Innumeracy in A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

A Beginner's Guide to EndingsThe other night I watched the not altogether bad film A Beginner’s Guide to Endings. It actually has a fairly clever script, which could have used a few more rewrites. The directing is stylish enough to be interesting but not so much as to be annoying. And the acting is good. Except for Scott Caan; repeat after me, “Nepotism!” But I don’t bring up the film to talk about its cinematic merits. I bring it up to discuss its use of math.

Before I get to my main point, however, I want to discuss this business of hanging. Duke White (Harvey Keitel) says that there is a one-in-three chance of a hanging going right. You could: (1) hang for hours; (2) choke for minutes; or (3) hit the sweet spot and break your neck. One-in-three! I don’t mean to over-think this. But what does “hang for hours” even mean? Hang dead? Because if you aren’t dead, you will chock for minutes and die. So that’s really just two options. I think the writer is totally confused about Newton’s Third Law.

Okay, so on to the real business of this article. Duke says, “My family defies all odds: five kids, all boys. The odds in that: one-in-sixteen.” This is wrong; it is one-in-thirty-two. The odds of one boy is one-in-two. The odds of two boys is one-in-four. And so on: eight, sixteen, thirty-two. Now I understand, maybe the screenwriter is being clever and slyly showing that Duke doesn’t even understand the most basic of statistics. But if that’s the case, it’s a terrible thing to do because almost no one would notice.

Duke goes on and says, “Five boys from three different women: one-in-300.” I don’t even know where this number comes from, whether you assume his mistake or not. I tried various possibilities and none of them came out to anything close to 300. But any way you do this kind of calculation is wrong because women you sleep with is not a random variable in the way that the sex of children is.

The ultimate question is whether there is any greater pedant than me when I write about movie mathematics. I don’t think so. Also check out Innumeracy in Rocky and Numeracy in Shakespeare in Love. Of the three films I’ve written about, the two American films got simple math problems wrong and the one British film got a complicated math problem right. Typical.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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