(Submitted by blog reader Tom B.)

In 1999/2000 and I was living and working in Cambridge, my mum knowing I liked sci-fi and fantasy had posted me an old book she had found on a holiday to Brighton, the book was an anthology called Strange Adventures in Time.  I had been reading through the book and had got to Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving (I was reading this book on the loo, and had a CD playing in the next room).

The CD was the first album by my favourite band – Belle and Sebastian called Tigermilk and I had owned it for 2-3 years and listened to it regularly.  While reading the book and listening to the CD in the background I got a weird feeling, and as I sat there contemplating the song “I could be dreaming”.

Now this song has a part where a woman talks in a lovely Scottish accent in the background starting quietly and getting louder, and I had never known or paid much attention to her or known what she was reading. However as I listened and read I noticed that she was reading the words from the page I had just read.  This gave me a weird spooky feeling and I can’t remember a more striking coincidence happening to me, and I’m always reminded of it when I listen to the song.

Below are the extended notes provided by Ed Clint for use in Skepticality Episode 220.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary.

This is my second contribution to the series and I want to take this opportunity to briefly emphasize there are, strictly speaking, statistics can’t apply to singular events. Probability theory is based on sets of things (like a deck of cards), and answering, what can we say about this set when interacting with it? One-of events are by definition, not part of a set. Here on TOMBC we do talk about odds, and rightly so, but we do so in the sense of the folk meaning of “likelihood”. We will talk about numbers, but these are either metaphorical odds expressing a subjective appraisal of likelihood (not statistical odds) or else are the odds of some set of events that resembles in many details the strange one-of coincidences. I expect this point has been made on TOMBC before, but I like to be clear.

It’s plenty freaky to hear the text read aloud on a CD you’ve just read yourself. The first question is, what are the odds any one piece of pop culture, like a song, references or quotes a specific other bit, like a story? Many songs include quoted intact bits of audio, or else quotes or allusions: Information Society sampled Star Trek, Sir Mix-A-Lot sampled Full Metal Jacket, Gwen Stefani sampled The Sound of Music, and the melody from the White Town one-hit wonder Your Woman includes a trumpet riff from the soundtrack of a 1930’s serial also often thought to have been appropriated by George Williams for Star Wars. Wheew! Songs that use appropriated exact quotations are relatively rare. No such data on them exists so far as I know, but let us suppose only one in 5,000 fits the criteria. Now, any one person has not been exposed to all of those (Who the hell is “Information Society”?, I can hear the young-uns asking), perhaps the average music fan has only encountered one in 10 of them. Lastly, what are the chances the listener possesses the quoted media and experiences them both (nearly) simultaneously? For the former, the chances are actually quite high. Having long since passed into the public domain, Rip Van Winkle has been published as a story or as part of a collection many dozens of times. It’s published digitally through many projects such as Project Guttenberg. It appears, in full, on many websites and as the focus of many essays and articles. Let’s say that 50% of literate westerners have read the story. How likely was it for the song to be playing somewhere near to the moment the text was read? If by “often” the writer means once a day on average, and considering the average person listens to 82 songs a day, then assuming said person always has music on while dong light reading, we can estimate the chance at one in 82. That works out to about one in 8.2 million. This seems pretty darn unlikely, but there are some important caveats to think about that diminish the odds in ways that are difficult to calculate:

The odds of encountering a reference to Rip Van Winkle in one or more pieces of pop culture are better than you might think. Winkle is one of the most beloved and enduring pieces of 19th century fiction which is constantly turning up again and being retold. Google turns up 1.25 million hits and Wikipedia lists four songs by separate artists that reference the story. Major media franchises have retold it, including The Flintstones, The Twilight Zone, and of course the animated series Futurama, which is based entirely on the story. This observation increases the odds any artist will feature a reference, as well as the odds you would otherwise come across the references yourself, which brings me to a second caveat.

The odds are improved by what we might call the “clumpiness” of taste, the observation that our tastes do not vary arbitrarily and that we tend to like clumps of similar creative media. The reason you are listening to Belle & Sebastian five times this week is that you share some aspects of taste with those artists. It stands to reason the band and you might like these stories for the same reason, which is also part of the reason you’re listening to their disc on repeat to begin with. Web 2.0 media services like Netflix and Pandora produce recommendations based on such clumpiness of taste, and not without some success. One critic called the band’s work “wistful pop”, and perhaps not-so-coincidentally Van Winkle is a story rooted in dismay over the ugly necessity of the American Revolution. A wistful story, indeed.


Edward Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology.

« »