Category: Guest

Littlewood’s Law

(Submitted by friend of the blog Jonathan MS Pearce)

I recently reviewed Randal Rauser and John Loftus’ debate book entitled God or Godless. I have also responded to Randal’s post on why I am an atheist as well as posting an article critiquing Randal on why he is a Christian. During my review, I noted that I was particularly frustrated at Randal’s prayer chapter.

Randal’s chapter recounted an anecdote involving prayer. In simple terms, this is it:

  1. Pastor Kent Sparks, living in North Carolina with wife, were pursuing adoption with House of Ruth
  2. No luck in year and a half, so pursued private adoption in Georgia
  3. After adoption of daughter Emily went through, Kent called House of Ruth to leave message to suspend their file
  4. Staff were in meeting to discuss with a client who had chosen Sparks for a child
  5. Meeting ended, staff called Cheryl Sparks to tell her good: news – another child for adoption
  6. Cheryl called a friend to ask her for prayer
  7. Kent returned from work and Cheryl asked him to conduct a devotion without telling him of the news
  8. Kent opened Bible and read Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
    When it is in your power to do it.”
  9. Cheryl’s friend later phoned with a Bible verse, Proverbs 3:27
  10. They adopted their second child, Cara

And this was the main evidence to support his argument that prayer works.

Kent and Cheryl’s case evinces these same hallmarks of contingency, complexity and specification. While these events are obviously contingent, they are also complex since they involved multiple factors timed together (e.g., Kent’s call concurrent with the adoption meeting), and they included specified information (e.g., two independently confirmed referenced to Proverbs 3:27). Consequently, Kent and Cheryl (and we) are fully justified in drawing the conclusion of divine action in confirmation of the adoption. (p. 142)

When I read this account and the rationalisation of it thereof, I was staggered. Randal is an intelligent guy who claims he is conversant with cognitive biases and suchlike (I think he has written a book about them). This example is so very easy to dismiss. Let me refer you to the chapter on prayer in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions:

The subject of prayer provides several problems for the believer, if thorough critical questioning is followed through. Part of the issue of perceived success of prayer is down to religious people interpreting coincidence as divinely purposed, and this is very common. I am aware of this, and am constantly amazed at the amount of seemingly dauntingly huge coincidences that I go through on a daily basis. Most of these are so innocuous as not to even stick in the memory. Usually, this will entail reading a book, and a certain word that you haven’t heard for ages, and then hearing it five seconds later on the television in the background. Wow! Who would have believed it? The problem is, we see things as much bigger coincidences than they really are because we are unaware of the frequency involved in calculating the probability. For example, buying a lottery ticket might mean that the probability of winning the lottery is staggeringly small, say one in fourteen million. However, if you bought fifteen million tickets, then it becomes likely. Also, if you look at the frequency of tickets bought as a whole, then someone winning is a statistical certainty. To translate this across to the word scenario, then the number of words I read or use per year, and the amount of words I hear in the background per year, means that the occurrence of these weird coincidences actually becomes a statistical certainty too. Don’t just look at the incident in isolation, but in the greater context of everything around it.

Now, as mentioned, these are innocuous cases. However, let’s look at something that happened to me the other day. I am the proud father of newly born twin boys. These two delights give us great joy, and yet they can also be a great challenge. When we introduced them to solids recently, they had a week of screaming the house down at night. This led my partner and me to have some degree of sleep deprivation, as they were waking every two hours to be breastfed. We sat down one Sunday afternoon and discussed this for about four hours. We had all the books out, and were scouring the internet for different routines, opinions and helpful tips. We were fairly stressed, and this was really important for us, especially as the boys were pretty stressed too. After all the talk and worry, we simply couldn’t conclude what to do – there were so many options. It was at this point that, had we been praying people, we would almost certainly have joined hands and prayed for strength and insight; for an answer.

Giving up, I walked myself down to the local shop for some milk, as we had some surprise guests over for a cup of tea. Just walking out of my local shop as I got there, on a random Sunday afternoon, was a woman we knew from Twins Club. I had never seen her on this road before, or even outside of Twins Club. And there she was. I stood and talked to her for half an hour. She had had exactly the same problem with her twins, gave us a routine and some ideas, and hey presto, we were sorted and so much happier. What were the chances!

Of course, had I prayed, this would have been bona fide proof that prayer works, that God listens to me, that my faith works. Imagine the joy in God’s works that I would have experienced, and imagine the evangelising I would have done at the church in telling my Christian friends of the ‘miracle’. I didn’t pray, and don’t hold that faith. What to a Christian in exactly the same sort of situation, and who has a real spiritual moment of transcendent evidence of prayer and faith, becomes just another funny coincidence to someone like me. For someone who prays frequently every day, the chances of a ‘successful prayer’ are very high.

These coincidences happen all the time. But when they happen to a religious person, they take on a whole different religious meaning derived from the religious context. Prayer works for a lot of people who follow a lot of different religions. At least most of those gods don’t exist, so something must be up. “My God and my prayers work, but yours are just coincidences,” seems like special pleading to me. The chances are, in my opinion, that most (if not all) incidences of prayer working can be put down to coincidence. We do and say an awful lot of things every day, and we wish for an awful lot of things every day. Some of them are bound to actually happen.

Besides, I’ve never seen an amputee grow back their limb after prayer. I have seen evidence of cancer naturally go into remission without prayer. Enough cancer patients get prayed for, for there to eventually be a correlation. Not, may I add, a causal relationship.

Let me now refer you to Littlewood’s Law:

Littlewood defines a miracle as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million. He assumes that during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, a human will see or hear one “event” per second, which may be either exceptional or unexceptional. Additionally, Littlewood supposes that a human is alert for about eight hours per day.

As a result a human will in 35 days have experienced under these suppositions about one million events. Accepting this definition of a miracle, one can expect to observe one miraculous event for every 35 days’ time, on average – and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace.

Ever since learning about Littlewood’s Law I have been cognisant of coincidences and ‘wow’ moments and I have to admit, I have bloody loads.

Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once observed, “When I pray, coincidences happen, when I do not pray coincidences do not happen.” Many Christians can resonate with Temple’s wry reference to God’s providence. But atheists demur, charging that such experiences only evince a selection bias that counts the hits and ignores the misses.

And I would say that Randal’s example simply does not represent a specified complexity which would prove God. Cheryl’s friend is likely to find some such relevant passage, and Kent would have such issues of the adoption at the forefront of his mind whilst choosing passages. As in my own case, things like this happen all of the time to people who don’t believe and don’t pray. They get forgotten, or not even seen as significant in any way.

Here is an excerpt which I posted on my previous blog to illustrate the point further:

I have an analogy which I hope will illustrate why at least a lot of examples of alleged successful prayer or interventions of God take place.


Yesterday I was pumping up the tyres to my twins’ buggy. I have an old bicycle pump which I bought probably seven years ago. I bought it for £3 – peanuts. This pump has been very hard working – two bicycles and a buggy at regular intervals (the buggy particularly often needing pumping up). The pump has worked tirelessly (pun intended).

For the first time ever, whilst pumping the tyres up to the buggy in the kitchen, I wanted to talk about this pump, and laud its efficiency, reliability and value for money to my partner.

“This pump is brilliant. I’ve had it for seven years now, and it’s never let me down. I only paid three quid for it and it has been such a good bargain. Basically, it’s genius.”

And like a Greek tragedy, surprise, surprise. What amazed me was the timing. No sooner had I finished the ‘us’ of ‘genius’ than the mechanism of the pump twanged and it broke in my hands. The two of us burst out laughing at the sheer amazing coincidence of it. The first time, after very regular use for seven years, that I had ever even mentioned the pump, after singing its praises in my over-exuberant manner, it broke in my hands. Really, what were the chances!? It was like there was some supernatural force making that happen.

It was like there was some supernatural force making that happen… And that made me think.

Let me now change the analogy around – shift the paradigm. Let me now put myself in the position of being a praying Christian.

I am said Christian. I am on my way to work, and am late for an important meeting for the first time. The level crossing that I cross very often is always down. As I approach, I fear it is down. But suddenly, I see it is UP! I race through it thanking God for doing that! Woo Hoo! Now imagine, just before I approach it, I give a little prayer. When it is up, and I race though, I think to myself, “God listened! I won’t be late for that crucial meeting! Thank you God!”

Now imagine that same crossroad which is always down, is open after a little prayer with my critically ill partner on the way to the hospital. That small amount of time could be the difference between life and death. That same prayer has a massive consequence. Now God really is listening and I will remember that for the rest of my life.

But let us return to the original event. The pump breaks after an amazingly coincidental exuberant display of affection for the pump. Hey-ho, I forget about it after a week.

If I was a fervent believer, I would be praying multiple times a day, asking for things very often. The sheer volume of prayer means that many of them, by the laws of statistics, will be ‘successfully acted upon’.

The sheer volume of things we do every day, every week and every year (considering we are often doing many thing simultaneously – driving to work whilst listening to the radio and thinking of my twins) means that, statistically, HUGE coincidences will happen remarkably often. If you attach a prayer prior to that, a remarkable event will seem to happen at the will of God in answering your prayer.

And just in case you aren’t convinced, here is an example of me comparing my experience further above to my Christian friend who produced a very similar example and argument to Randal. This is an email I sent a couple of years ago using the same twins example used above:

With regards to last night’s session in the pub talking of miracles, we used a miracle claim of Colin to steer the talk. Colin has claimed a miracle of answered prayer occurred whose specified complexity points towards it being a miracle. It went something like this (apologies if I misrepresent you here, Colin):

  1. Colin had a specific problem which was affecting him badly with regards to a biblical passage.
  2. He was going away for the weekend to a Christian retreat / party
  3. He, the next day or two, had an image in his mind of a golden sword.
  4. The next day he was in a book shop and the second or third book he pulled out had an image of a golden sword on the front. He opened it to a page in the book which answered all his worries.
  5. He claims this had such a specified complexity as to be best explained by it being a second-order miracle (one that does not violate natural laws).

Andy and I both came back with some ‘incredible coincidence’ stories. Colin claimed these did not have the same level of specified complexity. I will now attempt to show you that he was wrong.

Here is the quote from my last book to explain the scenario:

[I use the quote above to give the case involving the twins.]

So what we have here is this:

  1. We had a problem that was affecting us which we sought the answer to.
  2. Some surprise guests turned up unannounced
  3. We had run out of milk and I had, at that particular moment, to go to the shop to buy some.
  4. At the shop I met a mother of twins who I have never seen before or since on my road.
  5. She gave us all the answers we needed to our massive relief as she had been through EXACTLY the same issues.

Now let’s compare these two stories for probability. At the end of the day, miracles deal in probability and specified complexity is merely a reflection of probability.

First of all, we have the problem. Colin is a Christian, there are many Christians and many have issues with passages in the bible. This problem we had involved not one, but four people, thus the probabilities that must exist to conspire to all of us being there to have that problem are higher. However, as an individual starting point, these probabilities are less relevant.

The catalyst: Colin had an image over a 2-3 day period which coincided with the cover of the book. We had a situation where we were discussing the problem at length and right afterwards some unannounced guests arrived. The actions of two other people must now be calculated such that the chances of them coming to our door, from living in London, are very low indeed. Suddenly they are there. AND THEN we had to have run out of milk in order for me to need to go to the shop. Just on the catalyst front, my story appears far more improbable, statistically.

Next, Colin is in a book shop and picks out a book which corresponds to his image. I walk to the shop and find not just anyone, but the EXACT person who had experienced THE EXACT SAME THING, there with her twins. I had and have never seen her there before. Had we prayed, she literally would have been the answer to our prayers. The probability of her being in that exact place at that exact time, of being a mother of twins with exactly the same problem (and for me to need to go to the shops at that time due to milk running out and unexpected guests) is astronomically more improbable that a book detailing information on a biblical passage being in a Christian bookshop full of other Christian books.

As I was pointing out to Colin , I don’t think there is often an understanding of the massive improbability of coincidences like mine, and there is often a desire to make the calculations for probabilities which seem to involve purpose much lower due to intuitive belief that the events are purposes. At the end of the day, If Helen and I had held hands and prayed before my friends came to the door, that chain of events would have seemed more powerful, I posit, than Colin’s miracle claim. Heck, I would have been praising the Lord!

Using Littlewood’s Law, of course, we know that highly improbable events take place with alarming regularity since the frequency of things we do and experience is phenomenal. Littlewood calculated you would experience a ‘miracle’ once a month.

Thus I hope to have shown that massive coincidences happen regularly and have just a low probability, and often lower (as in this case), than many religious miracle claims. Just because there is no perceived purpose does not mean the probability is any higher.

So, given these points, I think that Randal’s case is exceptionally weak. It certainly does not evidence God. Think of all the ways in which prayer could work which would leave one with no doubt. The complexity which Randal invokes is simply not strong enough or specified enough to do what he wants it to do. Only if you overload it with copious amounts of cognitive bias. Again, we could talk of growing back limbs and what have you. What do we have instead? Events which look extraordinarily like coincidences.

A Tippling Philosopher is a blog dedicated to the philosophy of religion, with a popular, easy to digest approach. The name comes from the casual philosophy and theology group that author and blogger Jonathan MS Pearce frequents in Hampshire, UK. This blog is an extension of that, with guest posts by other thinkers with the same questioning vein from around the world. What started with Socrates, in challenging the legitimacy of religious beliefs of his time, will hopefully be continued several thousand years later with the lively community of critical thinkers in the Skeptic Ink Network.

As an author, Pearce writes about the subjects which fascinate him hugely. His first book “Free Will?” is a work dedicated to investigating free will and determinism, presenting a wealth of evidence to support a deterministic worldview. His second book “The Little Book of Unholy Questions” is a cumulative case against the existence of God written in the form of a set of questions asked directly to God. His last book “The Nativity: A Critical Examination” is a synthesis of the work detailing the analysis of the infancy narratives in the New Testament, showing that the two Gospel accounts are clearly a-historical.

Visit JP’s blog here.

(Submitted by guest contributor Ben Radford)

Though my skepticism didn’t really come until full bloom until I was in college, I was more or less skeptical of many things by high school, including psychics. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and though I hadn’t yet picked up my first skeptical publication I loved books about curiosities, trivia, and little-known facts (or, as I’d later realize, sometimes “facts”).

When I was a junior in high school I took an art class, partly because it was an easy A and partly because I wanted to try my hand at clay and modeling. Students didn’t have individual desks but instead were seated two to a side on stools around large square metal-covered worktables. There was one kid (I forget his name, but we always called him “Drac” because he was blond and had a vaguely vampiric visage) who sat at my table. We were casual acquaintances, and didn’t know much more about each other than our first names (apparently not even that).

However one day out of the blue, in the middle of class while cutting a piece of metal into the shape of a Picassoesque horse, I said to him, “Hey—I’ll bet I know your mom’s middle name.” He looked at me sideways and gave a quick laugh. “Yeah? What is it?” he challenged. Without missing a beat—and while staring him directly in the eyes—I said simply, “It’s Ann.”

His laugh stopped, his face grew slack, and the blood drained from his face. His eyes grew wide, and then narrowed. “How did you know that?” he demanded. I just gave a brief mysterious smile and went back to working on my horse. “How did you know that?” he asked again. I just ignored him.

I don’t know if he thought I was psychic, or I had investigated his family, or what, but the next week he moved to a different table, avoided me in the halls, and never spoke to me again.

Of course, I didn’t know his mother’s middle name; I had read that the most common women’s middle name was Ann. I played the odds, acted confident and authoritative about my knowledge, and passed myself off as knowing something I didn’t. That experience still serves me 25 years later as I observe psychics doing hot and cold readings, and informs my investigations into the psychology of psychic experiences. It made quite an impression on him, and I wonder if, to this day, he tells the story to others, offering it as his personal experience with real, unexplainable psychic powers.


Ben Radford

Ben Radford

Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and

Kitty Mervine

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Kitty Mervine, of Yankee Skeptic.)

really hate to share this with my skeptic friends. It sounds too far fetched. It should be noted, I never believed this was anything paranormal.  I had a dear friend Mary.  She was godmother to my 2 children. When our husbands were in the Navy, we ended up best friends. We were so close that when my daughter Evelyn was born, Mary was my Lamaze partner.  (My husband was out at sea for the birth.)  Through the years we kept in close touch.  Our families would visit.  It was with great happiness that we discovered we were both pregnant at the same time. Her daughter was born on Mother’s Day, and she joked my child would be born on Father’s Day. Sure enough (2 weeks overdue) my child was born on Father’s Day! Now, that would be weird coincidence enough. The odds of that are pretty far fetched. But we both just thought it was fun, and yet another bond between us.

Mary and infant Evelyn

Sadly, Mary was diagnosed with cancer a few years later. I didn’t worry too much as she had a form of cancer that was 90% curable. We all just assumed the 10% that died were elderly or weak in some way. For a young woman in her 30s that never smoked, was thin, and rarely drank, we assumed a cure of 100%. I made of point of staying in touch more than ever, because the treatment was really tough.

One Friday night I woke up at 2am and woke up my husband.  I told him, “l can’t sleep, I’m really worried about Mary.”  I’d never done this before.  He said he could see I was trembling. When he turned on a light, I was pale and simply crying out of control.  He calmed me down and reminded me she was still working full time and doing very well.  The next day I received a call that Mary was in the hospital.

She had contracted a cold and as a precaution went into the hospital; however, something had gone wrong.  Very wrong.  She was in a coma, and was most likely brain dead. Her husband was expecting to pull life support. It was totally out of the blue, more of a bad reaction to her treatment than the cancer. My own doctor later pointed out that odds mean nothing, at least not when you are in the 10%.  One of of ten that have this type of cancer will die. Mary died. I never could explain why I woke up in the middle of the night so scared.  But I also never attributed it to anything other than perhaps simply the stress of worrying over a friend and coincidence.  I was worried about her, but did not say or feel she was going to die.

My husband and I flew out to attend her funeral. It was probably the toughest thing I’d ever been through up to that point. Her three-year-old daughter didn’t get that mommy wasn’t going to respond to her cry for her to “Wake up!” at the viewing. The unfairness of life really washed over me. I couldn’t believe I had not only lost a dear friend; I had also lost the only person that shared memories with me about the birth of my first child.

In response to that desperation to keep her in my life, I dreamed about her almost every night. Finally, months later, when I felt myself recovering, I had a dream where she knocked on my front door. I answered it, and told her “Mary, you are going to have to leave me alone now.  I’m so sad when you come visit every night and I wake up and you are still dead.” In my dream she turned and walked away.  Sure enough, she has rarely since appeared in a dream. I know, rationally, that this was probably a way for me to slowly let go of my friend. Her death was so unexpected, I think I needed those months of dreams to adjust.  I never thought I was really communicating with her in my dreams. She was just in my thoughts so much during the months following her death, that it was perfectly natural she should inhabit my dreams for a bit.

About a year later,  I scared my husband when much the same thing happened again. His father was ill with lung cancer. He had been doing as well as one can with that illness. The cancer had not become any larger, and he had only recently stopped working. He was expected to do well for many months more. Once again  I woke up in the middle of the night quite upset. I was worried about his father.  Mark was “not again!” and got me back to sleep. That day, sure enough, we got a call his father has had a heart attack. His mother had a “do not resuscitate” order.  At this point my husband was looking at me really oddly.  I kept assuring him I was not paranormal. Certainly in his dad’s case there was much more reason for worry.

When my husband’s cousin, and my good friend, also became ill with cancer I was a bit nervous. Waking up in the middle of the night crying was not fun. I kept in close touch with her. I sent gifts, letters and books. One day I sent off a package with a dressy purse for her to take on a cruise through the Panama Canal. I got home from the post office to a phone call that my friend had died. While sad, there was also a sense of relief. I, of course, knew I had no special power to know when someone was going to die; but, three events would have been most uncomfortable.

Since then, others close to me have died. I have never again been even close to knowing when the end would come.  One thing that I found did keep me grounded during the two events was the thought that there was no purpose or good in my “knowing” when someone was about to die. When psychics make vague predictions, I’ve always said to the believers “But aren’t words from beyond that are so vague and general even worse than no word at all?” Why tell the police that a body is “in or near water”?  There are so many bodies of water, including bathtubs and pools, that it is as good as no help. Since my premonition or feeling about two deaths had no rhyme or reason, I choose to accept it as simply “one of those things”. Though I have to admit my husband still looks at me a little oddly at times, and not just when I serve “Sauerkraut Cake” (it’s good!)

[EDITOR:  Kitty was remembered by James Randi in the keynote address of TAM 2013 for extraordinary service to the skepticism community. – Wendy]



Monty Hall

Monty Hall

I have always been amused and intrigued by responses to “The Monty Hall Problem”, especially when I talk about it to audiences with a high concentration of engineers and mathematicians. If you are familiar with it, but you’ve always struggled with an unsettled feeling of “this can’t be right”, read further and let me know if my explanation of the solution helps to alleviate the discomfort. If you are not familiar, I guarantee you will give your brain a workout by reading on.

First posed to statisticians in 1975, “The Monty Hall Problem” is well-known among academics because it still sparks debate. Many seem to think that disagreements about its solution stem from issues in the clarity of the problem, but I contend that it really stems from human flaws in the way that we process information.

I often discuss this problem in statistics and cognitive psychology courses for several reasons. It is a great exercise in probability calculation and it can be used to teach basic mathematical modeling (and its purpose). An added benefit, since almost all of my students were psychology majors, is that it also illustrates a flaw in human cognition as well as a pattern of problem solving.  Even a knowledgeable statistician feels the need to run simulations to see the solution in action. Even then, fully grasping the mechanisms behind the answer often requires brute force cognition.

In general, human beings have a very difficult time wrapping their brains around concepts of probability. It is much like a visual illusion; we know that the lines are parallel/the circles are the same size/there is no motion, but we can’t make our brains process it in a way that represents that reality. It’s just not how our visual system works. I hypothesize that one of the reasons that probability is such a difficult field for most people is that it involves theory and models, which are distinct from observations and we must represent them differently in our minds to properly deal with them. Applications of probability often involve switching gears from the realm of models to data or vice versa and this is where I think most mathematicians get side-swiped in The Monty Hall Problem.

The Poser

In essence, here’s the problem:

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Millions of people around the world celebrate the 17th March in a variety of ways – from marching in a parade down Armagh Street in Dublin; dying the Chicago River green; partying in a number of pubs in downtown Reconquista, Argentina – or falling in front of my slow-moving car in central Perth, while wearing a green “St Patrick’s Drinking Club” shirt, Dr Seuss-style emerald hat and drunkenly texting on a phone.

Kylie Sturgess - Credit to Viva Life Photography

Despite the heart-stopping experience of checking on the well-being of craic-chasing pedestrians (who assure me that they’ve got the luck of the leprechauns as they laugh off tomorrow’s bumper-shaped bruises and hangover) – the day is usually a cheering one, filled with goodwill and Guinness Beer. Around 34 million people in the USA lay claim to Irish ancestry; even President Obama boasts of Irish cousins that he’s visited in the past. Cereal hiding lucky charms, the handing out of shamrocks, potential pots of gold at the end of rainbows – no matter where we are in the world, people are generally familiar with the claim that there must be something to the “luck of the Irish”… and I’m not just saying that because I graduated from a university that features a leprechaun as their football mascot.

The study of luck and how it is viewed is a familiar one to students of psychology and an important aspect of studying superstitions. Many of us may be familiar with the phrase “Luck is probability taken personally”, which I’ve read as being attributed to Chip Denman, manager of the Statistics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. So, how personally is luck taken and must it mean that it’s akin to any other “four letter word”? Can you really up the ante when it comes to being a lucky person and improve the statistical likelihood of having the “Luck of the Irish” (so to speak)?

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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.

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Last month an article on one of my favorite websites,, grabbed my attention. It included a discussion of studies and simulations which demonstrate (and provide evidence for) some of those things in life that lead us all to think that fate is trying to tell us something. Specifically, the adage we call “Murphy’s Law” states that what can go wrong will go wrong and it is supported by both mathematical proofs and observations.

“When it comes to long strands of string, from proteins in a person’s cells to the rigging in a ship, this means spontaneous knotting. People have written papers about how string knots up the minute it’s given a chance to jiggle around.”

The article goes on to discuss a simulation of a random walk (direction for each step is determined randomly) in 3-dimensional space with the restriction that no space can be occupied more than once. The path of the walk simulates the placement of a length of string – the beginning and end of the path are the ends of the string and no part of the string can occupy the same space as another part. What the researchers found was that any sufficiently long walk (string) must contain a knot. The longer the walk (string), the more knots.

This can teach us that tossing our Christmas lights into a box is almost certain to result in knots to untangle next year, but it can also teach us a lot about risks, coincidences, and how to think about those things.

Barbara Drescher

When I was nine years old my family lived on the Great Lakes Naval Station (on the shores of Lake Michigan) for about a year before buying a house off the base. Our home was in a cul de sac that was shared by several families. One of the families of which we were particularly fond was a widower with a boy and girl about the same ages as my brother and I. Fast forward to more than four years later, after we had moved twice and now lived 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, California. We drove the three hours from our home to a tiny fishing hole called Blue Lake for a weekend of camping and fishing. About an hour after we arrived, my mother suddenly blurted out, “Hey, isn’t that Bud Neighbor [not his real name]?” Sure enough, camped a few spaces down were our old friends.

I have had quite a few similar experiences, but none as bizarre or unexplainable as this one. Should we have been freaked out and considered some cosmic connection?

To find out, let’s turn back to the article I mentioned and Murphy’s Law. Is it true that anything that can go wrong will go wrong? Well, not exactly. You can get on that plane tomorrow and be confident that you will survive the flight (your odds are approximately 9.2 million to 1). However, if you “tempt fate” enough, even the least likely disaster will eventually happen. Of course, your plan to commit suicide via commercial airliner will require you to fly every day for more than 25,000 days to ensure success, and even then you have no guarantees.

The problem of spontaneous knotting is simply a matter of odds. It relies on something called “The Law of Large Numbers”, which dictates that any event which can occur will occur if given enough opportunities.* String knots up when there’s a lot of it because there are a number of ways in which it can be knotted.

Without going through a bunch of math, let’s look at how we determine probabilities. There are two properties to consider when determining whether an event is unusual (vs. expected):

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[Today’s article is cross-posted with Mark Edward’s permission with SkepticBlog. If you’re unfamiliar, please go check them out.]

This last weekend was Christmas, a time when I usually sit around doing nothing but feeling blue. This time was different. My girl Susan was coming to visit and the only real plans we had were to go and see “The Artist.” That being planned, the rest of the days off were set for winging it and hanging out when and where we felt like going.

On Thursday morning, I mentioned to Susan that I wanted to remember to call my friend Ray Bradbury and wish him a happy holiday. Next day on Friday, we drove into downtown L.A. to see the Weegee exhibition at MOCA. Leaving at around noon, we made our way downtown and began the process of looking for a cheap place to park. We finally randomly settled on a spot across the street from Grand Central Market on Hill Street.

Mark Edward

This classic melting pot of L.A. has always been one of my favorite places to wander around and watch the bustling activity, grab a quick bite and best of all; it lies conveniently a few blocks around the corner from the more expensive MOCA district where it has been since 1917. Being a photographer by profession, Susan snaps away at anything that sparks her fertile creative mind and after partaking of a latte and croissant, we found ourselves outside on the busy east side of South Broadway. I chanced to glance across the street and remembered (for the first time in twenty or thirty years) the wonderfully bizarre interior of The Bradbury Building. I had been there a few times in my past and had a connection with the place. Being a fan of the ’60s television series The Outer Limits and having had the privilege of a friendship with the series’ producer Joseph Stefano, I knew a bit about the strange workings of science fiction writers and how they had used the building as a location not only in the seminal black and white episode of The Outer Limits: The Demon with the Glass Hand, (1964) but also countless other productions including D.O.A. (1950),Blade Runner(1982) and Wolf (1994).

The building has an odd background. Some might even call it a “paranormal” one. Wiki says:

“A local architect, Sumner Hunt, was first hired to complete a design for the building, but (the originally commissioned Lewis L.)Bradbury dismissed Hunt’s plans as inadequate to the grandeur of his vision. He then hired George Wyman, one of Hunt’s draftsmen, to design the building. Wyman at first refused the offer, but then supposedly had a ghostly talk with his brother Mark Wyman (who had died six years previously), while using a planchette board (Ouija) with his wife. The ghost’s message supposedly said “Mark Wyman / take the / Bradbury building / and you will be / successful” with the word “successful” written upside down. After the episode, Wyman took the job, and is now regarded as the architect of the Bradbury Building. Wyman’s grandson, the science fiction publisher Forrest J. Ackerman, owned the original document containing the message until his death. Coincidentally, Ackerman was a close friend of science fiction author Ray Bradbury.”

Suffice it to say that this building, its history and general noir demeanor are to say the least: bizarre. I hadn’t made any conscious linking between Ray Bradbury and the Bradbury building as we crossed the street and entered the cavernous lobby. That could have been interpreted by some as a coincidence, albeit a rather weak one. No, hang on – it gets weirder.

We lingered for a half hour or so and took some nice shadowy photos, particularly shooting from one stairway landing that overlooks the lobby from the second floor. We left the building enchanted with the visual charm of the beautiful wrought iron and stone work and quite invigorated by the experience.

The next day was Saturday, Christmas Eve. We decided we would go and see a matinee of “The Artist.” The film itself is a silent film and shot in black-and-white that captures the era when silent films began to morph into “talkies” (1927-1932) and how the main characters deal with the rocky transition.

In stunned amazement, we both sat in awe as a five minute scene unfolded in front of our eyes shot virtually on the exact spot we had been standing on the second floor landing in the Bradbury Building just 24 hours before. What are the odds? Spooky…

Mark Edward is a professional mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. He continues to be consulted by the media for his knowledge of spiritualism, psychic fraud and ghost lore.

More from Mark can be found at SkepticBlog and

Yes, I already know what you are thinking. I’m a mentalist, right? Coincidence? What’s so unusual about it? You are thinking there’s nothing particularly paranormal about coincidence. Science, skeptics and psychologists have taken the concept apart and dissected it down to its constituent elements. It’s been already explained away and nothing worth debating. Yet despite such drab things as facts to the contrary, I’m not as easily convinced that coincidence is just an accidental event as some of my skeptical friends.

As a performing mentalist, I get the chance to play around with terms and concepts like coincidence, synchronicity, worm holes and other wild thinking. It’s all part of the plausibility factors I work to invoke to get the audience to buy into what I do. Some might even suggest that sensitizing an audience to these ideas creates a “psi-conducive” awareness that might even allow such things to happen in rare instances. In my travels I picked up the line: “Coincidence is a word scientists use to explain what they can’t explain.”  Sounds like bull, huh? Well okay.  Engrained habits die hard. That line worked for awhile, but now I think I know better. Or do I?

Mark Edward

Throughout the history of parapsychology there have been examples that have gone far beyond just the standard cause and effect one-time moments most of us have experienced and wondered about. Odds, probability and chance play into this in mathematical ways I can’t even begin to comprehend. Hey, I’m a magician! I do tricks. I suggest. I transpose. I transubstantiate. I take apart. I recombine. Is it any wonder that weird unplanned things happen now and again? And they do. There are so many of these coincidental synchronized events chronicled in the history of stage mentalists and magicians, a whole television reality series could be put together on just that subject alone. Do magicians and mentalists have a greater penchant for imaginative conceits and are we simply deluding ourselves like the worst of the psychics or do we just think weird stuff all the time? Does fate play some part in these moments of seeming transcendence? And what is fate anyway? It’s not a scientific construct. So is there anything going on besides just a condition of facts coinciding?  Maybe it’s just me. It’s hard to tell. These bizarre moments are by no means confined to performers whose job it is to simulate them. A standard example from BBC radio writer Joan Aiken:

” Wires get crossed, perhaps. The boss of a friend of ours left his office early one day and went home, calling at a fish-and-chips shop on the way. Close to the fish-and-chippery was a phone box and, as he passed it, the phone rang. He picked up the receiver. It was his own secretary, at his office, telling him about an urgent job. By mistake, instead of his phone number, she had dialed his National Insurance number next to it on the index card … which happened to be the number of the call box …”

I know the standard riff skeptics say to this: “Well,  …what if the phone had rung and he hadn’t picked up the receiver?” Point is:  he did. That he did is what makes that situation a coincidence. But it gets better. Things more complex than this simple coincidence pattern have manifested for many people, including myself:

One night many years ago, I was booked doing walk around close-up magic to warm-up the crowd at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach for Jay Leno. I would roam around the main room doing this and that before Jay came out to do his routine. That night I was working a card trick where I asked someone to “think of a card.”  I have always preferred “think of” card bits because they seem more powerfully “mental” than more sleight of hand methods and thereby, to my way of thinking, more impossible.  In these “experiments” the spectator doesn’t pick a card, they merely think of any card. This is totally random and it could be any card that I will work with. I will never forget the next hour that passed after I asked the first person that question. They responded with, “Okay, …the Nine of Spades.” Fair enough. I did my bit with the Nine of Spades, finished with that table and went across the room to another random spectator. I asked the same question and was given the same answer, the Nine of Spades. Okay. Now we have simple “coincidence” and that’s all. No big deal. It was a little weird to have the same card come up twice in a row, but not that amazing.

I went back into the crowd and this time switched to a “pick a card” routine where any card is pulled from the deck randomly by the spectator and I proceed to identify it by any of dozens of methods. The card chosen by the spectator was once again the Nine of Spades. Okay. I’m thinking to myself, that’s weird; not exactly paranormal, just a little bizarre. But I’m starting to wonder a bit. Of course, in my character of Mr. Magic, I couldn’t very well blurt out, “Wow, that’s really weird, the Nine of Spades again!” It wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone but me. It was a personal thing happening in my head and I was the only one to whom it would be anything other than just one of those stories. I shrugged it off like most of us would and went on deciding I needed to mix things up, get as far away from that side of the room as possible, and try again.

I went to a farthest, noisiest corner I could find away from the rest of the room I had already worked and (asking for trouble) picked the most inebriated person I could find and asked them to think of any card in the deck. They screwed up their face in concentration and eventually named the Nine of Spades. I’m not making this up. It happened.

My magician mind began to spin wild conspiracy thoughts. There had to be an explanation. I thought the club owner might have put everyone in on a big prank and was messing with me. Maybe the back of tonight’s ticket stub read: “Say the Nine of Spades if the magician asks you.”  I was getting a bit spooked but bounced back to the opposite side of the room, being careful to avoid anyone near any areas I might have been overheard before and opted for the “pick a card” bit again.  Guess which card came up? Yep, the Nine of Spades!  I realized that the prank hypothesis wouldn’t have covered how two people had now taken totally random cards from a shuffled deck and came up with the Nine of Spades. I must have looked quite pale as I finished with that table.

I reasoned maybe the two “pick a card” folks were just as they were, simply random choices that could fall under standard two event coincidence. That would have made them not that statistically incredible, but adding in the other three “think of a card” people and it was starting to feel like the Twilight Zone. That was five Nines of Spades in a row in the span of around twenty-five minutes. My head was spinning with bewilderment. The nearby cocktail waitress was watching me looking adrift and, convincing myself it couldn’t happen again, I asked her to quickly pick out a card. It couldn’t happen again, but it did. That made six! I just couldn’t figure it. I took a needed break and after collecting myself, stopped by the owner’s office where he and his assistant (who are usually much too busy to even notice I’m there) were busy as usual. I mumbled something to them about there being a joke on me tonight and they looked blankly back at me as if I was crazy. I decided to stop by the Green Room, where Jay and the other comedians hung out. I shuffled my cards nervously, carefully looking them over to make sure they weren’t somehow daubed or marked with mustard or ketchup that might have caused the Nine of Spades card to be more thick, stuck or stand out from the rest.  I found no solution to my befuddlement. Jay asked why I looked so shaky and I told him what had been happening. Laughing at my predicament, he took the cards from me, shuffled them three or four times and said,”…If you go back out there and the Nine of Spades comes up again now, … even I’ll be impressed.”

wandered back out into the crowd in a bemused sensation of dread, afraid to offer anyone a card, but uneasily resolved to do one more ”pick a card any card” routine. What could be the chances?

Things like this aren’t supposed to happen. It throws off my timing! I picked a table, approached rather sheepishly and in almost a whisper, uttered those now detestable words, “Pick a card any card.” To my chagrin, the card chosen wasn’t the Nine of Spades!  It was some other card I don’t remember. I do remember that I was momentarily rendered speechless. The spectator must have wondered why the look on my face was so joyfully flabbergasted. To him it was just a stupid pick a card trick. Apparently (as many believers might conjecture) Jay had taken the “whammy” off the cards and broken the spell. Seven times being “the charm” in this case. Who knows what really happened that night. I realize that there is a chance that selective memory could conceivably be a critical factor in relating all this. I swear the facts related are essentially true and how I remember it happening.  Six of one and six of another and then bingo –  nothing. And BTW, I was stone sober that night. Interestingly enough, the Nine of Spades has hardly ever come up when I have been performing card routines since that night. It’s almost as if I used up all the chances for that particular card to turn up in one hour of my lifetime. What a crazy superstition that is, right?

How do we explain things like this or can we? What’s the probability, math guys? Give me a formula that explains it clearly. It may seem only slightly odd to you, to me this was an authentic event that left me wondering to myself more than once or twice, …who was fooling who?

Of course we can dismiss the whole thing and say, so what? It ultimately means nothing and like coin tossing, has no relevance to magic, skepticism or life’s big questions. Such anecdotal tales are of no scientific value or proof of anything. It’s a blip on the radar screen and absurd. It was just a card trick and doesn’t prove or disprove anything. And we would be right. But still a blip is a blip.

I’m interested in investigating verifiable situations where a “coincidence” happens this way. If you remember Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” the feeling I had that night was analogous. When the odds seem incalculable (if that term is even appropriate) and the specific information repeats itself again and again in a short time frame, the “coincidence” becomes something altogether different from the norm. Am I alone here?  Probably not.

Mark Edward is a professional mentalist who specializes in magic of the mind. He continues to be consulted by the media for his knowledge of spiritualism, psychic fraud and ghost lore.

More from Mark can be found at SkepticBlog and