Disclaimer : I freely admit that I was under the influence of highly alcohol content Belgium beer, specifically 2 Chimay Blues (9%, Trappist beer) and a Paix-Dieu (10%, family owned brewery in south Belgium). Great beer is one of the benefits of living in Belgium.1
I was with my friend for our typical dinner out at the local little tavern/restaurant (Taverne le St Nicolas which is next door to the St. Nicolas church of course). The Chimay Blues came with our typical dinner at the little and usually quiet taverne: steak, salad and the obligatory Belgium Frities (fries). You just can’t get away from frities here. But that is a great dinner and all for 15 euro per person.
Then we took a short walk down the street to the La Paile d’Or to see if our friend and translator/interpreter was working the bar. She speaks Spanish, French and English (as well as being on a Belgium Roller Derby team as a jabber.) She is the person who gave me my first Paix Dieu, a beer only brewed on a full moon to take full advantage if the full moon craziness.
I came home and saw the CNN Headline, A meteor and asteroid: 1 in 100 million odds, assumingly aimed at reducing any panic or concern that a meteor and an asteroid were going to smash into the earth (or each other) at the same time. CNN: 1 in 100 million odds
Being somewhat in a giddy and happy state of mind, and having this thing with numbers, I knew immediately that CNN was spinning the latest and biggest astronomical science event in years. Basically it was: don’t panic because the chances are so small as to be close to impossible, 1 in 100 million (1:100,000,000). Just because in a single day, a meteor comes out nowhere (really, out of the sun so it wasn’t picked up by earth telescopes) and crashes into Russia at the force of about 20 times the power of the Hiroshima bombing while an asteroid brushes by earth at around 17,000 miles which is space terms is like almost kissing the guys bumper in the car ahead of you at an emergency stop. 2
There it was – don’t worry citizens, go about your business, nothing to see here, why you stand a better chance of being struck my lighting (1:775,000 in any given year, or 1:10,000 assuming an 80 year lifespan). Of course, as Mark Twain said (although he claimed it was from Disraeli), there are lies, damn lies and statistics. 3 But I know that when people start throwing stat’s around, you better watch your wallet.
In addition, CNN and political pundits, love to talk stats about the probability of something happening. This is why pollsters make so much money during election cycles. It’s all in the presentation.
But getting back to the big event: Meteor and Asteroid. Since I sort of work with and track some numbers, certain facts came up immediately so let’s compare the “news” that CNN reported and the behavior of American citizens.
First, CNN headline reports that the odds are 1:100,000,000. Since most people only read the headlines unless they have specific interest in the subject, the message is clear: don’t worry, turn to the Pistorius story or the sports page.
Even if you read the article by Meg Urry, the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy and chairwoman of the department of physics at Yale University, where she is the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, you read an explanation of why the probabilities are so remote.
“Two rare events happening at approximately the same time is much more unlikely. Here is how to think of it mathematically: If the events are not associated, the probability of this coincidence comes from multiplying the individual probabilities."Therefore when you take all the variables into consideration and do the math, it comes out to the odds of 1 in 100 million.
Now, let’s look at the incongruent behavior of humans. With the meteor/asteroid event, we dismiss the odds as impossible. Yet during the recent $550 million dollar Powerball game, where the odds of winning the jackpot is 1:175,000,000 there were approximately 189 million tickets sold as the drawing kicked off. 4 And two tickets WON that jackpot.
But in all honesty to Meg, she does throw in the typical statistical disclaimer at the end of the article and reading that made me laugh.
“Our rough calculation says a large meteor impact on the same day as closest passage of the DA14 asteroid is really improbable. But it did happen. Something in our assumptions could be wrong. For example, the frequency of meteor impacts could be much larger and our estimates too low because we don't notice most of them.Which really gets translated into – who knows!
Then again, maybe sometimes, long odds just pay off.”
Have a fun Sunday - here in Belgium, it's quiet time!
1) If you lived in Belgium and drank one different beer each week, you it would take you approximately 3 years (165 currently listed beers at http://beermapping.com/...
2) Tip of the hat to Dkossack science blogger Troubadour and the recently posted
3) I also like old Uncle Joe’s statement regarding statistics and how they become subject to manipulation. See Joseph Stalin statement “A million deaths is a statistic…”
4) Lots of Powerball tickets sold according a UK paper