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

3.62 of 5 stars 3.62  ·  rating details  ·  395 ratings  ·  60 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
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published February 11th 2014 by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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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
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
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
Alexander Kosoris
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
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.
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
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
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"

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
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
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
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
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
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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
Mar 29, 2014 Eric rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People that believe in conspiracies because certain events happen rarely
Shelves: science, information
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
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Privy Trifles

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
Nick Gotch
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
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
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
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
In retrospect, I suppose my "meh" reaction to this book is pretty much my own fault. I don't know what I expected, but what I should have expected, and got, was "Introduction to Basic Statistics, Probability, & Research Methods." Which.....yes. If those are subjects you haven't had much exposure to, you might actually find mind-blowing the explanations of why we shouldn't be that surprised when someone wins the lottery twice or the same numbers come up twice in a month or you read a new word ...more
The title of mathematics professor David Hand’s book “The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day” seems like a contradiction. But it is not. Events that would be improbable for one or two people over a short time will become probable, indeed almost certain, when involving a large number of people and a huge amount of time. Hand calls this the law of truly large numbers, “which says that, with a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous t ...more
The central insight is pretty straightforward: rare events happen when there are lots of events. Getting this to book length took some doing on the author's part, with several chapters seeming like padding, though usually reasonably interesting padding. The book also features a lot of portentous coining of phrases ("the law of the probability lever"), and a fair number of chestnuts that crop up in a lot of the books about cognition and chance. But there some rarer examples as well, it's readable ...more
I was disappointed in that I feel this book spent too much time meandering around statistics and predictions instead of what the title promised. Some of the statistics explanations were more in depth than I wanted or needed, and while they were good background, there was too much of them and not enough on the coincidence aspect. The examples and explanations of coincidences were few and far between from what I expected.

Plus, the explanations were not as good as The Drunkard's Walk - read that i
Daniel Watkins
Good discussion of the reasons that human beings are terrible at estimating probability. I especially enjoyed the discussion showing that many of the events we hear about that shouldn't have happened because the probability of their occurrence was so small really indicate that we've assigned the events the wrong probability. The author illustrates this with examples from finance and from astronomy.
Mar 03, 2014 Josh rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2014
I started this book knowing nothing about statistics. Now I know just enough to get me into trouble. I call that a success.

Interesting and highly readable look into why crazy coincidences aren't all that strange if you look at them right.

This book has a lot of jargon but relatively little math, and is certainly not for everyone. But if you're at all interested in the subject, it's great.
In this intriguing book about statistics and how probabilities are determined--and why things that are so improbable they seem impossible happen--David Hand uses enough illustrations and simple explanations to keep even a non-math geek like me interested and learning. It was definitely worth my time.
Monty Allen
Whole lotta statistics going on here. This book didn't shy away from the statistical thinking that buttresses the title, but it was done in a manner that kept it both readable and interesting. If you're a fan of superstition or the supernatural this book will ruin your party. If, however, you're interested in finding out how and why some of those things can, do and should occur, dig in, this book is built for you.
This is a highly entertaining book. I listened to it while on a road trip. The best part is anecdotes that the author provides illustrating the misapplication of statistics or surprising uses of statistics. Even if you miss a point or two it's still possible to follow along.
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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.” 0 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.” 0 likes
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