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Australasian ScienceThe Power of Coincidence

In pseudoscience there are no coincidences. If two apparently unrelated things happen together, there must be a connection. Skeptics like to point out that coincidences happen all the time but people only remember some of them, and most of them mean nothing anyway and are not actually that unlikely. The mundane truth is that you only remember the hits and not the misses.

I have a web site which looks critically at uncritical thinking, and it attracts some hostile responses. When someone wrote to me threatening to sue my "demented ass", I coincidentally noticed that my daughter had a card with a photograph of a donkey and I decided to use it to illustrate my reply. I had never seen this picture of a donkey until the day when I scanned it and loaded it up to the site. Three nights later I attended a business dinner, and when I went back to my seat to collect my coat at the end of the night a copy of the picture was lying on the table near where I had been sitting. I asked about it and found that one of the people who had been seated at the same table as me was the photographer who had taken the picture.

A demented ass?A lot of mystery about the photograph goes away when you know that both my employer and the public relations company that the photographer works for were members of the business promotion organisation hosting the dinner. Still, if it happens again I might have to ask Randi for a million dollars.

One afternoon I drove to Canberra to attend a meeting of Canberra Skeptics. My daughter came with me, not specifically to go to the meeting but to meet her friend who lives in Canberra. The two girls had met in some Internet forum for young people, but they had never met physically and Belinda was quite excited about seeing Bridget for the first time. I waited at the meeting place long enough to satisfy myself that Bridget wasn't a middle-aged man in a raincoat and then left them to their own devices. When I came back a couple of hours later I invited Bridget to have dinner with us and the local skeptics. After dinner we went to the meeting, and after that about a dozen of us went looking for somewhere to get a coffee.

At the coffee shop, one of the committee members of Canberra Skeptics produced some brochures advertising a seminar they were running few weeks later. Before you read the next sentence, remember that nobody in the group had ever met Bridget before that day, she and Belinda had never discussed anything about skepticism in their Internet conversations, and Bridget had apparently never heard of the Canberra Skeptics before. Now read on … Bridget picked up one of the brochures and said: "Are you people involved with this? My father is going to be one of the speakers".

The psychologist Stanley Milgram once proposed a hypothesis, commonly called "Six degrees of separation", which suggested that everybody on Earth can be connected to any other person using about six interpersonal links. I'm beginning to think that Dr Milgram was a little pessimistic. I met Bridget's father, John, at the seminar and found out that we had at least two common friends or acquaintances, apart from the Canberra Skeptics people.

A cliché of origamiA few nights after the seminar, Belinda went out with some of her friends to see a late-night showing of the Rocky Horror Movie. They were sitting in Starbucks afterwards discussing origami, as one does, and Belinda mentioned that she knew someone who was very good at it and had written several books on the subject. Pam, the girlfriend of Belinda's friend Jay, asked his name and, when told, said that Richard was one of her father's friends. Pam's father is a radio broadcaster and I have appeared on his program. These are the links between me and two people that I had never heard of three months before.

Peter – Belinda – Bridget
Peter – Ian – John – Bridget
Peter – Paul – John – Bridget
Peter – Another Ian – John – Bridget
Peter – Belinda – Jay – Pam
Peter – Richard – Brian – Pam
Peter – Brian – Pam

Did I mention that I received a phone call at work one day from someone wanting assistance with the software product that my real-life business is based on? He had never heard of me before he found my name on the software builder's US web site. I have known his brother for more than ten years and I have installed the software in three places where his brother has worked in that time. Spooky, isn't it? Explain that, skeptics.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2006 edition of Australasian Science
Australasian Science

A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on February 2, 2010
Yahoo! 7 News

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