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The Pleasure and Puzzlement of Weird Coincidences

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Some fun emails stimulated by last week’s essay on loss aversion in sports and everyday life pointed me to statistician David Spiegelhalter's Cambridge Coincidence Collection, which contains people’s 4500+ reports of weird coincidences.

That took my mind back to some personally experienced coincidences . . . like the time my daughter, Laura Myers, bought two pairs of shoes. Back home, we were astounded to discover that the two brand names on the boxes were “Laura” and “Myers.” Or the time I confused our college library desk clerk when checking out after using a photocopy machine. My six-digit charge number was identical to the one-in-a-million six-digit number of copies on which the last user had stopped. Or the day my wife, Carol, called seeking my help in sourcing Mark Twain’s quote, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” After this first-ever encounter with that quote, my second encounter was 90 minutes later, in a Washington Post article.

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In Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, I report more amusing coincidences. Among my favorites:

  • Twins Levinia and Lorraine Christmas, driving to deliver Christmas presents to each other near Flitcham, England, collided.
  • Three of the first five U.S. Presidents—Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe—died on the same date–which was none other than the 4th of July.
  • And my favorite . . . in Psalm 46 of the King James Bible, published in the year that Shakespeare turned 46, the 46th word is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” (An even greater marvel: How did anyone notice this?)

 

What should we make of weird coincidences? Were they, as James Redfield suggested in The Celestine Prophecy, seemingly “meant to happen . . . synchronistic events, and [that] following them will start you on your path to spiritual truth”? Is it a wink from God that your birthdate is buried among the random digits of pi? Beginning 50,841,600 places after the decimal, my 9/20/1942 birthdate appears . . . and you can likewise find yours here.

344942_Coincidence 2 - pi.png

Without wanting to drain our delight in these serendipities, statisticians have a simpler explanation. Given the countless billions of daily events, some weird juxtapositions are inevitable—and then likely to get noticed and remembered (while all the premonitions not followed by an envisioned phone call or accident are unnoticed and fall into oblivion). “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen,” observed statisticians Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller. Indeed, added mathematician John Allen Paulos, “the most astonishingly incredible coincidence imaginable would be the complete absence of all coincidences.”

 

Finally, consider: That any specified coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified event will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight. And that is also why we don’t need paranormal explanations to expect improbable happenings, even while delighting in them.

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).