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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Powerball Innumeracy


Lots of people are buying Powerball tickets today because the jackpot is once again over $400 million. One of those purchasers is a friend of mine who only jumps on the bandwagon when the numbers get huge. Yesterday, he called to warn me, "Don't bother buying a ticket, because I already have the winner!"

I wanted to tell him that everyone who buys a lottery ticket always thinks that, but instead I asked, "If in fact there was some way of knowing that you do have the winning combination of numbers, why wouldn't you want me -- and everyone else -- to buy tickets with all of the losing combinations, so that there's more money in the jackpot?" To which he replied, "Because you might pick the same numbers I did, and then we'd end up splitting it."

He's clearly a guy who doesn't understand probability (along with the overwhelming majority of people who buy lottery tickets). The odds of my picking the same numbers he picked are more than 175 million to one -- the same as him randomly picking the winners in the first place. He's also being awfully greedy. Even if he splits the prize with 7 other people, they'd each still win $50 million. Yes, it would be reduced further when he took the lump sum payout and paid all the taxes, but it would still be more than enough to make him rich for the rest of his life -- unless he ends up like so many big-money lottery winners, who don't know how to handle the financial windfall. There's a terrific documentary about some of those winners-turned-losers called "Lucky," which is on my Movies You Might Not Know list.

I actually don't object to my friend buying a lottery ticket, despite his innumeracy (a great word coined in 1988 by mathematician John Allen Paulos). He can afford the ten bucks he spends for five shots at the prize and he doesn't do it regularly. It reminds me of a story I've told before from the days when my father was a high school teacher.

He never gambled on anything in his life. One day he went into the faculty cafeteria to have lunch with a friend who was a math teacher. Let's call him Jim. They talked about all sorts of things until Jim paused for a moment and said, "I have to remember to buy a lottery ticket on the way home."

My father was stunned, and said to Jim, "I can't believe this. You're a math teacher. You have advanced degrees in mathematics, you teach a class in statistics, you know the enormous odds against you winning. With your professional background, how can you justify buying a lottery ticket?"

Jim looked my father in the eye and answered, "It's a dollar."

Previously on Harris Online...