Monday, January 16, 2006

iRant: Coincidences Aren't That Uncommon!

We all experience coincidences that are sometimes startling, sometimes humorous, and sometimes almost unbelievable - indeed, the concept has given rise to many beliefs, including justification for the value of things like horoscopes, psychic powers, and the like. It is my contention, however, that coincidences tend to stick in your head and are simply not all that uncommon, thus exaggerating their effect. Thankfully, I've found some people who agree with me (and too many people that just want to believe otherwise :-) ).

The article "Coincidences: Remarkable or Random?" presents some examples of unusual, though easily explainable, coincidences, and raises the following two points to bear in mind when we experiences these sometimes strange occurrences:

  1. "First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity";
  2. "Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve".

Scientific/social experiments have confirmed the first point, and the second point is simple a matter of crunching some numbers. For example, if you were in a room with forty other people, what do you think the probability is of two people in that room having the same birthday? You'd think it'd be pretty slim, but a quick look at the numbers (see the linked article above) shows that there is a 90% chance that two people in that group will have the same birthday. As I said, coincidences are just not all that uncommon. Another example is that two of America's Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on the exact same day: July 4, 1826. AND that was exactly fifty years to the day since the country's inception.

I've had my share of coincidences, but I have two separate and unrelated groups of friends who have both had the same kind of strange travel coincidences. In one, a group of my friends fly to Europe (Paris, I think) and then split into two separate groups: one group would travel south to see the Mediterranean countries and the other would travel through Northern Europe. Without any planning or coordination whatsoever (they did not intend to see one another until back in Canada), the two groups passed one another in the street in Istanbul - 1406 miles (2262 km) away, as the crow flies! Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I met someone else who, while travelling in Mexico, met a man from Europe and hung out with him for a few days. They met again (with no planning or thought that they'd ever see one another again) when that same man turned out to be staying in the same hostel at the same time as my friend who was then visiting Panama, months later on a separate trip. Crazy, cool, but not really "cosmic". ;-)

Here is another misguided attempt to put more into coincidences than they merit. Perhaps you got the 9-11 chain mail with this in it:

  1. New York City has 11 letters
  2. Afghanistan has 11 letters.
  3. Ramsin Yuseb (The terrorist who threatened to destroy the Twin Towers in 1993) has 11 letters.
  4. George W Bush has 11 letters.
  5. New York is the 11th state.
  6. The first plane crashing against the Twin Towers was flight number 11.
  7. Flight 11 was carrying 92 passengers. 9 + 2 = 11
  8. Flight 77 which also hit Twin Towers, was carrying 65 passengers. 6 + 5 = 11
  9. The tragedy was on September 11, or 9/11 as it is now known. 9 + 1 + 1 = 11
  10. The date is equal to the US emergency services telephone number 911. 9 + 1 + 1 = 11.
  11. The total number of victims inside all the hi-jacked planes was 254. 2 + 5 + 4 = 11.
  12. September 11 is day number 254 of the calendar year. Again 2 + 5 + 4 = 11.
  13. The Madrid bombing took place on 3/11/2004. 3 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 4 = 11.
  14. The tragedy of Madrid happened 911 days after the Twin Towers incident.

Our good urban-legend-busting friends at Snopes have explained away a lot of this particular issue (and a great resource if you're ever looking to call someone on a story you don't think is true).

In any case, coincidences are interesting - good conversation pieces - but I think a lot of people read far too much into them. Hopefully you can see some evidence from above that they aren't usually any cause for concern. ;-)

I've given you a couple of coincidences I've experienced, but I think it'd be cool to hear about some of yours - so leave me a comment with your own twisted tale.
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1/16/2006 07:59:00 PM  

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