Tag Archive: Ireland

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Michael O’Dea

Hi there,

I enjoy the show and want to tell you my against-the-odds-story.

I am from Dublin, Ireland and I was on vacation in Boston, visiting my cousin about 20 years ago.

There was a free public concert in the Boston Common park. (It was Kid Creole and the Coconuts, not that that is relevant!)

I was with an American friend who was a server in a Boston restaurant (Legal’s) at the time. As we enjoyed the music he met a colleague from the restaurant who was with a companion and they chatted for a few minutes as we watched the gig. My friend then went to introduce me, when the companion turned around it was my next-door-neighbour from Dublin!

We had not seen each other for years and had no other connection of any kind other than growing up in adjacent houses.

What do you think?

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 239.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

I think this is an interesting coincidence! Normally, I would talk about the factors that would increase the probability of this happening, so I will, but there are really very few. People living next door to one another are much, much more alike than two people chosen at random from the global population. They are more likely to be close together in S.E.S. (socioeconomic status), for example. They are more likely to be exposed to similar cultural icons (such as music genres). Factors such as these may exponentially increase the probability of running into each other at just such an event.

However, given the astronomically small base probability (e.g., given all of the people in the world, the probability of any two people, chosen at random, would meet), this is still a story with crazy odds.

Consider the factors that don’t really come into play here, but have in similar stories we have encountered. For example it is unlikely both been inspired to visit by the same event (e.g., hearing a mutual friend talk about visiting Boston). They may have been inspired to visit (assuming the companion was also visiting and not living there) by cheap airfare to the U.S., but then why choose Boston? The probability that they all met each other through mutual friends is greatly reduced by the fact that the Americans know each other because they work together (unless, of course, they knew each other before working there).

So we must rely on the mathematical rule that we should expect at least some low- and even astronomical-probability events to occur in our lives, given the large number of events that occur.

Irish Roots

(Submitted by reader Bobby Goldstein)

[EDITOR NOTE: Bobby requested that the names and dates of his grandfather’s name be anonymized for this post.]

I recently learned that because I have a couple of grandparents who were born in Ireland, I can get dual citizenship. This is pretty exciting to me, and so I’m doing the research and retrieving documents for folks who were born more than 100 years ago.

I knew my grandpa pretty well, and I knew his birthdate, and what county he was born in. The helpful woman at the consulate suggested I start by contacting the parish churches. So I started emailing parish churches in County Roscommon, and I got a hit. One church DID have a John O’Smith born on 1901-10-11. We emailed back and forth and they sent me a link to the government website where I could, and did, order a birth certificate. After I ordered it, I went back and looked at the emails from the church – they had a different birthdate for him, and I just hadn’t noticed – he was born JANUARY 11, not October 11. Everything else checked out, including BOTH parents’ first names.

I checked with some relatives, and they all thought it was plausible that either Grandpa had gotten his birthdate wrong somewhere along the lines, or that someone had mis-transcribed the birth month.

But then I heard from a different parish church in the same town, and they had a John O’Smith born in 1901 on OCTOBER 11. Also, on the second one, while the parents’ (i.e. my great grandparents’) first names were the same, they had a different birth name for my grandmother.

So I called the records office, and there were 2 people born with the name John O’Smith in 1901, and I’ve got the birth certificate for the wrong one.

Now, John O’Smith is not that rare a name, and while Athlone is not a huge city (population 20,000 now, I have no idea what it was in 1901), it’s not tiny, so that part of it seems like not that big a coincidence. But:

  • Both were born on the 11th of the month
  • They were the ONLY 2 John O’Smiths born that year in the county (I THINK they said the county. Might have been the town)
  • Both of them had a father named Patrick
  • Both of them had a mother named Brigid

I know that in cases like comparing Lincoln and Kennedy, you see so many coincidences because there are so many potential coincidences, and so you can cherry-pick. But, here, I can’t cherry pick. I only know so much about my grandfather’s birth. And yet just about everything (except birth month and mother’s maiden name) matches up.

How about that?

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 207. Take a look and leave your comments below.

This isn’t really as much like Lincoln/Kennedy as it is like most of the other name stories that we get. There is certainly some hindsight bias involved (in the Lincoln/Kennedy comparison, we notice the things that match and not the myriad of things which do not), but we should still be impressed with the number of things which are the same. Except that we shouldn’t.
I don’t have a good source of name frequencies in Ireland to quantify this, but being of Irish decent myself and having paid some attention to my own family tree, I can say that these names are indeed extremely common. What’s more, individuals born in the same year are much more likely to share a first name than those born apart because name popularity follows a trend. Some, like [John], Brigid, and Patrick are extremely common and timeless names most likely honoring a family member. Since the individuals share a last name, it is highly likely that they were related somehow, increasing the probability that the name would be shared.

The Lost Ring

(Submitted by reader Shane Dopson)

My wife and I had a hard time picking our wedding rings. We looked at several options and finally found some at a place that specialized in Irish jewelery. My (now) wife chose a nice gold design, based on a Claddagh ring, and I chose a white and yellow gold Celtic-knot pattern. They took some time to come in, as they were made in Ireland, but we were very happy with them when they arrived.

My band was quite wider than usual and after some months of wearing it, I found that when my hands got wet (washing etc.), the water stayed trapped under the ring and irritated my finger. I started the habit of taking off my ring whenever I was doing the dishes, or just washing my hands, then putting it back on after I had dried my hands.

I was very conscious of not wanting to lose it, so always put it in the same place wherever I was. I did this for two years, without losing it for more than a day only once.

Then one day, in the winter, I lost track of it. I was not immediately concerned, because I thought I would just find it at one of the places I usually left it, but after a few days of not seeing it, I did get worried. I did a thorough search of all my usual places and pockets of all my pants and jackets, but to no avail. It was lost. After telling my wife, who was only a little upset, because I had found her lost ring just a few weeks before 😉 we decided to order a new one from the same store. The store was a fair drive from our house, so it took us a couple of months to find the time to go.

We talked to the store owner and she found a great replacement that had the Celtic-knot cut out of the ring so would not stay wet under it, so no need to take it off anymore. She said that she was going to Ireland in a few months to buy for the store and would contact us when she was back. About five months later she called back, saying she had ordered it, but it had not been ready when she left, so would be about another six weeks for it to arrive. Then, finally she called me at work, and said it was ready to be picked up. I was now working close to the store, so I drove over during lunch and then went back to work.

My coworkers were interested in it and so told them the whole story of losing it and getting the new one. After I was finished, I returned to my desk and I was about to sit down. It was winter again, so I was wearing a sweater I don’t wear often. I went to adjust it, and felt something in the pocket… I put my hand into the pocket with a sinking feeling, and pulled out my lost ring! It had been there for almost a whole year and now I had found it within an hour of getting my new one.

What are the odds?

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 195. Take a look and leave your comments below.

The odds of this happening are really impossible to calculate, but it is an opportunity to talk about some interesting human behaviors we ALL engage in.

Usually when I note that something is difficult to calculate, it’s because we don’t have enough information. In this case, though, it’s mostly because both the arrival of the replacement ring and the timing of finding the ring are open-ended; each could have happened in a matter of a few days, weeks, years, or never.

Replacing the ring is a matter of choice, although I imagine that most people would not replace it immediately because they hope to find it. If the ring is sitting in a pocket somewhere, the probability of finding it about a year later is actually pretty high, given that clothing tends to be worn seasonally. Most of us have probably found something that we thought we’d lost in the pocket of a jacket we rarely wear at least once.

But the interesting part of this story is, of course, that it was found so soon after it was replaced, almost like a car breaking down the day after the warranty expires. Of course, that’s not a coincidence at all; warranty terms are chosen based on expectations for product wear and tear. Nevertheless, when we notice two events that might be related occur close together in time, we feel like one caused the other. We feel that way because we learned that it’s usually the way things work and this helps us to predict, and perhaps control, events.

This feeling is at least partially responsible for things such as vaccine fear. Parents who noticed autistic behavior shortly after their toddler was vaccinated are often convinced that the vaccination caused the symptoms, yet we know from research that the two are unrelated. Autism symptoms tend to appear as children reach a specific developmental stage and vaccines are administered on a recommended schedule, so they tend to occur around the same time.

So, while the odds of this particular series of events can’t really be calculated, the way things like this make us feel is explainable. Of course, explaining it doesn’t make it less cool.