Saturday, November 7, 2009

Used Barf Bags and Statistical Literacy

NYTimes Magazine Via Joshua Gans. Find the logical (statistical?) mistake:

As a last ditch effort, I grab an air sickness bag from out of the wall pocket. Using one of the rejected crayons I scrawl a face on the bottom of the bag. I reach inside, turn it into a hand-puppet and say the funniest thing I can think of: “Ooga booga.” The child stops crying. Then smiles. Then giggles.

“You like the puppet?” I ask. “MO PUPPA!” she says.
Then think to myself, “sure, one puppet is fine, but two puppets — now that’s a show!” I reach into the wall-pocket in front of my husband and take out his air sickness bag. I draw another face, this time taking a little more time and care with my creation. I give it curly hair, long eyelashes and glasses so that it looks a little bit like me. Nice touch.

I stick my hand inside. And then my world contracts.

Seems this air sickness bag has been used before, but not for a puppet show. No, it’s been used for the purpose that god intended.
Roughly two million people fly the friendly American skies every single day. How many of those travelers feel nauseated enough to reach for, and then use, an air-sickness bag? (I travel often and can count on one clean hand the number of times I’ve seen it happen.) And of those phantom pukers, how many would choose to tuck the vomit-filled vessel back into the wall-pocket? And then, what’s the likelihood that a cleaning crew would overlook the sack o’ sick? And finally, what are the odds that all of this would become the perfect set-up for one arrogant idiot who tries to make a hand-puppet out of a barf bag?!
Anyway, it’s possible that the occurrence of this mathematical improbability has created a statistical vortex by which we are virtually guaranteed that this plane will land safely.

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