The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘probability’

Media Fail & Lotteries

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

This past December 17th, I saw a headline in my local paper which stunned me with the level of irresponsibility it displayed.  Back then the Powerball lottery was getting a lot of attention because the jackpot was up to a potential $25 million, and when such numbers start getting thrown around, people’s critical thinking skills go right out the window.  And it doesn’t help when the media joins the chorus of unreason…

First, there is the fallacy that when the jackpots are high, more people play because they “feel lucky that they’re going to win the BIG one!”  Of course, when more people play the lottery it actually decreases the odds that any specific person will win, yet this doesn’t stop the gullible from scarfing up the lottery tickets.

Then, there’s this horrible headline:

Wanna win Powerball? Try these numbers

For 13 years, a red ball with the number “20” printed on it has been whirling around with its numerical counterparts in an enclosed Powerball kettle waiting to potentially make someone a millionaire. That No. 20 red ball has made its way out of the kettle 49 times, the most of any of the numbered balls. No. 20 also is the second most common number on the five white balls that are selected in each Powerball drawing as well, behind 26 and ahead of 32, 16 and 42, a Daily Herald analysis of the numbers shows. …

This headline and the leading paragraphs of the article play directly into the gambler’s fallacy of “lucky numbers” – in reality there are no more or less “lucky” numbers.  In fact, the past performance of the lottery is in no way, shape, or form a predictor of the next random drawing of numbers.  The article cited above actually does attempt to be at least marginally responsible by interviewing a mathematician, though their discussion is buried in the article…

… While some gamblers may see that information as an edge, mathematicians and oddsmakers say it’s all just luck.

“The numbers and the pingpong balls have no memory,” said Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University. “So whether a given number has come up once or twice or 10 times or never, it is no more or less likely to come up today than any other number.” …

Exactly.  Unfortunately, the “news” article quickly followed up the math professor’s advice with some anecdotes from believers in these supposed lucky numbers.  So how did the Powerball drawing in question go?  Here were the results of the Dec. 18th Powerball drawing:

04-11-19-33-43 and 14 as the Powerball

And remember, the so-called “lucky numbers” referenced in the article were 16, 20, 26, 32, 42, and 20 for the Powerball.  Not a single one of these numbers appeared in the drawing – NOT… ONE. So much for “lucky numbers.”
So how should one win the lottery?  Simple: by not playing it at all.  To sum up the best way of dealing with this foolishness, I like this comment which appeared in response to the article:
You have much better chances of most things than of winning the lottery–getting struck by lightning, dying in a plane or car crash, etc. The odds are astronomically low of winning the big prize. Invest that money instead, and you’d end up with far more in the long-term, even with the low interest rates.
As for the “news” paper which so irresponsibly reported this article, I can only say one thing…

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

How to Always Pick a Winning Stock

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This time of year, money is on a lot of people’s minds.  And especially with the crummy economy, it is REALLY on people’s minds.  Unfortunately, this is an environment which is ripe for various kinds of money-related scams.  In that spirit, I wanted to share with you all an excellent blog post by my skeptical colleague Phil Ferguson over at the Skeptic Money blog. It’s all about those schemes to “pick winning stocks” and whatnot; I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just pass along Phil’s post…

How To Pick Winning Stock Every Time – The Skeptics’ Way

Today I will show you how great stock pickers are able to find the winners – every time.  Now when you get a tip via a call or an e-mail from a broker you will know how they do it.  Now you can do it too.  If you use this same method you can guarantee a correct prediction on a stock.  With this system you can win every time.

I found this video from Darren Brown.  He calls it the system and I will stick with that name.  He uses it on horses but, I will tell you how to do it with stocks.  It is even better with stock because they can only go up or down.  It is so easy – it will blow your mind.  The same secrets apply to stocks as it does for horses.  Watch this video to see how it works.  Don’t skip ahead… YOU NEED to see how well this works. …

And yes, there IS an angle to this whole thing, but to see the angle read all the way through to the end of Phil’s post plus watch the accompanying videos.  However, for those of you who are a bit ADD, I’ll skip to the end:

… Someone had to win with each bet.  A stock picker can do the same thing.  They will call dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.  They will tell half of the people that a given stock will go up and the other half will be told that the same stock will go down.  Those that lose never get called again.  The winners are called again and get a new stock tip.  So with just 16 people to start with a stock picker can get 4 in a row for one lucky person.  Now that person will do just about anything.  Even borrow money from friends.  They may or may not make money.  It does not matter to the broker.  Each time you buy or sell a stock, you make will make the broker money.

Now, when someone calls you with a hot stock tip, you will know what to do – RUN!

Posted in economics, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Yes, we’ve all been hearing in the media lately about how Toyota is issuing major recalls for many of its most popular vehicles, such as the Camry & Prius.  The problems, we are told, range from sticky accelerator pedals to brakes that don’t function properly.  In addition, the media have made a really big point of noting that the accelerator problem has likely led to a whopping 19 deaths over the last decade!!!  ZOMG!!!11!1

Errr… that’s it?  19 deaths in a decade?  Really, that’s the big news?  Not to sound cold & heartless, but this seems so like the making of a molehill into a mountain in an effort by the media to keep a story going, when it’s obviously well past its “sell by” date.  To get a little perspective, let’s take a look at this responsible article by NPR on this issue…

Most Auto Accidents Caused By Drivers, Not Defects

Driving a Toyota may feel pretty risky these days, given all the scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and recalled vehicles. But that feeling has a lot more to do with emotion than statistics, experts say. That’s because defective vehicles are almost never the cause of serious crashes.

“The whole history of U.S. traffic safety in the U.S. has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors,” says Leonard Evans, a physicist who worked for General Motors for three decades and wrote the book Traffic Safety.

To Err Is Human

Studies show that the vehicle itself is the sole cause of an accident only about 2 percent of the time. Drivers, on the other hand, are wholly to blame more than half the time and partly to blame more 90 percent of the time.

A look at data on Toyotas from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this pattern. The data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus, Evans says. “All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect,” he says.

During that same period it’s possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in an additional 19 deaths, or about two each year, Evans says. And even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should be able to prevent most crashes by simply stepping on the brakes, Evans says. “The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine,” he says.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

World’s Longest Basketball Shot?

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 23, 2009

Okay, I just couldn’t pass this one up… I saw this video today on Yahoo Sports where they claim to show recent footage of the world’s longest basketball shot. I’m a bit skeptical, because such videos have been released to the Internet before and many are found to be digitally altered or tweaked.  So it’s tough to take something like this at face value.

But I’m willing to be convinced – most especially because, if true, it’s a pretty damn cool feat!  And it does make sense that, given enough attempts, something like this could be done – there is, after all, nothing in the laws of physics which would prevent it.  With that, here are two videos showing the claimed shot…

So, my fellow skeptics, what do you think?  Real or fake?  Let the games begin!  🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Las Vegas: A Town Based on Bad Math & Gullibility

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

During my recent trip to Las Vegas for TAM7, as with all my previous trips to “Sin City”, I noticed the large number of people gambling.  Now there is a certain social aspect to gambling, but a lot of people play these games of chance hoping that they’ll win it big.  They literally believe that, through some lucky charm or prayer, that they’ll hit the jackpot, and that’s exactly what the casinos want them to believe…


Of course, the casinos in Vegas are banking on a combination of people’s lack of critical thinking & skepticism, innumeracy (misunderstanding of math), susceptibility to the gambler’s fallacy, and basic gullibility – and based upon what I’ve seen, the casinos have been quite successful at cashing in on all of these things.

That’s because in addition to knowing basic human nature, the casinos also know the mathematical odds. They don’t say “the house always wins” for nothing, folks.  Even if someone occasionally wins it big (which will eventually happen by the law of large numbers, just as when someone wins the lottery), there are way more people who are losing money.  In the end, these casinos make much more money than they pay out.

Ironically, I saw the following slot machine sign while in Vegas…


In order to make this sign a more accurate reflection of reality, one of the O’s should be crossed out, because chances are that if you’re playing these games you’ll end up a loser.  So, statistically speaking, how does one win in Vegas (without cheating)?  The answer is simple, folks: you don’t play the game 🙂

Posted in mathematics, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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