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A demented ass?Coincidences

The picture at the right appeared on this site on February 16, 2002, in response to someone who threatened to sue my "demented ass". I had never seen this picture of a donkey until that day, when I scanned it off a card my daughter had 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. It is coincidences like this that convince people that they have psychic powers, like the times that someone rings up just when you are talking about them.

PigasusThe mundane truth is that you only remember the hits and not the misses. The people who ring you up are often people who know you and are just the sort of people you talk about, and a lot of the mystery about the photograph goes away when you know that both my employer and the public relations company that the photographer works for are members of the business promotion organisation that hosted the dinner. Still, if it happens again I might have to ask James Randi for a million dollars.

Coincidence (10/7/2004)
In alternative medicine and pseudoscience there are no coincidences. If two apparently unrelated things happen together, then there has to 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.

Belinda and BridgetLast Thursday I drove from Sydney to Canberra to attend a meeting of Canberra Skeptics. My daughter Belinda came with me, not specifically to go to the meeting but to meet her friend Bridget who lives in Canberra. The two girls had met in some Internet forum for young people, where they had presumably discussed many matters of importance to teenage girls, including, I suppose, some things that the respective parents are better off not asking about. 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 we set off for the Vietnamese restaurant where the local skeptics were gathering before the meeting. After dinner we all went to the meeting, and after that about a dozen of us went looking for somewhere to get a cup of coffee. (This was very important to me because I was about to set off on a three hour drive home. The midlife crisis silver sports car is capable of doing about twice the legal speed limit on the motorway, and I didn't fancy being asleep in it with my foot holding the accelerator down. I have no desire for an early meeting with my saintly namesake (or to hear him say "Ha, ha! You lost!"), let alone John Edward or James Van Praagh.)

At the coffee shop, one of the committee members of Canberra Skeptics produced some brochures advertising a forum they are running in August about global warming and the environment and asked if the people from Sydney could take a few home and help publicise the event. 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 she 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". Explain that, skeptics.

Coincidence Department (18/9/2004)
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. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I went to Canberra to see the local Skeptics group, my daughter Belinda came with me to see her friend Bridget, and we found out later that Bridget's father, John, was to be a speaker at an upcoming conference organised by the Canberra Skeptics. I met John at the seminar and found out that we had at least two common friends or acquaintances, apart from the Canberra people.

A cliche of origamiLast Friday night, 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. By the way, Pam's father is a radio broadcaster and I have appeared on his program. The table below shows the links between me and two people that I did not know existed three months ago.

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

Much of the "evidence" for the paranormal is coincidence, as if coincidences rarely happen. My recent experience suggests that they happen a lot more frequently than people suspect, and many might not even be noticed. Did I mention that I received a phone call at work last week 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?

Australasian ScienceAn article based on the material above was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2006 edition of Australasian Science. You can read it here.

I'm psychic!! (30/10/2004)
I thought I would read some fiction before bed a few nights ago, so I picked a novel at random from the shelves in my library. It was by Robert B. Parker, one of a series by that author featuring a private detective named Spenser and set in and around Boston. The book was first published 80 years after the Boston Red Sox last won the World Series. On the first page of the book, Spenser is musing about the imminent start of the baseball season. He is, of course, a Red Sox tragic, and the books often mention him wearing one of the team's caps. At the very time that I was reading the book, on the other side of the world and in a different time zone, the Red Sox were breaking the 86-year drought by beating the St Louis Cardinals 3-0 in the fourth game of the series. Boston is one of my favourite cities but my next trip there might be a bit dangerous for my brain cells and liver. As I obviously predicted the win by my random choice of bedtime reading material, and possibly even influenced the result by tugging on the fabric and energy of the universe, everyone there now owes me a beer.

It's all coincidences (29/11/2008)
One of the common themes that appears across the spectrum of anti-science, non-science and irrational thought is that coincidences have meaning. What else could cause autism except the vaccinations that are given at the age when autism becomes detectable? If I take a 6C nat mur homeopathy pill and my cold gets better in a week instead of seven days it must have been the homeopathy that cured it. If I just know that it is a real estate agent on the phone before I answer it then I must have psychic powers. (Nobody claims psychic powers for correctly guessing that the ringing phone in the middle of dinner heralds a call from a telemarketer, of course.) Strange things happen within five days either side of the moon being at any of full, new, first quarter or last quarter. A psychic on stage gets a message from someone whose name starts with "M" and several people in the audience of 4,000 know someone called Michael, Margaret, Martin or Michelle.

My weekly commute to the boondocks takes a few hours whether I go by train and coach or do the driving myself. I use the time to catch up on radio programs and podcasts that I don't have the time or schedule gaps for during the rest of the week. I don't necessarily get to everything in the same week that it is broadcast, and a couple of weeks back one of the items on the program was an interview that had gone to air in early October with Richard Holmes, author of the excellent book  Holmes was talking about how the poet and renowned opium doper Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been brought to science by his friend Humphry Davy. (As an aside, it was Coleridge who invented the word "scientist". To show that some things haven't changed since the nineteenth century, one immediate reaction from some cleric was to declare that "scientist" and "atheist" were synonymous.) Much of the book is about how Davy, unschooled in the sciences, went on to become one of the outstanding figures in the history of science. At the first mention in the interview of Davy I looked out of the window of the bus and saw the distinctive architecture of the Lithgow Visitors' Centre, which you can see at the right. Explain that huge Davy lamp, skeptics!

The next program on the iPod was a book review. The book was by Christopher Paolini and I had never heard of it before that day. Note that I didn't say I hadn't heard of it before hearing the review, because the lady sitting opposite me in the train to Lithgow had been reading a copy and I had noticed the weird title.

Now for the mundane facts.

Brisingr is apparently one of the biggest selling books in the world at the moment. People who travel in trains, especially on relatively long trips, often read books and the books they read are very often current popular favourites. (Have you ever seen anyone reading Harry Potter on a train?) I travel by train at most twice a week, but if I had been commuting daily I have little doubt that I would have seen several people reading this particular book. Just think about why it was being reviewed on the radio - it wasn't because it was out of print, it was because it was a current best seller and was relevant to the normal subject matter of the program, which is people's beliefs in strange and weird things. Also, I probably would have forgotten completely about seeing the book on the train if I hadn't heard a review an hour later.

I pass the Lithgow Visitors' Centre twice a week either in a bus or in my car, and I am very familiar with the unique style of the building. Had I heard the name Humphry Davy at any time on the trip (or during the week, for that matter) I would have immediately thought of the structure. It was fortuitous that I happened to be travelling through Lithgow while listening to the program, but it wasn't any strange coincidence that I saw the building just after hearing Davy's name. I looked out the window because of where I was and I knew what I was going to see.

Isn't life dull for us skeptics, without the wonder of the unknown and unexpected? Well, no, it isn't. How could it possibly be dull to think about how people like Davy stretched knowledge. Seeing a memorial to one of his inventions at the same time was just gravy on the steak.

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