As we set out to create Book of Odds in 2006 we defined our mission and have stuck to it. It has six parts that are not independent of each other, but buttress a shared purpose. Each supports the others and is in turn made possible by the others. Our hope is to achieve them all.
- Establish a respected new reference source. There are dictionaries, thesauruses, almanacs, encyclopedias, and search engines, to name a few. None is a reliable, objective and accessible source for information about the probabilities of everyday life. If we succeed in this mission we hope someday people will look at Book of Odds and say, “Of course, that had to be there. It must always have been there.” If we succeed we will be cited often as a reliable and trustworthy source.
- Increase the general understanding of probability. This is one of the fundamental concepts of our era. The idea that most of what we know is only probably so is both frightening and liberating, but mostly liberating. That we can think sensibly about how probable or improbable events are changes our worldview. We are free to think and feel in new and interesting ways. We stand at every moment poised and wondering: What comes next? From this vantage we can look at past events and consider what they tell us about future ones. And sometimes we will be the wiser for doing so.
- Increase the tolerance for uncertainty. How some of us yearn for certainty at any cost. It is understandable that to those who seek certainty it is a shock to learn that Newton’s laws or Einstein’s are merely theories. An apple may sometimes fall up. The theory of evolution is only probably true, not a dead certainty. How many people have been slaughtered because their very existence threatened the certainties of someone? Could an acceptance of the idea that all we know is at best only probably so make us more tolerant of each other? Could an embracing of that notion make us more joyous?
- Unleash the human capability to calibrate probability. By calibration we mean comparative learning, understanding the unfamiliar by relating it to the familiar. Some suppose that people cannot calibrate probability because it is numerical and has an abstract notation. Our mission is to prove this wrong. Tell someone the temperature outside and he or she knows how to dress. Aren’t 77˚ F or 25˚C abstract notations? Of course they are and yet people understand them because they have experienced these temperatures. Think about the astonishing facility people have with pricing. An absurdly high or low price is instantly recognized by almost everyone for any of thousands of items. Fashions change, products change, the relative buying power of the currency itself changes and yet people can do this easily over a lifetime of longing and consumption. If we provide people with enough Odds Statements about things they are familiar with and care about they will have the kind of information they need to calibrate. Do it with a simple and consistent notation and people will easily learn what the numbers mean to them.
- Help with tough decisions. We hope to help in many ways. We hope to be a source for people seeking information in general, or about a concern or impending decision they must make. All information is approximate and all applicability to one’s self is speculative. Still, we hope to give them many points of comparison to put such information in a personal context. We also hope to help those who provide expert judgments about probabilities, such as doctors and other professionals by giving them comparisons they may use to better explain the risks they are describing. We are most helpful, however, when we know our limits and stay within them. We don’t provide personal probabilities; this is what doctors or other professionals provide. What we can provide is a means of exploring what these personal probabilities mean to the individual person. Are they higher or lower than things I fear or don’t fear? How do they compare to the odds of things I know well?
- Endure. The creation and launching of Book of Odds as a reference source is an implicit commitment to keep it up. We have built a wonderful foundation. No Odds Statement is ever obsolete since it lives in large measure in relation to every other. Each new Odds Statement enriches all the others and so the continuing work is additive with no diminishing returns. We must refresh our data and our ideas continuously. We must expand our geographic and topical reach. To live up to these commitments we must be able to support ourselves financially. Our business model is well conceived to accomplish this. We must also stay up to date. Our commitment to personalized outputs for our users and semantic technology signals our aim to stay at the forefront of the Web. If we fulfill our mission we will do so for a long, long time.
Amram Shapiro, July 9, 2009