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The tiny Polish village of Miejsce Odrzanskie has become the unlikely source of international media attention over the past fortnight as a result of what the New York Times called “a strange population anomaly”. It has now been almost a decade since the last boy was born in this place, with the most recent 12 babies all having been girls.

The mayor of the region is quoted in the article as saying there has been “scientific interest” – presumably from geneticists – in exploring what has led to this unusual sequence. He also discusses some glaringly unscientific advice the town has been given on how to conceive boys, ranging from changing mothers’ diets to “keeping an ax(e) under your marital bed”.

But the most prosaic suggestion mentioned in the article is also by far the most likely – that it’s just a statistical coincidence.

So how could this be possible? Just like a coin toss, a birth has two equally likely outcomes – and therefore the probability of any given baby being a girl is ½. We can also assume that each individual birth can be considered to be independent of the previous one – the first mother having a girl doesn’t make it any more or less likely that the second mother will have a girl.

Therefore, the probability of having two girls in a row is ½ x ½ = (½)2 = ¼. By extension, we can see that the probability of 12 consecutive girls being born in Miejsce Odrzanskie is (½)12 = 1/4096.

In isolation, that sounds extremely unlikely – if you were told there was a one in 4,000 chance of it raining tomorrow then you probably wouldn’t bother with your umbrella. However, it’s important to remember that these odds relate to the very specific question: “What is the probability of there being 12 consecutive girls born in Miejsce Odrzanskie?”.

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There’s nothing special about this town in Poland – it would still have been international news if the same thing had happened in a village in Lithuania or Hungary. Likewise, it would still be equally newsworthy if it had been 12 consecutive boys instead of girls.

If we change the question to: “What is the probability of the last 12 children born in some town somewhere in the world all being the same sex?” then we see a completely different story. The GeoNames database is an online database containing details of every town in the world with a population of over 500, and it suggests there are just under 200,000 such towns across the planet.

Based on this, we’d actually expect roughly 50 towns in the world with 12 consecutive girls (1/4096 x 200,000), and another 50 with 12 consecutive boys. So, although this run of girls seems like a strange and unique event to the people of Miejsce Odrzanskie, there are in fact probably about 99 other places in the world where something similar is happening right now.

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