Saturday, October 13, 2007

Coincidence happens

I just clicked the Wikipedia Random Article link for the first time ever. To my surprise it showed me an article about St. Ann's Well Gardens, Hove. Why should this surprise me? Well, out of all the approximately 5.3 million articles on Wikipedia, the article above just happens to be about a garden that I used to live right next to. That's an amazing coincidence right?

Wrong! Let's investigate.

First off, before I clicked the Random Article link I'd not set any criteria for what I would consider a significant response. I've lived in a lot of places and travelled a lot, so even if we were going to restrict what we would consider to be significant to just places I have lived or been then the probability of a match becomes far more likely. But remember, I hadn't set any criteria.

I would have been surprised if the article had been about someone that shared the same name as me, or even if it was about a subject I am especially interested in. I would have been surprised if it had been the date of my birthday, the date of either of my children's birthdays, an article about what I had for lunch today, a company I've worked for, an actor or actress in a movie I've just watched, a dog that looked like mine, a car model I own, an article I've already read, a type of pet I have, a TV show I like, the list goes on and on. But none of this occurred to me within the first five seconds of looking at the article in a state of mild surprise.

We are extremely good at seeing amazing coincidence where really there is only a small coincidence at work. The countless charlatans that offer medium services, tarot, astrology, psychic readings and all the other methods of defrauding the gullible make good use of this. Cold reading uses the common coincidence at its core.

"Yes someone is coming through. It's a man. Yes, I see an initial coming through now. A 'G' and maybe an 'M'. It may be a George. It's not so clear. Does the initial 'G' or 'M' for a man ring any bells for anybody here?", says the Medium, and watches the audience for a sign from anybody that looks ripe.

"My fathers name was Michael, but his brother was called George?", responds an idiot.

"Yes, it's getting clearer. It is a George. Is that right? Uncle George. Yes, he's saying something about Michael. Something about how Michael is watching over someone. A sister, I think, or a brother. A sibling I think."

"I've got a sister."

"And she's not here today?"

"No, she's on holiday."

"George says Michael, your father, yes. He says Michael is watching over your sister and that's why he's not here today."

I think you get the point.

What I want to say is that coincidences, even spectacular coincidences, do happen. Most spectacular coincidences are actually not that spectacular though once you start to think about them, and especially once you do the maths. That's the whole point.

Really truly spectacular coincidences are rare. Every lottery in the world relies on that fact. Most coincidences are more mundane than they at first appear and learning to spot that is immunisation against seeing connections that really are not there.

Learn that and you'll start to see the supernatural, from tarot to prayer, for the vacuous nonsense it is. Then you'll be far more amazed that so many fall for the charlatans than by what the charlatans claim to be doing.

Don't take my word for it. Go to Wikipedia now. In the links on the left hand side you'll find one that says "Random Article". Go and try it a few times and report your coincidences back here. On my tenth click I got an article about Family Guy. I watched Family Guy about an hour before writing this post. Try it yourself.

Update: A couple of minutes on.

I decided to try a few more clicks myself. On the 11th click (so 21 clicks in total) I got an article about Defence Colony in South Delhi. I used to live there too. The article mentions restaurants I used to eat in and even the bakery I used to buy cakes from, and they were really good cakes. That's three coincidences in 21 clicks - 1 in 7 Random Articles have so far been relevant to me.

If you enjoyed this article please feel free to digg it down below.


Tommy said...

CD, did you ever see the South Park episode that makes fun of John Edward. One of the South Park kids, either Kyle or Stan, tries to demonstrate to a crowd of people how cold reading works, and they're all like "Wow, he has the gift to!" and he's trying to explain to them, no it's just a trick.

chooseDoubt said...

Hi Tommy,

No, I never saw it. I think I'll try and find it though.

As yet another coincidence I kept on clicking for a little while longer. After a couple more clicks I landed on "Simpsons already did it", which was the funniest episode of South Park I've ever seen. I'd been telling a friend about that episode last night. And now you refer me to the South Park from this post. Converging coincidences.

Coincidence is everywhere anyway, but most of what we think is significant is only significant because we remember the hits and forget everything else about our days.

Have you ever tried cold reading? I've tried a few times in social situations and it really is amazingly simple to get people to think something weird is going on. I've read a few books on Derren Brown type stuff and I'm in the process of building up the confidence to try it out in public. Cold reading is like the first and easiest step and it helps to build confidence.

Tommy said...

Here is a link to a clip from the episode

Harry Nads said...

Nice post. I just found your blog through Tommy's and I really like it.

Keep up the great work.

DiVerL said...

Nope, I got nothing. Ten clicks and not a thing remotely coincidental to my life.
Though I did find "The year of 3 Popes" interesting...the others were just random...darn, that's my "karma" though.

I did learn Expansion is a Spanish newspaper, Andrew Cuerden is a Latin dancer, I got a "list of asteroids", plus "Moosa Manik" is one of the most successful footballer in Maldivian, The Pegasus satellite program was a series of three satellites, Ryan Singel is a San Francisco-based blogger and journalist covering civil liberty and privacy issues, I got the surname Terman, and next was "Universal Set". And last "Blues Hills Elementary school" in Saratoga, CA. So much for me finding any non ramdomness in my life...but I still get ya.

chooseDoubt said...

Tommy - thanks for the link. The video isn0t working, but I'll track it down somewhere.

Harry - thanks :)

Diverl - yeah, there's no gaurantees of finding something that seem coincidental. Perhaps I was just lucky - but not very lucky.

Tommy said...

I've had some strange coincidences happen to me.

Years ago, I was standing on line with a friend waiting to get into Planet Hollywood in NYC. We were discussing what movie star memorabilia they might have displayed, and I mentioned as a joke that they would have the sneakers worn by Johnny Depp in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

Now, I had never been in Planet Hollywood, and the reference was meant to be silly, because there was absolutely nothing special about the sneakers that Johnny Depp wore in that movie.

So, when we finally got into the place and were walking around, I saw up ahead encased in glass on the wall a pair of sneakers. I walked up to see what they were from, and guess what, the caption read that the sneakers were worn by Johnny Depp in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." I could not effin believe it!

Chris Severn said...

I didn't get anything in 12 clicks...

chooseDoubt said...

I just tried another 20 clicks and got nothing I'd call surprising. On click 12 I got this, which is certainly relevant to my field of interest but nothing special. So it's not going to give false positives all of the time, but that's part of why the not incredibly unlikely positives are significant mentally but not statistically. But, if on your first click you'd got something that seemed surprisingly relevant to you you might have thought "Wow, that's 5.3 million to 1 against" when if you sat there and tried 100 clicks and got something relevant it's a pretty good indicator that the odds were really 100 to 1 against - not such a big deal.

I think that I got 3 relevant articles in 21 clicks is may be a little unusual yet I suspect that if I got 3 in 100 clicks that it would be utterly unsurprising. But statistically the difference between 3 in 21 and 3 in 100 is not so great - no where near as impressive as what the mind leaps to assume of 1 in 5.3 million (assuming one knows the number of articles on wikipedia).

Tommy said...

I didn't click at all and I got nothing.

Coincidence, or mere chance?

sacred slut said...

Well I clicked 4 times. The first article was about the Bob-Tailed Weaver. Curiously, I've been very worried about my neighbor Bob who had surgery last week but no one has heard from him yet. So this must be a sign!! Then I got an article about Tuberculosis in China. My grandmother died of tuberculosis!! Another coincidence!

And last, I got an article about Creative Loafing, which is what I'm doing right this minute!!

Oooh, I'm getting goosebumps!!!

Tommy said...

Sacred, any chance you've also eaten chinese food recently? That could be yet another coincidence!

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