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Hey Bill Nye! Is Playing the Lottery Rational?

This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy talks about the chances of winning the lottery, and re-frames the system as a tax on the people who can least afford it.

Uri: Hi Bill. My name is Uri. My question is about giving some chance to the chance. The probability of winning a lottery is very, very small. Nevertheless is playing lottery rational? Thanks.

Bill Nye: The lottery. Uri, Uri, Uri. I’ve got to tell you when I first – it doesn’t sound like you’re in the U.S.. I grew up in the U.S. and I lived in Seattle, Washington, for a while. And Washington in the United States is a western state. It has old traditions and the big thing is it’s not as populated as other states in the U.S. and there is a lottery. And I used to think it was kind of charming. If people wanted to play the lottery, okay, that’ll be fun for them. The chances of winning are very, very small – extraordinarily small. Almost everyone who ever plays, ever, loses. And I used to think it was benign or not any big deal, but I have changed my mind about that over the last 30 years. The lottery is mostly a tax on people who don’t know math. And the reason they don’t know math is because people like me have failed to enlighten people on what it really means when it’s one in 230 million. It means you will lose. That’s what it means. If you have a one in 230 million chance of winning it means you will lose. And when I was doing standup comedy I used to have a joke – a joke – about having a revolver, a gun, where the bullets are arranged in a circle.

I don’t know your ancestry, Uri, but you might be from one of the Eastern Bloc countries in Europe, and we have an expression in the United States – Russian roulette where there’s one bullet in the gun and you spin it and then you hold it to your head and see whether or not you’ll die. And that’s a one in six chance traditionally but in the lottery it’s one in 230 million or 450 million. So imagine a gun with 449 million, 999 thousand, 999 bullets in it and one empty chamber. You would not hold that to your head for two dollars – ever. And so I feel bad that the people who play the lottery are generally people with lower education and lower incomes. These are statistical facts. So we are accidentally taxing people who can least afford it. And it’s frustrating for me as a science educator. So my advice to you is don’t play the lottery. Use your dollars for something else. And if you do play the lottery, I understand you get some pleasure out of it, but keep in mind you almost always lose. And wait, there’s more to it. It preys on this other aspect of human nature where we embrace the successes and forget about the losses. This is how psychics make their living, palm readers and so on. You remember when they accidentally said the right thing and you forget when they said dozens of wrong things.

So people win. They bet a dollar and they win a five dollar lottery ticket, a five dollar reward. They almost always reinvest that five dollars or the four dollars to buy more lottery tickets. It seems like a cool idea and now in the United States there’s huge state incomes based on lotteries. But in the biggest sense it is a tax on the people who can least afford it. It’s frustrating. I’m frustrated. Thank you for asking that question, Uri.

The chances of winning the US lottery are 250 million to one, and in some cases higher. It’s not a small game of poker against some friends, instead it’s gambling against every citizen who buys a ticket. And perhaps it’s not much; two dollars to play each time. But the money adds up, and there are even cases of lottery addiction.


On Last Week with John Oliver, Oliver said, "Gambling is a little like alcohol. Most people like it, some are addicted to it, and it’s not like the state can or should outlaw it all together. But it would be a little strange if the state was in the liquor business, advertising it by claiming that every shot of vodka you drink helps school children learn."

And this is true – many state lotteries claim that its profits go to education, but it isn’t exactly so. Money in the government budget is reallocated, borrowed, and moves around so much it’s hard to keep track, so the lotto money ends up not going straight to public education as advertised.

According to Bill Nye, the lottery acts as a tax on those who can least afford it. Most of the people who play the lottery statistically come from lower income and lower education backgrounds. This means that those who are measuring every dollar they earn may misguidedly waste crucial funds on the lottery, spending hundreds to thousands of dollars on a slim chance that they could win, even though it’s massively likely that they never will. Perhaps they’ll win a small five-dollar reward, a low return on what they've poured in over the years, but that winning five bucks – this is the experience people remember. Just like gambling, people remember the adrenaline rush of their luck, and forget the many times they’ve lost.

That’s why people keep on playing the lottery. Is it rational? Absolutely not, says Nye, who goes on to say that people need to be educated on the game they’re playing. If more public personas like John Oliver and Bill Nye can bring the issue to broader attention, at the very least it might allow people to make an informed decision.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

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