Odds are, U of T prof knows the answer

Statistics expert uses numbers to calculate probability of events


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If you've ever asked the question, "What are the odds?" Jeffrey Rosenthal can find you the answers.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/03/2015 (2891 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’ve ever asked the question, “What are the odds?” Jeffrey Rosenthal can find you the answers.

At least, it’s a probability. But chances are Rosenthal could eventually give you those odds, too.

Rosenthal is a professor in the department of statistics at the University of Toronto who earned his PhD in math from Harvard at the age of 24. (“241/2 to be precise,” he said).


He’s a numbers guy.

What are the odds of winning Lotto 6/49? One in 14 million.

That means you’re:

— Three times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning this year.

— Four times more likely to be sitting right now beside the next prime minister of Canada.

— Two times more likely to die while driving to the store to buy the ticket.

In short, according to the math, if you buy one 6/49 ticket every week you will win the lottery once every 270,000 years.

“In our life, we’re always confronted by random, uncertain events,” Rosenthal said. “Is the bus going to be late? Is it going to rain? Are we going to get in an accident? Are we going to win a prize?

“In some way, I’m trying to work things out in a logical way, thinking about probabilities.”

Rosenthal is the author of the bestseller Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, but his main source of notoriety stems from using his algorithm to help uncover the Ontario lottery fraud scandal. How? Rosenthal, at the request of CBC’s Fifth Estate, simply crunched the numbers, eventually concluding the odds of 200 lottery ticket sellers being among the 5,000-plus major winners over a seven-year period to be infinitesimal.

The resulting investigation ended in arrests, the firing of the Ontario lottery commission CEO and, subsequently, the awarding of millions of dollars to the real winners who were defrauded.

Rosenthal has since become a popular source for calculating probabilities on a wide range of subjects — the odds of winning at the TV show Deal or No Deal to a prognosis on the NCAA Final Four, to the odds of a Torontonian getting hit by a random bullet (not very likely).

Are there some things you shouldn’t know? Like when you’re going to die? Or how?

“You could make a case, for example, if you’re dying of cancer, maybe it’s better not to know, so at least you could enjoy your last few years instead of worrying about it,” Rosenthal ventured, following a lecture at the University of Winnipeg Friday. “But for the most part, I tend to believe the more you know, the better. That’s the whole point of books and universities and thinking, to know and understanding things better and try to make the best decisions in the face of what you know.”

‘In some way, I’m trying to work things out in a logical way, thinking about probabilities’

— Jeffrey Rosenthal

Of course, algorithms are becoming intertwined with modern culture in a technological age. They are used to predict elections (not always accurately), sell products and even determine the worth of professional athletes.

Rosenthal cautions calculating probabilities is not always an exact science. He cites the case of a British woman, Sally Clark, who in 1999 was convicted of murder after both of her infant sons died of sudden infant death syndrome (also known as crib death). One of the prosecutor’s witnesses, a pediatrician, calculated the odds of two infants dying from SIDS to be one in 73 million.

Clark was convicted. Later, it was determined if one child dies of SIDS, the odds of a second infant dying in the same family increase. The odds of probability fell dramatically. Clark’s conviction was overturned in what was called “one of the great miscarriages of justice in modern British legal history.”

Of course, there is one unproven probability that Rosenthal would like to calculate. It’s out there.

“One thing people always ask about is if there is intelligent life on another planet,” he said. “On the one hand, you think it’s so unlikely that life evolved on the Earth the way it did. Would that ever happen again? Yet there’s so many billions of planets and stars out there, maybe an infinite number, there’s got to be something out there. But we haven’t seen any signs of it.

“If there’s one probability that I just snap my fingers and know, that’s probably what I’d pick: Is there life somewhere else in the universe?”

For a math wizard, that would be like winning the lottery, right?

For the record, Rosenthal doesn’t buy lottery tickets, and he doesn’t gamble.

“I don’t like the odds,” he said.


Randy Turner

Randy Turner

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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