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Posts Tagged ‘coincidence’

If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:

Metacognition.

Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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Quick, think of a colour and I’ll try and guess what you picked.

Red. No, yellow. Orange. Yellowy-orange. Wait, green. Definitely one of those greenish-blue, blueish-purple kind of colours. Like blue. Purple? Did I get it yet?

Okay, now think of a number between one and ten.

Got it?

Seven. No, five. Okay, but it’s definitely odd. Definitely… I’m getting strong vibes that it’s even, like eight, or six… or maybe three. Two. Am I close?

Okay, it’s not that impressive, but if you ignore all the times I was wrong, I think you’ll find that I did really quite well.

And this is something that people are often very good at doing, if they’re not really putting together a thorough investigation – if they think they know what’s right, and are just looking for further evidence to prove their ideas correct. Although I doubt the example above provoked anybody to leap to their feet and shout “By all the gods and underpants gnomes, he’s right, I was thinking of blueish-purple!”, it can be surprisingly easy to overlook and forget about large amounts of data, even under less obvious circumstances.

You might have a story about a time when you got an unexpected phone call from somebody, out of the blue, right when you happened to be thinking about them. It’s the sort of thing that can seem like an impossible coincidence, especially if it’s someone you haven’t heard from in ages, who you had no reason to be thinking about, and who you never would have expected to actually call you. You thought about them, then suddenly there they were – seems like pretty strong evidence in favour of something.

But fleeting memories of quite a number of people, who may not play a major role in your life any longer, probably flit through your head each day – and you probably get spontaneous and unexpected phone calls or emails every so often, too. Once in a while, you’d expect these things to somewhat match up.

It shouldn’t be surprising when something spookily coincidental does occasionally happen, because the criteria for what’s “spooky” can be fairly wide. Does it only count if you get the call the very same minute you think of them? Or within ten minutes, or twenty, or an hour? If you dream about someone, does it still count if you hear from them any time in the following day, or week? This can be extended to any other allegedly prophetic dreams, as well. My subconscious comes up with some pretty freaky shit most nights, and every time the nightmare about being chased over a hill by the giant peanuts doesn’t turn out to have any bearing on reality, that’s a data point too. Those happen a lot more often than ones where I do seem to be able to predict the future.

Also, there are a lot of people for whom this sort of thing just doesn’t seem to happen, and that’s important data as well. I don’t recall ever having a dream which seemed to have any predictive power, even after the fact, or being surprised by any kind of communication from someone I was just thinking of. There are lots of people who do have impressive-sounding stories, but with more than six billion people on the planet, how rare do you think million-to-one chances really are?

Psychics and cold-reading are going to get a lot more coverage here in future articles, but remembering the hits and forgetting the misses is a big part of that whole routine. The second part of that video shows Michael Shermer laying out pretty clearly how much random guesswork is involved in a typical reading, and quite how readily some people will be willing to ignore the many wrong answers, as if they didn’t tell us anything, and only notice the hits that were eventually stumbled upon, as if they were a lot more impressive and inspired than they really were.

Astrology‘s full of this. All sorts of general stuff easily glossed over, and the occasional match with something we can relate to, which then stands out as if it were representative of the predictions as a whole.

Human beings are not natural statisticians. We’re often shown up as having a very poor innate grasp of probability, and very little intrinsic ability to reason things out. The birthday paradox is one of the clearest examples of this, and I still have trouble getting my head around the fact that it only takes twenty-three people together for it to be more likely than not that two of them have the same birthday. I know it’s an old one, and I totally get the maths which makes it clearly true, but it still messes with my head. There are probably over 23 people in the office where I’m working at the moment, but if any two of them happened to discover that they share a birthday, I’d still feel a strong instinct to go, “Ooh, neat,” as if this were much more unlikely than it is.

I’m good at maths, and I still suck at instinctively estimating this kind of thing. This is just another reason why analysing data closely is important if we’re going to draw any dramatic conclusions, and our natural initial reactions of how impressive something seems should not be held in any particular esteem. People can be easily impressed by all kinds of junk if they’re inclined only to count the hits; the misses are easily forgotten, but they matter too. Van Praagh is doing nothing astounding when you see all the data, and it’s only then that we can hope to make a fair assessment of whether anything remarkable is actually happening.

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This doesn’t directly relate to any particular skeptical topic, but it seems to come up somewhat obliquely in reference to many different ideas, so I thought it’d be good to gather a few thoughts into one place.

It’s a common mantra among some people that “There are no coincidences”. What this generally means is that, whenever something seems serendipitous, or appears to have come about by chance in a particularly orderly way, or contains an unlikely pattern reminiscent of something else, or is in any other way quirkily coincidental, then you can bet that there’s something deeper going on, something we’re not seeing but which has caused things to align themselves in such a pattern, something that deliberately made things this way. Anytime something seems oddly out of place, or circumstances are just a little too “convenient”, you should be suspicious, and try to find out what’s really going on under the surface. There are no coincidences.

My position, however, is that if there really were no coincidences, this would be the most phenomenal coincidence imaginable.

Well, think about it. Imagine there are no coincidences. Not a single one. If you ever get talking to someone at a party, and find out that you both have the same birthday, then the two of you must have been brought together for a reason. It’s impossible for anyone to ever just stumble across any one of the millions of other people who were also being born around the same time that they were (or even on the same day on a different year), simply by chance. It could only happen when some underlying force makes it happen.

Of all the thousands of fleeting thoughts that pass through a person’s head each day, nobody could ever find any possible correlation between the vague and unprompted recollection of a person or place they haven’t thought about much in a while, and a phone call or other physical reminder of that same person or place, unless the thought was deliberately put in your head by some force that knew you were about to get that phone call. It could never happen that your idle musings just happened to overlap with reality by chance.

Out of the entire human history of bits of fruit that have gone slightly mouldy, or bits of cheese that have got burnt, not a single splotch of scorched dairy or unripe tomato could ever possibly have naturally curved itself into a pattern that sorta kinda looks like a person’s face a bit. You only need to look at the ubiquity of emoticon smileys to realise how low the human brain’s threshold is for spotting another human face (more on pareidolia soon), but even so, any simple pattern with elements that seem to remind us of facial features, like a couple of dots for eyes and a bit of a curve for a mouth, could never ever have simply come about by a random process of creating splotchy patterns, like burning a bit of cheese or letting mould grow in a tomato. It must have been placed there for some deliberate purpose.

Nobody could ever stand in front of an audience of people who are all hopeful to hear some good news about their dead relatives, and just happen to guess that the name John might mean something to someone. If anyone in a crowd of several hundred people is called John, or knows someone called John, or ever did know someone called John, then there’s no way it could just be a coincidence that a psychic happened to pick that specific name. Clearly whenever someone has such knowledge, it can only be through true spiritual intuition and guidance.

However often millions of people check their bank balances, at no point will any of them ever discover that the number happens to be in some numerical sequence that stands out to us, like £666.66, or £1234.56, or any of the other uncountable ways we could find patterns in such a string of digits. It’s just not plausible that a massive sample of random numbers constantly fluctuating up and down in varying degrees could ever land on any of the possible results that look pleasing to us. It must be portentous of something.

Oh, and those Rorschach inkblot tests? No way is it a coincidence that a bunny with a chainsaw was staring right at me in three consecutive cards. Whatever I’m getting an image of amidst the random visual “noise” of the inkblot, someone must have put it there deliberately.

Coincidence can clearly take an extremely wide range of potential weirdness, and at the mundane end we’re unsurprised to bump into them all the time. I don’t freak out about cosmic synchronicity every time I meet someone who shares my first name; it’s a pretty common first name, so obviously it’s going to happen a fair bit. Less likely is that I’ll find someone who shares my birthday, but 1 in 365 (ish) still isn’t exactly suspicious, and you only have to put 23 people in a room together to make it more likely than not that some of them will share a birthday.

On the other hand, there can be some big coincidences, that really do seem too good to be true, too profound and improbable to be simply down to chance. Lightning is a perfectly natural phenomenon, but if a bolt of it came crashing down through my roof and vaporised me the very moment after I declared “I swear, I was only holding that porn for a friend, and may God strike me down where I stand if I’m lying,” then this might raise even the most skeptical of eyebrows. If such an unlikely coupling of events did coincide, then we might really be persuaded to look for a deeper cause, which could have brought things about more plausibly than plain luck.

But the very fact that you can see a difference between the nature of these two situations – the former of “Hi, I’m Steve,” “Hey, me too”; the latter an impeccably timed lightning bolt – clearly demonstrates that some kind of judgment call has to be made here. We all expect some level of freaky coincidence to just happen, and we have every reason to expect the random noise of any media to produce some unlikely-seeming patterns now and then. Look far enough into the digits of pi, and you might find your telephone number. Flip a coin often enough, and eventually you’ll get ten heads in a row. Nearly every week, someone in the country overcomes millions-to-one odds and wins the lottery. And if any of these is simply a silly example, and your personal preferred coincidence is much less frivolous, then you’re performing some sort of evaluation to determine the weirdness, and to assess just how implausible the “coincidence” explanation is.

If you find conspiracy in every purported coincidence – literally any time two or more artefacts “coincide” – then you’ll never have the time to notice anything else. What’s important is to have enough of a mathematical understanding to distinguish genuine weirdness – where random chance truly becomes less likely to have caused something than deliberate intent – from the times when slightly kooky stuff just happens in an entirely expected way. We all make those judgment calls. It’s just a matter of whether you’re sufficiently informed and equipped to make them well. Actually looking at the odds and figuring out how suspicious to be of something is always better than trusting your gut and going with what feels more likely. Just ask Monty Hall.

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