Thursday, January 14, 2016

Random thoughts about statistics

The record breaking jackpot makes you think: what if? What are the odds? Well, they are so small that mathematically speaking they could be called insignificant. A friend called the lottery “a tax on poor people”.  I would rephrase it as “a tax on people who don’t know math and don’t understand statistics”.
I am not a specialist in math either but I have read several rather thorough books about statistics. Why? First – because I do like reading books, even if they are about such strange matters as statistics. Second – because I’ve lived for almost 30 years with a guy who has a finest knowledge of math and is an expert in statistics, so I wanted to arm myself with data and particulars in order to be able to beat him in an argument. Spoiler alert - it didn’t work! What actually changed is my understanding of odds and I don’t draw general conclusions anymore based on a singular fact or some anecdotal evidence. It is actually not difficult. Here, let me give you an example.

Do you like how a new car smells? I know that some people do. I don’t. It makes me nauseated. I can’t wait till the car gets to smell like me, smell me.

Yet, I like a new car very much. Give me a new car every day (of course, if it is the same model, with very few innovations and changes, and colored blue or grey, I don’t want any other colors, thank you very much, but no) and I’ll be happy. Or as happy as I can be since my default state is a deep depression.

I am a worrier by nature. I do worry about potential bad things happening to me for the most part of my day. That is why I like the idea of car insurance. Since the day I saw a car insurance commercial on TV for the first time, I was hooked. They always show the most adorable families, the cutest kids, and the happiest people. You know the famous Voltaire’s saying – If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him? For me it is the same for car insurance – if it didn’t exist… I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

How can you sleep imagining objects of different form and size (like trees or big branches) falling on your car from everywhere, or running animals (a deer, a raccoon, or a big squirrel) colliding with you on the road, or a natural disaster – earthquake, flood, hurricane (that’s why it is called “natural” because it is natural to human nature to imagine it, right?), or fire, vandalism, theft – you know, the common every day calamities that can happen to anyone.

I just see myself quietly driving my car, unaware of an upcoming disaster, and then – boom! – a tree falls on the roof… Or… a deer appears from nowhere and runs into my car at record speed… Or… a terrorist springs out of a bush with a Kalashnikov, and a big branch, and a deer/raccoon/squirrel, and takes me and my car hostages. At this moment the thought of insurance coverage is like a balm for my figurative wounds, a thing that gives me a glimpse of hope in this insecure and unpredictable world.  And I sure want Nationwide, as well as Geico, State Farm, and/or Progressive by my side.

When you buy a new car you’ve got to sign up the paperwork. At that moment the nice women/girl behind a desk (they are always unbearably nice and friendly) starts telling you that you can also buy their warranties and even roadside assistance. Buying a car is a big endeavor. Usually you come ready to pay quite a lot of money. So what a little bit of extra means if it brings peace to your mind?

Unfortunately, statistically speaking these kinds of warranties are just a scam to fleece a customer. To fix any real damage, should it happen one day, will cost much less. And to buy those warranties from a lovely person behind the desk would be a waste, a stupid waste of money. I know it as well as I know my own name (I read the books, remember?)

Yet, every time my knees start shaking and I have to hold myself tight in order not to blurt: “Yes, please, sign me up for this and any other kind of warranty you can think of now”.  I have to restrain myself because my husband is sitting next to me and he would never buy anything without carefully calculating the odds. No matter, how strong is my urge to agree, I have to smile politely and say “No, thank you” to the temptress behind the desk.

So, if you are a worrier, like me, and your nightmares are full of catastrophic scenarios, just get statistics and calculate the odds. It is worth trying and you’ll breathe easier, believe me. You will start driving your car much more carefully but won’t be so anxious boarding a plane since your chances of being killed in a road accident are much higher than in a plane crash. And if you are afraid of going to, say, France, because “people get killed there”, just look at the numbers of people killed in your state every year and you’ll see that your odds of survival are much better in France.

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