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Bad Chart Thursday: You Are Not a Special Miracle Because Odds. Sorry.

Today’s chart is actually a few years old, but it occasionally pops up in my various feeds, and the concept behind it is prevalent in multiple mathematically challenged arguments, such as those for creationism.

The infographic “What are the odds?” was created by Sofyay Yampolsky based on a blog post by Ali Binazir, “What are the chances of your coming into being?” You can see a larger version here.

Aside from being a bit difficult to read, the design overall isn’t really the issue. This is a Bad Chart Thursday candidate because the entire concept behind the chart is nonsense.

The premise is basically to take a random selection of events that would need to have occurred (ignoring many, many others) to produce you–yes, you–and add up the probabilities to show that the odds of you existing are so astronomical that they are basically zero, and therefore you are a miracle.

Now before you start blessing babies, healing the sick with your holy gaze, and selling your image in toast, consider the primary (but not only) flaw with this logic. The probability that you–yes, you–exist is not zero. It’s 1. In other words, your existence is 100% likely. Because you exist.

Continued after the graphic.

what-are-the-odds_50290d9b95578

Calculating probability regarding events that have already happened as though this is no different than calculating the probability of events happening in the future is where the Special Snowflake Proof goes awry. Were this chart somehow made billions of years ago in an effort to predict your specific existence before it happened, that would be a completely different story, but even that points to another issue with this chart. It doesn’t actually address your specific existence. It seems like it does, but if we imagine ourselves somehow being sentient observers billions of years ago looking at or creating this chart (because chart making would be the first thing we’d do in that fantastical scenario), all it shows is a series of probabilities leading up to a unique person existing, not you specifically.

And frankly, given the chain of events, even though it is missing several factors (and almost has to because no one could fit them all in a chart), it seems highly probable that unique humans would be the end result. These aren’t random events that occur in a vacuum. Each event makes the succeeding event MORE probable, not less.

Let’s say you are the result of the heteronormative fairy tale presented here. Your parents meeting and dating would have greatly increased the odds of your being born. And odds are, other factors in their lives made it likely that they would meet and date.

Moving down the chart, even the “right” sperm meeting the “right” egg is entirely dependent on the assumption that you personally are the “right” outcome because you personally are being addressed as a miracle, but had another sperm and another egg come together, they would have still been the “right” sperm and the “right” egg for the alternate you who would be reading this. The chart does not have your name on it. Your existence can only feel like a special miracle because you exist.

In other words, the probability of your existence calculated after the fact is definitely circular, but it’s not zero. You were not born special. You’re about as miraculous and improbable as a fly in a landfill. I’m sorry. You’re welcome.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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8 Comments

  1. July 9, 2015 at 7:10 pm —

    Great. Now I’m on a guilt trip over all those miraculous unique flies I’ve killed.

  2. July 9, 2015 at 10:13 pm —

    Yeah, it’s sort of like how if you’re dealt a regular five-card hand of poker. You get, let’s say, the seven, king, and ace of clubs, the ten of spades, and the seven of hearts. The odds of you getting that specific hand is 1 in 311,875,200. That’s the exact same odds as getting the four and seven of diamonds, the two of clubs, the king of spades, and the three of hearts. Or all four queens and the eight of diamonds. Or a royal flush in spades.

    • July 9, 2015 at 10:43 pm —

      From now on, when ever I play poker, I’m going to insist that the 7, K, A of clubs, 10 of spades and 7 of hearts beats everything except a royal flush (which it ties, so we split the pot.) Any one up for a game?

  3. July 10, 2015 at 12:02 am —

    Ever feel like you were the “wrong” meeting the “wrong” egg? I sure do. :P

  4. July 10, 2015 at 12:16 pm —

    I was underwhelmed by this argument the first time I heard it (longer ago than I like to think about). It’s simple, if one “necessary” event was different, then something else would result. And this result would be just as miraculous. If things were different then, things would be different now. That’s not a particularly strong argument.

    This chart’s/argument’s appeal is rooted in a naively ignorant awe of large numbers. “If I don’t understand it, it must be profound.”

  5. July 10, 2015 at 1:27 pm —

    The probability would be plausible, before you were born, but the probability of something that has already happened happening at least once is 1. You have to get into science fiction talk of alternate timelines to get anything else.

  6. July 12, 2015 at 12:59 pm —

    The infographic is confusing but somewhat sensible. It’s asking: what is the probability that a human with your genome would come to exist, given that your father had children? (Why father and not mother?) Its calculation does miss some events, of course.

    It goes on to ask some other similar questions, each with a similar level of thoroughness (specifically none).

    You are comparing that to the probability that you exist given that you exist.

    • July 13, 2015 at 5:24 am —

      No, it’s not somewhat sensible, it concludes with the odds of you existing being basically zero and treats this as interesting. As this post explains, treating an existing event as if it was a future event garbles probability. As this post doesn’t mention, by the rules of this infographic absolutely every event ever is a miracle.

      That’s not somewhat sensible.

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