What Are the Odds?

Posted on 2012 January 28


People don’t always think clearly about the odds. We worry about asteroid strikes but are many times more likely to die from a heart attack due to all that greasy food we eat. We fear our kids will be kidnapped by online strangers but they’re vastly more apt to be harmed by someone they know. And so forth. Then, just when we start to understand the odds, science comes along and announces new research that changes them. It can get very confusing; it can make us feel like dopes; we can worry unnecessarily.

So let’s have some good old-fashioned cynical fun poking at the odds in matters big and small:


–Before the Industrial Revolution, a couple might have several children, and if two survived to adulthood, the couple won the game. Today, a couple might have only two kids, and if either of them amounts to anything, the couple wins.

–One third of Americans are obese, and another third are overweight. Now look around: if the person on your left is fat, and the person on the right is fat, then you must be the skinny one.

–If we cured all cancer, your life expectancy would only go up about three years. And during those three years you’d probably have a heart attack. So why worry?

–People who take naps feel better and have improved odds for long life. Therefore, make sure your office has a door with a lock on it, then put your head on your desk around 3:00 p.m. each day and close your eyes. The hell with pushy American-style workaholism! You’ll thank me.


–Judging from the Costa Concordia wreck, it’s a good idea, on a cruise, to spend a little extra and get a stateroom somewhere above the bottom decks. That way, when crashing into a port, you’re less likely to wake up with a face full of seawater.

–Small cars are more efficient. But big cars win the accidents.

–If you flew on a major airline once a day, it’d take more than 30,000 years for you to die once in a plane crash. Now, what on Earth are you thinking, taking the car instead?


–A mathematician recently asserted that we’re nearing the point where we can simulate entire civilizations inside computers, and soon kids all over the Earth will be raising their own miniature worlds, a hundred thousand unwitting sentient beings inside computers for every person outside. At that point, the odds will be overwhelming that any given consciousness — that would be you — is really inside a computer. Huh? Well, it’s what the math whiz said. But wait a minute! That’s like saying you’re in a small plane with eight people flying above Las Vegas, and below you is a population of eight hundred thousand, so the local odds are a hundred thousand to one that the people in your plane are actually on the ground in Las Vegas. Which is nuts. So don’t worry about it.

–In time, we’ll invent machines that are vastly smarter than we are. Some of those machines will conclude that humans are in their way; the people who survive the ensuing war will have to implant machine intelligence into their brains and bodies just to survive. The odds, then, favor that we will become the machines we’re inventing. And then we’ll be safe. So don’t worry about it.

–Eventually, we’ll explore other star systems. When we meet exotic civilizations on faraway planets, our history tells us that we’ll probably try to conquer or destroy them. So the odds are that we are the evil aliens to be feared. So we don’t need to worry about that.


–The more valuable a love relationship or career position is to you, the harder you’ll fight for it. When finally you win the object of your desires, you’ll become trapped by it, suffering from its faults for years, because you don’t want to start all over again searching for something as good. A bettor would wager that you could get as much value out of something mediocre that’s easy to acquire and discard. Sounds cold; but hey, it’s the odds.

–Similarly, your odds are better if you hire a competent and reliable, if dull, employee than an erratic and unreliable genius.

–The chances you’ll change the world are miniscule. The likelihood that you’ll change it for the better is smaller still. Instead, do what you want in life, and the odds will greatly improve that you’ll die smiling.

–Chances are that the future will be different from what anyone predicted. Surprises will be the rule. You’ll just have to figure it out when it happens. So … repeat after me …