Numeracy and the Wall

The numbers should guide policy, not silly symbols.

The appeal of the wall is obvious.  People cross the border illegally, and therefore if you put a barrier between them and their destination, they cannot cross and, therefore, the problem is solved! But, of course, that is an extremely simplistic framing of the problem (as well as a naive assumption about the solution).  It is also one that I have long thought results from a lack of understanding (or even consideration) of the numbers involved (e.g., the length of the border, the number of legal crossing per day, the number of undocumented who cross legally, and the actual cost of a wall).

A recent example of this has been the GoFundMe effort to raise $1 billion to help fund the $5 billion request from Trump that has been denied and has resulted in the current government shutdown.  The NYT reports: GoFundMe Campaign to Build Border Wall Raises Millions, Riles Migrant Advocates

The campaign, called “We The People Will Fund The Wall” and launched this week by a disabled Florida veteran, had raised more than $13 million from more than 213,000 people by Friday afternoon. The goal? $1 billion.

“Americans are putting their money where their mouth is,” the campaign’s founder, Brian Kolfage, said in an interview Friday. “They’re willing to put money down to show politicians this is what they want.”

Mr. Kolfage — a triple amputee who served in Iraq and who ran a right-wing website that was eventually removed by Facebook — is hoping to raise even greater sums to cover construction of a barrier between the United States and Mexico. He suggested on the GoFundMe page that if the 63 million people who voted for Mr. Trump were to each donate $80, they would raise more than $5 billion, the amount Mr. Trump is seeking for the wall.

As of this writing, the page has actually raised over $17 million over a nine days period, a rate of ~$1.9 million a day (although the rate has not been even and peaked several days ago, early in the process).  My constant mental refrain on this attempt is that it is something of a numeracy test and, I think, is a really good example of how people don’t understand policy and, therefore, I suppose, why a wall sounds like a good idea.

Let’s consider a few numbers.

  • A billion is 1,000 million.
  • $17.2 million is 1.72% of a a billion.
  • At $1.9 million a day, it would take almost 522 days to raise a billion. (And, again, that is the average amount raised per day to date, bu the campaign peaked in terms of daily rate a few days ago–I started writing this post on Sunday, if I recall properly, and at that time the fund had raised ~$16 million, which means for the last several days the rate of contribution has fallen considerably, as one would expect).
  • $1 billion is only 20% of the requested $5 billion.
  • Worse, $5 billion really doesn’t buy all that much.

Fox New reports Here’s what $5 billion in border wall funding would buy.

According to DHS officials, the funding would cover the construction of 215 miles of “wall system” on the southern border.

What that system would include is a matter of debate.

But DHS officials say it could cover the replacement of “dilapidated” fencing, new wall sections and secondary wall structures, as well as roads and lights for Border Patrol agents.

The “wall system” also includes sensor technology that would enable agents to detect movement coming toward the wall, “starting the clock” for officials to respond before anyone starts to try to scale it.

DHS officials said that of the 215 “linear miles,” well over a hundred miles would be brand new wall in places where there is no barrier now. The majority of this construction would be in the Rio Grande area, specifically the Laredo sector, along the Texas border with Mexico.

DHS officials said those 215 miles would be the most “critical” locations that need to be addressed. The total cost of a wall could be upwards of $25 billion – additional funding in the future could go toward other locations.

So, if $5 billion get you 115 replacement miles and 100 new miles, $1 billion theoretically gets you 23 replacement miles and 20 new miles (assuming, for the sake of argument, a similar ratio of replacement to new). Estimates for a full wall vary, depending on the type and configuration, range from $15 billion (Trump’s recent estimate) to $21.6 billion (past DHS estimate) to $25 billion as per the quote above or $70 billion (Senate Democrats).   Maintenance and monitoring costs are not included in those numbers, by the way.  For the thing to work it has to be maintained and constantly monitored, else walls can acquire holes.

Speaking of numbers, the border is immense:  approximately 1,954 miles.  As such, 100 new miles isn’t much.  And if $5 billion only gets 100 new miles, it is hard to believe that the whole thing could be built for a mere $15 billion.

But, of course, the broader discussion of the wall is steeped in ignorance over basic numbers.  For example, it ignores that the majority of undocumented persons in the country entered legally, and simply over-stayed their visas.  One study, for example, notes that since 2007 overstays well outnumbers those who entered without inspection (i.e., did not cross at a legal crossing).  A wall doesn’t fix that issue.

The wall-as-solution ignores that we have seen a substantial decline in border apprehensions which is because less people are trying to cross.  As I noted in a post earlier this year, the numbers are starting to look like the 1970s.  The peak for apprehensions was in 2000, going on two decades ago, and the decline has been steep.

These two factors alone suggest that a wall (or, now, steel slats) is not a cost effective expenditure.

A wall also ignores the sheer number of border crossing at numerous points of entry.  You can see the stats here.  For example, in 2017 at just the El Paso crossing, there were 15,898 buses, 12,615,101 passenger vehicles, and 779,410 trucks.  The notion that we have perfect control of those vehicles in ludicrous (and that is just one of 48 ports of entry, albeit the busiest).

In terms of stopping drugs and criminality, the wall is worthless.  Drugs are far more likely to be smuggled in one of millions of trucks that cross the border annually than they are to come across the Sonoran desert.  And even with a wall, drugs and go over and under a wall (as one expects people will do as well, especially under the wall).  Tunnels are already a real issue under the border (not to mention that drugs can be launched over a wall via any number of methods–or through the steel slat version).  But I will reiterate: the vast majority of drugs come via legal ports of entry and, therefore if true security is the issue, better control of ports of entry would be a far better investment.

But, the child-like simplism of our president suggests that if you build a wall, that solves the problem.  And, sadly, a lot of people agree because “wall” is easy to understand.

For those interested, here is a great map of the existing barriers along the border.  One will note that there is a reason why 600 miles of Texas currently have no wall and that building one there would be absurd (and none of this goes to issues like environmental impact and private property rights).

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Science & Technology, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    You know what else is simple-minded and child-like? Hyper-rationalist reductionism that assumes organic social phenomena occur because others are dumb, that lacks awareness the guiding power in society and policy is historical.

  2. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The French spent 5 billion dollars building the LGV Est, connecting Paris to Strasbourg via high-speed rail.

  3. gadzooks says:

    A vertical slat fence currently covers much of the border – in the parts that Trump calls dilapidated. His would be 30′, not the current 20′ – but still….

  4. KM says:

    God, that picture’s like some sort of Lovecraftian monstrosity – stare at the “fence” too long and your eyes start acting up. I got a headache after a few seconds of staring directly at it. I can’t imagine what kind of optical illusions that and desert haze will wreak on traffic…..

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    “We caught 10 terrorists over the last very short period of time. 10. These are very serious people.” Trump

    So has anyone asked Trump if he can tell us the status of these 10 individuals?
    Who are they? Where are they being held? Have they been arraigned?
    Or would this inquiry be considered hyper-rationalist reductionism?

  6. gVOR08 says:

    So we’re shutting down the government over the difference between 5B$ to build 200 miles of …something, not clear what and mosty not a wall v 1.8 to build 100 miles of same. Which if built would be like 10% of what’s wanted. If half of what’s wanted weren’t river where this makes no sense. And what’s wanted is a wall to which libtards said you can’t see through a wall, a fence is better, so now it’s slats you stupid libtards, which are a wall. Which would be ineffective in dealing with the crisis, which isn’t a crisis. And Wolf objects to pointing out this is stupid. Apparently, like Pearce, he has mistaken this blog for a DNC messaging forum.

  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    As someone else said, I’m glad the slats are vertical, horizontal slats would make America look fat.

  8. Kathy says:

    If people were aware of their personal and cognitive biases, this would be a much nicer world.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    I’m gonna do something pretty unusual for me. I’m gonna defend Trumpers here. But I’ll do it by insulting pretty much everyone. Innumeracy is a real thing and extraordinarily common. You hear seasoned reporters failing to understand basic things like the difference between percentage in increase of occurrence versus the raw percentage of occurrence (the difference between 1 in a billion and 2 in a billion is 100% but only changes the occurrence from .00001% to .00002%.) I’ve been at a table with well respected and well published surgeons discussing basic multiplication (how many people you save with early diagnoses of various cancers versus how many people you kill or seriously injure doing what turns out to be unnecessary surgery on false positives) and as soon as I started mentioning actual numbers I saw the light in their eyes die. I have had engineers, recent grads who just finished dozens of hours of advanced mathematics, insist to me that their conveyor belt speed calculation is correct because it says so on their calculator, when a little common sense would tell you that anything moving that fast would shoot off at the first turn and probably blast through the chest of the worker tending the machine.

    So yeah, Trumpers are clueless about the wall, but so is everyone else about pretty much everything else.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..If people were aware of their personal and cognitive biases, this would be a much nicer world.

    Or we could all turn on…tune in…and drop out…

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    @MM:..but so is everyone else about pretty much everything else.

    I read the John Allen Paulos tome Innumeracy soon after it was published (1988) so I like to think I am cured of that malady.

  12. Kathy says:


    I know a mathematician who specializes in gaming math (he built a business on that skill). One time he said something like the difference between a 10% risk of ruin and 11% is one percent.

    It’s actually ten percent, but it’s one percentage point.

    This was in casual conversation. I doubt he’d write an analysis for a game, part of his business, making that error. But it illustrates how deep innumeracy runs.

    Here’s another one. One Mexican lottery sells tickets, pre-printed, in “series.” A series is 20 tickets with the same number, and there can be up to three series per number per drawing (sixty tickets in all). prizes are divided by the number of tickets. Thus to get the grand prize whole, you need to buy all 60 tickets. This is called a “whole.”

    Well, if you get together with other people and pool your money, the rational (so to speak) course of action is to buy many different tickets, as this maximizes your odds of winning (which are still low). The actual course of action is to buy a whole and split it evenly. This minimizes your odds of winning, and gives you nothing in return. That is, if you played one ticket and won, you’d get the same money and odds as if you got together with 59 other people and bough a whole.

    And then there’s this simple problem:

    You buy a bat and a ball for $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much is the ball worth? Most people will say ten cents, which is wrong. The answer is five cents; then the bat = $1.05 and $1.05+$0.05=$1.10.

  13. JohnMcC says:

    @Ben Wolf: I understand. You remember that if ALL the boys and girls clapped their hand REAL HARD Tinkerbell would live. It was wonderful.

    You know what you get with all that ‘historical’ ‘ guiding power in society’ and ‘organic social phenomena’? You get a great movie called ‘Triumph of the Will’. Check it out. I bet you’ll love it.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: Through a career in engineering, I’ve seen the same thing. The Pareto Principle applies to most activities. About 20% of engineers are actually good at it, the rest need a lot of guidance and established routines. Same with doctors, although they benefit from a field that’s highly rote. Dr. K occasionally wonders how some trained economists can believe the nonsense they believe. It’s because they’re 80 percenters. The effect is aggravated by Dunning Kruger. The 80% would be easier to deal with if they didn’t all think they’re top 10%.

    I’ll support your view of Trumpers, as long as it’s clear we’re talking about common voters. The mass of Trump voters are no worse than voters have always been, the common clay of the New West, or something. Republicans have long been willing to play to the lowest common denominator to get elected. (I mean, what else can they do? Run on policy?) What I object to in this case is Trump creating a divisive issue out of essentially nothing and demanding we lay out serious money to no purpose except that he can continue a game of make believe. I’m OK with Trump voters, but if Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP Senators, who know better, go along with this nonsense, they’re beneath contempt.

  15. MarkedMan says:

    My first realization that innumeracy was epidemic was when I lived through a wide held 1980’s belief that 1M kids per year were kidnapped. For those on the sunny side of 40 I don’t think I can tell you just how prevalent this number was talked about constantly. The first time I ever heard it I ran the math in my head and realized it had to be off by huge multiples. But when I pointed this out to people and showed them my math their eyes would just kind of glaze over. (The math has nothing that you couldn’t solve with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). The county I lived in had about a million people, so given the population at the time 400-500 kids should have been disappearing every year. I remember a Sheriff’s election debate and more than one parent stood to demand to know what the candidates would do about this epidemic of kidnapped children. The incumbent answered a few different ways but then finally said “Look, I’ve been on the force for over 20 years and I remember every single kidnapping that didn’t involve a custody dispute. They are etched into my mind and to this day we don’t give up on a single one. But I can count them on the fingers of one hand.” He was crucified because he showed his ignorance and that he didn’t take the problem seriously.

    Many years later, long after the hysteria had ceased, an intrepid reporter actually traced this 1M number back to the source and identified the woman who first trotted it out. And she admitted that she just pulled a number out of the air to get peoples attention.

  16. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..I lived through a wide held 1980’s belief that 1M kids per year were kidnapped.

    See Day-care sex-abuse hysteria
    I posted this one occurrence of the 13 mentioned because it tells of innocent American Citizens who were imprisoned for TWENTY ONE YEARS FOR NOTHING!

    Oak Hill satanic ritual abuse trial
    Main article: Oak Hill satanic ritual abuse trial
    Frances Keller and her husband, Dan Keller, both of Austin, Texas, were convicted of sexually abusing a 3-year-old girl in their care, and they spent 21 years in prison until their release in 2013.
    The case began on August 15, 1991, when a 3-year-old girl told her mother that Dan Keller had hurt her. The mother and daughter were on their way to a scheduled appointment with the girl’s therapist, who drew out details that included Keller defecating on her head and sexually assaulting her with a pen. During the time leading up to the trial, two other children from the day care offered similar accusations. According to the children, the couple served blood-laced Kool-Aid and forced them to have videotaped sex with adults and other children. The Kellers, they said, sometimes wore white robes and lit candles before hurting them. The children also accused the Kellers of forcing them to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs and a crying baby. Bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes dug to hide freshly killed animals and, once, an adult passer-by was shot and dismembered with a chain saw. The children recalled several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day care.
    The only physical evidence of abuse in the case was presented by Michael Mouw, an emergency room physician at Brackenridge Hospital who examined the 3-year-old girl in 1991 on the night she first accused Dan Keller of abuse. Mouw testified at the Kellers’ trial that he found two tears in the girl’s hymen consistent with sexual abuse and determined that the injuries were less than 24 hours old. Three years after the trial, while attending a medical seminar, Mouw said a slide presentation on “normal” pediatric hymens included a photo that was identical to what he had observed in the girl.
    On November 26, 2013, the Travis County district attorney’s office announced that Fran Keller, now 63, was being released on bond and her husband, Dan Keller, who was convicted at the same time, would be released within a week in a deal reached with lawyers. “There is a reasonable likelihood that (the medical expert’s) false testimony affected the judgment of the jury and violated Frances Keller’s right to a fair trial,” said the district attorney.
    On June 20, 2017, the Travis County district attorney’s office announced that the case against the Kellers had been dismissed, citing actual innocence. They were awarded $3.4 million in compensation from the state of Texas for the 21 years they spent in prison.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster: I remember this case. Didn’t prosecutors rely heavily on “Repressed Memory” pseudo-science? If I recall, even at the time there was a small contingent willing to speak up and point out the absurdities in the stories, but they were shouted down by the mob. I remember a trope repeated over and over, “Children never lie about such things”, marshaled out as indisputable truth. I wasn’t yet a parent back then and didn’t pay much attention beyond the headlines but I was pretty darn sure that didn’t make sense. Now that I’m an old coot and my children are grown, I recognize that, at least with respect to a three year old, it would be very difficult to get what really happened if, say, the dog knocked her down or the five year old next door hit her with his sand pail.

    This is not to minimize real and actual child abuse. Horrible things can and do happen. But I think having a burn the witch mentality develop around this or any other horror can eventually people tuning it out and so do serious harm.

  18. Jc says:

    These morons dumping money on gofundme, do they ever stop to ask, “hey, shouldn’t Mexico be putting money in this fund?” Like the boss said? Fix the system, the wall does not fix it. The wall idea is small time thinking. The GOP has become the party of “all our solutions fit on an index card”….That may be great for your base to understand and rally around, but it does not represent deeply thought out solutions, it is just band aid politics and no problems ever get solved.

  19. michilines says:

    My examples are more mundane and perhaps a little mean. First, I’m pretty sure everyone has already seen the tweet by the self-described deplorable twitter person claiming that the wall gofundme was “halfway to the goal” when it was approaching $5 mil. The other example has to do with flag burning. Back when I lived in Houston, several right-wing radio nuts regularly got there panties in a wad when flag burning increased by 50% or “had doubled.” This regularly happened when democrats were president.

  20. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    In “The Demon Haunted World”, Carl Sagan goes into some detail about that particular hysteria. He ties it to things like witch-hunts and alien abduction.

    More recently, Malcolm Gladwell dealt with the issue of false, fabricated memories in his podcast, Revisionist History.

    Coincidentally, I fabricated one false memory recently. It’s nothing important, but I could trace how it happened. I had this vivid flash of memory of me cooking in my apartment, and my late dog, Emm, begging for scraps. I know it’s false because little Emm passed away a few months before I moved here. She was never in my apartment, therefore that memory couldn’t have happened.

    I trace it to a few times I was cooking, and thinking how Emm would have been drawn to the smell of cooking meat and would have begged for some. I must have imagined the scene, and later it got mixed up in my mind as a memory.

    Or maybe I dreamt that imagined scene (it’s not rare for me to dream about my departed pets), and the memory flash came from there.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    It’s far from just innumeracy. In one of the recovered memory child abuse cases there were allegations the care givers had sacrificed an elephant. The grand jury dismissed the case. But the elephant thing was reported without asking how they were supposed to have obtained, killed, and disposed of an elephant without leaving evidence. Besides credulity. I expect there was also an element of one of the things that drove the Audi unintended acceleration flap. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell the pastor’s wife that she was responsible for crushing her kid against the garage wall.

  22. mattbernius says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    The satanic childcare scare (like other outbreaks of what we can call “witch hysteria”) is something that cultural anthropologists have studied and written a lot about. Generally speaking, these types of Moral Panics emerge at moments of cultural change.

    Which to some degree gets to Ben’s point up top — the current “immigration panic” (of which the wall is a symptom) is in part a symptom of a bigger crisis within our culture. As such, these panics create their own story-based logic.

    Unfortunately, this also means that you cannot use data to disarm them. As someone recently told me: you have to find a way to fight stories with stories.

  23. MarkedMan says:


    Nobody wanted to be the one to tell the pastor’s wife that she was responsible for crushing her kid against the garage wall.

    I’m as down on evil corporations as anyone, but this doesn’t get enough attention. When I had my own small business I did jobs all over the country but there were a few states I would not accept business in, because juries would award to the “little guy” no matter how ridiculous. I remember one case where a guy was so drunk he forgot to close his door or put on his seatbelt when he drove home and fell out of the car at the first right hand turn in the road. The jury awarded against the auto manufacturer.

    This litigiousness has real world consequences. We are in the cycle again where the media has realized that virtually no drugs get tested on pregnant women, leaving doctors to do nothing or prescribe off label. This is presented as malfeasance by the drug companies. But in what fantasy world would it be good stewardship of a company to test your products on pregnant women? On the one hand, you are doing a public service for a small percentage of the population. On the other, if any baby is born with a birth defect or a woman miscarries, the whole company could go down, whether it was really at fault or not. Devasted young parents vs. a multi-national with insurance for this type of thing. Who do you think will win the case? And, once one has been won, how about the hundreds that follow? And what about the reputation of the company and the execs? Do you think Twitter will be reasoned and fair and weigh all the evidence before they synomize the company name with that of Joseph Mengeles?

  24. Mu says:

    The innumeracy argument reminds me of the hard time I had at work convincing a guy that you couldn’t get rich by joining a (way to expensive for him) lottery pool. They had great marketing numbers showing how all the minor prices would pay for 30% of the pool, and how great the odds were for a jackpot.
    The only thing that finally got through to him was explaining that if you pool with 100,000 other people, even a 300 Million jackpot would only pay him $1,000 after cash discount and taxes. Which the offering didn’t point out, it only said JACKPOT.

  25. Kathy says:

    Innumeracy is why casinos thrive.

    Rationally, one can see gambling as a thrill, and be willing to pay the price for it. But if casinos were stuck to catering to rational gamblers, they’d go broke. after all, you’d want the lowest house edge, or advantage plays.

    The best, biggest and most consistent advantage play is counting cards in Blackjack. It’s real, but very misunderstood. The simple explanation is that blackjack consists of related rather than independent events. That is, the cards which have been dealt from the deck, inform you which cards remain. When the deck becomes rich in tens, face cards, and aces, you should raise your bets. But you don’t change how you play, you stick to basic strategy.

    Casinos, though, can defend against this. First they tried multiple deck BJ, which changes the opportunity for advantage betting. Then they made continuous shuffle machines. in these, the cards from multiple decks are constantly shuffled rather than discarded until the shoe runs out, so counting cards becomes pointless.

    Finally they can spot counters by the simple expedient of keeping count themselves (easily done by machines that read the cards as they’re are taken off the shoe, and inform the dealer what the count is). If a player raises their bet when the count is high, they can be removed from the table or even the casino.

    At the same time, people who think they understand card counting in BJ but don’t, are the casino’s best marks. That’s why you still see single deck and double deck games on the Strip, without continuous shuffling.

    Other than that, the best play is in full-pay video poker. But that’s getting harder to find, as casinos can easily reprogram the pay tables in their machines. And even in most full-pay ones, the return is usually under 100%. Finding an advantage machine is rare, usually at locals’ casinos or Downtown in Vegas.

    I play video poker only at full pay machines (and milked an advantage deuces wild at The D three years running for around a net $600 in my favor; alas it was a nickel machine), and mostly craps (low house edge), and Pai Gow Poker (lowish edge, slow pace).

    I tend to stay away from novelty games (also called carnival games) like 3-card poker, 6-card poker, Let It Ride, High Card Flush (though a friend worked at the company that made it), etc., as they have large house edges. One also ought to avoid side bets for the same reason.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: That, from what I’ve seen, is part of the Vegas shooting story. The guy was making money on video poker, then the casinos changed the payback and he was running out of money.

    Saw a story decades ago, the American Physical Society the professional assosciation for physicists, held their annual convention at a casino. They were politely asked to never come back. Physicists are numerate, they didn’t gamble.

  27. Kathy says:


    That, from what I’ve seen, is part of the Vegas shooting story. The guy was making money on video poker, then the casinos changed the payback and he was running out of money.

    Not one guy, rather many, many people.

    The thing is video poker can be analyzed easily, and a strategy devised for each game, no matter what variations you throw in (and they get very creative with that). It’s partly a skill game. There’s a reason why rewards cards pay less for video poker play than for slot machine play.

    The D got rid of their deuces wild machine. There are a few at the Cortez and Main Street Station still, but they are quarter machines, which require a bigger bankroll. there are also Double Bonus advantage machines at the California and 4 Queens. also quarters, and the strategy is more complex.

  28. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: I once read a rather lengthy article about how it was possible to defeat video poker, and that books were published about it yet the manufacturers didn’t change their odds. The numbers were in the article but you had to do the math yourself. It turns out that over the long term people were making about $9/hr playing video poker, but their real money came from the books they wrote. And, as you mentioned, you have to get it exactly right every time or you can get yourself into a hole you can’t get out from. And you have to maintain a sufficient wad of cash so that you can afford to ride out the times when the cards are just not in your favor. Bottom line, the video poker companies were paying people $9 an hour to write books, give lectures and tell everyone they meet how you can get rich playing video poker. Considering probably not 1 in a 100 of the people they proselytized to ever came out ahead, it struck me as a really good price for advertising.

  29. KM says:

    When I was doing academic advisement, I’d keep a deck of cards on my desk and shuffle through the interview. I’d listen to the student tell me what classes they wanted and what they thought they needed to graduate, all the while poo-pooing any math-based requirement. All the while, I’d randomly deal out cards in various hands. At the end, I’d ask a simple question: how many of {X} are likely left in the deck and what’s the odds of getting a winning hand against whatever I’d already dealt with {X}. If they even ballparked it close, I’d take their choice of class under advisement but would still push for anything higher then what they wanted (reach for the stars, kids, not the rooftops). If they couldn’t, they went into “Statistics and Gambling” at the very least so they don’t end up losing their damn house in the future.

    I’ve gotten various thank you notes over the years for that. A few were appalled enough to pursue math even further once they realized ignorance could cost them a fortune.

  30. Mister Bluster says:

    I call Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark
    my Holy Book.
    The enabling scripture is the footnote on page 18.

    * Although it’s hard for me to see a more profound cosmic connection than the astonishing findings of modern nuclear astrophysics: except for hydrogen, all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant stars thousands of light years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff.

  31. Kylopod says:

    One of my favorite examples of how basic math can be wildly counterintuitive, and therefore mislead people who ought to know better, is the birthday problem, the statistically provable fact that in any random sample of 23 people, there’s a 50% likelihood that at least two of the people have the same birthday. It’s a great illustration of the way people can come to see patterns where there are none, due to underestimating the frequency of chance occurrences. A great deal of pseudoscience is based on some form of this fallacy, and it has the capacity to fool some very smart people.

    Martin Gardner’s classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science opens its chapter on ESP with the following observation about J.B. Rhine, the founder of modern parapsychology:

    It should be noted that Rhine is clearly not a pseudo-scientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book. He is an intensely sincere man, whose work has been undertaken with a care and competence that cannot be dismissed easily, and which deserves a far more serious treatment than this cursory study permits.

  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    When you fly into Vegas look out of the window. See all those massive casinos? They were all built by dummies who thought they had a system. There is a system that guarantees winning, but that system is called, ‘a casino.’

    Unless you’re Donald Trump in which case you can’t win even with a margin.

  33. MarkedMan says:


    It should be noted that Rhine is clearly not a pseudo-scientist to a degree even remotely comparable to that of most of the men discussed in this book.

    Rhine was a fascinating character. I wonder if any good biography has ever been published. The Golden age science fiction writers largely brought into Rhines early results. There is a classic scene in Star Ship Troopers where a cadet is tagged as having psychic powers because he scores a zero on the test when chance dictated he would have gotten some right. That is straight out of the Rhine institute. And the reason why this observation led to such bad analysis despite being 100% correct in a standalone way should be taught to every undergrad in every discipline

  34. Joe says:

    @Mister Bluster: I prefer Joni Mitchell’s approach to the same point, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’re caught in a devil’s bargain.”

  35. gVOR08 says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Ever since I read “The First Three Minutes” in the early 80s I’ve felt that the real creation story was far more beautiful than some bronze age myth. But I guess that point of view requires some odd interests and inclinations.
    (The book is about THE first three minutes, from time = 0 to 180 seconds after the big bang.)

  36. Kathy says:


    I have a grand total of two gambling books. one is misleadingly entitled “How to Win at Craps.” It explains you won’t win at craps, but I got it because it explained very well how to play the game.

    The other is “Gambling 102” by Michael Shackleford, who happens to be an acquaintance. I carry it with me whenever I gamble. It’s a short book, but contains strategies for Deuces Wild and Pai Gow Poker, which are very useful to have, along with all the good VP pay tables.

    I don’t know Bob Dancer, perhaps the biggest figure in video poker, but he gets much mention in gaming boards and among my friends in Vegas. I wonder whether he makes his money actually from his books, videos, training software, and seminars, or from actually playing advantage VP.

    I’m sure people pushing dice control books and seminars don’t make money at the craps table.

  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I remember a number of years ago–probably 30 or so–watching a show where a professional gambler was being interviewed. He claimed that the percentage of people playing games in Las Vegas who actually win some money was something over 90% (I think he claimed 92). He went on to note that the reason that casinos don’t go broke is that almost all of those people continue to play after winning to the point that they lose all of their winnings and more. A friend of mine used to play relatively high stakes poker (high enough to get comped drinks and an occasional restaurant meal–as opposed to a buffet meal) in various cardrooms and frequently in Vegas casinos also. He tells me the only reason that he would turn a profit was because he would keep with a gambling budget and segregate his winnings from his stake. He advised always leaving before the stake was depleted. His system was “you haven’t won any money until after you leave the casino.”

  38. Jake says:
  39. Jake says:

    Illegal Immigrant Crime Stats: What are the facts?