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Chances Are: Adventures in Probability [Paperback]

Michael Kaplan , Ellen Kaplan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 27 2007
A compelling journey through history, mathematics, and philosophy, charting humanity’s struggle against randomness

Our lives are played out in the arena of chance. However little we recognize it in our day-to-day existence, we are always riding the odds, seeking out certainty but settling—reluctantly—for likelihood, building our beliefs on the shadowy props of probability. Chances Are is the story of man’s millennia-long search for the tools to manage the recurrent but unpredictable—to help us prevent, or at least mitigate, the seemingly random blows of disaster, disease, and injustice. In these pages, we meet the brilliant individuals who developed the first abstract formulations of probability, as well as the intrepid visionaries who recognized their practical applications—from gamblers to military strategists to meteorologists to medical researchers, from blackjack to our own mortality.


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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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We search for certainty and call what we find destiny. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best popular science books of 2006 Dec 26 2006
Format:Hardcover
Not only does this cover some fascinating ground in probability and statistics, it is also beautifully written. After an intimidating presentation of the formula for the Law of Large Numbers, the authors say: "This formula, like all others, is a kind of bouillon cube, the result of intense progrssive evaporation of a larger, diffuse mix of thought. Like the cube, it can be very useful - but it isn't intended to be consume raw." One of the best and most concise explanations of mathematical limits!
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  39 reviews
52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Entertaining Journey of Risk and Probability March 31 2006
By ZMed - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I loved this book! It's a quick read and received high praise by the New York Times and the New Yorker, so my humble comments only echo those. This book weaves a rare combination of entertaining stories with precise lessons of how risk and randomness affect our daily lives. One can tell the authors' depth of experience and love of teaching the interplay of mathematics, philosophy and the human condition. The mother and son authors chose a wide variety of historical vignettes and modern life dilemmas, making the discussions very accessible and entertaining. I enjoyed Steven Levitt's Freakonomics for its mix of illuminating stories, but I felt like this book explored a richer set of classic historical examples and many more lessons on risk that I can apply to my real-life decisions.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars James Tanton July 9 2006
By James Tanton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a truly phenomenal book! As a mathematician and a mathematics educator I have certainly studied and taught the mathematics of probability theory and statistics. I have always worked to convey to my students the story of the subject (mathematical story that is) and the intellectual context of the work, as well as convey a sense of the overall structure of its historical development. But I am a tad embarrassed to admit that I did not truly appreciate the *human context* of this subject until I read CHANCES ARE ....

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.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, Stimulating, Useful! April 21 2006
By Forensic Navigator - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a very special book. Michael and Ellen Kaplan put forth an intriguing thesis. We are taught deductive reasoning in geometry and logic classes, inductive reasoning in science. This book is about the great valley in between where we spend most of our lives: probability. They throw us some fun problems at the start to show that many of us (e.g. me) may not grasp probability intuitively. The "Blue Cab/Green Cab Problem" is an eye opener. If 85 percent of the cabs in a city are green, 15 percent blue, and a witness with 80 percent accuracy spots a blue cab, is it likely to actually be blue or green? The answer is surprising. People focus on the 80 percent accuracy, but the key is the 15 percent of blue cabs. This is more than a fun math problem. It can help you judge medical tests. A less-than-perfect diagnostic test of a rare condition is likely to be misleading. (Don't depend on your doctor; the Kaplans show that MDs are not good at probabilities.) There is a wonderful chapter on gambling and some new insights into Pascal's Wager. Pascal says to bet on the existence of God; the Kaplans, after doing the math, are not so sure. Again, this is more than just an academic exercise. A band of Evangelical Christians are currently going around our community using Pascal's Wager as an argument for converting young people to their fundamentalist Christianity. The authors also address the Monty Hall problem: whether a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal" should switch doors when Monty reveals what's behind one of them. Everybody knows by now, if they've read about the problem in USA Today or the NY Times, that one always swtiches. But the Kaplans are the first to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the problem, comparing it to the Principle of Restricted Choice in bridge. There's more. Philosopher David Hume said that the fact the sun has risen every morning is no proof that it will rise tomorrow. But the Kaplans show that Bayesian probability offers math that is not proof per se, but evidence of probability. My psychotherapist suggested I use Bayesian probability to help deal with my great variety of unrealistic anxieties. I am terrified, for example, of having to go to the bathroom on a long bike ride with no restroom nearby. Actually calculating the probability of this happening, using past experience, has relieved this nervousness. The best thing about the book, though, is its tone. Most math-book authors are making one point: they are smart and everybody else is dumb. The Kaplans are not arrogant, and explain why it's natural that we make the mistakes we do. They poke fun at the "geniuses" at the RAND Corporation who got annoyed when people refused to act like RAND mathematical diagrams predicted they would act. The RAND folks tried to convince two presidents to make a preemptive nuclear strike at the Soviet Union, but thankfully dumber but more experienced men prevailed (Truman and Eisenhower). An excellent book. There is a 100 percent chance that you will enjoy it.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth Reading, But...... Jan. 31 2009
By SHM1776 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Imagine traveling through a wormhole, at high speed, constantly twisting and turning; you want to stop and admire a beautiful pattern, see it in depth, but you are whipped away to the next turn. There are glimpses of beautiful ideas in this book, but to pursue them you will need to read more elsewhere.

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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun and useful book in today's world Aug. 2 2006
By Paula L. Craig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is fun to read, with lots of great stories. The idea that much of how our minds work is based on rough probability estimates was new to me. The Kaplans describe many mental problems such as autism, as well as the strange behavior of psychopaths, as essentially disorders of a poor sense of probability in human social relations. Fascinating.

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.
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