One in a Million

I can make something happen that has less than a one-in-a-million chance of happening. I can make it happen every time. So can you.

  • Take 20 pieces of paper.
  • Hand them to 20 different people.
  • Have each person secretly write either the number 1 or the number 2 on each piece of paper.
  • Gather all of the pieces of paper together.
  • In any order, record the 1s and 2s from the pieces of paper.
  • Note the order of the numbers.

The “one-in-a-million chance” is the odds of a particular order of occurrence happening in the future. With 20 items, the chance of any particular order of 1s and 2s occurring is 1 in 1,048,576, a less than a one-in-a-million chance.

Looking at our list of numbers we can see that one of those 1,048,576 possibilities will have happened, so we have now made something happen that had less than one-in-a-million chance of happening. Once it has happened, the “chance” is 100%.

From this we can understand that to ascribe cause for any state because the odds are so overwhelmingly against that state being achieved merely by chance is not supportable. But it is commonly done.

We often accept the conclusion that something happened, then something else happened, so the second happened because of the first, sometimes saying, “Because what are the odds of that happening by chance?” or “That can’t be a coincidence!”

This is called the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, usually shortened to simply post hoc. Latin for “After(ward) this, therefore because of this.” My copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it like this: “Relating to or being the fallacy of arguing from temporal sequence to causal relation.”

In other words, “Because this happened after that, that caused this.”

The classic example of this fallacy is stating that the chance of the universe being the way it is is so miniscule that there must be a divine hand guiding creation. Faulty logic.

It should also be noted that simply because the reasoning is faulty, the conclusion is not necessarily wrong.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *