While it’s nice to think that our challenge in life is to get rid of uncertainty and be in complete control of everything, that is not going to happen. One of life’s real challenges is to deal with the uncertain and the unknown effectively, and that is the realm of probability.
The Chances We Take…
Let’s say you buy a lottery ticket; what are the chances that you’re going to be rich for the rest of your life?
You walk across a golf course on a stormy day; what are the chances you’ll be hit by lightning?
What are the chances that your investments will allow you to live happily for the rest of your days?
You have a fever; you have a cough. What are the chances that it’s a serious disease rather than something trivial?
This is a transcript from the video series What Are The Chances? Probability Made Clear. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
All these are real-life examples of situations where we’re confronted with possibilities whose outcomes we do not know. Many or most parts of our lives—in the world and trying to understand the world—involve situations where we don’t know what’s going to happen. They involve the uncertain and the unknown.
Learn more about the concept of randomness and its quantification through probability
It would be nice to say, “Well, our challenge in life is to get rid of uncertainty and be in complete control of everything.” That is not going to happen. One of life’s real challenges is to deal with the uncertain and the unknown in some sort of an effective way; that is where the realm of probability comes in.
Probability accomplishes the amazing feat of giving a meaningful numerical description of things that we admit we do not know, of the uncertain, and the unknown. It gives us information that we actually can act on.
For example, when we hear there’s an 80% chance of rain, what do we do? We take an umbrella. Of course, if it doesn’t rain, we say, “Well, there was a 20% chance it wouldn’t rain. That’s okay.” If it rains, we say, “Oh, yes, the prediction was right. There was an 80% chance of rain.”
Probability is a subtle kind of a concept because it can come out one way or the other, and still, a probabilistic prediction can be viewed as correct—but decisions made on probability have all sorts of ramifications.
When we make medical decisions, for example, we are making decisions that are based on probabilities, and yet they have extremely serious consequences, including life and death consequences.
In the case of the rain, all we risk is getting wet. But in many areas of making decisions based on probability, there are very serious consequences. When we make medical decisions, for example, we are making decisions that are based on probabilities, and yet they have extremely serious consequences, including life and death consequences.
Learn more about a numerical way to make decisions
An Ethical Quandary
Before probability was viewed as commonplace as it is today— between 1750 and 1770 in Paris—there was a smallpox epidemic for which a vaccine was developed. Unfortunately, the inoculations were fairly risky. They reckoned that there was a 1 in 200 chance of death from taking the inoculation, but on the other hand, there was a 1 in 7 chance of dying eventually from the disease. Making that kind of decision is a very dramatic question when weighing probabilities.
If you took that inoculation and you died immediately from smallpox, did you make the right decision or not? Well, of course, you don’t want to be among the 1 in 200 that died from the inoculation. On the other hand, based on probability, it was the right decision. There are many controversies about this kind of thing and in today’s world with lawsuits, this would be a very serious kind of issue to undertake.
In many areas of life, our understanding of the world comes down to understanding processes and outcomes that are probabilistic that really come about from random chance and are happening by randomness alone. Over the last couple of centuries, the scientific descriptions of our world increasingly have included probabilistic components in them.
Learn more about probability can be used to model the distribution of genetic traits
Probability In Higher Studies
Many aspects of physics all involve questions of probability. Things we imagine—molecules causing things to happen by the aggregate force of probabilistic occurrences like in quantum mechanics and thermodynamics—at the very foundations of our knowledge of these studies is the theory of probability.
Biology, genetics, and evolution are all based centrally on random behavior, as well. In fact, in all of these areas, the goal is to make definite, predictable, measurable statements about what’s going to happen that are the result of describing random behavior.
The description of random behavior is how we, as scientists and mathematicians, define the world. This is a major paradigm shift in the way science has worked for the last 150 years. As time passes, there continues to be an increase in the role of probability and randomness at the center of scientific descriptions.
Probability gives us a specific statement about what to expect when things happen at random. But how can it be effective when, by definition, random outcomes of one trial or one experiment are completely unknown? If you repeat those trials many, many times and look at them in the aggregate, that’s when you begin to see glimpses of regularity. It’s the job of probability to put a meaningful numerical value on the things that we admit we don’t know.
Common Questions About Probability
A coin toss is the most common example of probability. With a 50% chance of either heads or tails, we see both sides of the issue.