(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.

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