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‘A journalist doesn’t think she should know statistics. Bloody hell.’

Thus commented Geoff the other day. Timely remark, that one, for tonight a whopping eighty-five percent of Canadian adults waited eagerly to see if they took home the Lotto 6/49’s record-breaking $40 million jackpot, and we all know what that means: it means that it’s time for journalists nationwide to present us with a panel of mathematical geniuses who regret to inform you, Joe Ticketbuyer, that you’re probably not going to win:

The results of the biggest lottery jackpot in Canadian history will be announced tonight, but experts are warning people not to get their hopes up.

For the uninitiated: you play the Lotto 6/49 by selecting 6 numbers out of 49. You win (part of) the jackpot if all six of your numbers all match the six numbers drawn.

According to experts, this event – whose probability, by the way, I had my never-were-any-good-at-math-and-always-hated-the-subject psych majors compute in my discrete math class last year, and most actually managed to do so correctly – is unlikely.

What are the chances that your ticket will hit the $40 million Lotto 6/49 jackpot?

Not good, according to Simon Fraser University Professor (well, senior lecturer, but who’s keeping track? – Ed.) Malgorzata Dubiel. She has calculated that the odds are just short of one in 14 million.

All the while muttering to herself: “For this I got a Ph.D.?”

Semantic quibble: the odds are slightly better than one in 14 million; they’re one in 13 983 816. So I take issue with the use of the phrase “just short”, which implies “a bit less than”, no?

Anyway, is followed by three paragraphs about the would-be philanthropist who said he’d donate half his winnings to charity if he won the jackpot (he didn’t), and then this:

[Dubiel] also debunked the myth that a person can “crack the code” of lotteries.

“Everything we know about mathematics says no, it can’t be done.”

This makes it sound as though the sum total of the mathematical canon to date, from Archimedes to Zariski, was brought to bear on the age-old question of “Stochastic Processes: Totally Stochastic, Or Just Kind Of?”. And, at last, produced the long-awaited conclusion that as a matter of fact, God occasionally does play dice with the universe, at least when He’s choosing the Lotto numbers.

On top of that, I wince at the “everything we know” wording, which is reminiscent of Underwood Dudley’s dealings with aspiring angle trisectors. Many of those sorry folks explained their obsession with the problem with something along the lines of “mathematicians say that trisecting an angle using compass and straightedge alone is impossible, but they’re just not trying hard enough.”

But I digress: whether or not the lotto code is crackable isn’t a mathematical question, dammit. If the code is crackable, it’s because the random number generator selecting the numbers is somehow not completely random, and seriously? Take it to a computer scientist, dude. (Except that…lotto numbers are still selected by that spinny thing with the balls, no? And we’re asking a mathematician if it gets all spinny on the balls in a crackable way? Is this what people start thinking when they watch shows like Numbthreers?)

Dubiel admitted that there have been cases of people winning multiple times, but put it down to luck.

Note the use of the transitional term ‘but’, which is typically used to contrast one idea with an ostensibly opposed one. As in, there’s an apparent contradiction between the existence of multiple lottery winners, and the absence of mathemagical gnomes that select them deterministically.

“People simply put too much faith in something that is just coincidence,” she said.

They’re also too easily wowed when mathematicians remind them of the stuff they saw in Chapter 8 in their grade twelve high school math text, but that’s neither here nor there.

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