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(Submitted by Skepticality listener Peter)

We immigrated to Canada in 1981, settling in a small northern town, Fort St. John, British Columbia. There we met a person that my wife knew had been a friend of her Grandfather’s in the early 1930s in Germany, close to the town where she was born, and who had emigrated unbeknown to her sometime in the mid fifties to Canada, first moving to Vancouver Island and later to the same town where we finally settled. He and his wife became friends of ours. Now, that is not too crazy.

This year we decided to leave Canada and retire to the Azore Islands, where we met a friend of my sister’s – she has a house there and that is why we decided to move to the Azores – who lives close by, having had settled there coming from Germany in the mid eighties. He also coincidentally had been living previously close to the town where my wife was born.

On a visit with this gentleman this fall we met a German who hails from Berlin and now lives in Spain, a sailor who in the beginning of the eighties had sailed with his wife to Canada, where he stayed for half a year on Vancouver Island.

During the conversation when the sailor told us of his travels, he mentioned the name of our friend, that he had died two years previous and learned of that fact when he had visited Vancouver Island and tried to look him up.

He also told us that at the time when he came the first time to Vancouver Island he met the friend of my wife’s grandfather, a short while before that friend had decided to move north.

So on an island in the middle of the Atlantic we meet someone who knew someone who was a friend of ours who had lived several thousand kilometers away in the same town we once had lived in. What are the odds?


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 266.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society, and watch her on Virtual Skeptics.

One thing I noticed from this story is that everyone is German. This is not an irrelevant bit of information, since people tend to bond over things like sharing a country of origin, and immigrants also tend to cluster geographically.

So while the odds of this happening might be quite small, they aren’t as small as one might think. There’s a reason that the saying “It’s a small world” exists, and it’s not because the world is indeed small.

A Canine Coincidence

(Submitted by Skepticality listener James Garrison)

A few years ago, I began working for OKC Animal Welfare. The day I was released to work in the kennels, I was helping a citizen look for her dog, and was trying to explain the process.

The shelter has 5 rooms for dogs, divided by age, size, if they’re adoptable or not, and if they’re involved in a case. I took her into the first room, which was normally reserved for dogs under 6 months, and I pulled the first cage card we came to and explained what she needed to do if she found her dog.

As I put the card back, she looked into the kennel, looked at me and said “That’s my dog!”, which turned out to be an older border collie looking dog, so it shouldn’t have been in that room in the first place, and it’s stray time was up. (Luckily, they were going to try and place it in the adoption program, otherwise she would never have found it.)

At the time, in 2007, the shelter took in around 35 to 38,000 animals a year (roughly half of them dogs), the shelter probably held around 200-300 dogs that day (that’s the general average) and the human population of Oklahoma City was 546,000.

As well, a large percent of the dogs in the shelter never made it to adoption due to various factors, including temperament, health, and space. Another consideration is that probably only 10% of loose dogs are reported or come into the shelter.

Given that roughly 100-300 people came into the shelter a day, and they get nearly as many animals a day, what are the odds of finding a specific person’s dog in the first kennel on my first day in the shelter?


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 265.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society, and watch her on Virtual Skeptics.

Only a few pieces of information are needed to estimate the odds the way the author framed the question, but the author does not provide the most important: the odds that a specific dog would end up in the shelter. However, let’s pretend that the 10% mentioned answers that question. If there is a 1 in 10 chance that a dog would end up in the shelter, then there is a 1 in 10 chance that any given visitor’s dog will be found there. We must assume that if the dog is at the shelter, the owner will find it. It’s just a matter of when. Since there are 5 kennels, then we can multiply that probability by 1/5th to find the probability that a person’s dog will be found in the first kennel. That makes it .02 or 1 in 50 that the owner will find their dog and find it in the first kennel. In other words, as the question is framed, the odds are not crazy at all.

The number of people visiting the shelter and the number of dogs housed in it are irrelevant. No owner would just sample the dogs; they would want to do an exhaustive search of the shelter to find their dog. Likewise, the population of the town is irrelevant.

 

A Classic Coincidence

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Ian Dodd)

In May of this year I attended a conference of humanist organizations in Atlanta, Georgia where I had a conversation with one of the local organizers. She told me she had a brother who was living in Hawaii but considering a move to Los Angeles, where I live, sometime later in the year and asked if she could pass my phone number on to him.

I had forgotten about the exchange until last week when I got a call from an unknown 808 area code number. The young man on the other end of the line explained who he was and how he had my phone number. We chatted briefly and I found out he and his wife had arrived in LA, they were looking for a place to rent and we made a date for lunch with a couple days later.

As we got to know each other over lunch, I learned that they knew nothing of the organization his sister and I are both affiliated with, so I told him how it was I came to meet her. Then they asked about my family and I explained that I had two children, one not much different in age from them, who had graduated from a small college in Minnesota in 2014 with a degree in Classics.

The young woman interjected, “Your daughter didn’t happen to go to Carleton College, did she?” Which, if you’re listening to this podcast, you can already guess what my answer was. Listeners should understand that Carleton is a college of 2,000 students in rural Minnesota. This young woman explained that her childhood best friend from growing up in Houston, TX had graduated from Carleton the year before in 2013, also in Classics, a department of about a dozen students.

I texted my daughter and my lunch companion texted her childhood friend to ask if they knew each other only to find out that the two of them had been study buddies through ancient Greek language for the 3 years they overlapped and are still close friends.

And by this last weekend, they had found a place to live: they will be renting from my wife and me starting in a couple weeks.

Seriously? The odds of this must be crazy!


Below are the extended notes provided by statistician and podcaster Kyle Polich for use in Skepticality Episode 264.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

(Kyle studied computer science followed by artificial intelligence in grad school with a focus in probabilistic reasoning and planning. His general interests range from obvious areas like statistics, machine learning, data viz, and optimization to data provenance, data governance, econometrics, and metrology. He enjoys exploring the intersection of statistics and skepticism and sharing related insights with others including through his podcast Data Skeptic. Visit Kyle’s blog Data Skeptic, and give the podcast a listen.)

So this story covers a series of seemingly unlikely events. Let’s try and break them down and isolate the parts that are not surprising from the parts that are eyebrow raising.

One of the important lessons here is around *conditional* probability. What is the probability that a person can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the bassoon? Pretty low! What about the probability of that given the fact that they’re a professional bassoon player – very high!

To begin with, our listener is out of town chatting with a conference organizer who mentions her brother is moving to the listener’s city. There are almost 40k municipalities in the United States, so shall we say the odds of this are 1 in 40k or 0.0025%? Not quite.

Let’s consider the complement of this situation. Imagine you meet someone and proudly announce “I’m from Los Angeles”, to which they reply, “Cool! I have a good friend that lives in Gainsville, FL!” I mean, that’s nice, but I’m from LA. I think it’s fair to say our investigation only starts *conditioned* on the fact that a common city comes up in conversation.

Moving ahead to the part of the story in which the listener meets the relocating young brother and wife, and mentions having a daughter who attended a small college in Minnesota in 2014 with a degree in classics. The young women mentions having a close childhood friend who studied the same subject in a Minnesota school, and asks if they might perhaps have attended the same school and know each other. There are almost 200 colleges and universities in Minnesota. I’m not sure what qualifies as small, but if half of them are considered small, we can call those odds about a 1% chance.

Setting aside how many childhood friends the young woman had and how many universities they spread out into, maybe we call these odds 1 in 100 chance. That’s like betting on a specific number for rulet and winning. Unlikely, but not extraordinary.

But now we get into *conditional* probability. What are the odds that two students at a small school in a small department of about a dozen students know each other? I should hope pretty high!

So all in all, I find this one noteworthy, but not excessively surprising, and if I had to put a firm number on it, I’d say in the neighborhood of 1% likelihood.

The US Census tracks state to state movement.  Kyle put together a fun, interactive data visualization that allows people to select a state and see the percentage of people that leave that state and what other states they migrate to.

http://dataskeptic.com/tombc

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Rob)

My first job after college sent me on a five-day training course in Boston, where I made fast friends with three other students. We were all traveling from different states (North Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan, & Missouri) and our ages ranged from 22 to mid 40s. Somehow we all hit it off in class and went to dinner every night before returning to our hotel.

Eight months later, I flew from NC to San Diego on a work conference. Checking into my hotel, I happened to bump into my Nebraska buddy hauling his luggage through the lobby. Amazed, we chatted for a few minutes, and I learned he was on a work trip of his own, unrelated to mine.

The next evening, I exited the elevator and passed none other than my Missouri friend, who was staying on my floor. He too was on a work trip, and after picking my jaw up from the carpet, I suggested we meet up with Nebraska guy and go out to dinner for old time’s sake. “What are the chances?” remained the theme of our conversation as we set off to find Mr. Nebraska.

Long story short, the three of us ended up at a seafood place, laughing, swapping stories, when suddenly our Michigan friend passed by our table, did a quadruple take, stared at us for a moment in silence, and burst out in laughter. Turned out he was a vendor at my conference, and was sent to demo a product that I would eventually take back to NC.

So, our impromptu gang had managed to assemble once again, from one coast to the other, from Massachusetts to California, eight months apart. I tell all my friends and dates this story, and none of them believe it. It’s certainly the most improbably bizarre event that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t even begin to calculate the odds.

You’d think I would’ve kept up with these guys, but honestly I never did. We never got together again after that fateful week in San Diego


Below are the extended notes provided by mathematician Brian Pasko for use in Skepticality Episode 263.  Brian is on the faculty at Eastern New Mexico University. His interests include scientific skepticism, popular science books and improbable coincidences that makes one wonder just what the fates are up to. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

Cool! The Drake equation is named for physicist Frank Drake. It provides important considerations to estimate the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe. Finding the probability of you four friends meeting seems hard. Let’s analyze your situation with Drake as inspiration. The probability that you all meet as you described is the product of the probabilities that:

  1. You all happen to be in the same city (or, nearby) at the same time;
  2. three of you get the same hotel (and actually see each other!); and
  3. that the third person comes to the restaurant at which the others are eating (and actually see each other!).

This product is, let’s say, small. However, there are some interesting facets that affect this probability. The first is that I suspect you four are in the same industry. This may increase the likelihood of you all being in the same area at the same time. If this assumption is correct, you’re all likely in the same economic class as well. This narrows the selection of hotels you each choose and the restaurants you’re likely to patronize.

You could have met Michigan and Nebraska at the hotel instead of Missouri and Nebraska. So we need only that three of the four friends were at the same hotel. This increases the likelihood of a meeting by factor of three! Also, you could have seen any of the other two at any time during the day. In addition, you’re all on work trips and so probably are moving in and out of your rooms at the same times of the day, which increases the likelihood of a meeting.

Of course, the meet up could have happened in a lot of different ways. For example, two pairs of you could have met at two different hotels; or not at hotels at all but on the street getting the same cab; or at a pub after work hours… You get the idea.

A consequence of Drake’s ideas is that if we happened to find alien life in our solar system it would imply that the universe is positively rife with life! I suggest that if such a meet up happens again between you four, rather than lightening striking twice, it means that you’re often in the same place at the same time and just don’t see each other.

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Jim Fitzsimons)

Ok, here’s an excellent coincidence! This past Monday (Feb. 9) while at my day job, an old book of (mostly) urban legends came to my mind. The book was called ‘Strangely Enough’. I had blogged about it five years ago. I looked up the blog and reread it and in it I mentioned a favorite story in the book about the Devil’s Footprints which appeared overnight in England in 1855. It was claimed that the prints went in an unwaveringly straight line across several miles, over houses and haystacks, across rivers and lakes; all in one night.

Later that same Monday (Feb. 9), while at my night job, I was listening to the February 3rd episode of Skepticality. During the contributors’ segment at the beginning of the show, Tim Farley talked about those same Devil’s Footprints as part of his Skepticism, Past and Future.

Cool, no? Well, it gets even more coincidental!

Tim mentioned the date of the event. People woke up and discovered the uncanny prints in 1855 on the morning of February 9th.

That means I had thought of the book, looked up my blog piece on it, read about the Devil’s Footprints, and then, later, heard Tim talk about them all on the 160th anniversary of the event!

How crazy are those odds?


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 262.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

I can actually do a little bit of calculation with this.

At first glance it might seem that some of the odds in this case can be calculated. After all, we know how many days of the year there are. If the likelihood of the events occurring on a given day was the same as the likelihood that it would occur on any other day, then the odds of thinking about the Devil’s Footprints on its anniversary are approximately 1 in 365, or .0027. And the odds of hearing about it on that same day (given it’s the same year) are .0027 x .0027, or .000007.

However, there is a lot here that is nonrandom. For example, Tim Farley talked about the Devil’s Footprints as part of his Skeptical History segment precisely because the anniversary was that week. The probability that any given person would listen to the episode on February 9th is quite high–not easily calculated, but definitely much higher than 1 in 365. Furthermore, the probability that the Devil’s Footprints would come to mind is not the same for all days. Memories are activated by cues and cues come in all manner of form. Integral to the story of the Devil’s Footprints is snow and even if it is not snowing, cold weather may easily trigger a thought or two about the incident, especially to someone who has studied it. The date itself may have triggered the memory without the author’s awareness.

For these reasons, what appears to be a crazy coincidence probably isn’t all that crazy.

London Encounter

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Peg Gantz)

In 1996, my son and I flew from Glens Falls, N.Y., (via Albany, N.Y., and Newark, N.J.) to visit my daughter, a college student doing a semester abroad in Bath, England. We flew in to Heathrow and took a train to Bath. At the end of our visit, we spent a couple of nights in London.

The day before our visit there had been an IRA bombing on a London bus, so security was very tight. Because of a suspicious package, and announcement was made that the tube would not stop at our intended station of Covent Garden, so we got off at the stop before and started walking in what I hoped was the correct direction to Covent Garden.

As we stopped on a traffic island in the middle of a street, I asked a man who also was on the island if he could direct me to Covent Garden. “Sorry,” he drawled, “but I’m from Texas, and I’m lost, too.” We went our separate ways.

Two days later my son and I were in line at Gatwick airport. (Yes, we flew IN to Heathrow and OUT from Gatwick; no idea why, but the tickets were a gift from my brother, who’d used his frequent flyer miles, so I was not about to question it.) A man stood in line behind us, and it was the Texan we’d encountered on a traffic island somewhere near Covent Garden in London! We exchanged greetings, made note of the unusual coincidence, and again went our separate ways. (And in case you’re wondering, I never saw him again.)

I’ve often wondered what were the odds of lost U.S. citizens from different parts of the country meeting for the first time on a London traffic island, then encountering one another again in line at the airport.


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 261.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

Unfortunately, I have no answers for this one except to say that low-odds events must happen occasionally. This story actually reminds me of one of my own.

We (my husband, our two boys, and my parents) were flying from our home in Los Angeles to Vancouver the day before our ship sailed to Alaska. Our boys were (and still are) both constantly drawing and one of them was doing so while the plane was boarding. A man noticed, complimented our son’s work, and offered to draw something for him. In a few minutes my son had a personalized cartoon of Homer and Bart Simpson, drawn by a man who had worked as an artist and director for the show for many years.

The next day we saw the man and his family as we were boarding our cruise. He and his wife had two boys of their own, a bit younger than ours, and were booked on the same cruise and post-cruise activities. As you can imagine, we were able to spend some time together and became friends.

The odds are good that at least one family on a flight from LA to Vancouver is scheduled to board a cruise ship the next day, but the odds that two families who don’t know each other are scheduled to board the same ship AND interact are likely pretty small, although not nearly as small as running into someone in an airport that you saw on a traffic island days before in a highly populated city.

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Andrea Monticue)

Last Sunday, I was driving and listening to the audiobook by Mira Grant, “Parasite.” The story takes place in the near future, and the characters live in the Bay Area of California. In the book, the main character and her sister decide to go shopping at “the big mall in San Bruno.”

Guess which parking lot I was pulling into when I heard that phrase? Yes, the “big mall in San Bruno,” California, otherwise known as Tanforan.

I go to that mall about once every couple of months. I’m not a fan of big malls, but there’s a Barnes & Noble there.

The only reason I’m listening to “Parasite” is because I enjoyed Grant’s zombie trilogy. 


Below are the extended notes provided by statistician and podcaster Kyle Polich for use in Skepticality Episode 260.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

(Kyle studied computer science followed by artificial intelligence in grad school with a focus in probabilistic reasoning and planning. His general interests range from obvious areas like statistics, machine learning, data viz, and optimization to data provenance, data governance, econometrics, and metrology. He enjoys exploring the intersection of statistics and skepticism and sharing related insights with others including through his podcast Data Skeptic. Visit Kyle’s blog Data Skeptic, and give the podcast a listen.)

I suppose the question here is: “What are the odds of arriving at a specific location just as a character from an audio book is arriving at the fictional version of the same location?” but actually, that might be the wrong question to ask.

This seems like a case of postdiction, also known as the hindsight bias, or put more simply, a case of remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.  Most people have had the experience of thinking of someone and then immediately getting a phone call or text message from them. I have to confess, that always does feel a little spooky, even to me. But in reality, if every time I thought of a friend, acquaintance, of loved one, they ended up calling me right away, I’d be endlessly annoyed with how many impromptu calls I’d have to take. Yet, the goose bumps that sometimes accompany these infrequent coincidences make them memorable.

There must be dozens, maybe hundreds of other malls in the bay area that the author could have chosen.  As of the time of recording, the Wikipedia page for San Bruno, CA lists five specific locations that are not parks or schools, one of them being – you guessed it – the Tanforan Mall. For me, this is enough to say that it’s not surprising that a story taking place in San Bruno might feature a scene at this location.

If you studiously compiled a list of actions taken by characters in Parasite, I suspect you’d be surprised to find how long this list is with only one memorable overlap to your own actions. So while precise likelihood is hard to establish here, I think this tale is a great reminder that experiencing a few seemingly odd coincidences every so often is really the norm, not the exception. Google Littlewood’s Law for further reading if you’re interested. And just to prove the point, I want to say congratulations to a certain listener who has recently taken a new job. I won’t say who, but if you’ve had a career change in the last 3 months, my congratulations go out specifically to you.

(Submitted by Skepticality listener  Chris Benson.)

I have two similar-ish stories:

1. In the fall of 1979 my family moved from Muscatine, Iowa to Kingman, AZ. It was the week before Halloween of my senior year and I was leaving behind a graduating class of 379.

On my first or second day at my new High School, I was walking down the hall and found myself looking at an acquaintance from my old High School class! We were both surprised, to say the least.

2. In the early ’80s I was at Arizona State and a friend of mine from our dorm needed a ride to the University of Arizona for an ROTC function. I had a friend from Kingman whom I knew was at U of A, but we had not spoken for a couple of years, and I had no other information, but figured I could go try to hunt him down.

I dropped my dorm-mate off at his ROTC thing and went to the Student Union to see if I could look my other friend up in a school directory. The fellow at the service desk in the Union said he couldn’t help me because they didn’t have a directory.

I knew driving down that it was a wild goose chase, but I was really disappointed.

Then I turned around trying to think of something else to try, and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t standing there. He was on his way to dinner at the Union’s cafeteria, and we spent a lovely evening together.

The population of that school was around 30,000 at the time, so I figure the odds were something close to that.


Below are the extended notes provided by contributing editor Mark Gouch for use in Skepticality Episode 258. Mark is a wastewater treatment system operator and engineer living in Smithtown, NY (Long Island). He started to become interested in coincidences after recognizing the series of events that conspired to get him employment on Long Island many years ago. Two of Mark’s recommended books include “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by American physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow, and “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives” by Shankar Vedantam.

Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

1. This is probably impossible to estimate numerical odds. So many factors affect everything that happens. For example way back in 1979, what were the economics of Iowa and Arizona? In general there has been a movement of people in the US to the sun belt. If some specific economic or other conditions made making the move desirable, that would make the chances of meeting someone who made a similar move greater.

2. I’m glad that this story happened over 25 years ago. I did not notice at first that Chris said it was in the ’80s. I was about to criticize him for not doing a web search, or look for a friend on the face thing, or do an on-line criminal records search or something, to try to find his friend. But since it was a long time ago, he will be spared that criticism. If he should run into a similar situation in this decade, we know he will avail himself of the various internet tools to increase odds of success again.

We are sure that it must have been surprising to find his friend. Trying to estimate the odds of doing so is probably not really possible. But I think that as usual, there are some factors that make the odds much better than we might intuitively think at first. And it is worth thinking about them.

Let’s think about a few possible items. There may be a lot of odds reducers that he did not mention. For example, I suspect his friend lived in a campus dormitory and he happened, on purpose, or by chance, to go to the student union at dinner time.

I suspect that since it was a friend he was looking for, they may have gone to high school together. This means that his friend most likely lived in a dorm at the campus. If so, then it would actually have been a great plan to try to find a campus dormitory-living student by going to the student union cafeteria at dinnertime. Or breakfast time or lunch time.

Now if the population of the school was around 30,000 at the time, and half of the students lived in a dorm, then your odds of finding the person would roughly double. That would be about 1 in 15,000 chance, which is pretty long odds.

 

(Submitted by Skepticality listener Vandy Beth Glenn)

Last Saturday afternoon, I was watching the TV show Fringe on Netflix streaming. In the guest-cast credits of the third-season episode, “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?,” I saw the name “Marcus Giamatti.” I’d never heard of him or seen the name, and wondered if he was related to Paul Giamatti, one of my favorite actors. So I looked him up on the IMDb and saw that they’re brothers. “Cool,” I thought, and that was that.

Later that same day I got on my treadmill for my daily run. I watch TV while I run, and this time I had a DVD from CSI Season 10, also provided by Netflix.

The next episode on this disc was “Lover’s Lanes.” The guest cast for this episode included, you guessed it: Marcus Giamatti.

What are the odds?


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 256.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

Once again it’s not a reasonable task to calculate these odds, but it is an opportunity to discuss what questions we should ask ourselves before getting too excited about the coincidence.

A look at IMDB tells us that Marcus Giamatti has a pretty long resume, but since many of the entries are guest spots on episodes of short-lived TV shows, we shouldn’t expect to see him when choosing something at random.

However, once we have paid attention to something, we are much more likely to notice the same thing or something similar or related afterward. This concept is called “priming”.

How many times has the author seen this actor in something and did not take note? Would she have noticed him in the episode of CSI if she had not looked him up earlier in the day? Had she seen this episode before and was not interested enough in who the actor was to look him up?

Also, how many times has the author seen an actor in two roles on the same day without noticing?

Another interesting question to consider: how much time would need to be between these two sightings to make the coincidence uninteresting (not a coincidence)? A day? A week?

Attention is really important when it comes noticing crazy odds.

The Man in the Arena

(Submitted by Skepticality listener, Skeptic Society blogger and Junior Skeptic Editor, friend of the blog Daniel Loxton)

I spent much of last summer preparing my speech for The Amazing Meeting 2014, a large skeptics conference in Las Vegas. It was totally nerve-wracking. I’m shy. I get stage fright. I’d never given a solo talk of that length in front of such an enormous crowd—1200 people! Many of my intellectual heroes would be in the audience. And, I was planning a very emotional talk about beauty and joy and meaning.

So I spent five weeks writing and obsessively polishing that talk, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” Its themes were built on discussion of skeptics of previous generations, including magician Harry Houdini. I said this:

When Rinn’s old friend Houdini finally did get into the fight, he arrived as a mighty champion. He brought skill and knowledge, and wealth and fame. Houdini studied and investigated and wrote books, and gave demonstrations.

He went to Congress to fight for tougher laws against fraudulent fortunetellers, at least in the nation’s capital. He fought with passion, and gravity of purpose.

And he lost.

There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.

As I worked to cram two thousand years of scientific skepticism into half an hour, I was forced to make cuts. One of the last things I cut, very reluctantly, was this abbreviated quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which had accompanied the Houdini passage:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…but who does actually strive to do the deeds…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

When I delivered the talk, the vast hall was silent. I had no clue whether the crowd was coming along with me. Then, as I finished the speech and stumbled off the stage in relief, I discovered that they had. Dozens of people rushed to talk to me. It was among the most amazing moments of my life.

One of those people was ‎a woman named Anna Maltese, who held a piece of paper in her hand. She wanted me to know that the talk had inspired her to share a favorite passage by her favorite American President. She felt sure I’d like it, so she had written it down for me. I looked at the paper. It said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust…”

I was stunned. It was the final surreal touch to an unforgettable day.


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 255.  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 ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

The quote is not obscure, but it is not exactly “Four score and seven years ago,” either. It is seen rarely enough to make this feel like a crazy coincidence. And perhaps it was an unlikely event, but there are a few factors which increase the odds quite a bit.

The first thing that we must always consider is that the commonalities we know about (e.g., the Amazing Meeting) are usually related to things we might not have considered–something called confounding variables. Anna’s attendance at the event was not random. The subject matter that brought speaker and audience member together is somewhat academic in nature and those interested in it tend, on average, to be more educated than average. The odds that someone in the audience would be familiar with such a quote are higher than the odds that any random person would. Even the odds that an audience member would count that quote among their favorites are higher.

But I think that the most credit for this incident must go to the simple fact Daniel’s speech communicated his message so clearly that the quote he wanted to use to illustrate it was brought to the mind of an audience member who was intimately familiar with it. That’s a brilliantly crafted and delivered speech.

(Please click here to watch Daniel Loxton’s address at The Amazing Meeting 2014.)