Last week we were excited to learn that George Hrab mentioned us in episode 251 of the Geologic Podcast. We’re definitely fans of his wide range of work, so the shoutout was a personal moment for the team. Some of us were even mildly verklempt, which was all the more relevant thanks to his mention of Gefilte fish, though less so since we’re not actually Jewish.

After a brief conversation with George via email, he graciously provided us with permission to post a transcript of his thoughts on the subject which I’ve placed below, followed by some additional thoughts by me, assuming you care. Please validate me by caring. Also, please listen to the podcast if you haven’t already since you get the nuances of George’s delivery, along with his general Georgeness.

Geologic Podcast #251 – Coincidence Transcript

I saw an interesting web site–no, a little blog post. There’s a place called The Odds Must Be Crazy. We’ll try to link to that in the show notes. But someone went onto The Odds Must Be Crazy–Brian H–he wrote this. He said, “I was listening to George Hrab’s podcast (episode 240) on my iPod while heading out to one of my familiar lunch spots in Santa Monica, California. In this episode George did a bit called the History Chunk where he tells what happened on this particular date in history, usually in chronological order, and the makes some kind of joke about it. He mentions how in 1982, boxer Duk Koo Kim died after a bout with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. Thirty seconds later I see Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini having lunch in the very restaurant I was walking into.  I clandestinely snapped his picture.”

This site is really interesting, and it talks about sort of the odds of things happening and how it can seem that the odds of something must be so astronomical that there must be some kind of a sign. So this Brian was listening to the show, I say “Boom Boom” Mancini, he looks up, and there’s “Boom Boom” Mancini. Now how could we calculate the odds of that occurring? I don’t know, but they’re astronomical. They’re astronomical. And yet if you think, “how many people that listen to the show didn’t see Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini when I said it?”, that would help to demonstrate the odds being not quite as horrifically set against as you might imagine.

But this made me think about something else which occurred recently. Now a few shows back–a number of shows back, actually–I talked about having a contest where I was going to be in a nationally-released print ad. Well, I kept waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. I did the photo shoot, and the photo shoot went well, and apparently it was never run. So there was no winner, no one saw it. This was going to be in Fortune Magazine. There was supposed to be a picture of me taken where it was just my eyes; from my sort of eyes up. They wanted a bald head because they wanted to make someone reading a newspaper look like their head was a bomb. And if there’s anything I am known for, it is for having a bomb-like head. So I went to this place in New York and we did a number of pictures with a newspaper in front of me, without a newspaper in front of me, different glasses. They were impressed that I had, like, five different pairs of glasses, so I brought the glasses. I had make-up–this woman did make-up for me who also had done make-up for the Obamas, which was kind of cool. And they tried to simulate sort of a fuse on the top of my noggin. And we took the pictures of it, and I was like, oh cool, this will be exciting. It’ll be a nice, fun kind of thing. Well, I guess–I don’t know why, but as these things often work out, they didn’t run the story, so that was completely fine.

However some of you might be saying, “but, but, wait, but I saw–but wait…” There was an ad which ran just about at the same time as my ad would have run–or my story picture would have run. There was an advertisement run where it was a non-haired person, a bald gentleman, with large glasses, peering over a newspaper, or a piece of writing. His head wasn’t a bomb, but in the text it said something like, “what is George thinking?” Remember what it was for? What the ad was for? Do you remember? [George’s producer, Ms. Information says ,“No”] No, we don’t. It was like Minolta, or something. [“It was in Wired magazine,” says Ms. Information] It was in Wired magazine–well, it ran in a number of places, and some people saw it, and said, “is this you?” And it was like, no, it’s not, or else I need to get paid more. But no, that wasn’t me, it was just a bald guy peering over. So not only does an ad show up with a guy–bald guy–with big glasses. Okay, fine, that’s kind of a standard look, I get it. He’s peering over this newsprint, so you only see the upper portion of his face, just like my ad was going to be. So there’s those two things. And then on top of it it implies that this person’s name is George. Now what are the odds of that happening? Can we calculate that somehow? Probably not, much like finding Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini sharing a cocktail with you while someone is saying his name on your iPod.

But it did raise this thing, or raise this point of how if one was apt to believe that there is some kind of plan; if one was the kind of person to look for signs, or to look for something… This was an innocuous example. This was an example where, yeah, so what? It’s interesting. Okay, nothing’s at stake. And yet if someone had said, “Jesus, give me a sign that I need to take this job,” or “I need to marry Susan,” and then there’s an advert that says, “Remember, Jesus says, Paul, marry Susan.” Which, you know, might relate to a Susie Q Dairy Queen treat that’s on Sundays for, you know, I don’t know what the reason would be… But whatever type of coincidence that might happen, if someone were to see it who had a vested interest in the result of said coincidence, they would swear for the rest of their life that this was a sign, that it was meaningful, that it was important, that it was valuable.

Someone else wrote to me that they were listening to my podcast and just as I said some word they looked up and they were on that street. Like, you know, I said whatever, “Gefilte.” And they happened to be on Gefilte Street. And again, it was like, what are the odds? And it was an innocuous example. It was an example that didn’t mean anything. It was an example that sort–yeah, okay, cool, fine. But it wasn’t something like “I pray that this will happen,” or “let me know, should I work–you know, okay, Jesus, or Cthulu, or Phil Plait: I want to work either at Smith Barney or I want to polish rocks. Show me a sign.” And then the next day I open up a newspaper and on the newspaper there’s an ad that says, “George, polishing rocks is easy with the new blah…” I would think, crap, this is a sign. This is a sign. All of those animal sacrifices that I’ve made to Phil Plait are finally paying off. And yet no. That’s all it is. It’s a coincidence. It’s just a coincidence. It’s you having a dream that lines up with some piece of newsprint, or some image that you see, or whatever. Pure, pure, coincidence, whose odds are astronomically set against you in a de facto fashion.

So next time someone starts talking about examples of, “how can you explain…?” you have to say, “well, how could you explain this?” And you probably wouldn’t give a shit about it because it’s just some bald guy doing a newsprint ad. And yet it’s just as crazily impossible for those things to line up; you just don’t have any kind of interest in what the results are. So as soon as you have an interest in what’s going on all of a sudden it seems like it’s some kind of supernatural, extraterrestrial, super-duper kind of thing, and it isn’t.

It’s just a coincidence.

I think George does a great job of grasping what we’re dealing with on the site, and what people pick up on in their day-to-day lives. His example of the magazine ad that was not only startlingly similar to the one he had done, but contained his very NAME in it perfectly demonstrates how shockingly precise an event can be that’s otherwise completely meaningless. I mean, let’s face it, there was no MESSAGE in this coincidence. George didn’t learn anything from it, it didn’t imply he should make some major life decision based on it, it didn’t tell him something about his past, or direct a future path. It was just an amazing coincidence. And I think most people would agree that that’s clearly just that.

But if you swap it out with something similarly insignificant, but that has MUCH greater personal meaning to someone, you suddenly get a different attitude or belief behind it. For example, let’s take one of our much LESS shocking stories as a real-world, submitted example: Wedding Plans by the Numb3rs. In this case the submitters happened to share a wedding anniversary with what the characters in the show planned for themselves. Out of 365 days, as pointed out by the submitter, this is mild, and everyone can laugh it off as just a coincidence. But let’s make a minor change to the story and replace the submitters with an engaged couple. They’ve been arguing on and off for months about picking the right date for their wedding, with little resolution. They put on their favorite show, Numb3rs, that they’ve been watching together since they first started dating. And right there, in the show, the characters decide on October 9th for their wedding date, which just happens to be one of the days our engaged couple was considering, with the venue available. In this incredibly likely scenario (I’d say the odds are that this may even have happened multiple times in reality), the personal significance, emotion, and timeliness could easily lead the couple to believe this was a sign. Even more so if they were already apt to believe in that sort of thing. And yet it’s still quite clear from an outside perspective that it’s a simple event that was statistically likely to occur.

And that’s the reality. When you look at how many shockingly unlikely, yet technically meaningless, events occur on a regular basis, the odds are exceptionally high that occasionally they WON’T be meaningless to the people involved in them, and will definitely appear to suggest something more is going on. And in that moment, if it helps you make a difficult decision, or makes you feel a little more at peace, I can’t fault that. I know I had my own moment like that in Favorite Worlds Collide where in that moment I felt like everything was lining up, I was exactly where I needed to be, and something important would come of it. But in the end I left that job not too long after (it was a contract deal), and no major life changes came out of it. It was just a special moment. And when countless people have those moments, a few are likely to actually turn out to be significant, and to those people they seem like a sign. And it’s a wonderful feeling indeed. But still, to sum it up as well as George did above…

It’s just a coincidence.

« »