The past year has been flush with the most bizarre, improbable-seeming events taking place just about everywhere. In sports, the Cleveland Cavaliers defied all statistical logic to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 NBA finals, defeating the Golden State Warriors. This year, the Super Bowl saw the unscrupulous football franchise from Boston defeating the Atlanta Falcons, despite being down three touchdowns at the half. That night, Twitter was abuzz with parallels to the nightmare that Americans are currently living in: Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, not unlike the Brexit vote months earlier, didn’t feel real or fair. Increasingly, life feels like a parallel universe, where few things that should happen actually do, and everything that shouldn’t just won’t stop.
At Sunday night’s Academy Awards, yet again, the unlikely occurred. While announcing the award for Best Picture, Faye Dunaway invited the cast of the film La La Land on stage — but it wasn’t actually their award. Not until one of its producers had given half of a speech did the real winner, Moonlight, get announced. Weird! In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik went so far as to posit that we are living inside of a simulation, and that the recent rash of strange events proves that something has gone awry.
Except, we are not living in a simulation. Such a reality would perhaps be comforting: It would mean, for instance, that none of the horrible things our president is plotting would be the result of the deep-seated racism and xenophobia on which America is built. Instead, it would simply be a software error. But according to at least one statistician, what is occurring in these bizarre times is what has always occurred, and the things we think could never happen will, inevitably, eventually happen.
David J. Hand, senior research investigator and emeritus professor of mathematics at Imperial College, London, believes improbable events are inherently probable. In 2014, Hand published The Improbability Principle, a book that uses five statistical laws to outline how and why the most ostensibly bizarre and unexpected occurrences should, in fact, be expected.
I asked Hand whether or not the world is going through some sort of cosmic flux, where up is down and down is up, and whether I should ultimately be afraid. In a phone conversation, he described the five principles in his book — the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the probability lever, and the law of near enough. Together, they form what he calls the Improbability Principle, which suggests why the strangest things seem to keep on happening.
“For any given lottery,” Hand said. “There are only a finite number of possible tickets, so it is inevitable that one of them must come up. So if you’ve got enough money, you could buy all possible combinations.”
The universe is similar. If there is a possibility that something will happen, chances are good that, at some point in human history, it will occur. This is explained by Hand’s law of truly large numbers: If you give an improbable thing enough chances to happen, it will certainly occur. “Toss a coin for long enough, eventually you'll get ten consecutive heads,” he said. “That doesn't mean the nature of coins changed.”
Sunday night’s Oscar mix-up was certainly strange, but also not the first time it has happened. For years, a rumor persisted in Hollywood that Marisa Tomei’s 1993 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was awarded to her by mistake because the announcer, Jack Palance, couldn’t read the name of the actual winner. More recently, Steve Harvey’s mishap at the Miss Universe Pageant in December 2015, where he initially announced the runner-up as the winner, was an almost identical occurrence. Of course, when things go wrong, it tends to stand out more than when things go according to plan. In Gopnik’s New Yorker piece, he points to a discussion among physicists and philosophers last year that asked, with complete seriousness, “Are we living in a computer simulation?” The case the group presents is rather impressive on the surface. They argue that advances in intelligence are a constant among living things, and since there are likely living things all over the universe, it is not impossible to believe that our world is an experiment belonging to a hyper-intelligent species from another universe. Under this premise, it isn’t terribly far out to believe that something in the experiment’s programming is going wrong.
“Toss a coin for long enough, eventually you'll get ten consecutive heads, that doesn't mean the nature of coins changed.”
Of course, there are simpler answers to why these strange occurrences keep happening. According to Hand’s law of selection, if you decide after the fact that an event was out of the ordinary, almost anything can seem extraordinary. The mishap at the Oscars points to a glitch in our computer simulation of a world only if you ignore the history of such mishaps occurring.
A similar idea, the law of near enough, posits that if you go looking for comparisons to make, you can easily turn seemingly mundane things into unprecedented events.
Hand pointed to an example from his book: a British newspaper report from the ’70s about a husband and wife both dying in separate car crashes. The newspapers, he said, reported the oddity with incredulity at the apparent strangeness of the event, but upon further examination, it turned out the event was relatively normal.
“What happened, in fact, was that these two died 15 years apart and in separate locations. So in reality, it’s not this amazing coincidence so much as a somewhat commonplace incident,” Hand explained. “The thing about coincidence is that when something out of the ordinary happens, your attention is drawn to it and then infects your thinking and alerts you to other such things.”
Hand said the fascination with unlikely events occurring has less to do with actual statistical probability and more with the way we attempt to rationalize our world. When I asked about the election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote in Britain, Hand said that instead of viewing this as some disruption in the natural order, it should be viewed in a broader perspective. “One question is whether or not it is because we had stability for several years that this sort of swing toward the more extreme is occurring,” he said. “Or is it just by accident that we didn’t have these strange election results in the last three or four years. I think they both have possible constituent explanations.”
So should we freak out about a glitch in The Matrix, or smugly ignore all of the strange things that keep happening because math explains everything? As the world appears to become increasingly weirder, and news reports of odd occurrences are published almost daily, an update to the way we approach the world is necessary.
“Just because one should expect these sort of rare events to happen occasionally doesn’t mean you should be dismissive,” said Hand. “You should still enjoy it because they are sometimes sort of wonderful accidents to get a kick out of. But you shouldn’t worry about it.”