LARRY LESSER’S LOTTERY LITERACY!
In 1993, while a math education doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, I saw and heard lots of lottery misconceptions around town and felt called to teach an adult education course (for UT-Austin Informal Classes) I created about the psychology and probability underlying the then-months-old Texas Lottery. The course happened to attract massive media coverage --from a story spanning 37 column inches in the August 28 Austin American-Statesman all the way to the lead ‘Dollars and Sense’ segment throughout that weekend’s Cable News Network (CNN) Headline News! Subsequent stories have often accompanied the times lotteries begin new games or amass particularly big jackpots, including interviews for radio (e.g., Houston’s KTRH-AM, Atlanta’s WGST-AM, Houston’s KFNC-FM, Austin’s KUT-FM, San Antonio’s WOAI-AM), TV (e.g., Austin’s ABC-affiliate KVUE-TV, El Paso’s KFOX-TV and KVIA-TV) and national magazines (e.g., June 2005 Real Simple and December 2005 Bottom Line Retirement). At The University of Texas at El Paso, I taught an updated version of this course for PACE in 2006 and gave a lecture for UTEP’s first Centennial Open House in 2014.
In my interview in the March 30, 2012 El Paso Times discussing that day’s drawing for a record $640 million Mega Millions jackpot, I offered these three ways to help the public visualize those 1 in 176 million odds: “Imagine guessing a particular sheet of typing paper from a stack that’s 11 miles high, keeping in mind that Mount Everest is 5.5 miles above sea level and (movie director) James Cameron just went seven miles below sea level. Another way to imagine it is to try to remember one particular second from a 5.5-year time period or guess a particular square inch from an area that's bigger than 21 football fields, including end zones.” On October 22, 2013, Mega Millions changed the odds to 1 in 259 million, so I created a new set of concrete analogies (e.g., when interviewed by KUT-FM’s Trey Shaar on Dec. 17, 2013: http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/lesser/ShaarKUT-FMinterviewDecember17,2013.mp3).
SONG I wrote to educate about lotteries: “The Gambler”(http://www.causeweb.org/resources/fun/db.php?id=50) addresses strategies and myths for playing a state lottery, and may be sung to the tune of the same-titled Don Schlitz song that yielded Kenny Rogers a #1 country hit and TV miniseries.
VIDEO on my statistics education outreach on the lottery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxGRghzr5zo (this video won first place in the SIGMAA-QL’s national 2011-12 “QL in the media” contest and the “Best Online Submission” prize in the 2014 ASA’s Got Talent competition sponsored by the American Statistical Association.
ARTICLES I wrote for educators in five journals:
* (March 2013). Letter to the Editor: The odds of academic usage of statistics terms in everyday contexts such as lotteries. Journal of Statistics Education, 21(1), http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v21n1/Lesser_letter.pdf
* (September 2012). Lottery Lunacy [Media Clips], Mathematics Teacher, 106(2), 93-94. http://www.nctm.org/publications/article.aspx?id=33965 Using the motivating vehicle of a comic strip, this column uses classroom-ready questions to explore the reality of lottery-playing “strategies” such as tracking, wheeling, and pooling.
* (Winter 2004). Take a Chance by Exploring the Statistics in Lotteries. Statistics Teacher Network, No. 65, 6-7. The issue is also available at http://www.amstat.org/education/stn/pdfs/STN65.pdf. This article gives intuition for the magnitude of the MegaMillions jackpot probability at that time (on 6/22/05, the jackpot probability became even smaller: 1/175,711,536) and then goes on to show how a lottery can be used to explore (with a TI-83 calculator) all the major topics of an introductory statistics course.
* (Fall 2003). A Whole Lotto Education!
* (November 1997). Exploring Lotteries with Excel. Spreadsheet User, 4(2), 4-7. Spreadsheets are used to explore the lottery, addressing common misconceptions about various lottery "strategies" and probabilities and providing real-world applications of topics such as discrete probability distributions, combinatorics, sampling, simulation and expected value. Additional pedagogical issues are also discussed. Examples discussed include the probability that an integer appearing in consecutive drawings, the probability that a single 6-ball drawing includes at least two consecutive integers, the probability that exactly one person wins the jackpot, and the probability that a frequent player eventually wins the jackpot.
* I’ve also published related letters in the August 2011 Mathematics Teacher and in mass media such as the Austin Chronicle (5/14/93), Houston Chronicle (6/12/04), El Paso Times (11/4/10), etc.
Official Lottery WEBSITES:
Mega Millions: http://www.megamillions.com/
Texas Lottery Commission: http://www.txlottery.org
New Mexico Lottery: http://www.nmlottery.com/
2-minute movie with lottery/probability: http://www.causeweb.org/resources/fun/db.php?id=226
Where Texas Lottery money goes: http://www.txlottery.org/export/sites/lottery/Supporting_Education/
How to Win More: Strategies for Increasing a Lottery Win, probably the only book on lotteries I’ve found so far that I’d recommend: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1568810784/002-6149190-5012835?v=glance&n=283155
See if you can find misconceptions here: http://www.smartluck.com/locations/tips/tx544.htm
How some people try to defend lotteries: http://www.naspl.org/
One way to make your own “quick-pick” of numbers: http://www.random.org/sform.html
some articles for math lovers: http://www.lottery.state.mn.us/hypergeo.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v2n2/wasserstein.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v13n2/mecklin.html, www.amstat.org/publications/jse/secure/v7n3/boland.cfm
Shirley Jackson’s famous 1948 short story called “The Lottery”: http://www.americanliterature.com/Jackson/SS/TheLottery.html; here’s a video adaptation by Larry Yust broken into 2 nine-minute clips:
My UTEP homepage: http://www.math.utep.edu/Faculty/lesser/