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The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

3.66  ·  Rating Details ·  757 Ratings  ·  102 Reviews
In The Improbability Principle, the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.
But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of “miracle” is thoroughly rational. No m
...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published February 11th 2014 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Alexander Kosoris
Nov 02, 2015 Alexander Kosoris rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
After making my way through The Improbability Principle, I came to a startling revelation: I really have to stop running out and buying books with positive reviews in MacLean’s. I suppose this very concisely shows my opinion on the book, but allow me to explain myself.

The Improbability Principle has a very interesting concept: offering theories as to why the highly improbable seems to happen all the time. I will grant that Hand’s explanations are very insightful, but getting there proved to be h
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Peter Mcloughlin
I am surprised this book has a fairly low rating. I know that it is about statistics but there is not an equation to be found in the book and it is written in a fairly conversational and breezy style and has some interesting stuff on statistics. I enjoyed reading it and it made me look at statistics in a slightly different way than I usually do. I thought it covered a lot of statistical fallacies and mistakes fairly well. I think a person coming away from this book will be a little better able ...more
Alan Cook
Apr 07, 2014 Alan Cook rated it it was amazing
This is the best book on statistics I've ever read, and I've taken several courses on statistics. You can apply the principles to playing the lottery and games of chance (I'm a backgammon player). It will also change your thinking about "coincidences" and improbable events. With enough tries, anything that is possible is likely to happen. (People have won the lottery twice.) And when you investigate deeper, some events might not have been so improbable in the first place. Like the time my wife a ...more
Andrew
Jan 19, 2016 Andrew rated it really liked it

It was fun to reflect on this book during the recent furor over the largest Powerball jackpot to date. And I was especially interested in the meme that circulated for a while claiming that the $1.5 billion could make every American a millionaire. For a brief moment, questions of probability, distributions, and statistics entered the American consciousness. And then, with a winner announced, everyone went back to their regularly scheduled programming and statistical illiteracy remained.

Numbers ar
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Jeffrey
Feb 14, 2015 Jeffrey rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club
Statistics. Pretty basic with a nice coherent framework to make it understandable and useful. Examples from everyday life depended a bit heavily on throwing dice. I would have liked to see some poker or other games analyzed and used as examples. I deal with examples of poor statistical thinking every day in my medical office. It is my job to help people understand the true risk of treatment versus symptom or disease - often it is not very clear and information from well meaning relatives and fri ...more
Privy Trifles
May 15, 2014 Privy Trifles rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned, review


One confession before I start the review – I used to hate statistics as a subject in school and college with a madness that only I was aware of. Simply put it was beyond me. That’s it. When I saw this book in the list by Random house I Google-d the book as always and was amazed at what was there in the book.

The probability factor has always fascinated me with it’s could bes and would bes here the author has taken it to an altogether new depths completely. The beauty of such books is that though
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Chuff
Aug 18, 2015 Chuff rated it really liked it
Exciting and interesting!! until the last chapter which fell like a dud.

If you know anyone who attaches a ton of meaning to coincidences, this book will tie multiple tons of counterweights to their balloons. Recommended!!
Jeannette
Jun 01, 2014 Jeannette rated it liked it
Enjoyed it and if you are of similar mind there is a high probability that you will too. I didnt catch a lot of the finer statistical points, but what I really liked was being given names and a handle on the various sub-principles, like the law of inevitability, laws of large and truly large numbers,law of selection, the probability lever, and law of near enough. Ah, if only the airy fairy, ju-ju, woo woo superstitious, reincarnated crystal and navel gazers would read books like this... They jus ...more
Trever
Jun 08, 2014 Trever rated it it was amazing
One of the easier to read and complete unabridged selection on statistics. I couldn't have been any more impressed with the book, well written and covers all the math.
Rossdavidh
Oct 11, 2015 Rossdavidh rated it liked it
Shelves: black
Evolution is a wonderful thing, but it has limitations. For example, we evolved as hunter/gatherers in the African savannah, who knew only about 100 other humans. We did not evolve with TV news, much less YouTube, to show us the weirdest thing someone did anywhere on the planet that day. We did not evolve in a situation where we heard about people dying from different causes not in proportion to how common that was, but more or less in inverse proportion (thus, terrorism gets more press than car ...more
David
Oct 04, 2014 David rated it liked it
Enjoyable, not-too-math-heavy, look at various reasons that remarkable coincidences (someone winning lottery multiple times, getting hit by lightning multiple times, or less consequential stuff along the lines of "I was just thinking about old so-and-so, and then he called me out of the blue") actually happen all the time.

Examples: SOMETHING has to happen, so even if that particular outcome would have been judged unlikely to begin with, some such unlikely outcome is a sure thing [e.g., betting o
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Jkhickel
Aug 22, 2014 Jkhickel rated it it was amazing
If we had a national contest where everyone in the United States had to keep flipping coins, and the winner was the person who flipped "heads" the most consecutive times starting with the first flip -- I'm convinced that the media stories would range from "Flip Winner Reveals His Secrets of Success" to "Did the Flip Winner Cheat? No One Can Flip Heads That Many Times."

What would be lost in the clutter is: SOMEONE had to win!

In a book that nicely combines the need to discuss complex statistical t
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Srikanth
May 30, 2014 Srikanth rated it liked it
What are the chances that a person is struck by lighting 7 times? What are the chances he will be struck by lighting in 2 different countries? The chances are close to impossible right... Not as per this book.

This book talks about events that are close to impossible and why do they happen.


But wait, even though the title talks about an improbability principle... there is no single principle. There are a number of laws that are strands that make up the fabric called "The improbability principle"

T
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Pawel
May 14, 2014 Pawel rated it really liked it
I think I expected more from this book. The level of argumentation against some of the theories is sometimes quite shallow and from time to time extremely unconvincing. For example Hand mentions and explains theories like morphic resonance or the law of seriality but then just dismisses them as bad without argumentation (I would expected he would provide some like he did for synchronicity). His criticism of creationism is pointless - there is no need for it in this book, it does not add to the t ...more
Mac
Mar 24, 2014 Mac rated it it was ok
I've read several books on statistics/probability going back decades to John Allen Paulos's Innumeracy. Mostly, I read these books to be startled, so gobsmacked by an idea that I then view the world in a fresh, new way. That is to say, for this subject, I'm more interested in a stunning concept than broad, solid instruction.

By this criterion, The Improbability Principle falls short for me; it's more an education than revelation. The book is a workmanlike presentation, clearly and persuasively pr
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Anne
Jan 14, 2016 Anne rated it really liked it
Here's something highly improbable that happened to me recently - I enjoyed this book immensely and it only took me a few days to get through! Miracle! Ok, so there was, as always with me, some intense selection going on. But really, it was the author's great examples that made this so readable; I couldn't have been happier that he didn't kill me with the maths.

It was also pretty adorable how he was constantly talking about his dice collection. Heh, 100-sided die? Yeah, that's not so rare. Neith
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David
Hand’s book, The Improbability Principle, is a statistician’s take on the use and abuse of statistics in order to pervert our view of the world. If the reader is interested in this sort of thing they will enjoy this book. To be honest, however, there seems to be little new in this book that cannot be found in others of its sort.

The focus is on radical outliers; such as lighting striking the same person multiple times or someone winning the lottery many times, and why these not only happen but s
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John Kowalczyk
May 07, 2016 John Kowalczyk rated it really liked it
Hand has a nice collection of information here that is very accessible, logically oriented, and uses a number of clear examples to illustrate complex concepts for a non-math major audience. I definitely recommend it. My only criticisms are: 1) the material tends to be more anecdotal than a deep dive. There are plenty of examples, but they're all rather short and lack detail that I thought could develop the target concept more. 2) what I felt to be a continual attempt to repackage and personally ...more
BLACK CAT
Jul 03, 2015 BLACK CAT rated it did not like it
Shelves: science
Probability.
Gina
Apr 11, 2014 Gina rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I heard an interview on NPR with David Hand in which he shared a seemingly impossible coincidence involving Anthony Hopkins. I retold the story to my wife, who purchased the book for me that same night. I have not been able to shut up about the book ever since. Hand does an incredible job of combining probability theory, psychology, math, history, and truly incredible stories to teach the reader why we should actually expect seemingly unlikely events (I.e. winning the lottery twice in one day) t ...more
LAPL Reads
Mar 04, 2014 LAPL Reads rated it really liked it
On April 23, 1999, Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals hit a grand slam home run against Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers. That's not an overly rare event. However, Tatis didn't hit just one grand slam off of Park. He hit TWO. And they were in the same inning. No Major League player had ever done this before and no one has done it since. The chances of being a witness to such a thing must be so high to make it unlikely that anyone would ever see it. And yet it happened.

David Hand's book "The Im
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Eric
Mar 29, 2014 Eric rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: People that believe in conspiracies because certain events happen rarely
Shelves: information, science
He has an important point. People are terrible at estimating probabilities, particularly for improbable events. I wanted to like this book. I did enjoy his anecdotes. He had a few noteworthy concepts. But...he dumbed everything down so far that he was left with lukewarm bathwater. It was unsatisfying. I have a decent background in math but hate equations and the like. I didn't want proofs and two page calculations, but I did feel like he was talking at such a low level that he was insulting the ...more
John Esterly
Sep 12, 2014 John Esterly rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Paul Kilmer
Sep 01, 2016 Paul Kilmer rated it liked it
Overall, I enjoyed this book. There are a lot of laws presented (law of inevitability, law of truly large numbers, etc.) and there were several times when I felt a little overwhelmed by them all. But this offered, to me, a good treatment of the topic of improbability with good examples and without an overabundance of numbers.
Don
Oct 27, 2015 Don rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science, math
Well written, conversational read about statistics and probability is probably (ha!) the best and most succinct way to describe this book. Hand does a good job of writing on a topic that is probably difficult for many people, as probability is often contrary to how humans perceive the world, chance, and opportunity. Hand uses that fact, though, to credibly explain and elucidate various laws of probability.

Specifically, the "improbability principle" of the books title is really composed of certai
...more
Nick Gotch
May 28, 2014 Nick Gotch rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
The Improbability Principle a solid non-math-centric explanation of probability and statistics at a level perfect for a beginner or even intermediate student. It's the perfect book for the average person to start understanding what the odds of things really are and how to critically analyze unexpected occurrences. In terms of helping the lay reader understand that "miraculous" happenings may not be as unusual as we expect or that we might be incorrectly estimating the real likelihood of some eve ...more
Christopher
Sep 30, 2014 Christopher rated it it was ok
After the first couple of chapters, I thought I would not finish this uneven book. But then chapter 3 was actually pretty interesting. But it turns out that this was a cruel trick, luring me to finish the entire irritating book. There is no "principle". Just a sequence of ad hoc connected strands. Recommendation? Read chapter 3. Leave the rest be. There are some interesting ideas in this book, and it provides a good overview of several real life statistical concepts. But the word "Principle" in ...more
Paul Morrison
Feb 17, 2014 Paul Morrison rated it really liked it
A pretty good read whether you flunked STATS 101 or you get annoyed at waiting in line for coffee because there are so many numbskulls playing the illogical lottery. (You want to tell them the precise odds but hold back because the last time you did that you got slugged.)

Written in a sort of narrative with some catchy examples of each argument which together makes up the improbability principle. When I am caught in a thunderstorm I will not think of the long odds (1 in 4 million for someone in t
...more
Samrat Ganguly
Jan 02, 2016 Samrat Ganguly rated it really liked it
The concepts elaborated in this book are very interesting. Common people always feel baffled at the occurrence of so called miracles and queer coincidences. But from pure statistical point of view, these events are in fact very much bound to happen, sometime or other. That's what this book is all about. The writing is a bit repetitive, but as this book is directed to general readers who might or might not have exposure to statistics, this elaborate nature helps to drive the points more easily. A ...more
Todd Allen
Aug 14, 2016 Todd Allen rated it it was amazing
David Hand weaves together the threads—invisible to most of us—necessary to understand why occurrences under the rubric too coincidental for chance, miraculous, or so rare as to be impossible, actually happen all the time. In his book he pulls the cover off superstition, prophecy, and the supernatural using rational analysis derived from probability and statistics, and scientific reasoning. He builds a foundation by outlining chapter by chapter the individual threads that reveal the thoroughly u ...more
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David J. Hand is Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and Chief Scientific Advisor to Winton Capital Management. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and a recipient of the Guy Medal of the Royal Statistical Society. He has served (twice) as President of the Royal Statistical Society, and is on the Board of the UK Statistics Authority. H ...more
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“Unfortunately, we generally find it difficult to assess very small probabilities. We typically overestimate them (thinking the events more likely than they are) and underestimate very high probabilities.” 2 likes
“Events don’t actually occur as often as people predict they will. And this in turn is related to hindsight bias (the tendency to see past events as being more predictable than they were at the time), which I’ll discuss shortly.” 1 likes
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