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I stumbled upon this snippet on Yahoo this morning. "Professor proves Germany will win World Cup".  Of course the reference is to the only World Cup that matters, the one in South Africa later this year, not the pretend one happening here in NZ next year.

I can only think that something has been lost from translation from ‘science’ to ‘media speak’, and then from German media speak to English media speak. For a start, the ‘formula’ used is based, according to the article, on trigonometry.  I’m not sure where trigonometry comes into it – it would make some sense though if the author meant probability. The argument is basically that, if you look back at past world cup winners, Germany wins the world cup on average every fourth or fifth. There have been 4 unsuccessful world cup campaigns for Germany since their victory in 1990 (yes, I remember the agonising semifinal where England’s Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle stuffed up their penalty shots – I think it was them, anyway – you always tend to remember the players that didn’t live up to expectations). Therefore Germany are due to win this time in South Africa.

What dumb application of probability is that? It doesn’t work like that, though it is a pretty strong misconception held by many, many people. I remember playing a board game a few years ago with a group of about 8 adults, which involved a dice.  At one point we had a rather long run where the number six just wouldn’t come up, and that sparked a discussion about whether it would be more likely that 1 in 6 that the number six would appear on the next throw.  Interestingly, only one other in the group would support me when I said the probability was still 1 in 6.  I had a tough time explaining, to mostly well educated people, that the dice doesn’t have a memory.

I hope that our German physics professor who is confident of a German victory was being a bit tounge-in-cheek with his ‘formula’.  I would hope that there aren’t any physics teachers out there who really believe that if a probability of one fifth event hasn’t happened in the last four goes, it will happen for sure next time.

Of course, as any England fan knows, the fact that Germany will win the world cup is a dismal inevitability. They always do…