Math used in Post’s Florida Lottery investigation published in journal

The Palm Beach Post, with the help of some top-notch mathematicians, used some pretty sophisticated math to uncover fraud within the Florida Lottery last year.

So sophisticated, in fact, that it’s been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Mathematics.

Much of the content in the paper, “Some people have all the luck,” reads like Greek unless you’re a mathematician. The paper, for example, relies partly on “log-concavity of the regularized Beta function, which lets us show that any local minimizer attains the global minimal value.”

You can bet a Post reporter didn’t write that.

Actually, it comes from three mathematicians and statisticians. When The Post started noticing some people winning the lottery at improbable rates – in some cases, more than 200 times – a reporter reached out to several mathematicians and statisticians for help answering a question: How much would someone have to spend to win the lottery so often?

Skip Garibaldi, a professor at Emory University and associate director of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, and Philip B. Stark, professor and chairman of the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, graciously offered to answer it.

They also enlisted the help of Richard Arriata, a professor at the University of Southern California.

The trio found that the lucky winners would have to spend millions to have a 1-in-20-trillion chance of winning a couple hundred thousand dollars in prize money.

Nobody would be idiotic enough to spend millions to win a few hundred thousand. Even if they were, the odds would be astronomical.

Garibaldi compared the chances to picking out one star out of 50 Milky Way-sized galaxies, then having your friend pick the same star on the first try.

“It’s possible, it’s just utterly implausible,” Garibaldi said last year. “Quantum mechanics tells us all sorts of insane, unimaginable things could happen. Your desk could suddenly turn into a talking goose. There’s a calculable probability that that could happen. But it’s never going to happen.”

Armed with that information, along with some shoe-leather sleuthing, The Post confronted the Florida Lottery with its findings. Instead of admitting fraud within the system, lottery Secretary Cynthia O’Connell replied, “That’s what the lottery is all about. You can buy one ticket and you become a millionaire.”

But actually, the lottery had known for years that people were winning too often, The Post later found. They just chose to do nothing about it.

Some of the frequent winners, including the top one, were part of an underground market for winning lottery tickets, lottery investigators later found.

The winners would buy winning tickets from customers so the customers could avoid paying taxes, child support or other obligations. The lottery pulls those obligations out of the winnings.

The lottery later seized machines and supplies at multiple stores and installed several safeguards to prevent fraud. In all, it’s stopped more than 50 stores from continuing to sell lottery tickets.

Garibaldi also helped reporters at news organizations in 10 others states investigate their lotteries. They, too, found too-frequent winners.

 

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