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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Great Day For Numbers, (Im)Probability, and Thinking

Do you all know the great political-statistical analysis column 538? It runs in the New York Times and author Nate Silver makes use of his sophisticated knowledge of statistics and skill with computers to make political analyses and predications. But this week he turned his insight to the totally unexpected last day, hours, and even seconds of the 162 game baseball regular season: For those of you who do not live in Tampa, St. Louis, or, (sorry) Atlanta, or, especially, Boston – early in September it was obvious that Atlanta and Boston were going to make the playoffs for the championship that take place after the season ends. But neither did, and in their epic collapses are stories about numbers, prediction, history — and really about thinking — that belong in our classrooms.

Take a look at the 538 blog –with embedded videos if you want to bone up on the history he is describing (or walk down a visual memory lane). While the comment thread debates some of the second by second probabilities he teases out, the general point is that the odds of the Sox collapsing were, at one point in September, under 1% — and yet they did. And, as the last night of the season turned, in several cases on batters being down to their last strikes, the odds went even lower than that. So compare that to situations where outcomes seem impossible but actually happened — from Rosa to integration, from Stonewall to the end of DADT, from Gandhi’s Salt March to Independence. The impossible is possible. And there is another point here, too.

Probability itself, the whole science of statistics, has a fascinating history. Think of it, before the 1600s, when this branch of math and logic began to take shape, we had ways of measuring what exists — stones, trees, buildings — and dreams, visions, fantasies, prayers about the future. But probability mapped a space between what is and what might be — actuarial tables about the trends of human life, for example, made both insurance and epidemiology possible. What does prediction predict, how does it work, and how can it go wrong? These are great questions for young people, and the end of the baseball season is a perfect way to begin the discussion.