What Are the Odds?
Coincidences – Part Two
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Attributed to Albert Einstein, among several others.
Author’s note: The truth about these ubiquitous quotes in media and literature is that nobody knows who said what. Just look at all the quotes wrongly attributed to Babe Ruth. But it’s fun to read them, so I will continue sliding them in once in a while.
OK, now back to the business at hand – coincidences.
In last week’s column, I left you with a question.
How many individuals would you have to cram into a high school gym to have a 50/50 chance that two of those people will share a birth date?
When I was posed with the same question, I started doing the math in my head. It went something along the line of 365 times 2 or 1 in 730. But, I was wrong – way wrong.
You can look up the actual equation if you wish, but the answer is 23. That is, if you get 23 people into that high school gym, you have a 50% chance of getting two people with the same birth month and date. Probably, not what you would have guessed, right?
But unlike most fishermen and all politicians, numbers don’t lie.
Radiolab is a National Public Radio broadcast and podcast that calls itself a “curiosity bender.” This show asks penetrating questions about everything from science to history.
Radiolab employs the very best investigative journalism to explore and explain the mysteries that make our lives more enjoyable. Sometimes it shoots dead the unicorn we have all been believing in. But it does so in the name of science and rational thinking.
It is my sincerest hope that none of us wish to be fooled.
A 2009 episode of Radiolab kicked off a program about coincidences with the story of 10-year-old Laura Buxton. In 2001, Laura released a red balloon from her home in Northern England. She had written a message for its finder upon the balloon, “Please return to Laura Buxton.”
You can imagine her surprise when she gets a letter from another 10-year-old girl who lives 140 miles away. Her name? You guessed it, astute reader – she was also named Laura Buxton.
Let’s get this straight, not only did the balloon launched by the first Laura Buxton make it 140 miles south in a headwind, but it ended up in a hedge in the other Laura Buxton’s back yard.
According to the Radiolab piece, both young women look remarkably alike. And, when invited to meet each other for a recording in a London radio studio, they both showed up separately in a pink jumper and jeans.
Yet, the coincidence doesn’t stop there. It turns out that both girls had a three-year-old black Labrador, a gray rabbit and a guinea pig. Moreover, they brought their guinea pigs to the studio with them – unplanned, no less.
So, what do we make of this unusual synchronicity? Most of us would feel it more than a mere coincidence, perhaps fate or even a miracle.
When such extraordinary events happen to us, we may feel that there is a paranormal explanation. We feel special. We have been personally touched by the gods of destiny.
Consciously and unconsciously, humans are pattern seekers.
A decade or so ago, a California woman reported that a rust stain on her refrigerator door looked all the world like the Virgin Mary. Within days, people were lined up around the block to see and touch the oxidized image.
Sometimes called pareidolia, the fascination with the Blessed Mother on the fridge door results from a human’s natural tendency to seek meaning in patterns that are random or enigmatic.
Someday you may retrieve a piece of toast from your toaster and marvel at what you see in the very spot where you planned to place your pat of butter. When held just right, your breakfast toast bears the iconic likeness of Che Guevara.
If this should happen, don’t think that you have been personally chosen by the gods of pareidolia to start a revolution. This is merely your pattern-seeking brain at work.
We do the same thing with numbers and events. When we experience a coincidence, we tend to block out everything but the factors that support our notion that something extraordinary has happened.
People win the huge payoff lotteries every day, and some have won it twice. A California man won both the Fantasy Five and the Super Lotto on the same day.
The odds of that happening are a staggering one in 23.5 trillion. Yet, it happens occasionally – such mindboggling events are what mathematicians call a “non-zero” probability.
When we start talking about large numbers, like grains of sand on the Earth or a universe that has billions of solar systems in billions of galaxies, there is a chance that anything can happen. And, furthermore, it will happen.
This suggests that what we often believe is a “meaningful” coincidence is far less remarkable than intuition would dictate.
You have probably heard the old adage that if you put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters, they will eventually write a Shakespearean sonnet. *
Although, to do so, you would have to round up a hundred immortal monkeys. Such a task may require an infinitely long period of time to bear fruit. And what are the odds of that? Finding the immortal monkeys, I mean.
The point is that almost anything that you can conceive of happening can, and probably will, happen.
As celebrity magician and noted skeptic, Penn Jillette, said of New York City’s population of nearly eight million people, “Million to one odds happen eight times a day in New York City.”
Nevertheless, even recognizing the long reach of mathematical probabilities, some coincidences just seem to have an element of the ineffable about them.
It may seem that I am suggesting that all coincidences can be accounted for by the “Law of truly large numbers.” **
It is at this point I have to step over the fence that divides reductionist science from the intuitive and put one foot tentatively upon the ground of the unknown.
I do this in total disregard for how I may be perceived. As an old friend and committed non-conformist is fond of saying, “What others think of me is really none of my business.”
My interest in coincidences goes back many decades. I regard nearly all my own coincidences as random events, even the one I wrote about in last week’s column.
With one exception.
I wrote a two-part story in The Pocahontas Times in June of 2020. In it, I recounted a series of bizarre events that started here in Pocahontas County and led me to a particular dog located in Missouri.
All along the path of this journey, the people who played roles in this months-long odyssey would say things to me like, “This is unbelievable.” and “I guess there’s more to this world than I thought.”
I have gone over the details of this “coincidence” in my mind hundreds of times, and I always come up with the same conclusion – it was meant to happen. It’s one of those situations where “you had to be there.”
Perhaps I am an unwitting victim of something called apophenia. This is where meaning is found in unrelated or random events. In this case, the patterns were not ominous as those in schizophrenia, but rather, just the opposite – they brought forth great joy and wonder.
We humans harbor tendencies toward wishful thinking – we do develop confirmation biases, and we clutch them tightly. And as each new element unfolded in my coincidence, it kept adding to the strength of my overall conviction.
And now that it is firmly planted in my belief system, it would be hard to reverse. I will most likely go to my grave believing that this one remarkable coincidence pushed me along a road that I may never have otherwise traveled.
I am left with one nagging question: Did I fool myself?
I hope that you too have a special coincidence in your life.
The concept of a cold, meaningless universe predicated on chaos and randomness is not an attractive prospect. Humans seek and need meaning in all aspects of our lives, regardless of our belief systems.
Perhaps coincidences open doors to the possibility of a more extraordinary and more purposeful life. And, just what is wrong with that?
In the final installment about coincidences, we will examine a coincidence that fairly staggers the mind.
And finally, we’ll look at coincidences that readers have sent in.
All, in next week’s For Your Consideration.
* There are several variations of the monkey and typewriter story. All are meant to demonstrate probabilities over long periods of time.
** The Law of Truly Large Numbers says that “given enough opportunities, we should expect a specified event to happen, no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity.” Scientific American, February 1, 2014.