There’s an article making the rounds with the statistically intriguing topic of a Polish Village who hasn’t seen a male born in nearly ten years. Take a moment to pause and ask yourself, what‘s strange about the presentation of this statistic?
Our immediate instinct is to remember that the ratio of males to females is supposed to be about 50/50. The headline does a great job of catching our attention with that anomaly. Our brains are hardwired to match patterns, so no males being born immediately stands out.
When we think a little deeper, we ask, “what are the odds?”
Our pattern-matching brains are bad at statistics. This particular headline takes advantage of something called the lottery fallacy. The lottery fallacy states that if you play the lottery, it is very unlikely you will win. However, it is also very likely that someone will win. We can’t know who the lucky person will be in advance, but we can know there will be a lucky person.
This story about the babies makes for a great statistics lesson. A 50/50 global population breakdown of males to females doesn’t mean every other baby at every moment of the baby-birthing day is a perfect flip between sexes. It turns out this particular village has seen 12 babies born in the last decade. The total population of the village is 272. Contrast that against Glasgow in 2017 which averaged about 19 births per day. If, on a Tuesday, 12 of the 19 newborns – even in a row – were all the same sex, would anyone even notice?
Our small town here = a small sample size. They win the lottery of looking strange in isolation, but once we mix them into the bigger picture, it’s uninterestingly normal. The citizens don’t need to “hide axes under their marital beds” or make sure women’s diets contain enough calcium. In time, the streak will inevitably break. Mean reversion is a force of nature.
Whenever we encounter a statistic like this in the wild, especially when it subliminally grabs our attention, we should remember the polish babies and the lottery fallacy. Our job, as professionals, is to be humble about just how easy it is to be fooled by randomness. It’s a messy world out there. We create value when we help people to see through the noise and focus on what actually matters and what we can actually control.