Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern.
By Bruce Martin via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
“You don’t believe in telepathy?” My friend, a sober professional, looked askance. “Do you?” I replied. “Of course. So many times I’ve been out for the evening and suddenly became worried about the kids. Upon calling home, I’ve learned one is sick, hurt himself, or having nightmares. How else can you explain it?”
Such episodes have happened to us all and it’s common to hear the words, “It couldn’t be just coincidence.” Today the explanation many people reach for involves mental telepathy or psychic stirrings. But should we leap so readily into the arms of a mystic realm? Could such events result from coincidence after all?
There are two features of coincidences not well known among the public. First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity. Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve.
However, it is possible to calculate the probabilities of some seemingly improbable events with precision. These examples provide clues as to how our expectations fail to agree with reality.
In a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. Who has not been surprised at learning this for the first time? The calculation is straightforward. First find the probability that everyone in a group of people have different birthdates (X) and then subtract this fraction from one to obtain the probability of at least one common birthdate in the group (P), P = 1 – X. Probabilities range from 0 to 1, or may be expressed as 0 to 100%. For no coincident birthdates a second person has a choice of 364 days, a third person 363 days, and the nth person 366 – n days. So the probability for all different birthdates becomes:
In a nutshell: Superstitions are beliefs about the power of things to bring about good or bad when there’s no logical or scientific evidence for the belief.
It seems that everybody is superstitious about something. Ask anyone if they would wear a sweater worn by somebody who has done the worst evil thing you can imagine. Even though there is no rational or logical reason for believing that an evil person’s sweater would feel any different from any other sweater, most people don’t want to even come near the sweater of someone they think is evil.
Even grownups who think they are not superstitious will get chills or a good feeling when they touch something that belonged to someone they greatly admire. There is no logical or scientific reason why anything touched by anyone you admire should have any special effect on you. Yet, people will go to great lengths to get an autograph or to visit the home where someone they think is great was born or used to live.
The world does not divide up into the ones who are superstitious and the ones who are not superstitious. We’re all superstitious, but not always about the same things. We might laugh when we read about people who used to beat their drums to make the moon give back the sun during an eclipse. But they’d probably laugh at us for trying to touch a rock star or for buying clothes with the name of some singer sewed into them.
Many superstitions start by observing some things that happen by coincidence. You forgot to wash your socks before a baseball game and then you hit a home run. From now on you don’t wash your socks before you play a game. You wore your blue sweater to school on the day you aced a test. Now the sweater is your “lucky sweater” and you wear it whenever you have a test. Instead of accepting that things happen by coincidence, we make one the cause of the other. If you stop to think about it, you know there’s no logical reason dirty socks should help a baseball player hit a baseball. Wearing a sweater can’t substitute for studying for a test.
Many athletes are superstitious. They’ll wear twisted ropes around their necks or rubber bands with holograms around their wrists. Why? Not because they think they look good in them, but because they think the ropes and rubber bands can improve their playing. Not likely, you might think. But, if the player really believes his necklace or bracelet helps him, it might relax him and put him in a good mood. Maybe he plays better when he’s relaxed and in a good mood. So, magic jewelry might help some people sometimes, but only because of their superstition!
Some superstitions are due to magical thinking. Believing that something evil stays in the sweater of an evil person is type of magical thinking. Thinking that things that look alike share some sort of magical connection is also magical thinking. Just because a plant looks like a kidney doesn’t mean it will be good medicine for kidney problems.
Some people think that if they make a doll to stand for some person they can help or hurt the person by helping or hurting the doll. Some people think you can help a person by doing acupuncture on a doll that stands in for the person. Some think that you can make a person feel it if you stick a pin in a doll that stands in for the person. These are examples of more magical thinking.
Magical thinking seems to be based on a belief that there is some sort of energy or essence that things can magically transfer to other things.