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We're All Bad at Math; or, Should Skeptics Play the Lottery?

by Eric Hall

January 13, 2016

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The image above has come across my Facebook feed at least a dozen times. It appears that most people are sharing it without a critical look. And yet I am the one that gets vilified when defending the ideas behind common core math!

Let's talk briefly about how easy one could see how this doesn't make sense: if every person had 1 million dollars, then 10 people would have $10 million. So 100 people would have $100 million, and 1,000 people would have $1 billion. It becomes a pretty far stretch to give the other 299,999,000 people in the US the leftover 0.3 billion dollars and expect everyone to end up with $4.33 million each.

This is my defense of common core: we are really bad at estimating. The process of common core is what those of us who use math regularly (like me teaching a physics class) would do in our heads to see if an answer is reasonable. This is is important in other fields, too. Imagine if a doctor says to give a medication at 0.1 mg per kg of body weight. If the pharmacy is directed to prepare 100 mg of medication, would that be a reasonable dose for an average adult? I'll leave the answer as an exercise for the student.

As for the meme above: if the multi-state lottery association distributed the money to everyone in the US, you'd have just about enough for a decent cup of coffee or a happy hour beer. Please get your math right!

The Lottery is for Those Who Don't Understand Math

Given that people seem to be bad at math, it is no wonder the lottery is so successful. It is interesting, however, to see the debate among skeptics as to whether or not skeptics should play the lottery, given that we should, presumably, know math and statistics a little better than the average person. According to the Powerball website, the odds of winning the jackpot is 1 in 292,201,338. In other words, it's impossible to win. You have no chance. Really. At my age I have about a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying this year. If I really thought I could win the Powerball jackpot, I should also put my name in for president (1 in 10,000,000).

I saw one comment on Wil Wheaton's social media, which suggested: "Just put the amount you would have gambled into a savings account and you'll almost certainly end up with more money in that account than you ever would have won." This is true. If the $2 per drawing was put into savings at 6% for 10 years, you would have $2,612. Not bad! Just sticking it in the mattress would total $1,920—also a nice chunk of money.

I could apply this to anything I spend money on. I could have skipped that second viewing of Star Wars, saving $20 (with snacks). I could cancel Netflix—I really don't watch it that much—and save $8 a month. One of the wines I really like is about $16 per bottle. We all know wine tasting is mostly BS, but I just like the taste of this one wine. Should I skip it and go with the Two Buck Chuck? My point is that we all make decisions to spend on things we don't need. It is really about the value they give back to us. I enjoy having Netflix at the ready. I enjoy that glass of wine on Friday night.

I admit it: I bought a ticket for the $1 billion+ jackpot this week. I know I won't win. But that 30-minute conversation with my spouse about what we would do with that kind of money was really fun. It also feels a little like goal-setting, because some of our dreams are really ones we have and are working towards. The value in it wasn't in planning on winning and making changes to our spending habits. The value was in how it felt to dream—just like seeing Star Wars as a kid made me dream of being an astronaut.

There are certainly economic and political arguments to be made against government-run lotteries. There are social arguments against them as well. I'm not arguing those points here. It isn't a justification or criticism of the existence of lotteries. That is a much longer blog post—and probably not something handled on Skeptoid!

So for skeptics who refuse to buy a ticket: your reasons are valid and reasonable. I have no problem with that. For those skeptics who participate in the office pool or buy that ticket "just because," that's OK, too. I am pretty sure you understand you won't win, but extract the joy out of dreaming. For me, it was $2 well spent.

by Eric Hall

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