Chances Are

Adventures in Probability

Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan  2006


This is a book about probability and randomness.

There are extensive discussions about the odds of something happening, and how probabilities change greatly with just a slight change in conditions.  Lots about the history of games of chance.  Dice has a long history and is one of the oldest games of any kind.

You also become further convinced that probability is not intuitive.

The discussion of probabilities may make you glassy-eyed, but this is an entertaining and well written book.  Its discussions are witty and literate.  I laughed through a lot of it, and love the lightness of the writing.


If you are interested in statistical things, this is worth the read.


Some quotes:

We search for certainty and call what we find destiny. Everything is possible, yet only one thing happens—we live and die between these two poles, under the rule of probability. We prefer, though, to call it Chance: an old familiar embodied in gods and demons, harnessed in charms and rituals. We remind one another of fortune’s fickleness, each secretly believing himself exempt, I am master of my fate; you are dicing with danger; he is living in a fool’s paradise.


The combination of the tool of statistics and the theory of probability is the underpinning of almost all modern sciences, from meteorology to quantum mechanics. It provides justification for almost all purposeful group activity, from politics to economics to medicine to commerce to sports. Once we leave pure mathematics, philosophy, or theology behind, it is the unread footnote to every concrete statement.


The question remains “How right do you need to be?”—and there are large areas of life where we may not yet be right enough. A deeper worry, whether probability can really be truth, still looms like an avenging ghost.


Nothing is certain.  There is only probability.


Trial by jury represents our attempt to wring error out ol judgment. We hope that, as with scientific observation, averaging the views of twelve citizens will produce a more accurate result than asking just one. This assumes, though, a normal distibution of juror prejudice around some ideal, shared opinion—but prosecutors and defenders alike try to skew that distribution through juror selection.

Different lawyers swear by different systems: one considers the Irish likely to feel sorry for the accused, another thinks they have too many relatives in law enforcement. The great defender Clarence Darrow sought out Congregationalists and Jews, but strove to purge his juries of Presbyterians. Everyone agrees that suburban homeowners convict: they fear crime, worship property, and haven’t suffered enough. It is an axiom that if your client is likely to be found guilty, you must try to get a cantankerous old woman on the jury, who will enjoy resisting the eleven others.