Considering Coincidences

Every high school class, or so it seems, harbors a class brain, an “Einstein”, to go along with the class clown. In my senior class the post was held by a young man, I’ll call him Albert, who did not at all fit the stereotypical nerd Coke bottle glasses, shirt pocket protectors, pimpled face except that he seemed constantly distracted by something he saw or heard out in the middle distance; that plus the fact that his socks only occasionally matched. One would come across Albert tall, pale and as if in need of a good breakfast between classes and be rewarded with his latest speculation on “Why is there something rather than nothing? ” or some news of the quirks of quarks, and then, abruptly, “Which direction did I come from?” and, on being told, might say, “Oh good. Then I’ve already eaten lunch.”

Albert and I became good friends but confine our conversations these days mostly to e-mail. On December 6 he sent me the following posting:

Only 222 shopping days until St. Swithin’s Day. Moreover, 2(2+2+2) =the number of the current month, while 2+2+2 = the day of the month. Coincidence? You decide.

Albert helpfully adds this, from the online Catholic Encyclopedia:

Very little is known of this saint’s life, for his biographers constructed their “Lives” long after his death and there is hardly any mention of him in contemporary documents. Swithin was one of the two trusted counsellors of Egbert, King of the West Saxons (d. 839), helping him in ecclesiastical matters, while Ealstan of Sherborne was his chief advisor He probably entrusted Swithin with the education of his son Ethelwulf and caused the saint to be elected to the Bishopric of Winchester in succession to Helmstan. His consecration by Ceolnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have taken place on 30 October, 852. On his deathbed Swithin begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where passers-by should pass over his grave and raindrops from the eaves drop upon it.

Surely, you recall the girls of our deep youth skipping rope to:

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair

Albert’s spoof is at those “for whom life is too uncertain to live with, and so they have to make things up.” Religions are high on Albert’s list of made-up things (“Some other time.”) but what bothers him particularly are what he calls “folk voodoo” like the “coincidences” that clog up the internet these days. The mathematicians Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird in their dandy Coincidences, Chaos and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas offer a particularly vivid example.

It’s just too eerie to be true, and yet .. :

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy. Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.

A week before Lincoln was shot, he was in Monroe, Maryland.

A week before Kennedy was shot, he was in . . . well, you get the idea.

Unbelievable! What are the chances? What’s going on?

The authors elaborate instructively on the familiar fact that in any group of 45 people, there is a 95 per cent chance that two of them will have the same birthday. They go on to demonstrate that the more data you accumulate on two human subjects, the more is the likelihood of discovering coincident points in their lives. In the case of Presidents, nearly everything they say or do or that happens to them in the course of their lives is duly recorded and amassed somewhere or other. What’s more, the computer makes possible more data density than ever, together with the means to manipulate it, with the result that discovery of coincidences abound.

Much of this coincidence mining is for the amusement of those who have too much time on their hands. Too much of it, though in Albert’s view serves as a way to feed either a popular paranoia or a hunger for a faith among the susceptible or, in the hands of unscrupulous puppeteers, both. “Are these coincidences what is meant by intelligent design’?” Albert snarls, with, one imagines, Thomas Hobbes whispering in his ear and egging him on. Perhaps you can’t fool all of the people all of the time; but what are the odds?