E-SKEPTIC FOR SEPTEMBER 23, 2002 (Also appeared in Skeptic magazine)
People around me have been both amused and aghast at the news that on 9-11 the New York State Lottery's evening number game popped up the numbers 9-1-1. Is this a paranormal happening? A wink from God? Is there a message here?
It's hardly the first improbable lottery event. "We print winning numbers in advance!" headlined Oregon's Columbian on July 3, 2000. State lottery officials were incredulous when the newspaper announced their 6-8-5-5 winning Pick 4 numbers for June 28 in advance. Actually, the Columbian's computers had crashed. In the scramble to re-create a news page, a copyeditor accidently included Virginia's Pick 4 numbers, which were the exact numbers that Oregon was about to draw.
We've all marveled at such coincidences in our own lives. Checking out a photocopy counter from the Hope College library desk, I confused the clerk when giving my six-digit department charge number—which just happened at that moment to be identical to the counter's six-digit number on which the last user had finished. Shortly after my daughter, Laura Myers, bought two pairs of shoes, we were astounded to discover that the two brand names on the boxes were "Laura" and "Myers."
And then there are those remarkable coincidences that, with added digging, have been embellished into really fun stories, such as the familiar Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences (both with seven letters in their last names, elected 100 years apart, assassinated on a Friday while beside their wives, one in Ford's theater, the other in a Ford Motor Co. car, and so forth). We also have enjoyed newspaper accounts of astonishing happenings, such as when twins Lorraine and Levinia Christmas, driving to deliver Christmas presents to each other near Flitcham, England, collided.
My favorite is this little known fact: In Psalm 46 of the King James Bible, published in the year that Shakespeare turned 46, the 46th word is "shake" and the 46th word from the end is "spear." (More remarkable than this coincidence is that someone should have noted this!)
What shall we make of these weird coincidences? Was James Redfield right to suppose, in The Celestine Prophecy, that we should attend closely to "strange occurrences that feel like they were meant to happen"? Is he right to suppose that "They are actually synchronistic events, and following them will start you on your path to spiritual truth"? Without wanting to rob us of our delight in these serendipities, much less of our spirituality, statisticians assure us that the coincidences tell us nothing of spiritual significance.
"In reality," says mathematician John Allen Paulos, "the most astonishingly incredible coincidence imaginable would be the complete absence of all coincidences." When Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice, newspapers reported the odds of her feat as 1 in 17 trillion-the odds that a given person buying a single ticket for two New Jersey lotteries would win both. But statisticians Stephen Samuels and George McCabe report that, given the millions of people who buy U.S. state lottery tickets, it was "practically a sure thing" that someday, somewhere, someone would hit a state jackpot twice. Consider: An event that happens to but one in a billion people in a day happens 2000 times a year. A day when nothing weird happened would actually be the weirdest day of all.
Our intuition, as I explain in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, fails to appreciate the streaky nature of random data. Batting slumps, hot hand shooters, and stock market patterns may behave like streak-prone random data, but our pattern-seeking minds demand explanations. Yet even the random digits of pi, which form what many mathematicians believe is a true random sequence, have some odd streaks that likely include your birth date. Mine, 9-20-42, appears beginning at the 131,564th decimal place. (To find yours, visit www.angio.net/pi/piquery).
The moral: That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight. And that is why even those of us who believe in God don't need God's special intervention, or psychic powers, to expect, yet also delight in, improbable happenings.
Adapted from Intuition: Its Powers and Perils by David G. Myers, Yale University Press, 2002.
Copyright 2002 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, e-Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com and firstname.lastname@example.org). Permission to print, distribute, and post with proper citation and acknowledgement.