11 January 2013

Coincidence

Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous with Rama tells the story of a huge, mysterious alien artifact that drifts into our solar system in the 22nd century, and mankind's efforts to study and understand it.  The artifact is originally detected by a program set up to spot dangerous asteroids, and the novel has a strikingly-written prologue describing a disastrous meteor impact which had originally caused mankind to set up this program:

At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky.  Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens -- at first in utter silence -- it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.  Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged.  They were the lucky ones.  Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.  The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the Earth, and the last glories of Venice sank forever beneath the sea as the waters of the Adriatic came thundering landward after the hammer blow from space.  Six hundred thousand people died, and the total damage was more than a trillion dollars.....

No doubt you noticed the date at the beginning -- September 11.  The novel was published in 1973, long before the 2001 terrorist attack.  The first time I re-read it after 2001, noticing the date startled me slightly; but of course it's just a coincidence.  There are only 366 dates available on the calendar (even allowing for leap years), and given the number of novels in which some disaster is described as happening on a specific date, it's inevitable that sometimes a date will be chosen that, years later, just happens to become the date of a real disaster.

But to the mind of the mathematical illiterate, who has no grasp of statistics or probability, there is no such thing as coincidence.  If you have a dream about a car crash, and the next day you actually have a car accident (or even a near-miss), that means something.  You don't think of the huge numbers of dreams about car crashes which happen in a population of billions, and the huge number of car crashes that take place, and the inevitability that a few will coincide by random chance.  If you're thinking about talking with Joe, and the phone rings and it is Joe, it was a premonition; never mind the vast number of people who, on any given day, are thinking about talking with somebody, and the vast number of phone calls made, and the inevitability of occasional coincidences.  Many of our mystical and even religious beliefs are ultimately rooted in such fallacies.

So the next time somebody tells you about some seemingly-inexplicable correlation, remember Rendezvous with Rama.  Sometimes -- most of the time, in fact -- a coincidence is just a coincidence.

5 Comments:

Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Really some HEALTHY food for thought here Infidel ... it is SO EASY to get caught into something that is just coincidence and mistaken it, especially with the saturation of this phenominal hype talk around. It's almost fed to folk's through various media's like a buffet or excessive advertising.

11 January, 2013 08:11  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I can't count the times I've tried to explain this very thing to people who insist on believing that some telepathic magic happens when they think of a person and that person calls them just as they're having that thought.

I have an adult daughter who lives on the opposite coast. I think of her a lot during the day. She calls at certain times because of the time difference. I tell her I was just thinking of her.

And we laugh. Because both of us think of each other during certain times of the day.

It's funny. We laugh. And that's all there is to it.

People apparently need to believe in mysticism, therefore, the prevalence of religion.

Oh well.

11 January, 2013 08:46  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It's an unfortunate consequence of evolution. The human brain is a very sensitive pattern-recognition device -- rather too sensitive, in fact. To our stone-age ancestors, missing something significant that was really there was a lot more inimical to survival than seeing something that wasn't really there -- so we're biased toward the latter.

12 January, 2013 10:17  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

My father-in-law, a retired professor of agriculture at Oregon State U, refuses to get a flu shot because his friend who got one then became sick (allegedly with the flu) immediately after receiving his inoculation.

Now even though my father-in-law is a scientist, and the fact is one cannot get the flu from a flu shot, he still cannot let go of making this association where there is none. Very odd.

12 January, 2013 13:02  
Blogger Tommykey said...

A few years ago I did a post on a dream that I had in which I was trying to get my racist older brother to watch the movie Mississipi Burning. About a week later, when I was at his apartment, I saw a videocassette (we're talking early 90's) sticking halfway out of his VCR. Out of curiosity, I went over to see what it was, and to my surprise, it was Mississipi Burning.

I've had a few incidents like that over my lifetime. Another time a friend and I were waiting on line to go into a Planet Hollywood in NYC. We were wondering what celebrity items they might have, and I joked that they have the sneakers Johnny Depp wore in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I just pulled it out of my ass, because there was absolutely nothing memorable about the sneakers Depp wore in the movie. But when we went in, I saw a pair of sneakers encased in glass on one of the walls, and sure enough, they were identified as the sneakers Depp wore in Gilbert Grape.

That one I guess I can chalk up to a wildly lucky guess.

A more recent episode was about a week ago I had this feeling that a former high school class mate would send me a friend request on Facebook. We weren't friends in high school, but we did interact a little bit on a Facebook page dedicated to our high school class as well as a couple of times in comments of posts by mutual Facebook friends. Sure enough, I got the request from her about two or three days after I had the premonition. But of course, there's nothing magical about that, because it is entirely within the realm of possibility.

12 January, 2013 13:16  

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