Improbability

by William Lasser

I had a friend in college, a math major, who would figure out the odds of every possible event, real or imagined, that came to mind. Like running into his girlfriend on his way to class — for them to meet, she would have had to leave her dorm precisely two to three minutes after he left his; since they left every day within five minutes of each other, the odds would end up being 3.6 to 1, or something like that. But Dave's real mission in life was to debunk those bizarre coincidences that people attribute to Fate or God — like the fact that my wife's grandmother and my grandmother were friends, even though that had nothing to do with how we met. These things aren't as uncommon as you think, he'd explain, because no one ever specifies the actual coincidence in advance; the likelihood of running into your college roommate on a plane to Buffalo might be low, but since there are an almost infinite number of possible coincidences that might occur over the course of your lifetime, the probability that one or two of will actually take place is really pretty high. I know Dave was right, and whenever someone says, "The most amazing thing happened to me today," I have the overwhelming urge to tell them that what they thought was extraordinary was really quite commonplace, hardly worth mentioning. But I resist it, because people who don't understand probability theory always seem happier than those of us who do.

6S

William Lasser teaches political science at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. He found out about Six Sentences from his son, Max Lasser, who wrote "Ants."