Probable Cause (Part 2)

Posted on May 14, 2013


PhoneI just wasted about an hour and a half. I was trying to determine how many customers Disney World had last year. It’s getting harder to find official facts about anything these days. Encyclopedias are gone, and nobody reads almanacs anymore. Those massive and thoroughly researched reference materials have all but disappeared, replaced by open forums such as Yahoo, Wiki Answers, and Squidoo. All of those names sound a little unreliable to me, and when I see them, I sometimes think of a lecture on nuclear physics being delivered by one of the characters from the Flintstones. That impression only intensifies when I see that the responses are rated according to how many votes they got from other viewers. I’m not sure how anyone decides which answers to support, because most of us have access to the same vague sources as everyone else.

In the case of Disney, the company seems pretty secretive about things like annual ticket sales. That’s why we end up turning to those other websites in the first place. But do we trust voters to use good judgment? In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, the country’s most populous state. He got more than four million votes. This is a man who made his living by lifting weights, slathering his body with oil, and punching people in the face.

To tell you the truth, I’m not even that interested in Disney World. I’ve been there five times, and that’s more than enough. But I’m drawn to the whole issue of how many people do go, because it hovers near the very core of this probability thing.Ride

Disney World apparently attracts about eighty thousand visitors a day. Or maybe it’s thirty thousand. I never did find out. The point is, even for a teeth-rattling, completely unpleasant ride like Space Mountain, you might wait in line for two hours. A family of four could spend a hundred and fifty dollars on three meals and some snacks. And unless you live in Florida, you have a long trip to get there. You’ll need hotel reservations, at least a week off from your job or school, and a lot of planning. Yet something close to the population of Fairbanks, Alaska, shows up at this place every single day.

Given the amount of time, money, and sheer hassle a Disney vacation involves — and the fact that they’ve been open since 1971 — I would expect that every once in a while, someone would get out of their car in the Peter Pan parking lot and be the only one there. But this has never happened. Somehow, for every date on the calendar, tens of thousands of people decide that’s when they’re going, and then take care of all the necessary details in order to make the trip. It’s as though they went to a huge meeting somewhere, with each person choosing one or more of those dates, and then communicating with everyone else at the meeting to make sure they maintain daily attendance levels within a certain range.

Obviously, that isn’t how it works. Where would they have such a meeting? There probably wouldn’t be enough chairs, and I can only imagine the line for the women’s bathroom. But some invisible force is influencing the results. It must be probability.

Once again, how does it work?

I guess it has something to do with the large number of people who want to go – and the relatively small number of days there are in a year. When I go to an amusement park, I look around and wonder, “What are the chances that all of these people would come here on the same day?” But, as the probability experts tell me, that’s the wrong question. I should be asking, “What are the chances that this many people would come here on the same day?” The slight shift in perspective gets me a little closer to an acceptable answer, but not quite there.BaseballThis idea of a weird, telepathic contact among complete strangers, and an equally mysterious connection between unrelated events, seems to affect many areas of business, as well as life in general. At any point during the baseball season, for example, I can guess with a high degree of accuracy how many hits and home runs the league leaders have, and what their approximate batting averages are. But why those things are so predictable is another story.

Direct-mail marketing poses a similar puzzle. Large-scale mailings are considered successful if they get a two-percent response. I’ve experienced this. If I send out a thousand pieces, I hear back from about twenty of the recipients. But how do those twenty know they’re the ones who are supposed to buy? More frustrating, how do the other nine hundred and eighty know they’re not supposed to?

Probability, then, seems to fall into one of two broad categories: Our attempts at measuring the physical movements of inanimate objects, such as coins and clouds, and forecasting the decisions and actions of living things, such as racehorses and human beings.

Actually, I wish it were that simple. But life is more random than we realize. At least mine is. And while it would be nice to believe we can plunge into the chaos and emerge with real answers, that seems about as likely as Barney Rubble earning his PhD in quantum mechanics. It could happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


Posted in: In Over My Head