COINCIDENCE ... OR STATISTIC PROBABILITY

Very often people are so amazed by coincidences, that they start to believe in some hidden meaning. I have to fight some hard battles during dinner parties to make them see the light; believing in coincidences is very often nothing more than proof of the very egocentric approach to life of the believer or a lack of understanding statistics.

Some examples of AMAZING coincidences

EXAMPLE 1
Once I took a picture of my girlfriend in Pompeii (Italy) with her standing on a column. Nice picture, clear sky and clear background. Years later, when she had a new boy friend, they browsed together through her photo-albums and he spots himself somewhere in the background of this picture. Amazing, and tempting to think they were meant for each other ...

BUT ...
= How many pictures do we have in our albums with people on the background, whom we do NOT know and did not become future boyfriends. Count them.
= If there is some meaning behind this, why would that be? Is this the way of some superior being to say that these two people are meant for each other?
= If putting them together on a photo is controllable, then why not use a method with a higher success ratio (like putting them together on a desert island)
= And if they are both in Pompeii anyway, why not make sure that they meet there at that time instead of having me take their picture

EXAMPLE 2
- In the early 1950s my uncle Guus had a hitchhiking holiday together with his best friend in Belgium. In Brussels they meet a British cyclist, they become friendly and have a picture taken of them together. A few months later, my uncle is again hitchhiking in the Netherlands, on the way to Rotterdam to his best friend with in his pocket the pictures of that holiday in Belgium. A truck driver offers to take him, but says he should go in the back of the truck saying that there is another hitchhiker. And that is ... the British biker. My uncle takes out the photo and says: "here is your picture".

BUT ...
= How big is this chance? As a traveler you meet all kind of people on the street, all the time. Is it really such a big chance to meet the same person twice?
= If this was meant to be, how did "GOD" or any other superior being pull this thing together. Both people decided themselves do go somewhere on a given day. Was this a decision inspired by a higher force? Did the truck driver stop for both hitchhikers because he was unconsciously instructed to do so??
= Actually I am most amazed by the presence of mind of my uncle to make the remark and offer the picture.

EXAMPLE 3
I was with my wife on a steamer from Shanghai to Guangzhou about 15 years ago, when a Typhoon forced us to take shelter in an anchorage just off the coast near the city of Xiamen. This took more than two days, and so we had to berth for an hour in Xiamen to get food for the rest of the journey. I managed to convince the crew that we "had to" go ashore, and we would be back before the vessel left. So what happened: we drank a coffee in a nearby hotel and who do we meet on the street. My study mate Robin, whom I had not seen for many years. What an amazing coincidence.

BUT ...
= At first appearance it seems an unlikely place to meet, but it actually happens very often that westerners meet each other like this in China. Reasons: they all follow the same beaten track; once you have one in 100m sight it is difficult NOT to spot each other among the somewhat smaller local population
= Because again the time window was obviously very narrow, it would have been in fact much more likely NOT to meet, and I would not be writing this story.
= Wouldn't it be outrageous to think that all the people on board the vessel had to endure the long wait in anchorage to make it possible for me to meet this friend on the street.

IN HINDSIGHT
Another thing is that in hindsight everything that happens seems to be an amazing coincidence; that is until you see all the things that did not happen.

A simple example: let's take my eight great-grandparents. How did their existence lead to me being born?
= Obviously it starts with the fact that the chance that they would all meet each other in the right combination is small;
= then the right sperm cells of my 4 great-grandfathers have to win the "swimming battle" at the right moment of the menstrual cycles of my great-grandmothers in order to create my grandparents.
= Then they on their turn have to meet each other
= Again two "swimming contests" to create my parents, etc.

So if you would have just looked at these eight great-grandparents around the year 1900, the odds against me being born were simply enormous. And then I am only going back three generations.

Even the chance that all 8 would grow old enough to get children, find an opposite sex partner and would be able to get children, was quite small. If we would go further back in time a few hundred generations, one could safely say that there was a close to zero percent chance of any of us ever being born. Nevertheless: IT HAPPENED ... If you would not have been born, someone else would have.

Similarly: our planet Earth, which is able to accommodate us in this world so nicely. The chances of it all happening were small indeed. The planet needed to be in a stable period, have the right temperature and a climate in which some form of life is sustainable. Then life had to start and then no comets, meteorites or other collisions please.

So the conclusion must be: Things just happen, don't get excited

Updated 03-01-2007