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Statistics Hacks by Bruce Frey

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Hack #33. Predict the Length of a Lifetime

Many of us instinctively trust that things that have been around a long time are likely to be around a lot longer, and things that haven't, aren't. The formalization of this heuristic is known as Gott's Principle, and the math is easy to do.

Physicist J. Richard Gott III has so far correctly predicted when the Berlin Wall would fall and calculated the duration of 44 Broadway shows.1 Controversially, he has predicted that the human race will probably exist between 5,100 and 7.8 million more years, but no longer. He argues that this is a good reason to create self-sustaining space colonies: if the human race puts some eggs in other nests, we might extend the life span of our species in case of an asteroid strike or nuclear war on the home planet.2

Gott believes that his simple calculations can be extended to almost anything at all, within certain parameters. To predict how long something will be around by using these calculations, all you need to know is how long it has been around already.

In Action

Gott bases his calculations on what he calls the Copernican Principle (and what some people call, in this specific application, Gott's Principle). The principle says that when you choose a moment in time to calculate the lifetime of a phenomenon, that moment is probably quite ordinary, not special or privileged, just as Copernicus told us the Earth does not occupy a privileged place in the universe.

It's important to choose subjects at ordinary, unprivileged ...

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