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The Improbability Principle: Why coincidences, miracles and rare events happen all the time Hardcover – 27 Feb 2014

3.9 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 27 Feb 2014
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam Press (27 Feb. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0593072812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0593072813
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.8 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 456,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

"A hugely entertaining eye-opener about how misuse of statistics can skew our view of the world" (Daily Mail)

"Lively and lucid . . . an intensely useful (as well as a remarkably entertaining) book . . ." (Salon)

"In my experience, it is very rare to find a book that is both erudite and entertaining. Yet The Improbability Principle is such a book. Surely this cannot be due to chance alone!" (Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist)

"An elegant, astoundingly clear and enjoyable combination of subtle statistical thinking and real-world events." (Andrew Dilnot, co-author of 'The Numbers Game')

"As someone who happened to meet his future wife on a plane, on an airline he rarely used, I wholeheartedly endorse David Hand’s fascinating guide to improbability, a subject which affects the lives of all, yet until now has lacked a coherent exposition of its underlying principles." (Gordon Woo, catastrophist at Risk Management Solutions)

Book Description

Why coincidences, miracles and rare events happen all the time...

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There were interesting nuggets in this book but I was left with an uneasy feeling that at the end I didn't understand what is the Principle of improbability nor what some of the various Laws actually stated.
So far as the main principle is concerned, does it actually say anything more than that some things are less improbable than they seem at first sight? This pales into insignificance compared with a principle such as the Uncertainty Principle.
The Laws are quite a rag bag. The Laws of Large Numbers and of Truly Large Numbers gave real insights derived from his expertise in probability, though a more thorough discussion, of why truly large numbers may be smaller than large numbers, would have helped. On the other hand the Law of Selection seems to be just a heuristic for weeding out false claims. Its relationship to Darwinian Natural Selection is tenuous; and his first example, explaining why some hypothetical insects migrate in response to a changing climate, is not an example of evolution at all.
Actually, I thought he was a bit short of material, and his subject does not justify a whole book. As a whole, it is a bit lightweight. But if you don't expect too much, it is a good read.
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Format: Paperback
Many of us, including me, are puzzled by the occurrence of "rare events". This book shows why most of them may be rare, even "unbelievably rare" but were to be expected, nonetheless. Very interesting subject. Very authoritative treatment.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Clearly written, very accessible account of what should really be considered crucial basic information for understanding the world, i.e., why many improbable-seeming events are in fact not terribly unlikely and may even be inevitable -- as well as why you can pretty much forget certain future possibilities because you're so unlikely to see them that they are effectively impossible.

I have a couple of minor beefs, one of them probably overly pedantic and the other one perhaps more substantive. The first is that, for a guy who's trying to introduce some intellectual rigor into our day-to-day analysis of what's going on, he's a little bit loose with his language sometimes. Possibly the most egregious example is that he uses the Law of Selection in two completely different ways. This law is introduced as a kind of hindsight bias, where we remember everything that fits our theory and conveniently forget things that contradict it. For example: "it always rains when I forget my umbrella" is based on only the times when it rained and you forgot your umbrella, ignoring all the times you either didn't forget your umbrella or it didn't rain. It is a retroactive and psychological law, a subjective failure in looking back at history. Then suddenly he uses the same phrase, the Law of Selection to apply to phenomena like Darwin's natural selection, which is a forward-looking, future-determining practice. Both are real phenomena, but it seems to me different concepts ought to have different names, otherwise we begin to lose faith in his precision, which strikes me as important in this subject area.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book will 'do yer 'ed in' - but in the best possible way. I feel it has been written with both the academic professional and the layman in mind. Being a very definite layman I struggled at times to grasp at first some of the ideas and principles involved. But at the end felt that I had an understanding of why my toast lands butter side down, and other such improbably coincidences. Well worth both the money to buy it and the effort to read it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The odds of winning the UK lottery are 14 million to 1 ... yet it happens every week.
Excellent book, very accessible. I read it twice, the second time to try to remember the multiple examples used to illustrate the various principles (the laws of very large numbers, the laws of selection etc). I am very familiar with statistics, but I think this is written in a way that allows most people to understand what is being discussed. I especially liked (and could definitely relate to) the dangers associated with trying to explain relationships in data, rather than starting with a theory and testing it against the data. Thoroughly reccommend this book.
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Format: Paperback
The message in this book is very short.

But the book isn't very short; it's actually quite long.

The constantly underlined and highlighted idea is this:

1 - Borel's Law says (paraphrased) "sufficiently unlikely events are impossible" (in practical, macroscopic or human terms)

2 - Things that LOOK impossible KEEP HAPPENING every day somewhere on Earth

3 - 'Impossible' things keep happening not because Borel's Law is necessarily wrong, but because the things that LOOKED impossible actually were NOT impossible

The events ('things') seemed to be impossible because they were not correctly understood (the probabilities against or for). Once other established mathematical or statistical laws were brought to bear on the 'impossible' event, the impossibility became not just infinitesimally possible, but actually INEVITABLE given enough 'runs' or time -- that is the law of very large numbers. Other laws, when applied correctly, did the same thing.

An obvious, and discussed, event is lottery numbers being the same in successive draws. It seems, in a human time frame, impossible. But consider how many lotteries there are in the world and how many draws and the sheer number of opportunities that this has to occur means that, if not inevitable, it nearly is.

I list some of the quoted and used laws in the next paragraph.

Hand seems to want to coin a new phrase in mathematics or statistics -- "the Improbability Principle" -- whereas what he has actually done is to use that term as an umbrella term for several mathematical laws that are already established. Such as [the laws of] inevitability, truly large numbers, selection (including anthropic principle), the probability lever, and near enough.
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