The Converted Statistician

Let's see, if I divide by p...infinity again!
Let’s see, if I divide by p…infinity again!
While doing some research, my number one son found this item from Punch, Vol. 146, January 28, 1914.


A sudden jolt as we thundered over some points caused me to shoot a piece of bread-and-butter on to the floor. I stooped to pick it up.

“Stop a moment, please!” cried my companion. He jumped to his feet and examined it. “Ah,” said he, “buttered side downward!”

“It’s always the same,” I said, as I jerked the thing viciously out of the window. “It’s always buttered side downward.”

“No, there you fall into a common error,” protested the other. “You may take it that fifty-seven per cent. fall buttered side upward, and only forty-three per cent. buttered side downward.”

“H’m,” I said dubiously.

“You must pardon me for my officiousness,” he went on, “especially as I have now no reason to be interested in such things. But habits are strong.”

I looked at him curiously. “Habits?” I said.

“Yes, habits. For years I kept an accurate record of every slice of bread-and-butter I saw fall to the ground. I had better explain myself. Nearly all my life, you must understand, I have maintained the view that the generally accepted theory of the ‘cussedness of things’ is all wrong. You know that to most people ‘cussedness’ is the governing factor of life.”

“Rather!” I agreed.

“Well, I disbelieved it, and I set to work to collect materials for a book which was to prove my case. For years I incessantly gathered statistics on the subject. Do I bore you?”

“Not at all,” I assured him.

“The results were extraordinary. Take, for example, catching trains. It is highly important that you should catch a train at short notice. In nine cases out of ten, you will say, your taxicab breaks down, or your tram is held up by a block in the traffic, or the current fails on the Underground.”

“Certainly it does.”

“On the contrary—I am speaking from memory, but I think my figures are accurate—the taxicab only breaks down in 1.5 per cent. of cases; with the tram the percentage rises to 1.8; with the Underground it falls to .2.”

I gasped.

“Or take the case of studs,” he went on. “You drop a stud, and it promptly and inevitably rolls away into some quite impossible hiding-place. So most of us believe. As a matter of fact it only does so approximately three times out of a hundred. Or bootlaces. If you are exceptionally late in the morning; your bootlace always snaps, you say. Not at all. It breaks in such circumstances only four times out of a possible hundred. And with bicycles, to take another example. If ever you get a puncture, you fancy that it always occurs on some occasion when you are sorely pressed for time. Again, not at all. Out of a hundred punctures only seventeen are sustained at such unfortunate moments.”

“You seem to have studied the subject pretty deeply,” I remarked.

“Oh, my dear Sir, I cannot myself recall a tithe of the material I collected. I carried out my inquiries in every conceivable direction. Suppose we take the obscure case of a—let me see—of a burglar. This was one of my most difficult researches. A burglar will assure you, if you happen to be in his confidence, that every time he enters a house, at a moment when absolute quiet is from his point of view essential, a door slams, or a pot of jam falls off a shelf, or a—a canary commences to sing loudly, or there occurs one of a hundred other unlucky noises he will name. As you may imagine, my investigations into this problem were extraordinarily difficult. But the result was a triumph. In only .375 per cent. of cases is our burglar disturbed by an unexpected noise for which he is not himself responsible. As for the specific examples given, the results here are even more striking. The pot of jam, for instance, only falls down in, I think, .0025 per cent. of cases, the canary bursts into song in only .00175 per cent., and so on.”

“It is astonishing,” I admitted. “I must certainly obtain a copy of your book. Perhaps——”

“I never published it,” he interrupted. “As a matter of fact I became converted.”

“Converted?” I exclaimed in amazement. “In the face of all your statistics?”

“Yes,” he said meditatively. “I remember the occasion well. It happened a few months ago, in early Spring. I had just completed the last chapter of my book, and I laid down my pen with a sigh. There before me lay all the statistics I had so laboriously collected, neatly tabulated and arranged with the proper explanatory notes and diagrams. It was finished after all these years! I can assure you it was an emotional moment. I don’t know if you have ever brought a great work to a successful conclusion; if so, you can understand my feelings.”

“I can imagine them,” I said.

“Well, I opened the French windows and stepped out into the garden to calm myself. It was a lovely March day, I remember, sunny and fresh, and I paced up and down the garden till my emotions subsided and I gradually recovered my self-control. Then I went indoors again.”

The train slowed down and he began to gather his things together. “While I was gone,” he said sadly, “the wind blew my manuscript and the best part of my notes into the fire.”

“How excessively unfortunate!” I murmured sympathetically. “And this converted you to the ‘cussedness’ theory?”

“Yes,” said he, as he stepped down to the platform. “It was the only book I ever wrote, and it was burned practically to a cinder. It works out you see, at exactly 100 per cent….”


  1. Scotian

    A shaggy dog story! I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified. If this is the same son who refuses to wear a pocket square have you disowned him yet?

  2. Sheri

    How very funny! Great posting.

  3. An Engineer

    I also enjoyed this. A story with a lesson. What a great teaching approach!

  4. Gary

    IIRC, the Amateur Scientist in American Scientific when it still was scientific examined test cases of Murphy’s Law with one of them being the falling buttered bread case. It seems the upside depended on the height from which the bread was dropped. Typical drop heights allow about a 180 degree flip so most land butter side down and reinforce our attribution of cause to the cussed Murphy rather than the unremarkable premises that most of us hold our bread butter side up at waist height prior to dropping.

  5. DAV

    See what happens when you stop thinking every silver lining is not surrounded by a cloud? Mother nature gets you in her sights.

    One could almost believe you’re pro-CLT. Your parable may be sending the wrong message.

  6. DAV

    I might also point out some advantages to the pessimist view:

    1). You can only be pleasantly surprised
    2). You will never be disappointed (unless you count pleasant surprises as disappointments).
    3) pessimists are more likely to have a plan B in the back pocket.

  7. Sheri

    DAV–I’m not sure why pessimists are more likely to have a plan B in the back pocket. Wouldn’t no plan at all be more likely, thus possibly making things progressively worse, be more in line with their philosophy? Pessimists I have known just never planned, saying it would make no difference anyway. (Maybe I just knew hard core pessimists? 🙂 )

  8. DAV


    Hmmm. All I can say is if everything, optimistically speaking, is going to be OK then no plan B will ever be necessary. Of course, pessimistically speaking then plan B will fail so maybe (just maybe) one of plans C, D, etc. will work.

    Oh dear! Look at the perversity of the Universe forcing me to make all those plans (which won’t work)!

  9. Sheri

    DAV–Your last observation probably explains why the pessimists I knew did not plan!

  10. DAV


    You do have a point. The Universe is out to do me in and there’s a 100% certainty one day it will succeed no matter what I do. Doesn’t stop me from trying though — I might be pleasantly surprised if one of the plans should work. Better to be pleasantly surprised occasionally instead of constantly disappointed.

  11. Sheri

    DAV–I tried a line of thought along those lines on my mother when she told me I was a pessimist. I argued that expecting the worst in things kept me from feeling bad when things turned out poorly and if things worked out well, I would be pleasantly surprised. She didn’t buy it. Glad to hear someone else making a similar statement. 🙂

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