WASHINGTON, February 2, 2016 — An account from AD 400 tells of Roman children playing a game called capita aut navia (“heads or ships”). The ships referred to the image of boats on the flip-side of the ancient coin.
When brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright decided which of them would make the first controlled and sustained flight of a heavier-than-air machine, they did so with a coin toss.
In the 1950s, a coin flip earned rock-and-roller Ritchie Valens a seat aboard the ill-fated charter plane that crashed in a cornfield, ending his life and that of fellow performers Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” Jiles Perry Richardson.
But a study released by the University of British Columbia says coin-toss results aren’t as random as your might think.
“When participants are given simple instructions about how to manipulate the toss of a coin and only a few minutes to practice this technique, more than half can significantly manipulate the outcome,” said researchers Matthew Clark and Brian Westerberg.
In a squeaker finale to Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 49.9 percent of the vote to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 49.6 percent.
According to the Des Moines Register, “In a handful of Democratic caucus precincts Monday, a delegate was awarded with a coin toss … in Ames, where supporters of candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton disputed the results after 60 caucus participants apparently disappeared from the proceedings … As a result of the coin toss, Clinton was awarded an additional delegate.”
The story adds that on several occasions, “the Sanders campaign challenged the results and precinct leaders called a Democratic Party hot line set up to advise on such situations.”
“Party officials recommended they settle the dispute with a coin toss,” said the Register.
According to the New York Times, “Democrats backing Hillary Clinton, nervously eyeing Senator Bernie Sanders’s growing strength in the early nominating states, are turning to a new strategy to raise doubts about his candidacy, highlighting his socialist beliefs to warn that he would be an electoral disaster who would frighten swing voters and send Democrats in tight congressional and governor’s races to defeat.”
Or, failing that, when the vote is close, forgo tedious recounts and leave the final decision to a random coin toss.
But is it random?
“Certain people are able to successfully manipulate the toss of a coin,” concludes the University of British Columbia study. “This throws into doubt the validity of using a coin toss to determine a chance result.”
“Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald.
If you don’t believe him, just ask Bernie.