Science Book a Day Interviews David Hand


Special thanks to David Hand for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day

David Hand is Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and Chief Scientific Advisor to Winton Capital Management. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and a recipient of the Guy Medal of the Royal Statistical Society. He has broad research interests in areas including classification, data mining, anomaly detection, and the foundations of statistics. His applications interests include psychology, physics, and the retail credit industry – he and his research group won the 2012 Credit Collections and Risk Award for Contributions to the Credit Industry. He was made OBE for services to research and innovation in 2013. – Adapted from his Imperial College Profile

#1 – What was the impetus for The Improbability Principle?

I think two things. First, as with most people who have been exposed to probability concepts, I was intrigued by the fact that they sometimes seemed counterintuitive. It’s often only when you sit down and go through the maths that you can see what’s going on. The second was the sense of amazement we all feel when we encounter a coincidence or improbable event of the kind described in the book. There’s a sense of disbelief. Put the two together and the book just had to be written!

#2 – In what area of life do you think most people see patterns where there are none? Sports? Arts? Gambling? Time?

All over the place! Certainly in sports and gambling. But I often illustrate my talks about the improbability principle with visual examples of pareidolia – seeing patterns in random data, such as faces in clouds, meaningful configurations in stars, and so on.

#3 – How did you come to find all the examples you talk about in your book? What was your favourite example of co-incidence?

The book has been buzzing around in my mind for years, and I kept a note of the examples as I encountered them. Needless to say, since the book appeared I have collected even more, many of them being sent to me by readers or people who have heard me being interviewed about the book. I don’t think I have a favourite – it’s probably the latest I’ve come across, whichever that is. Although, having said that, I suppose things which happen to me personally are the most amazing to me, simply because they remove any sense of doubt or suspicion which inevitably accompanies secondhand narrations of extraordinarily improbable events.

#4 – How do you get the reader to come to terms with the statistics, that help explain how these co-incidences are not so surprising? Have you received feedback from the public? Are they surprised?

I think most readers buy into my five laws explaining the principle (though there are always some exceptions!). In a way, it’s difficult not to accept the laws, once they’re spelt out. But I do want to stress that understanding the mechanisms behind such coincidences in no way detracts from the amazement one feels when they happen. Understanding of the marvels of the way the universe works can only add to one’s awe. Or, as I sometimes say, we still stop and stare in wonder even though we understand the physics behind the rainbow.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I always have potential new books bubbling up in my head. The trick is deciding which one to choose to write next, since it’s a substantial time commitment. It’s a difficult choice because there are so many wonderful things to write about.

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