much worse than they used to be.  I blame it on the decline in horse racing.  When I was 11-12, my parents wasted money on paid for me to take trumpet lessons.  I would trundle upstairs to the music studio on the (I think) third floor at Bridge and Elm in Manchester, NH, where the musicians held forth.

Except it wasn't really a music store.  It is a bookie joint, with music as a loss leader front.  I doubt they sold as much as a single saxophone for every 1,000 $2 bets processed through the shop.  In fairness, I'm not 100 percent sure that the boss man  was the processor of all this cash: at the least he had plenty of help from the assorted loafers and layabouts who idled their days away there.

And believe me, those guys understood probabilities.  They probably also understood, along with Damon Runyon, that  life is six to five against.


1 comment:

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