Where there's a Willesden there's a way

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Maybe that's why they call it a lottery...

Statistics are strange things.

The same numbers that cause two children in a class to have the same birthday are exactly the same numbers which result in you being struck by lightning, an unexpected heart attack or murdered by a member of
your own family.

Take the National Lottery, or "Lotto" as it's now known for the convenience of tabloid newspaper readers. Your odds of winning are 1 in 14 million, per ticket. Which means that if you buy 2 tickets, your odds of winning are one in 7 million. No ticket, and your odds are zero. And, in both cases, you're significantly more likely to die in a road accident. But "It could be you" never caught on as a road safety slogan.

And yet "It could be you" was emblazened across billboards, television screens and unsuspecting members of the public for years. And, on the condition that you were over 16 and had £1 and a loose grasp of mathematics, it applied to anyone, from a Tesco employee, to the Queen or even a violent sex offender.

It was the beauty of the slogan, and, ultimately, its downfall.

So the fickle hand of statistics came down heavily on Camelot's PR division this week. On the one hand, one jackpot winner was a terribly ill cancer patient, an innocent victim of a dreadful disease who, having never been publicly accused of a violent sexual offence, couldn't be a better advert for how fate can move mountains onto small fishing villages, but sometimes, just sometimes, can be kind.

On the other hand, a man with a history of apalling crimes whose piercing eyes and very haircut screams "danger to society" is also (assuming they are at liberty) at just as much liberty to stroll into a newsagent on a darkened street corner and buy a ticket for the National Lottery. Or indeed Lotto Extra.

But maybe we're judging him harsly. Everyone looked like that in the 70s.

Essentially, society has always had a problem with dealing with random chance. Rather than be told life is full of uncertainties and probabilities, we like to look for someone to blame, preferably one with a beard. But some extremely small probabilites, such as those which keep people on low incomes spending £20 a week on lottery tickets, are the type we like to exhort, whereas others, such as being struck down by cancer or a speeding driver who *knows* there aren't any cameras, are the types we play down.

When applied to anything else, newspapers abhor the word lottery, as in circumstances other than the random undeserved distribution it smacks of unfairness and a failing in the system. But the rest of the time, the lottery is a god send to newspaper editors, Camelot executives. And now serial rapists.

On the bright side, the fact that he chose to buy a lottery ticket rather than commit an atrocity is something we should be thankful for. Probably wouldn't have made as many headlines though.


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