What is statistically the most improbable thing that has happened to you?

by on March 25, 2016 at 9:45 am in Books, Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

That is a question posed by Robert H. Frank in his forthcoming book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.  The main point of this book is to illuminate the major role which luck plays in our lives and then to flesh out the social and policy implications of that fact.

My view is more Straussian than Bob’s: I think we have to believe in a concept of meritocracy whether it is justified or not.  (Do note that Bob covers a version of this point in one of his chapters, where he argues that reminding people of their good fortune makes them more generous; I still think society requires strong feelings of desert, and generosity often follows from a kind of false magnanimity about one’s good fortune.)  But as always with Bob, this is a deep and stimulating book, well written too.  You also learn a great deal about Bob’s highly interesting life, such as how he survived his heart attack, pulled out Cornell tenure at the last moment, and decided to track down his birth parents.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is chapter one, which starts with the heart attack story.

Anyway, the comment section is open: what is statistically the most improbably thing that has happened to you?

1 Gabe Atthouse March 25, 2016 at 9:53 am

Didn’t Gladwell write a book about this, and didn’t Thiel write a book refuting this? Can we file this under old news?

2 Enrique March 25, 2016 at 10:42 am

Also, isn’t Bob Frank just rehashing the “lucky fool syndrome”: http://priorprobability.com/2016/03/25/visualization-of-the-lucky-fool-syndrome/

3 Cliff March 25, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Fertilizing the egg

4 Thursday March 26, 2016 at 12:52 am

Actually, IQ* looks like destiny, or at least there is a 0.7 correlation between your IQ and the social status of your occupation:

*And, to a lesser extent, conscientiousness.

All highly heritable, of course. Probably to an even higher degree than we think, given the way measurement error works.

Though one can say that acquiring those genetic advantages in the first place is the result of blind luck. You didn’t choose your genes.

5 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 7:57 am

Of course, we should ignore that social status contributes to resources which help to perform well on a standardized test.

6 Ezequiel March 26, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Heritable all right, maybe not through genes.

7 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Perhaps a term like “social heritability” might be more accessible to those who would chalk things up nearly 100% to genes.

8 Art Deco March 25, 2016 at 9:54 am

Ronald Reagan recalled that he’d applied in 1932 for a job selling sporting goods near where he lived in northern Illinois, and did not get the job. He wondered how his life would have been different had he gotten the job. (One might also note that the screen test he was given which led to his being signed by Warner Bros was another bit of serendipity). The lesson he drew from that was that there were all manner of contingencies in your life, no real destiny. Every discrete bit is a statistical improbability, even though the sum of them is seldom impressive.

9 Anon March 25, 2016 at 10:13 am

Reminds me of Maugham’ story “The Verger.”

10 lemmy caution March 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

Nice. I had read a modified version of that Maugham story. never knew the origin

11 C March 25, 2016 at 11:34 am

Ah. I enjoyed “The Verger”. Easily one of the things from my Senior year of H.S. English that I reference the most.

12 lewis77 March 25, 2016 at 3:28 pm

And yet, despite that realization, this was a man who wanted to gut the welfare state and was against the government helping people who have been driven into bad economic times by unlucky misfortune.

Its easy politically to admit that luck helped you succeed in your own life. Its a lot harder politically to admit that bad luck helped other people fail in theirs. His message to them was basically “tough luck, sucks for you”

13 Adrian Ratnapala March 25, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Reaching rare heights like movie stardom or PUSAdom are likely contingent on a few big breaks.

However the matter is less clear when it comes to the between chronic unemployment and a moderately well off middle-class life, which seems very much more likely to be do to long-term habits or else at least a saleable talent.

14 Art Deco March 25, 2016 at 8:25 pm

And yet, despite that realization, this was a man who wanted to gut the welfare state and was against the government helping people who have been driven into bad economic times by unlucky misfortune.

That remark wins the Brain-of-a-Jacks-Ball Award. Hats off.

15 Jack Mingo March 29, 2016 at 10:32 am

Couldn’t come up with an intelligent response? Oh well, I guess a random insult is the next best thing.

16 chuck martel March 25, 2016 at 8:31 pm

So how does enjoying good fortune obligate you to give away other people’s money to those who may or may not have gotten a raw deal in life?

17 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:00 am


18 Asher March 25, 2016 at 9:55 am

When I was a teenager I just had a strong feeling that I knew the combination to a padlock. (In those days they had a notch in the last number so you really only had to guess two.) I tried it and it worked. This actually happened to me twice.

To reassure everyone, the padlock didn’t lock up anything. Just had to guess the combination to use it.

19 Urstoff March 25, 2016 at 10:36 am

Was it 1 2 3 4 5?

20 Skroob March 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm

That’s amazing. I’ve got the same combination on my luggage.

21 J.Detalia March 25, 2016 at 12:37 pm

I opened a storage locker secured with my Master Lock padlock key only to discover that I had opened a locker adjacent to my locker. Master Lock did not respond to my request asking about statistics on duplicate lock/ key issuance.

22 Jeff March 25, 2016 at 1:55 pm

My grad school adviser had a true story he used about probability that involving him accidentally going to the wrong locker at the gym, and the lock opening with his combination. I guess it’s not that improbable?

23 Tom West March 25, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Decades ago, I unlocked the silver Corolla parked in a lot that was one row over from mine.

I almost got in before being disoriented by missing items, then realized what had happened and felt incredibly self-conscious about it for hours afterwards (although there were no witnesses).

Years later I read about someone who’d actually driven some else’s car half-way home before realizing… I wonder how many truly different keys there are, a dozen? Two dozen?

24 Donald A. Coffin March 25, 2016 at 10:07 pm

My dad was a traveling salesman for a while. One year he was driving a 1960 blue-and-white Chevy station wagon. One night as he was leaving a restaurant after dinner, he saw some guy pulling out of his parking space in his car. He waved the guy down. Turned out the guy was a traveling salesman with a 1960 blue-and-white Chevy station wagon (parked a couple of rows away from my dad), whose car keys fit my dad’s car (this took, btw, two key matches; the car door lock used a different key from the ignition), and who was having dinner in the same restaurant at the same time. hey went back inside, sat down, had a few drinks, and talked abut life on the road.

My dad, being the kind of guy he was, went to his dealer and asked about it. Turned out that at the time Chevy was suing something like a dozen different key blanks for each lock, so the odds of another Chevy in general having the same 2 keys was 1-in-144…but then you add in the same model, the same job, and the same time-and-place…pretty unlikely.

It was probably 1-in-a-million, which means, if Terry Pratchett was right (in the Discworld books), it was inevitable.

25 Shane M March 25, 2016 at 11:19 pm

In college a guy from the FBI came and gave a talk about this. He was solving a bank robbery and the robbers had pretty much gotten away with except for one thing – they’d accidentally left a set of keys behind – which was about the only evidence linking robbers to crime. The FBI was trying to match that set of keys to a car to connect the robbers to the crime. The automakers said on the assembly line they simply have bins of keys matched to locks, and door locks and ignitions are pulled at random from the bins. They were able to calculate the odds that a vehicle would have the same door locks and ignition.

In the end, the FBI tracked that car down, and got their badguy based on a set of keys.

26 Spotted Toad March 26, 2016 at 10:27 am

A friend of mine is a sorta mathematician (he got depressed and dropped out before finishing his math PhD and came and taught at my school.) Periodically, kids would forget their locker combination or mischievously put a lock on someone else’s locker. It would take him between 3 and 20 minutes to open them, generally- there were some rules about which numbers could go with which, and you could listen carefully for the first two numbers on many of the older locks.

27 CL March 25, 2016 at 9:58 am

6 correct numbers in a lottery might be it. Chances were around 1 : 600.000.

But maybe I think about luck and chances the wrong way. Could you say for example that the chance of you being the exact person you are is around 1 to 9 billion (=people on earth)?

28 feat March 25, 2016 at 10:26 am

I don’t think so. The population on earth varies over time. You might say, “replace 9 billion people with ‘population on earth at the moment of the draw'”, which seems reasonable. Now suppose you randomly draw from the earth’s population today, and randomly draw from the earth’s population tomorrow – and that earth’s population today and tomorrow is exactly 9 billion. Even if you end up being selected from both random draws, you are not the “exact” (exact = identical) person today as you were tomorrow. Even occupying the same space coordinates, you occupy different time coordinates, which violates Lebiniz’s law as not all of the properties of the you yesterday and the you today are the same.

Even remedying the above, the other thought is the instantiated persons on earth, which sum to the population, do not represent all possible combinations. All possible combinations seem to be infinite, or pretty darn close, as the “exact” person you are at this moment is a sum of all past moments (which is a product of extension and intension), and all possible combinations at each of those past moments (daisy-chain this back to your creation).

29 anon March 25, 2016 at 10:55 am

“I think, therefore I am 100% odds”

30 George March 25, 2016 at 12:19 pm

True there are a lot of variables but it could be that not all of those variables play a significant role in determining the outcome. Perhaps such infinitesimal time coordinates don’t matter much for this particular problem. Perhaps larger discretizations of time play a bigger role. The difference between you today and tomorrow is much smaller than the difference between you now and you in 50 years.

31 feat March 25, 2016 at 12:28 pm

This is true, and to be fair I took a quite literal interpretation of exact to mean identical. If this is something that you find interesting, Max Black wrote a dialogue on Leibniz’s law (Identity of Indiscernibles) that was published in Mind in 1952. A PDF copy is here: http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/analytic/blacksballs.pdf

32 John March 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Perhaps thinking of “the exact person you are” differently here but your calculation seems to imply a very deterministic view of who each of us become — and that if we were not the person we are we would be someone else.

I think this is also wrong but if we’re just going to use numbers then the odds are probably more along the line of 1/factoral(pop) as who we are today depended on who we met and what they did and who they met to become who they were when we met them…Something of that butterfly effect. Of corse we’d also need to consider the counter factual cases as well.

33 anon March 25, 2016 at 1:46 pm

I can’t wrap my head around this “infinitesimal odds of me” angle. What, if I had been a photon in interstellar space, I’d think “I could’ve been him?”

The framing of introspection is irreducible, I think.

34 Donald A. Coffin March 25, 2016 at 10:08 pm

I think we have to start with “Given that you are the person you are,” what is the most unlikely thing…?

35 Hadur March 25, 2016 at 10:05 am

Easy: I attended an MLB perfect game. There have only been about 30 of those in the history of Major League Baseball.

36 harryh March 25, 2016 at 10:26 am

Wow. I would have loved to do that. Which one?

37 anon March 25, 2016 at 10:05 am

I was in a few California tech companies and startups before one clicked, and options paid out. The positive pay-out was pure luck, IMO. After that some skill factored into diversification and reinvestment.

I knew many as skilled engineers who were just less lucky in where they were hired, and if there was an IPO, its course.

(Also, I caught a fish that was eaten by another fish, like a cartoon.)

38 RustySynapses March 25, 2016 at 11:22 pm

I sold my house in California to an engineer who had worked at a startup that had laid him off when they figured out they didn’t really have a viable business – so he got the first job he could at another company – a very early startup called Google. He paid for the house in all cash.
In my experience (having seen a lot of that) it’s a great test of character. The good people realize how much luck is involved and the bad people think it’s all them.

39 Soonerhokie March 25, 2016 at 10:07 am

Having been born with an innate ability to do math. After that I have a pretty straightforward life. Worked reasonably hard in school, got a degree in physics and now teach at the high school level. Love every minute of it.

40 Dave March 25, 2016 at 10:08 am

I was conceived.

41 A Definite Beta Guy March 25, 2016 at 10:31 am

Dammit. Someone beat me to it.

42 Stuart March 25, 2016 at 10:44 am

+1. The odds of all your ancestors being conceived, plus you being conceived (and beating out million of other sperm, as did all your ancestors) – trumps all the other exmaples I’ve seen but many, many magnitudes.

You can even throw in being born in a rich country, loving parents, etc. (if applicable) if you want to send the improbability even higher.

43 Todd Kreider March 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm

OK special people, allow me to introduce you to The Multiverse…

44 Ednamae March 25, 2016 at 8:59 pm

Born In the USA.!! PJ O’Rourk says he constantly reminds his kids that they won the lottery of life being born here. I can’t imagine having been born in Syria.

45 Yancey Ward March 25, 2016 at 10:44 am

Exactly- this will be the answer for everyone.

Sure, luck helps lots of people, but luck hurts lots of people, and lots of people overcome both the good and bad luck in their lives. I don’t think you really have to believe in meritocracy- it is sort of like a natural given, because if it isn’t, there is no reason to fight fate at all.

46 Rick March 26, 2016 at 2:37 am

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

47 Anon March 25, 2016 at 10:09 am

As an overseas student studying here , left the US in the mid-sevenies. Many years later came back as an employee with no control over date of coming back (controlled by other factors, like when the company wanted me to leave etc.) .Turned out I landed exactly 20 years to the day I left ( recalling the title of a O.Henry story).
But when you consider the thousands of such cases , may not be all that improbable.

48 Whitpan March 25, 2016 at 10:10 am

The most improbable thing that happened to me occurred in July of 2015. I’ve killed two birds in my life; both of which were vehicular bird-slaughters; both of which occurred within 5 miles of each other, and more improbable, both inside of a 6-hour window. I began to pay attention the rest of that week and several other close calls followed. Using a 5-minute, completely unsophisticated research technique, I concluded that the birds must have consumed something in the local environment that slowed their reaction time for a brief period.

49 Jonathan March 25, 2016 at 1:30 pm

So you killed two birds with one car?

50 Ronald Brak March 25, 2016 at 1:32 pm

I managed to kill two galahs with a car in about 20 minutes, which is horrible as galahs are highly intelligent and I have had many, although somewhat limited, conversations with them. I do suspect they were drunk. Probably from grain that had spilled from trucks and fermented in puddles by the side of the road. And in tropical Australia it is common for parrots to get drunk on fermenting fruit.

Picture of an Australian galah: http://ibc.lynxeds.com/files/pictures/3galahs080622-2786.jpg

Video of one talking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NdKkFcr5JQ

51 feh March 25, 2016 at 2:55 pm

I have long suspected that birds dare one another to swoop in front of passing cars as close as possible, and that some of them just aren’t that good at it.

52 Jb March 25, 2016 at 6:52 pm

A game of chicken.

53 anon March 25, 2016 at 10:11 am

Generally, I subscribe to “fortune favors the prepared.” Having good fortune is best, and the humility to know that genuine ill fortune will scuttle the best plans.

54 sailordave March 25, 2016 at 10:18 am

I bought apple at $7– was that luck or skill?

55 anon March 25, 2016 at 10:18 am


56 feat March 25, 2016 at 10:31 am

Cute, but it’s yes if and only if those are the actual possibilities (i.e. “Yes, because it is true that it was either luck or skill”). Otherwise it’s no because it’s a false dichotomy.

57 anon March 25, 2016 at 10:53 am

I think we agree, but it is something new investors are sometimes slow to learn: even when you win you can’t assume you were right for the right reason. You have to keep some caution.

58 Pshrnk March 25, 2016 at 10:44 am


59 JK Brown March 25, 2016 at 12:49 pm

Using my supposed skill, I bought Apple at $50 and it collapsed by half 3 days later. But by luck, I didn’t sell and my shares, years later, now has a cost basis in the low single digits.

60 Cliff March 25, 2016 at 2:30 pm

I hope you mean as a percentage of the current value

61 Dan Lavatan March 25, 2016 at 8:39 pm

I’m sure if you wait long enough it will hit $50 again. And $7 for that matter.

62 Stewart Dompe March 26, 2016 at 9:45 am

That depends if it was the fruit or the computer.

63 Steve March 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

Presumably the question really means to ask “what is statistically the most improbable *important* thing.” Because once I played a night of poker and got As9c8h5h3d, followed by… followed by…. What are the odds!

The other obvious answer is that a certain sperm hit a certain egg.

64 Ted Craig March 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

My oldest daughter was born on her due date. That only happens 5 percent of the time.

65 feat March 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

“Which only occurred 5 percent of the time in the sample population studied.” It’s a fact about the world your oldest daughter was born on her due date, but not necessarily a fact about the world that only happens 5 percent of the time! (But still a cool anecdote.)

66 V D March 25, 2016 at 10:23 am

I got rejected by 15 medical schools and wait listed at two, admitted – late in the cycle – to one. If I wasn’t accepted to medical school my plan was to continue as an engineer in the mountain west. I am now finishing my fourth year of residency as the chief resident and will be starting a fellowship at Harvard in July. Along the way, plenty of medical school peers with Ivy League pedigrees and far better board scores have “flamed out” via alcoholism, affairs with patients, or possessing difficult personalities. How different would my life have been if that one school didn’t wait list and accept me? I tend to believe it was primarily luck that led to admission, and on the axis of that luck my trajectory changed from working in a small engineering firm in the Rocky Mountains to now being a fellow at Harvard medical school.

67 Cliff March 25, 2016 at 2:31 pm

How often do doctors have affairs with patients? How often does that somehow get them in trouble?

68 John March 25, 2016 at 4:01 pm

I did my residency at the largest training hospital in the US. I did not know of a single resident that “flamed out” due to affairs with patients or alcohol abuse. You must be doing a psychiatry residency in Bulgaria.

And do not get too excited about a fellowship at HMS. Lots of watching there and not much doing.

69 V D March 25, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Surely you knew residents who left programs. It is hardly like programs announce the real reasons residents leave. I am at a very large academic center in Texas and this happens more than you’d guess. Have you been to Harvard for residency, medical school, or fellowship? The point remains…luck due to the whim of a waiting list committee is the difference between ending up with a fellowship at Harvard vs remaining an engineer in the Rocky Mountains.

Cliff: unfortunately, more common than you would guess. The data isn’t good, but some studies have suggested 10-20% of physicians have been involved with patients. If you get caught, you get sued, and you lose. Most physician insurance policies have it written in the small print that they will not defend you for a suit due to a relationship with a patient.

70 Greg March 25, 2016 at 8:36 pm

What do you get sued for if you get caught? It’s not obvious to me what the liability would be.

71 Dan Lavatan March 25, 2016 at 8:41 pm

I guess I don’t see the bigger picture. You can do great engineering from anywhere. Medicine doesn’t scale very well.

72 chuck martel March 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm

Your improbability hasn’t come to fruition yet. You might catch Ebola virus walking past a patient seated in the lobby, fatally cut yourself with a scalpel, or get run over by guys racing wheelchairs.

73 Bruce Cleaver March 25, 2016 at 10:23 am

As an Army brat, I moved around quite a bit in my childhood. In 1971/72 we lived in Hampton, Virginia, and then moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, leaving behind some great friends.

Many years later, my sister was living (as an adult) in Atlanta, Georgia. Miracle #1: she makes a random stop at a dress store in Atlanta, and the proprietors are a husband/wife team who were her classmates from the high school in PA(!).

After the shocked greetings, they related a story: they had attended a wedding in Virginia a year earlier, and signed the guest registry. A man looking over the registry was amazed at their provenance (they signed as being from the small PA town), and asked if they knew Bruce Cleaver. He was my best friend back in the day in Hampton.

74 Marcus March 25, 2016 at 10:37 am

I was on a road trip from Moscow, Idaho to Los Angeles with my girlfriend. Somewhere around Baker, California, we were going to stop for lunch, and there was a choice of Tastee Freez or McDonald’s: I was going to settle for McDonald’s but my girlfriend hadn’t had Tastee Freez so she wanted to go there. We went there and saw in line … two folks with shirts from a tattoo parlor in Moscow, Idaho. Never had met them before but they were also on vacation. Moscow’s population is about 20,000.

75 Sam March 25, 2016 at 12:25 pm

It didnt happen to me but it happened to a friend of mine from New York:

He decides to take a trip to Italy and visit the Uffizi (a huge museum in Florence with over 100 rooms). He walks in to one of the rooms and, lo and behold, his estranged sister who he hasn’t spoken to in twenty years is right there in the room. Neither had any idea that the other was even on the same continent. A sign from god? Well, they havent spoken much since.

Another story from the same guy (he has had a long interesting life):

He is working with this guy caulking up the siding on a house.They are both on ladders with caulk guns. The guy drops his caulk gun and it hits the ground directly on the plunger. As he is gasping at his mistake, the force of the impact on the plunger causes the caulk in the tube to shoot up and deposit directly into the guys mouth. He needed the heimlich after that.

76 Mark Thorson March 25, 2016 at 1:09 pm

If we expand the scope to people we know or have known, that enormously magnifies the range of improbable events. For example, my mother heard the attack on Pearl Harbor (she was a high school student in Honolulu) and saw a building destroyed by an errant bomb or possibly anti-aircraft artillery. My sister was a tour guide at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and she was interviewed for German TV — she was fluent in German and rather photogenic at age 21. Somewhere there might be still be an archive of that interview.

Nothing so big has happened to me. I once was sentenced to traffic school which would have been a full day of tortuous boredom, but a massive blackout that took out the power grid for most of the western states cut that class short after a couple hours. The teacher later became mayor of the town where I live. The closest I’ve come to being killed was when I picked up a cone shell at age 10 on Kauai. I was hunting for cowrie shells with my uncle, and I saw this marine snail and fortunately picked it up from the big end because I wanted to avoid touching the slimy foot. My uncle reacted like I’d picked up a live hand grenade, carefully took it from me, and holding it the same way I did, he flicked it with his index finger to irritate it and show me it extending its dart. That dart is full of a deadly poison. Then he tossed the hapless creature into the surf.

77 Mark Thorson March 26, 2016 at 1:13 am

It occurs to me that I didn’t mention what happened at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and some younger folk might not know what makes it noteworthy more than a typical Olympics. There was a spectacular terrorist incident, and that’s why German TV wanted to interview my sister.

78 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:11 am

Also, on several occasions, I’ve met long-lost friends in cities where we’d both randomly moved to and happened to live just down the street from each other. Haha … in all cases, we are long-lost friends again, but good times were had.

Meeting people who’ve you’ve met travelling in some other tourist locations also seems unlikely, but when you think about the number of people you meet when travelling and how stories of the same next best places to go to are fairly similar, and reflect personal preferences, it’s not half as unlikely as you might think.

Given the unlikelihood of that, I find it rather surprising that I’ve never randomly met someone who knows someone who I already know. That actually seems rather unlikely to me. Of course, you go out with friends, and friends of friends no other friends. But nothing like, you meet someone, and they ask “hey … do you know so and so from that place….” never once have a known the person they mention.

79 Greg March 25, 2016 at 10:25 am

Moved to a new state. Home in the burbs and office in the city center were in two different area codes. The last 4digits of my new home phone and office phone were the same. 1 in 10,000 chance, so not really that improbable. But an impressive p value. I use this example to illustrate to students and clients that statistically improbable events happen all the time.

80 Thomas Sewell March 26, 2016 at 9:52 pm

A Mormon missionary’s experience with Paris, Boston and Brussels is an astounding improbability.

81 Dave Barnes March 25, 2016 at 10:28 am

In 6th grade (1959), I won the grand prize (a Toshiba transistor radio!) in the local drugstore buying back-to-school supplies raffle.

82 Tony B March 25, 2016 at 10:28 am

Being born human, rather than, say, a mouse. It seems so remarkable and unlikely that it leads me to question the very foundations of “being”.

83 Jamie_NYC March 25, 2016 at 1:59 pm

I could never understand these comparisons. In what sense do you assume that the mouse would be ‘you’? Could ‘you’ also be the lower part of a stone in your parents’ garden, say?

84 ant1900 March 25, 2016 at 10:35 am

What’s surprising is how mundane all of these responses are.

For me, I was at a festival. They were having a raffle for a flat screen TV. I bought the very last ticket for $1 and won the TV one minute later.

85 anon March 25, 2016 at 11:03 am

I see a few that were life changing, and in the spirit of the question, lifetime earnings changing, including my own example.

86 ant1900 March 26, 2016 at 12:12 am

I remembered something even more improbable than my first story.

I was playing some sort of trivia game in elementary school, 4th grade. The question was the state capital of Pennsylvania. I had no clue and blurted out “I don’t know, hamburger?” The answer of course, is Hamburg. It sounded close enough that my answer was accepted.

87 Yancey Ward March 26, 2016 at 11:07 am

Hmm, another tale of the public school system. Harrisburg.

88 ant1900 March 26, 2016 at 11:25 am

I was drunk when I posted that, but the gist of the story there.

89 Econchic March 25, 2016 at 10:37 am

I graduated with 2 degrees with honours, one in Economics ;), before the age of 30. The probability of that happening after having a child before age 22 is 2%. I had a child at 20 and one at 25 and still beat the statistic. I think the statistic is even lower if you count Latinas only, which I am, so double whammy.

90 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:19 am

Weren’t all of those basically personal decisions?

91 Mr Punch March 25, 2016 at 10:44 am

I’ve had, and survived, whooping cough twice. My first inoculation didn’t take, I got sick; then I was successfully inoculated but it wore off after 55 years.

92 Anony March 25, 2016 at 10:46 am

The most statistically improbable thing that has happened to me is getting two girls pregnant. With the first girlfriend, the condom broke, which happens 2% of the time. So she took plan B within 6 hours (and wasn’t overweight so it should have only had a 30% failure rate). Back of the napkin probability calcs show both of those happening 60 out of 10,000 times or someone have a 0.6% chance of this happening having sex.

Well then the exact same thing happened with another girlfriend 3 years later. I can’t calculate the percent chance of it happening twice to the same person. Maybe I just have special swimmers.

And for those wondering, no I don’t have any kids so you can figure what happened next in both cases.

93 Tim March 25, 2016 at 10:47 am

I’m with Tony B – the most statistically improbably stuff that has happened to us is almost beyond human understanding (certainly intuition).

However … in the intuition-based community: I had Guillian Barré – 1.65-1.79 in 100,000 per year. I required hospitalization and ventilation for 60 days (25% requiring hospitalization require mechanical ventilation). I did not regain 80 percent of my former capabilities (20% of the 1 in 75,000). One half of the 20% are severely disabled. Depending on your definition, I am at least close.

I had outstanding health insurance (was vaguely aware of that, not sure what those numbers are). At the beginning of that year, three months before I developed GBS, my company provided more generous disability insurance as a benefit to a handful of people – about 10 middle managers at my 140-person company (three top execs). I was unaware of the benefit, as I paid little attention to the benefits packet distributed at the end of the previous year, or any year. Not sure what percentage of people has great private disability insurance.

94 JK March 25, 2016 at 10:47 am

I won a Humvee from a nationwide magazine sweepstakes while a PhD student. This was the original, army-like pre-GM convertible model. My econ advisor told me to “do something inefficient.” I kept it for 2.5 years. It was my first car. Later I sold it and used the cash to pay off some small student loans, buy a used Honda Civic, and buy an engagement ring.

95 tedm March 25, 2016 at 10:56 am

Improbable – I took my driver’s test on the day that the state inspector was evaluating the person evaluating my driver’s test. I drove, the DMV employee sat shotgun with a clipboard watching me drive, and the state inspector sat in the back seat with a clipboard watching the DMV employee watch me drive. This is an event that happens on a regular basis, but for any individual is highly improbable.

I think luck vs meritocracy is a false dichotomy. I did nothing to earn this change in the conditions of my test compared to other people. Is determining whether I was or was not lucky or meritorious in this outcome a necessary condition for every theory of social justice? No. Furthermore, it is absurd to frame it in that way.

Willingness to accept such false dichotomies is why having all of the Supreme Court justices from only two or three law schools is a bad thing. They are less likely to have had the false dichotomies of their peers questioned. (I think false group assumptions is also a significant problem for macroeconomists). Insert quote from Keynes about being slaves to past philosophers.

96 Spotted Toad March 25, 2016 at 10:56 am

This is pretty much what I argue here ( https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/the-race-to-the-swift-and-the-merits-of-meritocracy/ )- just because we accept that luck, genetic or otherwise, is a major determinant of human destiny doesn’t mean that meritocracy is a useless construct.

97 Yancey Ward March 25, 2016 at 11:03 am

Probably the luckiest event of my life was surviving a car accident unscathed. In 1996, I was attending a conference at a Tahoe resort, and spent the day before driving around the lake doing some sight-seeing. Near the south side of the lake, I came over a crest in the road and hit a patch of ice, and the car spun out of control doing two full revolutions right in the middle of the road and in front of an oncoming package truck. I did nothing but hit the breaks, and spun right into the only area on either side of the road for a 100 yards where a car could pull off the road without dropping 10+ feet into the gully on the right, or go down the hill to the left.

98 Jake March 25, 2016 at 11:06 am

I caught polymyositis (an autoimmune disease) a few years ago which confined me to a wheelchair. That’s a 1 in a 1,000 occurrence. Then I made a full recovery which is a 1 in 3 occurrence. And was able to completely go off the immunosuppressant drugs which is almost unheard of for an adult because our immune systems don’t bounce back very well.

99 Yancey Ward March 25, 2016 at 11:08 am

I can see Frank trying to decide to write this book- “Heads I write it, tails I don’t.”

100 dearieme March 25, 2016 at 11:14 am

We were at a drinks party in Adelaide, South Australia, in the late 80s. A woman came up to me and said “Weren’t you the summer barman at the Galloway Arms [deepest rural Scotland] twenty odd years ago?”

We boarded a small boat in NZ in the mid 2000s only to meet a passenger who had been in our baby-sitting circle in Cambridge, England, twenty years earlier.

Clearly if you want to increase the chances of an improbability you should visit downunder.

101 David R. Henderson March 25, 2016 at 11:16 am

1. I got Teller, the one of Penn and Teller, who never talks during an act, to talk during the act.
2. I heard the sound of John Denver’s airplane over my house just before he crashed and died.

102 Yancey Ward March 25, 2016 at 11:21 am

I am curious- how did you get him to talk?

103 Philbur March 25, 2016 at 11:29 am

I visited my brother in Denver and was speaking to an acquaintance of his. Turns out this acquaintance grew up in Denver but spent summers as a kid with his grandmother in our hometown; a rural town of about 900 in southern Indiana. Maybe not the most improbable thing, but off the top of my head…

104 rayward March 25, 2016 at 11:34 am

My son and only child was born in 1970 (the year is significant) when I was only a child myself (too young to even get married in my state at the time) and after my parents had died. His mother and I raised him while both she and I took turns working and attending college. Both of us eventually finished college (I only one year later than my high school classmates) and law school. He is a happily married adult (he’s 46) and I have enjoyed a rewarding career as a lawyer, both of which seemed improbable in 1970. My advantage, or luck, is that I grew up in a family of highly educated and successful people who expected as much of themselves and other family members. When my son was a child, people always assumed he was my brother. When I would tell them he is my son, they would have this look of astonishment and respond that we must have grown up together. My son liked to correct them by saying that he grew up; my theory is that when a child is forced by circumstance to be an adult time works backwards. Looking back, I could have failed many times along the way but didn’t. Was it the result of hard work or dumb luck? I suppose some of both, but fear, fear of not living up to the standards of my family, was an ever present motivation.

105 ConfirmationBiasIsAFemaleDog March 25, 2016 at 11:40 am

Won custody of my daughter in a court of law as a male working pro se (IANAL).

106 Mike March 25, 2016 at 11:43 am

On family vacations we often play the license plate game. In a small strip mall in Colorado, we saw both Hawaii and Alaska. 5,000 mile driving vacation and we never did get Delaware though!

107 Philo March 25, 2016 at 11:52 am

“Statistically unlikely” given what?
But setting that question aside, I would say that Steve nailed it: *my being conceived*, given ordinary background information, was (a) very important to me and (b) very unlikely. On the other hand, Tony B seems to have it wrong: I could not possibly have been a mouse from the moment of conception; no mouse zygote would have been *me*.

108 Stubbs March 25, 2016 at 11:56 am

In the early seventies my then wife and I made a hitchhiking trip across Europe. Outside Notre Dame Cathedral I recognized a fellow student from my college, someone I had never before spoken to but seen often in the dining hall. We chatted and parted. Days later we accidentally ran into each other again at the Versailles palace. I then told him that my wife and I would leave for a southern France beach in a day or so. However, a conversation with another guest at our hotel that night convinced us to go instead to Alicante, Spain, and we hitchhiked down there and spent about a week on its beach. While there I lost or had stolen some American Express checks, so I planned to stop in Barcelona to replace them as we traveled back north. We hitched a ride with a trucker to Barcelona, found a hotel, and the next morning headed off to American Express, which was a short walk away. I remember that we made a right turn onto a small street and I could see the AE sign down the block on the opposite side of the street. In front of AE we started to jaywalk across the street, a cab pulled up in the street blocking us, and the fellow from my college got out of the cab. For about a week we (he was traveling with a friend who was also present during all our encounters), we all spent a lot of time together in Barcelona. We made plans to meet up in Rome a few weeks later, but I never saw him again, including at college the next year.

109 anon March 25, 2016 at 12:01 pm

I don’t mean to be pedantic, but it sounds like Bob Frank did not have a heart attack (myocardial infarction) but rather went into sudden cardiac arrest. Those are two very different things.

110 Ignatius March 25, 2016 at 12:11 pm

I happened upon a concise and useful Nathan W comment.

111 Too Late March 25, 2016 at 5:39 pm

I don’t believe you.

112 Marc E. Marc March 25, 2016 at 6:36 pm


113 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:36 am

I met someone on a right wing site who engages with ideas instead of insults people.

114 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:44 am

I don’t intend offense, but has it ever crossed your mind that people who are smarter and better educated than you will say things that you simply don’t understand?

Also, partisan and ideological bias tends to close a lot of minds to seeing potentially relevant things.

If you can recognize that both of those things are relevant, you will become more knowledgable and less biased as a result.

115 Ray Lopez March 25, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Egads, the ignorance of statistics here is appalling.

Consider Bayes theorem. Suppose a test is 95% accurate whether your have HIV/AIDs. But 5% of the time it returns a “false positive”. Now consider AIDs/HIV is carried by 4% of the population. You go to the doctor, take this test, and it says you have AIDs/HIV. What are the chances you really have HIV? Go to this website, read it, and enter the numbers: http://betterexplained.com/articles/an-intuitive-and-short-explanation-of-bayes-theorem/

The chances you really have HIV are not 95% but only 44%. So you have a better than even chance (56%) you don’t have AIDs, even though the test is very accurate (95% accurate).

But don’t push your luck. Consider this followup example: after the initial test, which comes back with bad news, your doctor reassures you that you have a 56% that you don’t have AIDs. You feel good about your chances. So you take this test again, and again it comes back as positive (that you have AIDs). What are the chances now that you really do have AIDs? Is it still 56%? No, it’s now 95%. This is also the basis for switching doors when offered by Monte Hall to do so, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem

116 Ray Lopez March 25, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Oops, the second 56% should read 44%. But otherwise the example is good.

117 feat March 25, 2016 at 1:13 pm

As far I know, the errors described in the article are not exclusive to Bayes theorem. There are Type I and Type II errors. Most hypothesis testing is around Type I errors, for example: “The resulting p-value of 0.02 is statistically significant at the 5% level. We reject the null hypothesis of [H0:].” From what I understand (which is not by necessity correct), Type II errors should be done in conjunction with a power analysis. That can be difficult if the true population mean is not known. In the example you linked, the true cancer rate in the population is known. What if it isn’t?

The example is not good because HIV tests are reported as “non-reactive” which (regardless of the error type) is not logically identical to saying “you do not have HIV”. Regardless, I think most people would prefer a false positive over a false negative. Beyond disease, apply this to the courtroom. Would you rather a guilty person be found innocent, or an innocent person be found guilty?

I think the basis for switching doors under the Monty Hall problem is slightly different, and is grounded in the intensional fallacy. In short, the door that has the prize behind it is a fact about the world: one door of three has a prize behind it. If the host explicitly follows the assumptions as listed in the article (which is crucial), your *knowledge* of which door the prize is *not* behind doesn’t change the odds of the prize being behind one of the three doors (that’s a fact about the world). What your knowledge does change is the probability the prize is behind the revealed door (which is now zero).

118 Ray Lopez March 25, 2016 at 1:34 pm

@feat – thanks for that stream of thought, which is not necessarily inconsistent to, nor contradicts, what I wrote, which is not necessarily related to anything in the linked article (which I did not read until now).

Thanks for that “power analysis” observation. Any links appreciated, for my stats file.

The Monte Hall problem I think is broader than you imply in your example. Any sort of action by Monte, except “Monte from Hell” (malevolent host Monte) will increase your odds if you switch doors (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem#Other_host_behaviors) that’s true even if Monte himself picks random doors to open. The way I rationalize it is like this: suppose there were a million doors, and you picked one, then Monte opened all million doors save three (assuming of course the prize was not already discovered by Monte when he opened all those doors) and then offered you a choice to switch doors. Obviously, unless you think you can predict the future, or unless you think Monte is a malevolent host, it’s likely your first choice was ‘bad’ and it now pays, given the new information, to switch doors.

119 feat March 25, 2016 at 2:30 pm

Definitely appreciate the Monte Hall example! My point was more that I’m struggling to see how Monte Hall is another example of Type I and/or Type II errors. In the AIDS example, the “accuracy” figure (often) only comes from the Type I error rate. The reason the chances move from 56% to 95% in your example relies on the chances of having consecutive (back-to-back) false positives. I’m not infallible, but if you can help me see the relation, I would greatly appreciate it.

For the bit on power analysis, the two links below may be useful – in the first, the section is “Issues in Estimating Sample Size for Hypothesis Testing”
1. http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/BS/BS704_Power/BS704_Power_print.html
2. https://onlinecourses.science.psu.edu/stat414/node/304

120 feat March 25, 2016 at 3:38 pm

One other thought: the tension I see in the Monte Hall problem under the original game or “other host behaviors” is that Monte *never* has a true random selection of doors. It seems to me that as soon as you introduce a condition on what is otherwise a random selection, you introduce bias and the random selection is no long random. To say, “Monte can randomly select any door to reveal, except for the one with the prize” is not actually random. Whether or not the host is constrained so they *must* reveal a door that is *not* the one with the prize behind it is crucial to the odds of switching.

Consider this scenario:
Three doors, one of which has a prize, and the remaining two do not. You randomly select a door, write it down, and put it in a box. Monte never sees or has knowledge of your random selection. He randomly selects a door to reveal, writes it down, and puts it in a box. These actions are independent. The door Monte just wrote down may or may not be the door you picked, and/or may or may not be the door with the prize behind it.

As it happens, the door he randomly picked is the one with the prize behind it. And guess what, it’s the door you randomly picked as well. Monte offers you to switch. Does the probability of you selecting the door with the prize behind it increase if you decide to switch? No, because you already picked the door with the prize behind it. Yet this is *not* the “Monte from Hell” scenario because both you and Monte did blind random selection. That’s why the assumptions to the game are crucial to determining the probability of choosing a door with the prize behind when offered a switch.

The odds of that occurring are based on the facts about the world: 1 of 3 doors has the prize behind it, the odds both you and Monte independently, blindly, and randomly pick the door with the prize behind it are = 1/3 * 1/3 = 1/9 = 0.11 * 100 = 11% chance. Your subsequent knowledge cannot retroactively change facts about the world. What your knowledge does change is the probability the prize is behind the revealed door (which is now one).

121 Nick_L March 25, 2016 at 1:26 pm

And the most improbable thing that has happened to you is? Oh, and here is a good intuitive explanation of Bayes – http://waitbutwhy.com/2016/03/the-jellybean-problem.html

122 efp March 25, 2016 at 12:20 pm

My consciousness arose at this moment from a random collision of vacuum fluctuations. Great, a few nanoseconds as a Boltzmann brain and I spend it responding to a stupid blog post…

Seriously, I was at a college fair as a high school junoir with my father. I was going to all the ivy league tables. On the way out we’re passing a table he says, Clarkson, that’s a good school why don’t you fill out a card? I had never heard of it. A few weeks later, I get a mailer, they have a program for taking people a year early out of high school. The rest is history. My career path, entire social network, not to mention my spouse, hinged on walking by that table on my way out, and my dad saying something.

123 Jason Briggeman March 25, 2016 at 12:21 pm

I was not a very good piano student, but I was always at least adequately prepared for recitals. But in the year I resolved to quit piano I also did not prepare well at all, and I knew I was going to make an absolute hash of my performance. Midway through the recital, prior to my slot, the proceedings were disrupted by a tornado warning, the power knocked out, all sent home, the remainder of the program never to be rescheduled. I never took another lesson.

124 RiWill... March 25, 2016 at 12:23 pm

I have had 53 street addresses in 51 years. I keep a spreadsheet.

125 Brett March 25, 2016 at 12:34 pm

I put $2 into a machine on one bet in Wendover, and won $800 back. All in one round.

126 Brett March 25, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Sorry, to add-

I was also once playing Warhammer 40K (it’s a table top game), and I rolled six sixes in a row with a six-sided dice. The odds of each individual roll are of course 1 in 6, but the odds of getting a string of six sixes is 1 in 46,656.

127 AlanG March 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

I had champagne with Cindy Crawford back in 1993. Two days later she divorced Richard Gere. Draw your own conclusions about this statistical improbability.

128 Ray Lopez March 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm

That’s odd. I thought Gere was gay and he never married.

There was a NY professor who was going to write a book on coincidences. In a city like NYC, where 20 M people live in a 100 km radius, you will have twenty “one in a million” lucky chances in one day. Imagine the ‘reality TV’ stories you could make with this?

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action” ― Ian Fleming

129 Anon March 25, 2016 at 12:59 pm

After my wife and I came over to the US and went for our Driving tests in Southern CA, we both failed with the same tester in different months . On the same stretch of the road he failed us both : she for going over the speed limit and me for going too much under the speed limit.

130 JK Brown March 25, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Luck favors the prepared mind. — Pasteur

“Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It’s all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn’t it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn’t do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things”

Or perhaps the luckiest break of all is to survive “education” with independent thoughts and the courage to follow them?

“One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. ”
– Hamming

Could meritocracy simply be surviving the acquisition of knowledge without being broken by the schooling process?

131 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:40 am

I don’t think it’s fair to call it luck. But there is an element of luck. Send a million brilliant people to go find an answer, and most will go down dead ends. There must be some luck involved.

132 John March 25, 2016 at 1:19 pm

I wonder just how one establishes the probabilitied of the event selected as their statistically improbable event. Who really even has the knowledge to make such an assessment in most of these cases.

133 Jack March 25, 2016 at 1:22 pm

Being born.

134 Any Mouse March 25, 2016 at 1:23 pm

When I was 20, I was ejected from a van during an auto accident. I landed in a ditch, the van landed on me. My feet were inside the van, and the roof of the van cut across my chest. There was just enough of a concave profile to the ditch, that I was pinned, but only slightly bruised. I was trapped until passersby lifted the van off of me. I walked away and was up helping with the other injuries when the paramedics arrived. (The woman sitting next to me was evacuated by helicopter and spent 4 days in ICU.)

I often think about the how important the exact shape of that ditch was to my continued existence. What were the odds of being pinned, but not hurt?

P.S. Wear your seat belt. People make bad projectiles.

135 Eric H March 25, 2016 at 9:31 pm

Actually, they make excellent projectiles the first time.

136 Alan Gray March 25, 2016 at 1:26 pm

I was a match for a five-year old child with leukemia, and was able to provide a bone marrow transfer for her. Don’t know the odds, but was told they are reasonably long. And with a great payoff.

137 V S March 25, 2016 at 1:32 pm

In the 1990’s, I was living in the D.C. area, in my spare time the editor of a small zine, a homemade publication that was hand Xeroxed and collated and mailed to like-minded people, kind of like a personal blog before blogs came into existence. My circulation was small, around 150, with my content focused mostly on lesser known LP records of the 1950’s/60’s, including oddities such as one featuring a beauty pageant winner talking about how to be the best housewife / housekeeper possible.

There was a similar zine I liked, based out of San Francisco, that I found on a display rack of Tower Records. The editor of that zine focused on feminine images of past generations, including sizable sections on older LP records and books on housekeeping – right up my alley!

I was reading her zine, and perked up when I saw she wrote about going to kindergarten in 1966 in Wisconsin Rapids, a small blue collar city of about 18,000 people. That was the same city and year I went to kindergarten, but there were numerous schools one could attend. She couldn’t remember the school or teacher, as her family had moved away one year later, but we learned that we were in the same exact morning kindergarten class, based on the evidence of our school Easter baskets that year including a photo of a classmate who had died earlier that year. Neither of us can remember the other from that time.

It still amazes me that out of that single kindergarten class of perhaps 25 kids, two of them grew up, moved to their opposite coasts of the country, discovered zine culture, and became editors of their own unique, but in very many ways, similar zine.

138 Jeremiah J March 25, 2016 at 1:36 pm

I have only attended about 5 MLB games in my life, but one of them just happened to be the final game of Cal Ripken, Jr.’s record games-played streak. No one at the game (except, perhaps, Ripken) knew it would be the final game of the streak, since it was the following day he announced was sitting the next game.

More to Frank’s point: the PhD program I attended was probably a perfect fit for me, based on what I know now, but none of my college professors had recommended it. I only learned much about it after an email to a professor at Duke, who was kind enough to offer to talk on the phone for 30 minutes to a random undergrad about grad school.

139 Scott H. March 25, 2016 at 1:45 pm

I just took out an old 20 sided die, and rolled 6, 12, 15, 3, 7, 18, 19, 5, and 15.

The chances of that exact sequence was: 1 in 512 trillion !!!

140 Nathan For March 25, 2016 at 2:08 pm

I got pulled over while

141 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:49 am

Lemme guess. You’re purple, and not only are purple people very rare, they are almost never pulled over …

142 hamilton March 25, 2016 at 2:20 pm

“I think we have to believe in a concept of meritocracy whether it is justified or not,” is one of the dumbest things you have ever written, and I don’t care whether it’s Straussian or not. If something is not true, we should not believe it, and if it is true, we should. Period.

143 Marc E. Marc March 25, 2016 at 6:45 pm

“What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors.”

Nota bene: if you haven’t heard of Strauss, and don’t care to, stick to the Dawkins forum from whence you came

144 anon March 25, 2016 at 6:56 pm

It is cute because it is almost circular. We should believe it so that we work harder and prosper even if .. wait a minute

145 M March 25, 2016 at 2:39 pm

I was dead drunk in college and fell out a third story window and only had minor injuries. I don’t know what the odds of suffering a life-altering injury are in those circumstances, but to this day I feel like I dodged a bullet.

146 Philbur March 25, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Could probably be attributed to the fact that you were drunk. Similarly a drunk driver can normally walk away from such a metal-twisting car accident virtually unscathed. Your body doesn’t physically react (tighten up), but instead just remains limp and flexible.

147 Slocum March 25, 2016 at 3:18 pm

I think we can tell from the comments that running into a person from your home town when travelling is just not very improbable. One of the things we can probably safely conclude from the ‘chance’ meetings that everybody experiences is that the number of close-call near meetings must be an order of magnitude higher. Ponder those many more instances when you must have just missed running into an old acquaintance by a minute or two, a short distance, or even looking in the wrong direction.

148 anon March 25, 2016 at 7:01 pm

I often see memorable cars twice a day in busy LA. Leading me to think I am seeing less memorable cars more often as well.

All those cars .. they are the same cars!

149 Douglas2 March 25, 2016 at 9:13 pm

Indeed. I once spent 5 hours being bored in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol because of late arrival making me miss my connection from London to Helsinki, and discovered the next day that 3 hours of that overlapped my sister being bored in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol because of late arrival from New York making her miss her connection to Geneva. We both had browsed every bookstall in the airport, but failed to see each other.

150 Jack PQ March 25, 2016 at 3:28 pm

As others have suggested, the odds of any one specific sequence of events is extremely low. But there are an infinite number of different possible sequences of events, and one of them has to be realized. So if one sequence is not realized, another will, and for a given individual many sequences will lead to similar outcomes.

In the case of Prof. Frank, I’m sure there are many other sequences that could have led to his getting tenure at Cornell. The probability of this specific sequence of events is barely more than zero, but the probability of one among many tenure-getting sequences being realized is not trivial — I have no idea how big, maybe 20, 25%, ? The point is, much more than epsilon. Is there a statistician in the room who can explain this rigorously?

151 feat March 25, 2016 at 4:15 pm

What’s interesting and something I never really see discussed, is how much an estimated probability is just that. It is an estimate based on the factors being taken into account. There’s no tension with having the probability of an event occurring at one, and then the event never occurring.

For instance, based on all the combined knowledge we humans have, across all historic periods of time, we estimate the probability of the sun rising tomorrow at one. Does that entail the sun will rise tomorrow? No. It certainly would be awfully nice if the sun rose tomorrow, but the sun is under no obligation to rise tomorrow, even with a probability of one… If some strange science phenomenon occurs that we never knew existed (and therefore could never have modeled when calculating probability) causes the sun to disintegrate, that is perfectly fine and perfectly in-line with our findings, since we never did (nor could have) modeled that occurring.

Statistical inference is useful in many situations, but estimates are still estimates. “All models are wrong, some models are useful.”

152 Smash Smash March 25, 2016 at 4:17 pm

I have been struck in two rear-end collisions in twelve years. The first happened as I was driving to lunch on a normal day in good weather. The second happened less than an hour later, within sight of the first collision, minutes after the police released me.

At the moment of the second impact I lost all touch with reality for at least two minutes, supposing myself to be the victim of a conspiracy to hit me with cars. The second impact was lighter than the first, in a drive thru. (I had missed my lunch.) Unwilling to let my lunch be delayed a second time, and in the aforementioned state of insanity, I pulled forward like normal to get my food. When I rolled down the window to get my order, I noticed a somewhat haggard-looking but professionally dressed man standing by my car.

He said, “Pull forward and let’s talk about this.”
I laughed maniacally RIGHT IN HIS FACE.
When I regained my composure, I said, “Let me ask you: How does your car look?”
He said, “Fine.”
I said, “Well, you’re not going to believe this, but less than an hour ago I got rear-ended on Albert Pike [road], and if it’s all the same to you I’m going to let the first guy pay for it.”
He said, “God bless you.”

I drove as little as possible for the next five years.

153 Jon March 25, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Became a millionaire at 31 and retired by 43. This with no family money or connections, and a BS degree from a state school.

154 John March 25, 2016 at 7:02 pm

OK, similar … and my name is John

155 Matthew Moore March 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm

So far? This moment

156 drtomcor March 25, 2016 at 5:07 pm

A bad luck/good luck story. My wife’s grandfather came to the US in 1909; he returned to northern Italy in 2014 for family business, war started, he was drafted into the Austrian army. He was then captured by the Russians and spent three years in a POW camp and we have a picture to prove it! He survived that and returned to the US in 1920 and not much happened after that.

157 Eric H March 25, 2016 at 9:29 pm

The time travel does indeed seem improbable. :0

158 Eleanor April 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm


159 Scott Sumner March 25, 2016 at 5:32 pm

The first time in my life I ever walked into a casino (in 1991, in Queensland Australia), I won the first 12 consecutive games of blackjack, and then lost the 13th.

160 Steve Sailer March 25, 2016 at 6:34 pm

I was standing on the dock in Brindisi, Italy in 1980, listening to two American strangers my age ahead of me in line to get on the ferry boat to Greece tell stories about a wild man they had known in high school. I chimed in with similar tales about my high school’s leading wild man. But when I said: “Then, Escalante picked up the meat cleaver …” they said, “Wait a minute, are you talking about Escalante too? That’s who we’re talking about!”

It turned out they went to the high school in Burbank that Escalante went to after getting expelled from the high school I went to in Sherman Oaks.

I actually don’t think the odds against this happening are all that remarkable.

161 carlolspln March 25, 2016 at 6:52 pm

I was born in a poor, rural KS town [population: 1200] in mid century America & have lived/worked in twenty four countries; currently residing in the most beautiful city on Earth.

162 Chris D March 25, 2016 at 7:19 pm

Backpacking across Indonesia in early 90’s and for several days had a small piece of the skin of a rambutan fruit stuck between back teeth and could not get it out with anything. I kept thinking of that tool a dentist uses, with the bent spike, and how I’d be able to reach around with that and get the annoying thing out. For two days, as I traveled from Lombok, across Bali and finally to Java I had this irritating thing and I could not stop thinking about the dentist tool.

Landed in Surabaya, booked into backpacker lodge, and next morning while waiting to meet another traveler,I was standing alone in a common area with a TV and assorted stuff piled around. The family who ran this place owned a small dog which came into the room, wandered over near the TV and rummaged through a box of assorted stuff and then came over to me.

The dog dropped something at my feet.

Yes, it was that dental tool.

I do not believe in the paranormal or even have any religious beliefs in the supernatural, but that event has been a challenge to understand. I simply cannot accept it was “chance” and yet cannot explain how it happened.

163 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 8:59 am


164 JenniferRM March 31, 2016 at 1:34 am

Hypothesis: The dog smelled your breathe and/or saw your oral discomfort from the movement of your face, knew of the object often used by humans who smell/look that way, and brought the object to the person in need.

(Dogs have a reputation for being psychic, what with earthquakes and cancer and so on, but mostly it is just them having some better sensory modalities than us.)

165 Miguel Madeira March 25, 2016 at 8:23 pm

One time, I was reading “The Great God Pan”, from Arthur Machen, and, then, in radio starts playing “The Return of Pan”, from The Waterboys.

166 Eric H March 25, 2016 at 9:27 pm

A friend (A) in college was adopted. Then his biological father (B) tracked him down. I told my brother (living 300 miles away at the time) about it. When I described B’s car, he asked his name. It turned out that the guy owed my brother money. Then I told people that story at work about *that*, and it turned out that B had worked there about 15 years before. In fact, he had previously occupied my job and office. I don’t think this is so much absolutely statistically improbable so much as just the most improbable thing to happen to me of which I am aware.

167 Donald A. Coffin March 25, 2016 at 9:53 pm

To answer the question posed…

The statistically most improbable even in my life, given my eating/exercise habits and heredity is being alive at age 68…and in reasonably good health…

168 Cmprostreet March 25, 2016 at 9:58 pm

I was conceived despite my father being partially paralyzed from a broken neck.

On the 25th anniversary of the car accident that broke his neck, when he was 50, my hand caught fire and I went to the same hospital that had treated him for months.

On the way home from visiting me there that afternoon my mother and brother were hit by a car and my brother was taken by ambulance back to the same hospital. There were several hospitals in that city.

169 Katy (aka Taxmom) March 25, 2016 at 10:07 pm

I meet people I know, or people who know people i know, everywhere. (Foreign countries, hiking trails, etc.)
It might turn out that, for example, that the random Geology student I met at a student party in Bochum, Germany, just might have an uncle who teaches in Berkeley, and who just happened to have been my mother’s history of religion professor the previous semester. (To cite one random example.)
I also know that this is not truly statistically improbable, since what appears to be the wide wide world out there is actually a relatively narrow subset (college educated families, people who like to meet foreigners, etc etc). But from these experiences, I’ve learned I should never burn bridges or badmouth ANYONE to a stranger, no matter how random the encounter might be.

170 GoneWithTheWind March 25, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I died at age 6. I had a strong allergic reaction to something and went into convulsions. My mother called the family doctor (this was in1949 when you actually could reach your family doctor at home). She described my symptoms and the phone went dead. The doctor had dropped the phone, gone to his car and drove to our house. When he got there my heart and breathing had stopped and I was apparently dead. He gave me a shot directly into my heart and proceeded to give me artificial respiration. Ok, I won’t keep you.in suspense, I made it.

171 Ron March 25, 2016 at 11:05 pm

Most improbable thing? Being accepted into a local community college after having a .035 gpa as a senior. Lol.

172 Shane M March 25, 2016 at 11:55 pm

It’s difficult to highlight improbable events except in the context of meaningful but improbable events. I’ve only thought briefly about this, but both events I can recall involve elements of synchronicity. I’m unsure how improbable the events are themselves, but when coupled with meaningfulness makes them stand out.

– The first is that my college roommate and my brother both had the same birthday, and both had their first child born on the same date – Valentines Day.
– Secondly, I wrote a fairly personal song that I associate with my mother’s early death. One of the key lyrics is “I’ll be watching from afar.” So when I later cracked open a fortune cookie that said “Someone is watching from afar.” I immediately had chills.

Both instances are odd enough to leave open some small thought that perhaps the universe is saying something to me. But the boring rationalist in me just wants to attribute these things to chance.

173 Jeff March 26, 2016 at 12:30 am

I was 12 years old and in Mexico City in 1968 with my parents (dad taking a sabbatical) — we had tickets to many of the Olympic events. If you’ve ever had the good fortune to attend you recognize how novel it is to see the best athletes in the world. We were at our second visit to Olympic stadium for the Track and field.

Track and field is a three-ring circus, something is always going on so your eyes are constantly moving. I didn’t see Bob Beamon take off but rather turned to gaze at his last couple of yards through the air as he landed and hopped out from way down at the end of the sand pit. Whoa I said along with several tens of thousands of other spectators. The other half gasped (it was an even cross between whoa and gasp). The stadium had a background hum as fingers pointed. After what seemed like twenty seconds an official raised a green flag, the distance flashed on the scoresign, Bob fell to his knees, and the stadium erupted into a roar.

I thought to myself, you know, that is likely the most amazing one-off occurrence I will ever see the entire rest of my life. It was quite peculiar to share the miracle with everyone in the stadium; it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. For an appreciation of the statistical anomaly of his jump, see this wikipedia graph.

174 Ian March 26, 2016 at 2:26 am

24/6000 being born in Australia.

175 Alistair March 26, 2016 at 11:24 pm

But you’re going to be born somewhere, and its probably just as likely to be a small nation as a large one!

176 Marc A Cohen March 26, 2016 at 7:58 am

Fifteen years ago, when dating websites were a newer idea and far less accepted or professionally done, I joined a sight called Matchmaker.com. When I did a search for women nearby, up popped the profile of someone who, like me, had given long and extremely detailed answers to all of her profile questions. But her account was set to be closed in just over two hours. Taking a chance, I sent her a message.

Meanwhile, the woman who would become my wife decided to check her account one last time before it expired. She had decided against renewing it because she had thus far been sorely disappointed by the men who had contacted her.

Lo and behold, there was one last message for her…

Two days later, we met for the first time. Two days after that, we moved in together. After two months we were married. And exactly 51 weeks after the day we met, my wife gave birth to our first child.

177 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 9:05 am

For a period of time some years back, I was running into an awful lot of lookalikes with friends on my Facebook network. But they were spooks, clear from virtually the first instance – I’ve met thousands and thousands and thousands of people in my life, and normal people don’t direct the conversation in the direction of things that are important to me, with obvious knowledge of stuff I’m interested in, in efforts to gain my sympathies and confidence or try to convince me to think differently (most travellers are interested in perspectives, not changing people’s minds). Like, the vast majority of people I met for a good period of time.

Haha … in one period, I didn’t shower for several weeks and wore the same clothes through a wet period (think wet towels plus BO), and still they would invade my personal space sitting uncomfortably close to me while directing the conversation towards things to try to figure me out. Sometimes it’s better not to let on that you know what’s going on … it was 1 in a trillion odds of conversations going that way by the second time… anyways, they got pretty mean (understatement) after it became clear that I was on to them and actively writing about it to a diversity of media and public officials.

178 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 9:06 am

Left Tomboctou about an hour before the civil war started. Was in Bamako the day the coup happened, just having arrived. Arrived in Cairo on the day of Revolution Round 2, headed for a hotel beside Tahrir Square. Got the Gaza pyramids to myself as the sun was setting.

Hey, you encounter a lot of unlikely thing when you do a lot of different stuff.

179 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 9:07 am

Once I got in a pretty nasty high speed car accident when on my bike. By almost any replay of the event, I should have been dead or at least quadrapelegic, but I somehow landed on my feet and had a sore knee for a few days. Someone in the church gave me a flash road bike because they knew I needed it to get to school and work.

I came back the next day to look for my glasses, which had been run over many thousands of times. The nearby optician was kind enough to make them nearly as good as new, if slightly scartched up.

180 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 9:08 am

I’m here.

Even ignoring the improbability of multicellular organisms coming into existence on any planet, even with the best of genes, it’s still a crapshoot on average.

Existing is the most statistically improbable thing that has happened to anyone.

181 Cass1an March 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm

May be not so much improbable conditional on their ability to ponder upon this fact (what is known as weak anthropic principle).

182 Nathan W March 26, 2016 at 11:34 pm

If you eliminate the first trillion quadrillion iterations from consideration, the final outcome seems rather more likely than when you do not eliminate them.

183 Herve Villechaize March 26, 2016 at 10:35 am

I purchased a RAST nightstand from IKEA. After I assembled the nightstand, I went to the barbershop and the next person to walk in was named Rast.

184 Eleanor April 17, 2016 at 2:34 am


185 JS March 26, 2016 at 11:43 am

I was born into the ONE and only religion, out of all possible religions in all of human history, that gets you entry into heaven for eternal life.

186 Ann Onymous March 26, 2016 at 11:48 am

I travelled through time. You will be choosing in November between a fascist with bad hair and an old commie who’s accomplished nothing. I did that 16 years ago.

187 prairie economist March 26, 2016 at 8:47 pm

In the year 2000, my vote for US president actually mattered.

188 DJG March 26, 2016 at 11:05 pm

How is that? It didn’t come close, even you voted in Florida.

189 Alistair March 26, 2016 at 11:20 pm

He was on the Supreme Court.


190 DJG March 26, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I won a raffle prize at my grandfather’s lodge picnic. I walked onstage, claimed my prize and then, as was the practice, reached into the barrel and picked the next winning ticket. I returned to my seat as they read the numbers on the ticket…. I had picked my own ticket!

So, I returned to the stage, claimed my prized and then picked the next winning ticket… I had picked my own ticket again!!!

I didn’t pick, my own ticket the third time… And was a little disappointed!

I had about 12 tickets. There were perhaps 2,000 in the barrel.

191 Alistair March 26, 2016 at 11:19 pm

For our bi-weekly trip out, my fiancé and I planned to travel 50 miles to a sushi restaurant in London. It was a long drive; hundreds of acceptable venues would be closer, but the restaurant was unique, and we owed each other a treat. As the evening drew near however, we were both tired and didn’t care for the journey; “Sod it” we decided “let’s just go to Guildford instead; there’s a pizzeria at the top of high street we’ve never visited before. Let’s go there”

When we got to Guildford, we found that unbeknownst to us, the Pizzeria had closed two months earlier.

Occupying its premises was the very same sushi restaurant we had planned to visit, having relocated from London a fortnight before.

We were slightly freaked out.

192 Zack March 27, 2016 at 1:42 pm

I joined an internet forum in about 2003 while in college, wasted an enormous number of hours discussing politics on said internet forum, made internet friends with someone on the site that held differing views, we created an offshoot political forum of our own, stayed in close contact via internet for roughly 10 years 2003-2013 until he asked if I wanted to interview for an open position at his employer 1k miles away, met him in person for the first time when I flew into town to interview, got first career-worthy job in my life, finally joined middle class. Not sure how to quantify that, but it has to be a rather improbable journey. Decade long internet friendship that began via civilized political debate leads to life-changing career opportunity.

193 kk March 29, 2016 at 5:50 am

“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life”


194 Jay March 29, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Moving to Egypt on January 25, 2011, to start a new job

Attending Max Scherzer’s almost-perfect game last July

195 Pavel Koběrský April 4, 2016 at 7:56 am

A friend of mine from our village of 1100 inhabitants in Czech Republic went on a shopping trip to New York. She wanted to buy a pair of jeans. She saw similar ones on a lady on Times Square, so she commented in czech language that this is the trousers she wants. The lady wearing the trousers turned around, because she heard czech. She was also from the same village of 1100 inhabitants.

196 Peter Gerdes April 9, 2016 at 10:12 pm

Retrospectively this question doesn’t even really make sense. Let me illustrate:

I just flipped a coin 20 times and got the exact sequence : HTHHHTTHTTTTTTHHHTTT (ok I didn’t really but I might have). Is that the most improbable thing that happened to me? If I was asked before I did this how likely I was to get that exact sequence I would have given an answer of (.5)^20.

It might sound pedantic but try offering a precise definition of what you mean. I guess you can ask for the most amazing or least likely to be believed story you have but that’s not the same thing.

197 EL April 17, 2016 at 2:38 am

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