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2016 January 11 - 03:46 pm

Doing the Math: Powerball as a Teachable Moment

 As teams face off for football championships, both collegiate and professional, as technology-rich fans cast their lots in "fantasy sports", and as lines lengthen at lottery ticket outlets, one should be wont to wonder: Is it really true that “it's a no-brainer to buy a $2 ticket for a chance to win” hundreds of millions of dollars in the Powerball lottery? Is it true that “you can't win if you don't play, and so, if you want to win, you must play?” Is it true that “the average guy” can easily win “a shipload of money,” as Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) enterprises suggest? Is it also true that any lottery is a gamble, and that all gambling is not much more than a tax on the mathematically challenged?

Oddsmakers and bookies, shopkeepers and their sales associates love it when reasoned resolutions made just before the dawn of a new year or the dusk of a sports season bring out bettors whose caution has been cast to the winds.

Ethan Siegel's “Science Blog” is one of many resources that we community college partisans might use to educate our students about what things are worth, in an era when the hoi polloi takes much reason with less than a grain of salt. Siegel uses graphs, charts, and — happily enough for those of us essaying to subvert the innumeracy of the modern era — numbers, to educate his readers.

Siegel shows that “doing the math” ( https://medium.com/starts-with-a-bang/weekend-diversion-the-math-of-powerball-597fd6d515a6#.kt508s2nk) demonstrates that Powerball play “is a raw deal any way you slice it.” And Jay Caspian Kang writes in the New York Times that “the idea that (DFS) betting sites exist so that regular guys can make a lot of money...is a lie.”

And so we at the community college should take all this as a dual opportunity:

On the one hand, we can use data of the sort laid out by Siegel and experiences and examples such as those set forth by Kang to educate our students in “the math,” in “how to do the math,” and in “what to do with the math.” We can give our students the tools that will make them smarter when they are hit with seductive advertising that would beckon them to lay down their bucks for a losing cause.

And on the other hand, we can use lotteries and betting, “fantasy” and frivolous spending as grist for ethical and philosophical mills: How and why is the populace being so seduced? Who is benefitting from people’s bets? What is the mentality behind the industry, and who is making what sort of gain?

In a new year that is full of challenges and opportunities, not to mention an election of a new president, we at the community college would do well to begin making our students think, so that the choices that they make for their own budgets, their own futures, and the futures of their children and their nation, might be well calculated, integrated into ethics, and freshened by a philosophy of true learning.   


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