Real-World Probability Books: Everyday Life

Frank, Robert H. Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Princeton University Press, 2016.

See my amazon.com review.

Hand, David J. The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

See my amazon.com review.

Makridakis, Spyros and Hogarth, Robin and Gaba, Anil. Dance with Chance: Making luck work for you. Oneworld, 2009.

See my amazon.com review.

Mazur, Joseph. Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence. Basic Books, 2016.

See my amazon.com review.

Shapiro, Amram et al. The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life. William Morrow, 2014.

See my amazon.com review.

Rescher, Nicholas. Luck: the brilliant randomness of everyday life. University of Pittsburg Press, 1995.

This book, by a former President of the American Philosophical Association, could be viewed as an unusually erudite blog or as an unusually reader-friendly monograph. It's a wide-ranging discussion of just about every aspect of luck that you can imagine. Everything he says is reasonable, though by using only hypothetical examples to illustrates his points, it often seems to resemble fiction more than everyday life ("the burglar who breaks into a house just before its owner returns well-armed from a bear hunt ...."). He gives an interesting classification of (un)lucky events into windfalls, lost opportunities, accidents, narrow escapes, coincidences, consequence-laden mistakes in identification, fortuitous encounters, and anomalies. (After looking at real-life examples I would add two more categories: other people's actions having (un)favorable consequences for you; once-in-a-lifetime deliberate risk-taking that works out well or badly). His bottom line precepts (be realistic in judgements; be realistic in expectations; be prudently adventuresome; be cautiously optimistic) are unarguably good advice -- but hardly count as novel insight. Brief chapters on history (Gataker (1600s) on when drawing lots is theologically permissible) and morality are more professional in tone. Overall, the book contains extensive rational discussion which, while not getting anywhere in particular, provides starting points for possible explorations of more concrete aspects of luck.

Wiseman, Richard. The Luck Factor. Hyperion, 2003.

A psychologist interviews people who self-describe as extremely lucky or unlucky, and finds this is associated with a range of other aspects of positive or negative attitudes to life. Well, this is hardly a surprise. His concluding principles are: maximize chance opportunities, listen to your intuition, expect good fortune, see the positive side of misfortune. Nobody could object to that advice. My basic critique is that, starting with people who see life in terms of luck and asking them questions about luck, it is not surprising that one ends with answers in terms of luck. But if one started out to write a book on the topic "how adopting a positive attitude towards life will help lead to success" and tried to formulate a list of maxims, then surely such a list would include similar items but without much explicit mention of luck -- one would just talk about success.

Glynne-Jones, Tim. What are the Odds? Chartwell Books, 2011.

See my amazon.com review.

Siskin, Bernard et al. What Are The Chances? Risks, odds and likelihoods in everyday life. Plume, 1990.

Statistics about people, presented as fun trivia, without any citations. The relevance of population statistics to ``you" is of course usually highly questionable, as illustrated by this example. Q: What are the chances I don't know my cholesterol level? A: Among U.S. adults, 87% or 93%, according to surveys.

Weaver, Jefferson H. What are the Odds? The chances of extraordinary events in everyday life. Promethius, 2001.

Has an odd style: an attorney-turned-author aiming at humor but often missing. The book addresses some conceptually interesting questions: what are the chances you can get into Harvard? become a doctor or a lawyer or a rock star? get a tax audit or an organ transplant? The book quotes a fair number of interesting statistics but doesn't treat them very seriously.

Back to complete book list.