Saturday, January 24, 2009

one in a million?

This article:

http://www.kansascity.com/450/story/996042.html

recently claimed that the odds of the same pick-3 lottery ticket happening two days in a row - which did happen this past Monday and Tuesday - are one-in-a-million, so that it was a rather surprising occurrence. The choices allow ten numbers in each of three places, and order matters. So there are 1000 choices of ticket. But that means, whatever yesterday's winning numbers were, the odds they're the same today is 1 in a 1000, not 1 in a million. We'd actually expect this to happen about once in three years - not such a wild coincidence after all.

The fact that this article was published at all is a little scary to me. This is very basic probability theory - even if math is a journalist's weak point, I would imagine you could double-check such a key fact with someone else who knew their stuff. In an ideal world, responsible members of the media would have at least a better intuition for something like this.

Of course, I'm not so worried about trivial inaccuracies in novelty news, so much as I am about a general lack of educated reporting - the kind of thing that has lead many folks (at least in the US) to doubt the legitimacy or human-influence on global warming, for example. This is an area on which the scientific community has been in virtual consensus for many years, contrary to the impression you might receive from certain media outlets. Any good disseminator of knowledge cites their sources, so I'll back that up with a quote from the Doran/Zimmerman 2009 report on scientific opinion of global warming:
It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.
If you're curious, there's more on this wikipedia page.

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