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May 6, 2003

Bill Bennett and the Central Limit Theorem

Brad DeLong is appalled by the Voloch Conspiracy’s credulous acceptance of (or, even willingness to entertain seriously) Bill Bennett’s assertion that, over 10 years of heavy gambling on the slot machines, he has “come out pretty close to even.”

I think Brad would have an easier time accepting the innumeracy of others (in this case, ignorance of the Central Limit Theorem), were he to realize its adaptive value. Now, in the case of a UCLA Law Professor, I’m not sure offhand what adaptive value it holds. But, in Bill Bennett’s case, the value is clear. It is a lot easier to lie convincingly if one has no clue as to the utter absurdity of the lie.

Further evidence for this proposition can be found in a nearby post on Brad’s own blog. It seems that the President’s Council of Economic Advisers have been exiled, from next-door to the White House, to a basement broom closet in a building at the corner of 18th and G.

This will greatly improve the ability of the Administration to sell their economic policies.

Update: DeLong keeps trying, but Voloch isn’t buying. I begin to understand the adaptive value of innumeracy for a Law Professor. There are clearly some aspects of legal reasoning (“This has little to do with statistics — it’s a question of fact.”) which would eventually send someone with an understanding of statistics screaming from the room. Staying sane under such circumstances may actually require a certain level of innumeracy.

Update: Eugene Voloch’s inability to do the math is getting pretty frightening. So let us do it for him. Let us accept his figure of a House advantage of 2% at the Slot Machines. And let us remember that Mr. Bennett was reportedly playing the $500 slots. If he pulled the lever 400 times an hour, 4 hours a night, 50 nights per year, for 10 years, that means he pulled the lever 800,000 times and fed a total of $400 million into the machines. 2% of $400 million is $8 million, which is what the casinos estimate him as losing. I leave it to Professor Voloch to calculate the probability of “nearly breaking even” over 800K pulls of the lever. Each of the above numbers is probably somewhat off, but the errors tend to cancel in the product. Newsweek reports substantial single-day losses and Mr. Bennett, himself, acknowledges “cycl[ing] through several hundred thousand dollars in an evening.” However you slice it, the Casino estimates are probably fairly close, and Mr. Bennett’s claim of “nearly breaking even” wildly improbable — unless you happen to move in circles where dropping $8 million down the toilet is considered chump change.

Posted by distler at May 6, 2003 10:23 PM

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Re: Bill Bennett and the Central Limit Theory

I vaguely remember reading somewhere that years before he became a law professor, Volokh made a good deal of money as a professional independent software developer. You’d think he’d, like, care a little more about this boring old math stuff.

Posted by: Evan on May 8, 2003 10:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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