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Is luck real? A probability expert untangles the difference between fate and chance

Can someone truly be lucky or are life events just random? Statistician Jeffrey Rosenthal untangles the meaning behind luck, chance, fate and magic in his new book, Knock on Wood.

'A lot of things out there really are just kind of random' says author Jeffrey Rosenthal

Probability expert Jeffrey Rosenthal says there are many ways to interpret luck but he debunks the idea that there are people who are inherently luckier than others. (meineresterampe/pixabay)

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Originally published on October 4, 2018

Do you believe in luck?

If you ask statistician Jeff Rosenthal — born on Friday the 13th — he would say it would depend on what you mean by luck.

The University of Toronto math professor says luck can be interpreted in different ways so it's not easy to define. But roughly speaking, he breaks it down into two categories: random luck and what he calls "forceful" luck.

"I think a lot of things out there really are just kind of random, but people want to believe that there was a force involved," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Rosenthal describes random luck as events that are outside of our control or knowledge — you can't predict it, but you can notice it in hindsight.

As he explains in his book Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance and the Meaning of Everything, it's like going to the store to buy a pair of shoes and discovering that they were on sale.

Author Jeffrey Rosenthal untangles what we mean when we talk about luck in his book, Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance and the Meaning of Everything. (Submitted by Harper Collins)

"When you think about all the coincidences which had to happen for us to be here — our parents had to meet at some party or whatever and they had to get together and then we had to be born in the right place at the right time — it's sort of amazing how many random coincidences there are which brought all of us here," he said.

People who believe in "forceful luck," however, attempt to actively predict and harness the power of luck to affect probabilities and future events. It sometimes manifests in beliefs or practices like karma, fate and magic.

"So many people believe in a special luck force, in one form or another. They scoff at my usual scientific approach to randomness and luck, incredulous that I could possible imagine that probability and scientific causes are all there is," Rosenthal writes in his book. 

Meaningful randomness

Rosenthal has problems with the popular notion that "everything happens for a reason." He argued that it can actually have devastating consequences for people who struggle through hardship.

To illustrate it, he shared a personal story of random luck, when he met the parents of a teenager who died of cancer at a book signing. The parents told Rosenthal his book was a comfort to their son when he was sick.

"They read to him from my book and they'd said he realized that it was all random, and the fact that he had this terrible bad luck getting cancer? It wasn't because he'd done something wrong, it wasn't because he deserved it, it wasn't because he was bad. It was just because of the horrible randomness of cancer," he explained.

"It's a very sad story. It's kind of emotional. But at the same time, there is a certain comfort in randomness."

Rosenthal also disputes the idea that one's luck is inherited. While has good health, a good job and a happy family, "that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm intrinsically lucky," he said.

"Similarly, some people might have gone through some rough times and it doesn't mean that everything is going to be rough."

So why are people so keen to equate luck with fate?

"It goes back to the old days. If there was a big storm, well, that meant the gods were angry. It didn't just mean that the water molecules were moving in a certain way," he said.

"People have a need to explain things in terms of stories, in terms of meaning, in terms of morality."

Probability expert Jeffrey Rosenthal says when it comes to luck the topic he gets asked the most is about winning the lottery jackpot. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

Beware of the luck trap

Rosenthal warned that many people fall into what he calls a "luck trap" by using one example of good luck to back up their belief or superstition that it's part of a wider pattern.

People who do this often ignore or fail to notice other events or incidents that don't fall into the same pattern.

"We call it a biased observation … you're not taking into account all the different observations, just the ones which would show your story," he said.

Rosenthal says the media also plays a role in creating luck traps, pointing to what he called a "headline bias" as one possible culprit.

Crime stories that report a murder or child that is kidnapped can give readers the impression that these events happen all the time, he explained.

But in reality, the reader's personal safety is actually not that bad, given how many people live in the city that the crime took place.

"The media of course isn't going to put up any headlines saying, 'Hey there were no murders today. There was no one who died of a heart attack today."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.