An unusual lottery result made the news recently: on October 1, 2022, the PCSO Grand Lotto in the Philippines, which draws six numbers from to at random, managed to draw the numbers (though the balls were actually drawn in the order ). In other words, they drew exactly six multiples of nine from to . In addition, a total of tickets were bought with this winning combination, whose owners then had to split the million peso jackpot (about million USD) among themselves. This raised enough suspicion that there were calls for an inquiry into the Philippine lottery system, including from the minority leader of the Senate.

Whenever an event like this happens, journalists often contact mathematicians to ask the question: “What are the odds of this happening?”, and in fact I myself received one such inquiry this time around. This is a number that is not too difficult to compute – in this case, the probability of the lottery producing the six numbers in some order turn out to be in – and such a number is often dutifully provided to such journalists, who in turn report it as some sort of quantitative demonstration of how remarkable the event was.

But on the previous draw of the same lottery, on September 28, 2022, the unremarkable sequence of numbers were drawn (again in a different order), and no tickets ended up claiming the jackpot. The probability of the lottery producing the six numbers is *also* in – just as likely or as unlikely as the October 1 numbers . Indeed, the whole point of drawing the numbers randomly is to make each of the possible outcomes (whether they be “unusual” or “unremarkable”) equally likely. So why is it that the October 1 lottery attracted so much attention, but the September 28 lottery did not?

Part of the explanation surely lies in the unusually large number () of lottery winners on October 1, but I will set that aspect of the story aside until the end of this post. The more general points that I want to make with these sorts of situations are:

- The question “what are the odds of happening” is often easy to answer mathematically, but it is
*not*the correct question to ask. - The question “what is the probability that an alternative hypothesis is the truth”
*is*(one of) the correct questions to ask, but is*very difficult*to answer (it involves both mathematical and non-mathematical considerations). - The answer to the first question is one of the quantities needed to calculate the answer to the second, but it is far from the only such quantity. Most of the other quantities involved cannot be calculated exactly.
- However, by making some educated guesses, one can still sometimes get a very rough gauge of which events are “more surprising” than others, in that they would lead to relatively higher answers to the second question.

To explain these points it is convenient to adopt the framework of Bayesian probability. In this framework, one imagines that there are competing hypotheses to explain the world, and that one assigns a probability to each such hypothesis representing one’s belief in the truth of that hypothesis. For simplicity, let us assume that there are just two competing hypotheses to be entertained: the null hypothesis , and an alternative hypothesis . For instance, in our lottery example, the two hypotheses might be:

- Null hypothesis : The lottery is run in a completely fair and random fashion.
- Alternative hypothesis : The lottery is rigged by some corrupt officials for their personal gain.

At any given point in time, a person would have a probability assigned to the null hypothesis, and a probability assigned to the alternative hypothesis; in this simplified model where there are only two hypotheses under consideration, these probabilities must add to one, but of course if there were additional hypotheses beyond these two then this would no longer be the case.

Bayesian probability does not provide a rule for calculating the initial (or *prior*) probabilities , that one starts with; these may depend on the subjective experiences and biases of the person considering the hypothesis. For instance, one person might have quite a bit of prior faith in the lottery system, and assign the probabilities and . Another person might have quite a bit of prior cynicism, and perhaps assign and . One cannot use purely mathematical arguments to determine which of these two people is “correct” (or whether they are both “wrong”); it depends on subjective factors.

What Bayesian probability *does* do, however, is provide a rule to *update* these probabilities , in view of new information to provide *posterior* probabilities , . In our example, the new information would be the fact that the October 1 lottery numbers were (in some order). The update is given by the famous Bayes theorem

- The prior odds of the alternative hypothesis;
- The probability that the event occurs under the null hypothesis ;
*and* - The probability that the event occurs under the alternative hypothesis .

As previously discussed, the prior odds of the alternative hypothesis are subjective and vary from person to person; in the example earlier, the person with substantial faith in the lottery may only give prior odds of (99 to 1 against) of the alternative hypothesis, whereas the cynic might give odds of (even odds). The probability is the quantity that can often be calculated by straightforward mathematics; as discussed before, in this specific example we have

But this still leaves one crucial quantity that is unknown: the probability . This is*incredibly difficult*to compute, because it requires a precise theory for how events would play out under the alternative hypothesis , and in particular is very sensitive as to what the alternative hypothesis actually

*is*.

For instance, suppose we replace the alternative hypothesis by the following very specific (and somewhat bizarre) hypothesis:

- Alternative hypothesis : The lottery is rigged by a cult that worships the multiples of , and views October 1 as their holiest day. On this day, they will manipulate the lottery to only select those balls that are multiples of .

Under this alternative hypothesis , we have . So, when happens, the odds of this alternative hypothesis will increase by the dramatic factor of . So, for instance, someone who already was entertaining odds of of this hypothesis would now have these odds multiply dramatically to , so that the probability of would have jumped from a mere to a staggering . This is about as strong a shift in belief as one could imagine. However, this hypothesis is so specific and bizarre that one’s prior odds of this hypothesis would be nowhere near as large as (unless substantial prior evidence of this cult and its hold on the lottery system existed, of course). A more realistic prior odds for would be something like – which is so miniscule that even multiplying it by a factor such as barely moves the needle.

Remark 1The contrast between alternative hypothesis and alternative hypothesis illustrates a common demagogical rhetorical technique when an advocate is trying to convince an audience of an alternative hypothesis, namely to use suggestive language (“`I’m just asking questions here”) rather than precise statements in order to leave the alternative hypothesisdeliberately vague. In particular, the advocate may take advantage of the freedom to use a broad formulation of the hypothesis (such as ) in order to maximize the audience’s prior odds of the hypothesis, simultaneously with a very specific formulation of the hypothesis (such as ) in order to maximize the probability of the actual event occuring under this hypothesis. (A related technique is to be deliberately vague about the hypothesized competency of some suspicious actor, so that this actor could be portrayed as being extraordinarily competent when convenient to do so, while simultaneously being portrayed as extraordinarily incompetent when that instead is the more useful hypothesis.) This can lead to wildly inaccurate Bayesian updates of this vague alternative hypothesis, and so precise formulation of such hypothesis is important if one is to approach a topic from anything remotely resembling a scientific approach.

At the opposite extreme, consider instead the following hypothesis:

- Alternative hypothesis : The lottery is rigged by some corrupt officials, who on October 1 decide to randomly determine the winning numbers in advance, share these numbers with their collaborators, and then manipulate the lottery to choose those numbers that they selected.

If these corrupt officials are indeed choosing their predetermined winning numbers randomly, then the probability would in fact be just the same probability as , and in this case the seemingly unusual event would in fact have *no* effect on the odds of the alternative hypothesis, because it was just as unlikely for the alternative hypothesis to generate this multiples-of-nine pattern as for the null hypothesis to. In fact, one would imagine that these corrupt officials would *avoid* “suspicious” numbers, such as the multiples of , and only choose numbers that *look* random, in which case would in fact be *less* than and so the event would actually *lower* the odds of the alternative hypothesis in this case. (In fact, one can sometimes use this tendency of fraudsters to not generate truly random data as a statistical tool to detect such fraud; violations of Benford’s law for instance can be used in this fashion, though only in situations where the null hypothesis is expected to obey Benford’s law, as discussed in this previous blog post.)

Now let us consider a third alternative hypothesis:

- Alternative hypothesis : On October 1, the lottery machine developed a fault and now only selects numbers that exhibit unusual patterns.

Setting aside the question of precisely what faulty mechanism could induce this sort of effect, it is not clear at all how to compute in this case. Using the principle of indifference as a crude rule of thumb, one might expect

where the denominator is the number of patterns among the possible lottery outcomes that are “unusual”. Among such patterns would presumably be the multiples-of-9 pattern , but one could easily come up with other patterns that are equally “unusual”, such as consecutive strings such as , or the first few primes , or the first few squares , and so forth. How many such unusual patterns are there? This is too vague a question to answer with any degree of precision, but as one illustrative statistic, the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS) currently hosts about sequences. Not all of these would begin with six distinct numbers from to , and several of these sequences might generate the same set of six numbers, but this does suggests that patterns that one would deem to be “unusual” could number in the thousands, tens of thousands, or more. Using this guess, we would then expect the event to boost the odds of this hypothesis by perhaps a thousandfold or so, which is moderately impressive. But subsequent information can counteract this effect. For instance, on October 3, the same lottery produced the numbers , which exhibit no unusual properties (no search results in the OEIS, for instance); if we denote this event by , then we have and so this new information should drive the odds for this alternative hypothesis way down again.

Remark 2This example demonstrates another demagogical rhetorical technique that one sometimes sees (particularly in political or other emotionally charged contexts), which is to cherry-pick the information presented to their audience by informing them of events which have a relatively high probability of occurring under their alternative hypothesis, but withholding information about other relevant events that have a relatively low probability of occurring under their alternative hypothesis. When confronted with such new information , a common defense of a demogogue is to modify the alternative hypothesis to a more specific hypothesis that can “explain” this information (“Oh, clearly we heard about because the conspiracy in fact extends to the additional organizations that reported “), taking advantage of the vagueness discussed in Remark 1.

Let us consider a superficially similar hypothesis:

- Alternative hypothesis : On October 1, a divine being decided to send a sign to humanity by placing an unusual pattern in a lottery.

Here we (literally) stay agnostic on the prior odds of this hypothesis, and do not address the theological question of why a divine being should choose to use the medium of a lottery to send their signs. At first glance, the probability here should be similar to the probability , and so perhaps one could use this event to improve the odds of the existence of a divine being by a factor of a thousand or so. But note carefully that the hypothesis did not specify *which* lottery the divine being chose to use. The PSCO Grand Lotto is just one of a dozen lotteries run by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), and of course there are over a hundred other countries and thousands of states within these countries, each of which often run their own lotteries. Taking into account these thousands or tens of thousands of additional lotteries to choose from, the probability now drops by several orders of magnitude, and is now basically comparable to the probability coming from the null hypothesis. As such one does not expect the event to have a significant impact on the odds of the hypothesis , despite the small-looking nature of the probability .

In summary, we have failed to locate any alternative hypothesis which

- Has some non-negligible prior odds of being true (and in particular is not excessively specific, as with hypothesis );
- Has a significantly higher probability of producing the specific event than the null hypothesis; AND
- Does not struggle to also produce other events that have since been observed.

*insanely*small, e.g., less than , then the possibility of a previously overlooked alternative hypothesis becomes far more plausible; as per the famous quote of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

We now return to the fact that for this specific October 1 lottery, there were tickets that managed to select the winning numbers. Let us call this event . In view of this additional information, we should now consider the ratio of the probabilities and , rather than the ratio of the probabilities and . If we augment the null hypothesis to

- Null hypothesis : The lottery is run in a completely fair and random fashion, and the purchasers of lottery tickets also select their numbers in a completely random fashion.

Then is indeed of the “insanely improbable” category mentioned previously. I was not able to get official numbers on how many tickets are purchased per lottery, but let us say for sake of argument that it is 1 million (the conclusion will not be extremely sensitive to this choice). Then the expected number of tickets that would have the winning numbers would be

(which is broadly consistent, by the way, with the jackpot being reached every draws or so), and standard probability theory suggests that the number of winners should now follow a Poisson distribution with this mean . The probability of obtaining winners would now be and of course would be even smaller than this. So this clearly demands some sort of explanation. But in actuality, many purchasers of lottery tickets do not select their numbers completely randomly; they often have some “lucky” numbers (e.g., based on birthdays or other personally significant dates) that they prefer to use, or choose numbers according to a simple pattern rather than go to the trouble of trying to make them truly random. So if we modify the null hypothesis to

- Null hypothesis : The lottery is run in a completely fair and random fashion, but a significant fraction of the purchasers of lottery tickets only select “unusual” numbers.

then it can now become quite plausible that a highly unusual set of numbers such as could be selected by as many as purchasers of tickets; for instance, of of the 1 million ticket holders chose to select their numbers according to some sort of pattern, then only of those holders would have to pick in order for the event to hold (given ), and this is not extremely implausible. Given that this reasonable version of the null hypothesis already gives a plausible explanation for , there does not seem to be a pressing need to locate an alternate hypothesis that gives some other explanation (cf. Occam’s razor).

Remark 3In view of the above discussion, one can propose a systematic way to evaluate (in as objective a fashion as possible) rhetorical claims in which an advocate is presenting evidence to support some alternative hypothesis:

- State the null hypothesis and the alternative hypothesis as precisely as possible. In particular, avoid conflating an extremely broad hypothesis (such as the hypothesis in our running example) with an extremely specific one (such as in our example).
- With the hypotheses precisely stated, give an honest estimate to the prior odds of this formulation of the alternative hypothesis.
- Consider if all the relevant information (or at least a representative sample thereof) has been presented to you before proceeding further. If not, consider gathering more information from further sources.
- Estimate how likely the information was to have occurred under the null hypothesis.
- Estimate how likely the information was to have occurred under the alternative hypothesis (using exactly the same wording of this hypothesis as you did in previous steps).
- If the second estimate is significantly larger than the first, then you have cause to update your prior odds of this hypothesis (though if those prior odds were already vanishingly unlikely, this may not move the needle significantly). If not, the argument is unconvincing and no significant adjustment to the odds (except perhaps in a downwards direction) needs to be made.

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