(Submitted by Skepticality listener Paul)
I live on one side of town, and I’m currently taking a college class one day a week on the other side of town about 40 minutes away. Today we got out of class about 2 hours early, so I decided that since I’m rarely on the other side of town I would use the extra time to stop by the new beer warehouse that was opened earlier this year by my wife’s former co-worker. I had never been there before but I had heard good things about it, and so I was really looking forward to checking it out.
Once inside, I chatted with my wife’s former co-worker and toured the store, sampling some beer and picking out some interesting bottles to bring home and try. Okay, so I went a little overboard and wound up with nearly a case of various microbrews and hard ciders I had never tried. I also added a growler of one of the beers I had sampled and enjoyed, and as I was at the checkout my wife’s former co-worker came over and gave me a 10% discount. I signed the credit card receipt as we talked some more, then I thanked him and departed for home.
When I got home I checked the mail and found an envelope from the New York State Tax Board. My stomach sank, and I assumed the worst: we owed some back taxes. I put off opening it for the time being while I fed the dog and let her outside to relieve herself.
Finally I decided to open the envelope to see what bad news might be awaiting me. The letter inside informed me that the state was refunding home owners a percentage of their property taxes if their school district had kept taxes capped below a certain level for the year. Ours had, and so we qualified for the rebate.
Sure enough, there was a check inside! I immediately looked at the amount to see what our windfall was. The check was in the amount of $77.26. That seemed familiar to me, as I seemed to recall the total at the beer warehouse had been seventy-something dollars but I hadn’t really been paying attention because I was distracted while talking with my wife’s former co-worker. So I pulled out my receipt and checked the amount. I did a double-take when I saw that the total was $77.26!
I had just paid $77.26 at a store, and within 30 minutes had opened an unexpected refund check from the state for the exact same amount! So I ask you: what are the odds?!?!
Below are the extended notes for use in Skepticality Episode 245 provided Edward Clint. Ed Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is presently a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.
There is a mysterious power in the universe bending time and space, the very fabric of existence, creating amazing, inexplicable patterns. We may never fully discern its inscrutable purpose, but obviously it’s so some people can get some free beer, and occasionally scratch their heads and say “huh, how ’bout that?” Thank goodness it’s not wasting time preventing epidemics or something stupid like that.
Okay, that may have been a tad sarcastic, but their really is a mysterious force creating coincidences, and it sits between the ears. A couple of pounds of grey goo that can do amazing things, like feel bad about eating the last donut, seems pretty mysterious, to me, at least.
To understand why apparently astronomically unlikely coincidences are fairly mundane, I suggest an exercise in doing what minds are ordinarily a bit crap at: look at it from the opposite point of view, in this case, the universe’s. Imagine the mysterious cosmic power is you, except that your job is to prevent apparent coincidences that occur during random events in human affairs. Think about how much work you would have to do. Whenever a number crosses a person’s path twice or more in one day, you’d have to intervene. Whenever a popular song, movie, tv show, book (or part thereof) is referenced more than once in a short time frame, whenever two humans (who just love talking to each other) call each other at almost the same time, when two people meet and happen to share any significant detail such as hometown or favorite sports-ball team, et cetera.
That’s just a sample of the hundreds of ways people connect unconnected events. Your cosmic civil servant self would be working overtime. You would probably need to intervene in the life of every single human daily (hourly, for the numerologists).
That is, until someone says to someone else, “hey you ever notice two of the same number never show up on the same day? What’r the odds?” Then you’d have to start creating coincidences, to mimic what the universe already does. Or alternately, you could just quit, since that’s the way the universe works anyway.