Forgive the unusual sports reference for this space, but recent events prompted a blog post that wouldn’t stay inside of me. Yesterday in my native New England, the local professional football AND baseball teams scored unlikely come from behind victories (some might even call them miraculous) within hours of one another. So unlikely were these events that some statistician got his name mentioned on the news today because he said the odds of this happening was so many millions to one.
Here’s the problem: The statistician was wrong, utterly wrong, the odds of this happening was 100% and not one percentage less. It was a certainty. Even with a really fancy software program no human actually knows the future.
Why was the statistician wrong about the odds of the Patriots and Redsox winning in such an unlikely manner? Because it ACTUALLY HAPPENED! What are the odds of something happening that actually happens? 100%. In our totally reasonable and scientific society, we think that by looking at the past we know what will happen next. Judgements from whether to bunt on a baseball diamond or loan someone money are being determined by people who try to drive forward while looking in the rearview mirror.
I want you to think about this for a minute because educated guesses have become a crucial part of modern civilization. From stock market buy programs to home loan approvals; saber mathematicians think they know how we are likely to behave under almost all circumstances. We like our numbers, our data, and we don’t like to think about the unlikely, or miracles, or the outliers. I just finished a new book this week by the author of the book called Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, it’s called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. The book is a wonderful reminder that we often make assumptions based on things like common wisdom, perceived strengths and weaknesses, and computer generated algorithms. Gladwell reminds us that the poor, the handicapped, the oppressed, and the little are not doomed by the odds, and, in fact, sometimes perceived handicaps can be turned into actual advantages.
David, for example, was probably a a pretty nifty shot with his sling, more nimble than a fully armored and relatively immobile Goliath who expected to fight a similarly equipped and imobile opponent. David, in fact, should have been expected to beat Goliath by contemporary battle conventions, slinger beats heavy infantry. He wasn’t about to stand in front of the giant and trade blows with him and savvy fighters of the time would have known that. But; thousands of years later, when we want to describe a huge upset, we mention David and the unfortunate Goliath, those wrong expectations are hard to erase from our memories!
David and Goliath reminded me that statistics don’t apply to individuals. Each time we think we shouldn’t bother to try something simply because someone thinks it isn’t likely to succeed, we should remember that science knows the understandable, God handles the rest. Among the things we don’t understand are miracles like last second touchdown passes, homeruns deep into the night, and little kids who beat cancer. We may not have much of a chance, we may think we are doomed to lose, but there is always a chance that the un-measurables like courage, tenacity, and rising to the occasion can help us to succeed against all odds. Someone shouting “Give me a chance!” is often an unstoppable force, just like David.
One of my writing heroes, Dr. Wayne Dyer, said, “I am reasonable, I expect miracles.” Do you believe in miracles?