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Mastering Uncertainty: Amram Shapiro on 'The Book of Odds' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Amram Shapiro.

Shapiro is the author of The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life (William Morrow Paperbacks, $26.99), along with Louise Firth Campbell and Rosalind Wright. Prior to founding Book of Odds, he served as director of two management consulting firms and co-authored Product Development: Success through Product and Cycle-time Excellence. Shapiro has also contributed to numerous journals including Research Technology Management and CFO magazine. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from Harvard University.

The Book of Odds was published earlier this month and received an editor’s recommendation from Barnes & Noble, which noted, “The Book of Odds is filled with good news (you have a relatively good chance of experiencing love at first sight), mixed news (you are less likely to be killed by a co-worker than by a sibling), and bad news (don't even ask). Whatever the messages, this paperback original refuses to allow you to stop reading—and if you read it indoors, you significantly reduce your chances of being hit by lightning.”

From the publisher:

From the popular Book of Odds website, this stylish and accessible reference book offers a fascinating peek at the probabilities that govern every aspect of human life

Did you know that your odds of dying from drowning are higher than the odds of meeting your mate on a blind date? That the odds a child has seen Internet porn are the same as the odds a person is right-handed? That nearly one in three adults believes in UFOs and nearly one in six has reported seeing one?

Drawing from a rigorously researched trove of more than 400,000 statements of probability, based on the most accurate and current data available, The Book of Odds is a graphic reference source for stats on the everyday, the odd, and the outrageous—from sex and marriage, health and disease, beliefs and fears, to wealth, addiction, entertainment, and civic life. What emerges from this colorful and captivating volume is a rich portrait of who we are and how we live today.

Now, Amram Shapiro reveals whether or not the odds are ever really in our favor …

1) What inspired you to write THE BOOK OF ODDS – and how do you feel that reading it might change a person’s perception of the world that exists around them?

I was inspired to write The Book of Odds by an idea.

The idea was that people are ready to master uncertainty, the way they once mastered reading, spelling and arithmetic. There was a time when most people could not read, spell or do the times table, yet now these skills are taken for granted.

The Book of Odds project aims to do for risk and probability what printing, dictionaries, and arithmetic primers did to spread disciplines once reserved to small elites. By expressing the odds of those things we care about, worry about, and perhaps experience first-hand, we hope to make uncertainty itself less frightening. We hope to put most of us on the level playing field of competency when it comes to decisions involving risk.

We want to enable everyone to make the odds a part of how they understand the world. By making them fun and clear and related to what people know in their guts, this will just happen over time. That’s the idea, the mission, and the vision.

2) Tell us about the research process and how the Internet/social networking has influenced data collection (and cataloging) …

Research at Book of Odds took five years and over 50 person-years of effort. We had to decide which odds to cover and how to organize them in a hierarchy. We had to develop the conventions of how to express them so we would be consistent. For example, at what age is a boy or girl a teenager? At what age is a teenager an adult? How to handle conflicting data sources and so on. Then we assembled a great group of students from the Boston area, working as paid interns and hires. All their work went into a database organized semantically. After three years we had created 4-500,000 odds, about the number of words in an unabridged English dictionary. We needed to reach that scale.

The internet was invaluable. There is so much data to look at and the Web is invaluable for finding authoritative sites. The ‘net also introduced some problems. One is that not every interesting statistic can be traced back to its original source, if it has one. We only used primary sources. Most internet sources internet report don’t cite sources at all. We resolved to be different and we always cite our sources so a reader can check for himself or herself. Another internet problem is disappearing links. We made it a practice to download any source and put it into a source database of many thousands of sources. This way even if the source no longer had a “permalink –“a funny name for something so impermanent, we could find it again.

Social networking has been very helpful in letting us know what odds people want to know. People on twitter and Facebook and Pinterest often ask us questions. We learn that, for example, people want to know their odds of living to a 100. We learned that each year older you get the odds of making to a 100 get better! The predicted odds a 1-year-old will live to be at least 100 years old are 1 in 57.2. But if you are 90 years old, your odds of making to a 100 are 1 in 12.

3) Given that we have just embarked upon a New Year, how can this book be used in relation to resolutions and the likelihood that we’ll stick to them?

We love New Year’s. It is a fresh start and a chance to look at what resolutions people make and how likely they are to keep them.

Here is a kind of chart we invented for telling stories with odds. (Note: See image in sidebar.) We call it a “thread” and it links probabilities in a chain. If you start with the whole population, about 45% will make a resolution and of those only some will keep it a week, month, or year. The odds someone who makes a resolution will keep it a year are 1 in 8, just 17.8 million of the 142.8 million who make them.

We have made this chart before and this measure of willpower is pretty stable. This might discourage some people and cheer some others. What we have found that is really optimistic is a study which shows that people who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to have their lives change in a positive way than those who don’t.

The great thing about looking at the odds, is they can show you so many things you never knew, just guessed at, or had just plain wrong. It turns out that the impulse is more important than whether the specific resolutions are kept. Want to quit smoking? Well the first resolution doesn’t always work. The odds are 1 in 14 on the first attempt, but most people get there eventually. It helps to know that other have dared these odds and won regularly.

4) What was the collaborative process – and how did your unique experiences coupled with those of your co-authors benefit the overall creation of the book?

Working with two women of this caliber was delightful and humbling too. While Louise Firth Campbell and I focused on creating the database, Rosalind Wright and Alison Caverly focused on mining it for the odds of greatest interest. Rosalind, a highly regarded novelist, wrote the first version of the book and its structure was really sound. The data needed updating, and that was my job and Louise’s, a statistics and medical expert. To put that into perspective, it was a job of two years’ duration. I hadn’t given much thought to how well we work together until reading your question. It was remarkable. Each of our skills, uniquely ours, are evident in the book. That said, if anything is wrong in it, I am confident it is my fault.

5) You can tell us: what are the chances of a follow-up project?

We call what we are The Book of Odds Project. This is because our mission is not met by just one book, and our original website will need to be reconstructed.

We have several things in the works. We are developing an app for MD’s and medical professionals to use to help express medical odds to their patients. We hope the reception we get for this book allows us to do our next book, Book of Odds Looks at Sports. We have a unique approach to sports statistics which will make this book an addition to the lore. There are some others, such as our consulting services to corporations and nonprofits also underway. In short we are busy and the reception we have received has been rewarding.

***

With thanks to Amram Shapiro for taking a chance and indulging us our curiosities and to Caroline Perny of HarperCollins Publishers for facilitating this interview.

Dear readers: May the odds be ever in your favor …

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