05 Nov 2009

"What Are the Odds of That?" Problems

All Posts No Comments

I’m surprised it took this long to make the WSJ op ed page–i.e. I thought the window was gone by this point–but the “Numbers Guy” takes up Ahnold’s recent potty mouth veto message. (See here if you don’t know what I’m talking about; the wussy WSJ doesn’t even reprint the letter.)

Anyway the Numbers Guy goes through and talks about the different ways mathematicians try to determine the probability that the “hidden message” was really just a coincidence. I realize there are a million different points you could raise, but I think they overlooked two of the most important issues:

(1) Ahnold’s word choice was unnatural. In particular the last paragraph:

“Yet another legislative year has come and gone without the major reforms Californians
overwhelmingly deserve. In light of this, and after careful consideration, I believe it is
unnecessary to sign this measure at this time.”

That “overwhelmingly” seems as if it’s quite clearly in there just to get the “o,” and “unnecessary” seems like the wrong word there.

Whether you agree with my opinion on the above wording, surely we can agree that if something just “reads funny” and then “happens” to spell out a naughty word, that that is a smoking gun. Yet the WSJ op ed just talks about general analysis of letter frequencies.

(2) We have to generalize the type of event that occurred. I.e. we are shocked by the “F— you” message, but we also would have been shocked had the first letters of each line spelled out “Eat me” or “Up yours” etc. So if we ask, “What are the odds that Schwarzenegger’s veto letter could have contained a hostile message due to dumb luck?” then our answer has got to be at least 20x whatever we come up with for the specific example of “F— you.”

This latter point occurred to me when I was younger and learned all the spooky July 4 coincidences. I don’t remember the exact details–someone please enlighten us in the comments–but it was things like one of the Founder’s birthday was on July 4 and then two of the Founders died on the same day, or something like that.

So at first that sounds amazing, but then you say: Well they didn’t sign the Declaration by throwing darts at a calendar. Maybe it was close so they decided to get smashed on whoever’s birthday at happy hour (drinking Sam Adams’ summer brew), then go back to the log cabin, dip the quill in blood and sign their John Hancock’s. (I am a product of private schools, by the way, so be afraid, be very afraid of the future of our country.)

And about two Founders dying on July 4, again you have to not just compute the probability of those two guys but of other events that would have seemed equally amazing to us.

Comments are closed.