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Chances Are

Psychology, probability, risk, statistics

Have you ever had that anxiety dream where you suddenly realize you have to take the final exam in some course you’ve never attended? For professors, it works the other way around — you dream you’re giving a lecture for a class you know nothing about.

That’s what it’s like for me whenever I teach probability theory. It was never part of my own education, so having to lecture about it now is scary and fun, in an amusement park, thrill-house sort of way.

Perhaps the most pulse-quickening topic of all is “conditional probability” — the probability that some event A happens, given (or “conditional” upon) the occurrence of some other event B. It’s a slippery concept, easily conflated with the probability of B given A. They’re not the same, but you have to concentrate to see why. For example, consider the following word problem.

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