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The Science of Luck

September 20, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D
It’s all a matter of probability

The New York Times hit a slam dunk, with an excellent essay explaining how luck is compatible with science. For scientists, “luck” is just a matter of probability, of rolling the die of life. Luck is as scientific and fixed as gravity.

As every good poker player knows, there is a one in four chance that a random card chosen from a deck will be a spade. And there is about a one in 12 chance of being dealt two pairs or better in the first round at poker. Luck is a euphemism for when those chances play to your benefit.

Card counting may be one thing, but when it comes to life and death we can’t deal the cards again. Each of us has about a one in four chance of dying from cancer. This doesn’t mean much for the individual, who either will, or will not, die of cancer. But across the population, for every unlucky cancer death, there are three others who die for other reasons.

Risks can be reduced, but not eliminated. And whether a small risk affects your life or not is just a matter of luck. You can reduce your chances of lung cancer by a factor of ten by not smoking, but you might still die of lung cancer (and your smoking counterpart may not).

The unfortunate few who die of lung cancer without smoking (such as Diana Reeve last year) or the fortunate few who live a long life despite their vice are as much a result of a statistical reality as those who smoke and get lung cancer, and those who don’t and live a long life. If the statistics were otherwise, tobacco companies would have held accountable a long time ago.

At best, science can determine the probability of something going wrong, or the risk associated with a certain behavior or physical trait. Whether it affects you or not is just dumb luck.