It’s all about probability (well, mostly)

There was a book written several years ago by astrophysicist Mario Livio called Is God a Mathematician?  Of course, an astrophysicist (or any scientist) is going to be almost certain to think that God is a mathematician as opposed to say an English major or somebody who studies rocks. 

It seems kind of natural to think of the world in terms of mathematics.  If we explain some of the mysteries of the universe by the equation e=mc2, few will take a second look.  But if we try to explain some of the mysteries of the world by Shakespeare’s “to be or no to be”, there will be quite a few heads turned.

As a mathematician myself, I am biased to a mathematics-based model of the world.  That said, one branch of mathematics that has not gotten as much hype as perhaps it should have is that of probability.  Despite my liking of mathematics, I have always had a particular affinity for probability.  Probability is narrow where mathematics is wide.

How does this relate to our current crisis?  Well, people are divided as to how quickly we should open up certain aspects of America.  Should restaurants be open now?  What about in states that have not has as big an issue as others?  Should hairdressers be allowed to conduct business?

Although it seems that the belief system is mostly partisan (Republicans want to end this lockdown, and Democrats want it extended), it does not completely go across party lines.

Rules/laws/ordinances are for the most part based in probability.  The U.S. is the “land of the free” but what exactly does that mean?  There are restrictions on what we can say.  We cannot go into a movie theatre and yell ‘fire’ (unless there really is one).

There are speed limit laws.  By imposing a law, are our freedoms being interfered with?  Some would say ‘yes’. 

Regarding speed limits (and other restrictions) society generally has a balance between risk and reward.  For instance, if the speed limits were 10 miles per hour (even on highways), there is a pretty good chance that many people would be rioting in the streets over their freedoms being infringed upon. 

If you are really not concerned about dying, you might be willing to go 150 miles per hour on a highway.  Or if given the chance, and told you had a 50% chance of dying if you took a spaceship to Mars, you might take it.  Others might think it is worth the risk.  Of course, many would not.

We all have different thresholds regarding risk.  If you could take a rocket to the moon and had a one in a million chance of dying, would you take it?  I probably would.  If the chance was one in a thousand, I probably would not.  Thus, my threshold is somewhere between 1 in a million and 1 in a thousand (of not making it alive) for going to the moon.

With regards to COVID-19, every governor has his/own discretion about what risks should be taken.  There are some that say that much like when we are skiing, we take risks, and in fact, take a risk not only that we will get hurt independently, but also that somebody else might hurt us.  But we take that risk.  The argument goes that we should be able to take the risk by going to a restaurant.  If somebody does not want to go out, that is up to them.

But unlike the skiing example, this is not an apples to apples comparison.  Because when you are skiing, you take risks for yourself and others who are willing to take the same risk.  If you go to a restaurant, while you are at the restaurant, you take risks along with others, but the problem is that you might bring something home with you. 

Now, I am not saying one way or another which way I feel.  I do believe in certain cases, restrictions are too strong.  I am making the general point that each person in authority, for the most part anyway, are making decisions not with the intent to infringe on anybody’s rights, but are making decisions with probabilities in mind.  Whether they also have ulterior motives in purposely infringing on somebody’s rights, I don’t know their hearts.

But my point is that everyone has a different threshold in the many facets of life, and this guides their decision making.  Just like in the rocket to the moon example.


2 thoughts on “It’s all about probability (well, mostly)

  1. Dave b May 9, 2020 / 9:17 am

    John, I agree we all have different risk adversity. What gets me is the governor(s) say they’re basing decisions on science to keep us “safe”. But they don’t share the model outcomes with various assumptions (r0, death %, hospitalization %, ICU%,…). They don’t share ANY assumptions. So when Cuomo made many statements early on about needed vents, icu rooms, etc that have been WAY off base, there are no repercussions. There also needs to be economic costs to weigh in as well. My personal belief is this doesn’t end until a vaccine or herd immunity- and we’re not getting a vaccine in 12 months(that would be a record). So we monitor hospital capacity, try to protect vulnerable, and let most people go. If we get to herd immunity, vulnerable will be freed up sooner


  2. gqe66 May 9, 2020 / 7:11 pm

    Dave, you are correct. They do not share assumptions. So, we do not know how they are basing their decisions. I think in many cases, they kind of “wing it” , only hearing from the supposed experts that this virus is ‘bad’ and that there need to be lockdowns, etc and they base their decisions off of that. Did you ever notice that many people think in VERY general terms? And of course, there are some nasty people out there that go beyond risk aversion, and want to impose their agenda on us, simply because they know what is good for all of us regardless of what the numbers might suggest. Thanks for commenting.


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