Thursday, May 17, 2012

Coincidence --- Keep your eye out for the levers and pullies

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
“Mark Twain was born on the day of the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1835, and died on the day of its next appearance in 1910. He himself predicted this in 1909, when he said: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it."
([N.a.]. (05-02-07). Oddee, “20 Most Amazing Coincidences,” Retrieved January 26, 2011.).
“While American novelist Anne Parrish was browsing bookstores in Paris in the 1920s, she came upon a book that was one of her childhood favorites - Jack Frost and Other Stories. She picked up the old book and showed it to her husband, telling him of the book she fondly remembered as a child. Her husband took the book, opened it, and on the flyleaf found the inscription: "Anne Parrish, 209 N. Weber Street, Colorado Springs." It was Anne's very own book. (Source: While Rome Burns, Alexander Wollcott)” ([N.a.]. (05-02-07). Oddee, “20 Most Amazing Coincidences,” Retrieved January 26, 2011.).
David G. Myers, Professor of Psychology, Hope College, begins his essay, “The Power of Coincidence,” with this paragraph: “People around me have been both amused and aghast at the news that on 9-11 the New York State Lottery's evening number game popped up the numbers 9-1-1. Is this a paranormal happening? A wink from God? Is there a message here?”  
A coincidence is simply the appearance of a meaningful connection when there is none.
When you watch a quarterback who is “in the flow,” and just makes all his passes, or, when Michael Jordan hit nearly every three-point shot he attempted, and then running down the floor shrugging his shoulders and turning his palms up as if to say, “I can’t believe it either!” you are a witness to coincidence.  The quarterback and Michael Jordan had the hot hands.  When you see stock-market patterns, batting slumps, people driving down a busy main street and hitting every stoplight green, our pattern-seeking minds demand explanations.  The goal of our minds is to connect anomalies in some meaningful way.  You know as well as I do, that it is very difficult to accept the idea that something happened, and it doesn’t mean anything at all.
“One thing is certain about coincidence,” writes Jill Neimark, in an essay, “The Power of Coincidence,” at the Psychology Today: Personality web site, “the phenomenon fascinates believers and skeptics alike. It's a porthole into one of the most interesting philosophical questions we can ask: Are the events of our lives ultimately objective or subjective?  Is there a deeper order, an overarching purpose to the universe?  Or are we the lucky accidents of evolution, living our precious but brief lives in a fundamentally random world that has only the meaning we choose to give it?”
“Some people find it surprising,” Robert T. Carroll writes on the Skeptic’s Dictionary web site, in an essay, “Law of truly large numbers (coincidence),” “that there are more than 16 million others on the planet who share their birthday. At a typical football game with 50,000 fans, most fans are likely to share their birthday with about 135 others in attendance. (The notable exception will be those born on February 29. There will only be about 34 fans born on that day.)”
At this web site, the Skeptic’s Dictionary, Carroll writes about Uri Geller’s explanation of the coincidences that occurred as a result of the anti-terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  “[Geller] asked everyone to pray for eleven seconds for those in need,” writes Carroll, “Why? He was convinced that there was a cryptic, numerological message in the events that occurred that day.”
Carroll provides a great conclusion to his essay that should alert everyone to be cautious in finding meaningfulness in patterns: “If we start hunting for items that seem relevant but don't fit the pattern, we will soon see that there is nothing special about Geller's list or the number 11. Only by focusing on anything that we can fit to our belief and ignoring everything that doesn't fit (confirmation bias) can we make these coincidences seem meaningful.”
At the web site Quackwatch [I love the name of this web site!], Robert Novella has an essay titled, “The Power of Coincidence: Some Notes on ‘Psychic’ Predictions” (August 31, 2000).  Novella has effectively and succinctly explained the problem people have with coincidences when he writes: “There are many simple reasons why most people misinterpret coincidences:
        * Humans have a poor innate grasp of probability.
        * We believe that all effects must have deliberate causes.
        * We do not understand the laws regarding truly large numbers.
        * We easily succumb to selective validation—the tendency to remember only positive correlations and forget the far more numerous misses.”
At Listverse “Top 15 Amazing Coincidences” (November 12, 2007) — taken from Ripley’s Believe it or not, BBC, and the New Scientist  — the sensational coincidence reads like this: “In 1975, while riding a moped in Bermuda, a man was accidentally struck and killed by a taxi. One year later, this man’s bother was killed in the very same way. In fact, he was riding the very same moped. And to stretch the odds even further, he was struck by the very same taxi driven by the same driver – and even carrying the very same passenger!”  The sensational coincidences discussed are remarkable.
Robert Novella, cited above, concludes his essay in this way: “. . . the vast majority [of coincidences] that we experience turn out to be much more probable than they appear, if analyzed critically. When this is taken into account, along with our propensity for selective validation, our desire to believe in something akin to fate, and our coincidence-detection hardwiring, the true deceptive power of coincidence is realized.”  Emma Bull said, “Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys.”
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At Paranormal Phenomena Stephen Wagner’s essay, “Amazing Coincidences,” explains at least ten sensational coincidences.

“Much religious faith is based on the idea that almost nothing is coincidence; science is an exercise in eliminating the taint of coincidence.”  This is just one short sentence pulled out of context in an essay by Lisa Belkin, “The Odds of That” (August 11, 2002), at the New York Times website.
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Copyright May, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.

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