The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Wisdom in a Cookie

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 19, 2009

My wife and I love Chinese food.  Often, after a long day, I like to drop by our favorite Chinese restaurant and pick up some dinner.  And I think it’s hard to find many things better than a good, relaxing meal at the end of the day – unless, of course, you’re talking about dessert.  And what is the classic dessert of such fare?  The fortune cookie…

fortune cookie

Just today, we had some Chinese take-out, and I chomped a fortune cookie for dessert. Now, while I’m not going to claim that anyone really takes these kind of fortunes seriously, I’m going to use them as a little lesson in critical thinking because there are related phenomena that some people do take seriously.

Let’s take that fortune revealed in my cookie:

A party with friends is in your near future

Now, it is true that there are a few events in the upcoming weeks where I’ll likely be getting together with friends. So should I conclude that this little cookie successfully predicted the future? Of course not!

Were I to conclude this party prediction a “hit”, I would be guilty of a common logical fallacy, namely observational selection (also known as “cherry-picking” or “counting the hits but discounting the misses”). Observational selection is a common fallacy employed by those who believe the messages of psychics – like Sylvia Browne or Nostradamus – can accurately predict the future.

Think about it, of all the people who receive fortune cookies every day, probably many people got the same message about an upcoming party with friends. Chances are, most were not going to have such a party (a “miss”), and those people would basically ignore the miss and just eat the cookie. But then I get this cookie which seems to successfully predict an upcoming gathering of friends (a “hit”?). You can see what’s going on here – it’s just basic statistics. Many more “party with friends” cookie predictions miss than hit, but those are ignored in favor of the hits.

With a psychic’s predictions, such as Ms. Browne’s predictions for 2008, as with a fortune cookie, most of the predictions fall flat as misses. Actually, to be fair to Browne, she got half of the predictions listed at that link correct, but many were extremely vague predictions that I think hardly count (when do we go through a year with no earthquakes?). But the true believers ignore these misses, and then they employ selective thinking to justify whatever hits they perceive of “proof” of the psychic’s powers.

Side note: If Sylvia Browne (or any other psychics) really had any powers she claims to have, you might think that she would have predicted the global economic meltdown. Funny that she didn’t, isn’t it? I mean, it was only the biggest financial crisis in the world since the Great Depression…

Oops, that’s a pretty BIG miss!!!

Now, can a fortune cookie (or psychic) get lucky, providing a “prediction” of a once-in-a-million hit? Certainly, it can happen. For example, here’s a story about a “fortune-cookie-payout” where many people won millions of dollars based upon the numbers on a fortune cookie…

Powerball officials initially suspected fraud, but it turned out that all the winners received their numbers from fortune cookies made by Wonton Food Inc., a fortune cookie factory in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The number combinations printed on fortunes are reused in thousands of cookies per day. The five winning numbers were 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39. The sixth number in the fortune, 40, did not match the Powerball number, 42.

Were those people just lucky or was there something psychic at work with the fortune cookies? The discussion about statistics above should give you a hint, and besides, there’s a reason why it’s a called once-in-a-million shot. With enough cookies handed out over enough years, and with enough people playing lottery numbers based on those fortunes, eventually someone will get lucky.

So where’s this “wisdom” I mentioned in the title of this entry? Well, dear reader, I think the wisdom given to us by those tasty little fortune cookies is a lesson in critical thinking – how not to be fooled and, more importantly, how not to fool ourselves.

8 Responses to “Wisdom in a Cookie”

  1. […] powers over his refrigerator and car stereo. Meanwhile Matt, the Skeptical Teacher, explained how fortune cookies don’t know your fortune, even if they appear to help someone win the lottery on occasion — and how the same is true for […]

  2. Ron said

    Thanks for your entertaining article.
    I often joke that fortune cookies are the only mystical experience I believe in. The catch in my religion is that you must eat the cookie for the fortune to come true and the lotto numbers being a more recent thing doesn’t count. So for fun I’ll look at your article and see if I can disprove you based on my criteria.
    1. Observational Selection is not applicable because there is no statistical data to show that the fortunes are not accurate. You say, “counting the hits but discounting the misses” but there is no one counting. How do you know that the other people that got the same fortune didn’t have a party? You did. You assumed they didn’t based on statistics.
    You base your entire arguement on this, unlike a psychic whose predictions we can tabulate.
    As far as winning the lottery you also speculate that “with enough people playing lottery numbers based on those fortunes”. But we don’t have a clue how many people use those numbers.
    Of course, it’s unlikely that a study of fortune cookie outcomes is likely in the near future so my religion is safe until then.

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