$\DeclareMathOperator\Var{Var}\DeclareMathOperator\Bern{Bern}\DeclareMathOperator\Pois{Pois}$Question: What not-trivial mistakes do students often make when solving problems in probability theory, mathematical statistics and random processes?

Some examples of wrong solutions:

Problem 1: Find distribution of $F_{\xi}(\xi)$ for continous $F_{\xi}$.

"Solution": $F_{\xi}(\xi) = P(\xi \le \xi) = 1$.

Problem 2: Is it possible to guess if one of a pair of random numbers is larger with probability ${}> \frac{1}2$?

"Solution". Obviously no (sometimes with some blurry reasoning, mentioning symmetry). (if smb.is interested, see discussion, e.g., in How is it that you can guess if one of a pair of random numbers is larger with probability > 1/2?)

Problem 3: Find $\Var(\min(X,Y))$ for independent $X,Y \sim \exp(1)$.

"Solution". If $X \le Y$ then $\min(X,Y) = X$ and $\Var(\min(X,Y)) = DX = 1$, if $X > Y$ then $\min(X,Y) = Y$ and $\Var(\min(X,Y)) = DY = 1$, so in any case we got $\Var(\min(X,Y)) = 1$. A more absurd version is problem 3b: find $D\xi$ for $\xi \sim \Bern(p)$. "Solution": $\xi$ takes values $0$ and $1$, if it's equal to $0$, then $\Var\xi = \Var(0)=0$, in other case $\Var\xi = \Var(1)=0$, hence $\Var(\xi)=0$.

Problem 4: Suppose that systems of sets $\mathcal{A}_1$ and $\mathcal{A}_2$ are independent. Are $\sigma(\mathcal{A}_1)$ and $\sigma(\mathcal{A}_2)$ independent? "Solution". Obviously yes (sometimes with some blurry reasoning).

Problem 5: $2n$ teams were divided to $2$ subgroups with $n$ teams in each group. What is the chance that the $2$ strongest teams will play in the same subgroup?

"Solution": $\frac12$ by symmetry. (See discussion, e.g. Probability problem: what's the chance that two strongest teams will play in the same subgroup.)

Problem 6: "A patient goes to see a doctor. The doctor performs a test with 99 percent reliability—that is, 99 percent of people who are sick test positive and 99 percent of the healthy people test negative. The doctor knows that only 0.01 percent of the people in the country are sick. If the patient test is positive, what are the chances the patient is sick?"

"Solution": 99 percent as follows immediately from the task.

Some references: There are different paradoxes, such as Monty Hall problem, see, e.g. "Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics" by G. J. Székely. There are some interesting examples of popular mistakes in "The evolution with age of probabilistic, intuitively based misconceptions" by E. Fischbein and D. Schnarch (and references therein).

Of course, there are a huge number of mistakes that, in principle, can be made, but I mean, firstly, popular ones, and secondly, it is desirable that these were errors not on the most simple topics of combinatorics and not connected with typos and so on. What not-trivial mistakes did you see lots of times?

Addition: uninteresting examples :

  1. A coin is tossed twice at random. What is the probability of getting the same face? "Solution:" Three possible outcomes are HH, HT=TH, TT, where H = head, T = tail. So the probability is $\frac13$.

  2. $E\xi^2 = (E \xi)^2$ because it's "obvious" because we are speaking about mean, and even reference: there was an equality $E \xi \eta = E\xi E \eta$ in one of the properties of expectation.

  3. For independent $\xi$ and $\eta$ we have $\Var(\xi + \eta) = \Var(\xi) + \Var(\eta)$ "hence" $\Var(\xi - \eta) = \Var(\xi) - \Var(\eta)$.

  4. Density of $U[0,1]$ is $F' = I_{[0,1]}(x)$ a.e., so density of $\Pois(\lambda)$ is $F'= 0$ a.e.

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    $\begingroup$ One mistake in statistics often made by mathematicians who are not statisticians is to think that the reason why linear regression is called linear regression is that one is fitting a line or at least an affine function of the predictor variables. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2023 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ Btw, Japanese often confuse the two words popular and common. Native English speakers say 'a common cold' and never 'a popular cold'. 'A popular actor' and 'a common actor' can have very different connotations. Morbid obesity is a common health problem in America but is not popular--no health problem is popular except perhaps among morticians and greedy doctors . $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2023 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ This is a fun question in some ways, but it is specifically about student errors and hence does not seem suitable for MathOverflow, which is intended for research-level mathematics. I have voted to close. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2023 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ I think matheducators.stackexchange.com would be better. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2023 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Your problem 2 is stated sufficiently vaguely that your "incorrect solution" can in fact be perfectly correct under the right interpretation. I agree that when the problem is stated appropriately, the solution you link to is correct, surprising and beautiful. But here it is not stated appropriately. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2023 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


The most popular mistake made by students is assuming that a sum of uniform random variables is uniform.

A related mistake, done at a more advanced level, is assuming that independence is needed to ensure linearity of the expectation of random variables.

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    $\begingroup$ Depending on the level, I think an even more ‘popular’ mistake is assuming that every random variable is uniform …. $\endgroup$
    – LSpice
    Jan 22, 2023 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ ... and also normal, at the same time. That is, you get to use all the properties of these two distributions for any r.v. you encounter. You can even mix them. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2023 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JukkaKohonen The real mistake is mistaking which mistake you are making! $\endgroup$
    – Wojowu
    Jan 22, 2023 at 19:40

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