Chances Are . . .: Adventures in Probability Paperback – Feb 27 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Everything is possible, yet only one thing happens": this is the essence of probability, quantifying what could happen. Filmmaker Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan (coauthor of The Art of the Infinite) trace probability back to its original conception in the 1660s (by a gambler, of course) and show how it affected not only science, which would be impossible without it, but also religion and philosophy. Many pioneers of the math that grew into statistics were trying to define the divine; the inventor of combinatorics, for example, was a medieval missionary seeking to convert Muslims by showing that any statement combining the qualities of God was true in the Christian faith. This book rigorously develops its math from first principles with a passion that would make even an amateur heady with the possibilities contained within a bell curve. The authors explore the promise of the math of probabilities through its most powerful modern applications, from determining the effectiveness of new drugs to weighing the merits of combat strategies. In all these cases, the authors place the study of probability firmly in the context of humanity's ongoing struggle to assign meaning to randomness. Never before has statistics been treated with such awe and devotion. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From dice, cards, and coin flips to insurance, weather, and warfare, Kaplan and Kaplan tour the human compulsion to discern order in events governed by randomness. Readers familiar with Peter Bernstein's Against the Gods (1996), a popular history of probability, may find this work too basic, but readers new to the topic are in for an enjoyable treat. Confronted with uncertainty, most people depend on intuition, a very unreliable means for aligning expectation with observation. The authors exploit this foible in their many anecdotes, both in stories about those who fell prey to visceral instinct, and those--usually mathematicians--who tried to assert some predictive control over chance. Allied to the entertaining stories are the theoretical foundations of statistical probability laid down by those mathematicians and physicists, such as Cardano, Pascal, Laplace, and Boltzmann. The authors organize matters overall into subjects such as medical diagnosis, pharmaceutical trials, law, battle, and, of course, wagering. And with their many touches of irony, Kaplan and Kaplan write as intriguingly as their inveigling topic. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Ellen Kaplan and Michael Kaplan have pieced together, clearly after a phenomenal amount of archival research, the picture of man's struggle to harness chaos and randomness in his life. The story they tell is compelling and richly human. Divided into 11 chapters, each section of text deals with the story of one particular aspect of the unpredictable - understanding the spread of disease and the effectiveness of vaccines, for instance, the role of the uncertainty in the courtroom, the effects of the unpredictable in political interactions and warfare, all connected to the innate human desire to master the unknown. Ellen and Michael not only explore factual details related to describing, accepting, and, in some cases, conquering uncertainty, but also discuss and reveal the psychological impact randomness induces at every stage of its contemplation. Reading their work becomes a personal experience: we see that the struggles encountered by a society are the personal struggles we each experience. This book is revealing on a multitude of levels.
Written with humor and eloquence, the book is a delight to read. Although mathematical formulae are kept to a minimum, mathematical richness of ideas is not denied. As an educator, I hope this book will become required reading for all students of probability and statistics. But this, of course, is not the only audience of readers. CHANCES ARE ... is an important book, absolutely relevant and accessible to all who are human. It is fundamentally a book about us.
This book touches on an impressive number of topics related to probability and game theory, and the authors weave in a number of interesting bits of history. Sadly, they touch on many topics very lightly and incompletely.
There are the makings of at least 4 or 5 really good books here, if the topics are properly covered. Overall this is worth reading, as the research behind this book is stunning in scope even if none of the ideas are adequately explicated.
I liked the chapter on healing best. The Kaplans point out that depending on the way you report the results, the exact same study can make a drug's effect look enormous or trivial: "Program A reduced the death rate by 34 percent" and "Program C increased the patients' survival rate from 99.82 percent to 99.88 percent" makes Program A look good, but these numbers describe exactly the same program. Exaggeration of this type is all too frequent in today's medical research, and even many doctors often don't realize when they are being bamboozled. I am not kidding when I say that if more people understood what the Kaplans are getting at here, our health care system would save billions of dollars and a lot of grief. For more on this, see Hadler's book "The Last Well Person," which describes how the popularity of many expensive treatments, such as the cardiac bypass, is due to precisely this type of misleading statistics.
The book does have some equations, but they are not essential to understanding it. Feel free to skip them.
The Kaplans discuss economic growth in terms of gambling, and describe the gains from the sun each year as providing enough energy to justify between 1.5% and 2% economic growth. The Kaplans don't say where they got this figure. Economic growth being an interest of mine, I tend to disagree. Certainly economic growth figures of about this magnitude are common. However, "economic growth" is conventionally measured by GDP, a figure so inaccurate as to be almost laughable. GDP makes no adjustment for the costs of pollution, drawdown of natural resources, population growth, or reduction in quality of life, among other difficulties. More accurate economic measures, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) or the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), show that there has been little or no economic growth in the U.S. since the 1970s. Several other countries with healthy-looking GDP figures are basket cases when more accurate measures are considered. For more on this, see Herman Daly's book "Beyond Growth," or Brian Czech's book "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train."
Overall, though, "Chances Are" is a highly recommended book.