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1 May 2014
It is so random! Or is it? The meaning of randomness
25 June 2014

I have a guilty secret. I really love probability problems. I am so happy to be making videos about probability just now, and conditional probability and distributions and all that fun stuff. I am a little disappointed that we won’t be doing decision trees with Bayesian review, calculating EVPI. That is such fun, but I gave up teaching that some years ago.
The reason probability is fun is because it is really mathematics, and puzzles and logic. I love permutations and combinations too – there is something cool about working out how many ways something can happen.
So why should I feel guilty? Well, in all honesty I have to admit that there is very little need for most of that in a course about statistics at high-school or entry level university. When I taught statistical methods for management, we did some probability, but only from an applied viewpoint, and we never touched intersection and union signs or anything like that. We applied some distributions, but without much theoretical underpinning.
The GAISE (Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education) Report says, “Teachers and students must understand that statistics and probability are not the same. Statistics uses probability, much as physics uses calculus.”
The question is, why do we teach probability – apart from the fact that it’s fun and makes a nice change from writing reports on time series and bivariate analysis, inference and experiments. The GAISE report also says, “Probability is an important part of any mathematical education. It is a part of mathematics that enriches the subject as a whole by its interactions with other uses of mathematics. Probability is an essential tool in applied mathematics and mathematical modeling. It is also an essential tool in statistics.”
The concept of probability is as important as it is misunderstood. It is vital to have an understanding of the nature of chance and variation in life, in order to be a well-informed, (or “efficient”) citizen. One area in which this is extremely important is in understanding risk and relative risk. When a person is told that their chances of dying of some rare disease have just doubled, it is important that they know that it may be because they have gone from one chance in a million to two chances in a million. Sure it has doubled, but it still is pretty trivial. An understanding of probability is also important in terms of gambling and resistance to the allures of games of chance. And more socially acceptable gambling, such as stockmarket trading, also requires an understanding of chance and variation.
The concept of probability is important, and a few rules of probability may help with understanding, but I suspect the mathematicians get carried away and create problems that are unlikely (probability close to zero) to ever occur in reality. Anything requiring a three-way Venn Diagram has moved from applied problem to logic puzzle.This is in stark contrast to the very applied data-driven approach used in teaching statistics in New Zealand.

Teaching Probability

The traditional approach to teaching probability is to start with the coin and the dice and the balls in the urns. As well as being mind-bogglingly boring and pointless, this also projects an artificial certainty about the probabilities, which is confusing when we start discussing models. If you look at the Khan Academy videos (but don’t) you will find trivial examples about coloured balls or sweets or strangely complex problems involving hitting a circular target. The traditional approach is also to teach probability as truth. “The probability of getting a boy is one-half”. What does that even mean?
I am currently reading the new Springer volume, Probabilistic Thinking, and intend to write a review and post it on this blog, if I can get through enough before my review copy expires. It is inspiring and surprisingly gripping (but I don’t think that is enough of a review to earn me a hard copy to keep.). There are many great ideas for teaching in it, that I hope to pass on in due time.
The New Zealand approach to teaching probability comes from a modelling perspective, right from the start. At level 1, the first two years of schooling, children are exploring chance situations, playing games with a chance element and describing possible outcomes. By years 5 and 6 they are assigning numeric values to the likelihood of an occurrence. They (in the curriculum) are being introduced to model estimates and experimental estimates of probability. Bearing in mind how difficult high school maths teachers are finding the new approach, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the primary teachers are equipped yet to make the philosophical changes, let alone enact them in the classroom.


  1. […] I have a guilty secret. I really love probability problems. I am so happy to be making videos about probability just now, and conditional probability and distributions and all that fun stuff.  […]

  2. Joanna says:

    I just discovered your videos: they are great, and I will incorporate some into the online portion of my college class. Keep up the good work and I am glad you are covering probability! I have 2 answers for “why teach probability”. The first is that it is absolutely essential to all students taking genetics, which means all students doing biology. The fashion for removing probability content from statistics classes has left genetics instructors teaching the entirety of probability as well as the genetics material. The second, which you refer to, are the extraordinarily important applications of probability to everyday decision-making, including relative vs. absolute questions and Bayes. My own undergraduate class on Evidence-Based Medicine gives approximately equal weight to probability, statistics, and history/practice of medicine.

  3. […] I first started on our series of probability videos, I wrote about the worth of probability. Now we are going a step further into the probability topic abyss, with random variables. For an […]

  4. Ineke says:

    I don’t know if I am allowed to ask this question here, but I would appreciate it if you could help me or direct me to another page as to where I can ask my question. When calculating the Conditional Probability of a set of data, say P(Male|Dark) and I am working under the Null Hypothesis of Independence, why would I use P(Male|Dark) = P(Male), and not just P(Male|Dark)? Also is it set that if the question states Under The Null Hypothesis of Independence, that the conditional probability will be an independent event? Thank you

    • Dr Nic says:

      Hi – Sorry for the delay. The assumption of independence says that P(Male|Dark) = P(Male) so it wouldn’t matter whether you use P(Male|Dark) or P(Male) as they are both the same.

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