Category: News

(Submitted by Skepticality personality and friend of the blog Bob Blaskiewicz.)

What are the odds? I mean, they must be CrAzY!!!!
Bob 🙂
Two players die at world chess event in Norway
Competitor dies in the middle of a match during Chess Olympiad in Norway and another is found dead in hotel room
By Esther Addley

The most prestigious international tournament in chess, at which the world’s top players compete alongside amateurs to win honours for their country, has ended on a sombre note after two players died suddenly within hours of each other, one while he was in the middle of a match. Hundreds of spectators attending the 41st Chess Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway, and countless others watching live TV coverage on Norway’s state broadcaster, reacted with shock after Kurt Meier, 67, a Swiss-born member of the Seychelles team, collapsed on Thursday afternoon, during his final match of the marathon two-week contest. Despite immediate medical attention at the scene he died later in hospital.Hours later, a player from Uzbekistan who has not yet been named was found dead in his hotel room in central Tromsø. Norwegian police and the event’s organisers said on Friday they were not treating the deaths as suspicious.

“We regard these as tragic but natural deaths,” said Jarle Heitmann, a spokesman for the Chess Olympiad. “When so many people are gathered for such a long time, these things can happen.

The Olympiad involved 1,800 competitors from 174 countries, accompanied by more than 1,000 coaches, delegates and fans.

The event sees players compete in national teams over 11 rounds, often playing matches that last for up to six hours, and claims a worldwide online audience of tens of millions.

There were brief scenes of panic in the hall after Meier’s collapse, when spectators reportedly mistook a defibrillator for a weapon. Play was briefly suspended before his death was marked with a minute’s silence during the closing ceremony.

While the causes of the two men’s deaths are still unknown, they will raise questions about the mental and physical stress that tournaments place on players.

Meier is not the first player to die in the middle of a match; in 2000 Vladimir Bagirov, a Latvian grandmaster, had a fatal heart attack during a tournament in Finland, while in the same year, another Latvian, Aivars Gipslis, suffered a stroke while playing in Berlin from which he later died.

One of Australia’s leading players, Ian Rogers, retired abruptly from chess in 2007, saying he had been warned by his doctors that the stress of top-level competition was causing him serious health problems.

Tarjei J. Svensen, a reporter for who attended the Olympiad, said the event had a reputation for heavy drinking. “There are two rest days during the competition, and particularly the night before the rest days there tends to be a lot of drinking,” he said.

A favourite attraction for delegates was the now-legendary “Bermuda party”, he added, hosted at each Olympiad by a member of the Bermudan delegation.

The Olympiad was big news in Norway, with the state broadcaster, NRK, carrying hours of live coverage each day, and the country’s government paying 87m kroner (£8.5m) for the privilege of hosting the event.

Last week the women’s team from Burundi were disqualified after failing to show up for their round six and seven matches; they remain unaccounted for, Heitmann said on Friday.

“It has been an eventful Olympiad, certainly,” said Svensen.


Below are the extended notes provided by contributing editor Mark Gouch for use in Skepticality Episode 251. 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.

A sad story, and surely it must have been a shock to those involved in the chess tournament. Well, we do not have a lot of information about the cause of death of the two men, so that limits what we might say about the probability. The best we can do is a very general estimate of the odds of the death of any person out of a thousand random persons. According to the ECOLOGY Global Network ™ web site, as of 2011 the global daily death rate was about 151,600 deaths per day. And in round numbers world population is about 7.3 billion.

So it would seem we should estimate the odds of one person out of a thousand at any conference, or any group of a thousand people should be somewhere around 151,600/7,30,000,000  * 1000= 0.0215, or about 2.15%. The odds of two persons in the group dying would be 0.0215 * 0.0215=0.00046, or about 0.046%. I think most people like to think of odds in terms of per million. So 0.0046% odds is 46,200 per million. This means that for every million conferences, meetings, etc. that have about a thousand persons in attendance, there would be over 46,000 of those events.

Are ‘Lucky Streaks’ Real? Science Says Yes

Maybe you’re not a gambler, but you probably have a grasp of the concept of a “hot hand” or a lucky streak. I’ve wondered before–is this a real phenomenon? My own experience suggests it could be, but one person’s anecdotes are just that. Luck-ily, a new study of online betting shows that the concept of a “hot hand” is real, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. The study found that when a person wins a bet, they become increasingly likely to succeed after each win. The converse is also true: Once you lose a bet, you become progressively more likely to keep losing.

The fascinating study looked at 565,915 sports bets made by 776 online gamblers in Europe and the United States, and found that, all things being equal, you’re likely to win or lose 48 percent of the time (draws presumably account for the remaining 4 percent). After a single winning bid, the chance of winning a second goes up ever so slightly to 49 percent. But here’s where things get interesting. After the second win, the chance of winning a third time increases to 57 percent. After that: 67 percent. Following a four-bet winning streak, the chances of scoring a fifth haul increase to 72 percent. The probability of a sixth win is then 75 percent, and finally, after six wins, bettors had a 76 percent chance of notching lucky No. 7.

What the heck is going on here? What probably explains this pattern is that after each win, people selected bets with better odds. Bettors appear to assume that after each win, they were more likely to lose–to regress to the mean, as they say–and so they compensate by making safer bets.

‘Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds. By doing so, they became more likely to win.’
The study, published this month in the journal Cognition, also found that losses can breed more losses. After losing twice, the chances of winning decreased to 40 percent. After four losses, the chance of winning was 27 percent. After six duds, you have only a 23 percent chance of winning. The explanation: after each loss, gamblers on average choose bets that are less likely to turn out, apparently assuming that they are more likely to win than before–and perhaps to make up their losses (although, on average, people gamble less after each loss). As you probably know, bets with a lower chance of winning have higher payouts.

The idea that one is more likely to lose after winning, or more likely to win after losing, is known as the gambler’s fallacy (in reality, all things being equal, one is just as likely to lose or win on any given bet, assuming one is betting on independent events that don’t effect each other’s outcomes, as is the case with the vast majority of sports bets). This stands in contrast to the “hot hand fallacy”: that one is more likely to win while on a hot streak. Bettors apparently don’t generally believe this to be true, or at least their behavior suggests they don’t.

“The result is ironic: Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds,” the researchers wrote. “By doing so, they became more likely to win. The losers expected the luck to turn, so they took riskier odds. However, this made them even more likely to lose. The gamblers’ fallacy created the hot hand.”

The researchers, Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey at University College, London, conducted the study by examining the online betting activities of people on sports such as horse racing and soccer.

In Popular Science by Douglas Main

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 235.  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. This phenomenon was discussed on Virtual Skeptics, #90. Listen, watch and enjoy: It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

You’re perhaps not understanding what they studied.

They didn’t study something with a consistent bet. It’s more like craps. The subjects were able to choose from among different odds. After winning, people made more conservative bets–bets with better odds of winning (and presumably lower payouts). After losing, people make riskier bets, probably because those bets would pay more if they won.

So, overall, you wouldn’t win more money. You’d just win more often.


Here are links to references John Rael made in the Skepticality episode.

  • A new study of online betting shows that the concept of a “hot hand” is real, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.
  • ‘Winners worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds. By doing so, they became more likely to win.’ The study, published this month in the journalCognition, also found that losses can breed more losses.
  • The idea that one is more likely to lose after winning, or more likely to win after losing, is known as the gambler’s fallacy  (in reality, all things being equal, one is just as likely to lose or win on any given bet, assuming one is betting on independent events that don’t affect each other’s outcomes, as is the case with the vast majority of sports bets).


(Submitted by Skepticality listener Shawn Wilson)

A shark in Canada was tagged.  It never broadcast its information successfully to the satellite, but (the tag) came loose after a couple months and was found years later on a beach in Wales.  The person who found it recognized it for what it was, and after considerable sleuthing, found the researchers.  It turns out, the person who found it knew the cousin of the researcher’s wife.

CBC News – Windsor

A satellite tagging device a Canadian researcher attached to a Greenland shark in the Arctic in 2012 and used to record migratory data was recently found washed up on a beach 6,000 kilometres away.

The tag was found in Wales, just a short distance from where the wife of the researcher used to spend her summers.

Based on the data they recovered from the device, Nigel Hussey determined it must have come off the animal in December of 2012 in the middle of the Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland, and floated all the way to Wales.

The devices are programmed to release from the shark, float to the surface and transmit data to a satellite, which the scientists can access from their labs.

The data helps paint a more complete picture of the animal’s behaviour. However, not all the data collected by the tag is transmitted to the satellite, so finding one is extremely rare and could prove to be a potential gold mine, Hussey said.

“We’ve never got one back before. It’s really fantastic,” said Hussey, a scientist in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. “We never would have thought that after putting it out in such a remote place that it ever would have been found.”

This tag is of particular interest because it never transmitted any data to the satellite.

Hussey said satellite coverage in the remote area of the Arctic can be spotty.

“It just seemed to disappear,” Hussey said.

Although it only stayed on for three months, it still contains a wealth of information.

“This is the most detailed data we’ve ever had for a Greenland shark,” said Hussey.

Mari Williams found the tag March 6 during a volunteer beach cleanup on West Dale Bay in Pembrokeshire.

Hussey’s wife Anna’s family originates from nearby St. David’s, and that’s where she spent her summers as a teenager.

“I’ve still got an aunt, an uncle and several cousins there,” Anna Hussey said. “In fact, Mari knows one of my cousins. They used to work on one of the tourist boats there together.”

Not knowing what the device was, but suspecting it might have been a shark tag, Williams, who has an undergraduate degree in environmental science, posted a picture of the tag on Twitter and tweeted it at the Shark Trust, a shark conservation charity.

Simon Pierce, of Marine Megafauna Foundation, recognized the device and recommended she contact Wildlife Computers, the device’s manufacturer.

She sent them the serial number, and the Seattle-based company traced it back to Hussey.

“I just find the whole thing amazing,” Williams said from her home in Wales.

Below are the extended notes for use in Skepticality Episode 233 provided Edward Clint.  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.

Six Degrees of Canadian Bacon, or, The one that didn’t get away

There are two unlikely events in this story, though each is not quite a astronomical as you might think. First, what are the odds anyone would find the tracker, wherever it ended up? We can’t be sure how long the tracker was on that beach, but it must have taken a couple months to arrive. That leaves 6-9 months it might have been at the Westdale Bay Beach which is described as a “picturesque sandy beach” popular with surfers. Many hundreds of people might have seen the device, but only a person who recognized what it probably was, as Williams did, would have bothered to pick it up. Since Williams was part of a voluntary beach clean up activity, it’s no wonder someone policing the beach would take an interest in unusual bits that don’t belong there.

That being the case, what are the odds one UK dweller would happen to be related to another who knows the original researcher that placed the tracker? Not all that bad. The original “six degrees of separation” concept was popularized by psychologist Stanley Milgram. But in 2011 a University of Milan study determined any two people in the world are separated by an average of 4.7 acquaintances. (link: In Williams’s case, it’s about 2 degrees of separation from the researcher. But that’s only about three degrees more than you have. Or me. Or anyone.

Hockey Gods

(Submitted by  blog reader Joseph Gagne)

April is sports month at The Odds Must Be Crazy. In this entry, hockey pro Steve Sullivan gets heckled by a fan after an injury. A few minutes later, same fan gets smacked in the face with a hockey puck.


[Ed. Note: Sometimes one video is worth a thousand words. – Wendy]

(Submitted by friend of the blog Emery Emery)

Local News

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – Marion Shurtleff believes in miracles.

In December, the 75-year-old San Clemente, Calif., resident found a piece of her childhood from Covington, Ky., tucked in the pages of a used Bible she purchased at a bookstore near her home.

“I opened the Bible and there was my name,” Shurtleff said in a phone interview from her home. “I recognized my handwriting. I was shaking, literally. I was crying.”

What Shurtleff found was an essay she wrote for her Covington Girl Scout troop when she was 10-years-old.

“It’s three pages, almost four. This was the requirement for the foot traveler badge.”

Shurtleff remembers going to Girl Scouts on Fridays while she attended Fourth District Elementary in Covington. She would go on to graduate from Holmes High School before moving to California for the first time in 1963.

In the essay, she found a detailed account her 10-year-old self gave of a day’s hike through the city that included a meeting of her troop at Trinity Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue.

“We left at 10 in the morning. We went to Devou Park and went around where we had camped the prior year. We walked back to the church and then I took a streetcar home about 4 in the afternoon,” Shurtleff said, summarizing her trip.

Her favorite part of the whole letter she said, was an editorial comment she left in a brief paragraph.

“’We were well provisioned,’” Shurtleff read from the letter. She goes on to describe how each member of the troop had a compass, lunch, and backpack.

“All my friends laughed, and said, yes Marion, that’s you, well provisioned.”

Shurtleff said there was no other clue as to how the Bible carrying her letter ended up in California. The only clue on the letter itself was the name, “Bonnie Gene Edwards,” who she believes was an assistant at her school.

Besides the letter, Shurtleff said she was surprised by the attention she’s received since her story originally ran in the Orange County Register. A local television station, CBS 2 picked up on it and then the Internet.

“I was surprised when the church secretary sent me the email saying it made it to Yahoo,” she said.

Since then, a genealogist and church group has attempted to contact her.

Shurtleff said she would like to know the history of the Bible she purchased. She also added she’s heard speculation that perhaps she always had the letter and possibly forgot it

“I’ve moved too many times. I’ve been down to bare bones. That Bible could have been in Timbuktu, or Alaska. I believe it’s God showing His Grace to us and His love, making us aware that there are stranger things that happen.”


Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 227. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast  for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog.

I love this story for several reasons. First, let’s talk about the odds of this happening. There are many factors to consider, some of which Wendy suggested, which involve knowing the history of the book itself. The way I see it, the odds of this happening are extremely small in any case, but many times smaller in some cases than others.

Sixty-five years passed between the time Ms. Shurtleff wrote the essay and when she found it in the Bible. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the essay was placed in the Bible, for safekeeping or perhaps as a bookmark, shortly after she wrote it. This would undoubtedly be in Kentucky. But we can only speculate about how the Bible ended up in a bookstore in California, and how that happened is important in determining the odds that Ms. Shurtleff would find it.

The least shocking possibility is that the Bible once belonged to Ms. Shurtleff, it moved with her from Kentucky to California, and she got rid of it at some point afterward. It is reasonable that she simply didn’t recognize it. If that is what happened, the odds that Ms. Shurtleff would choose and buy that particular Bible are much, much higher than if she had never seen that Bible before. We tend to favor the familiar, even if we aren’t aware that something is familiar.

This would still be a shocking story unless Ms. Shurtleff frequents the store where she bought the Bible. In that case I would have to speculate that the Bible was among books that she sold to the store at some point, or to a neighbor, perhaps in a garage sale, who then sold it to the store.

However, after reading the story, what seems most likely to me is that the essay was left behind during a troop meeting at the church and was placed in one of the Bibles there and forgotten. It must then have been purchased by someone who moved to California at some point. This would make the probability of it finding Ms. Shurtleff very, very low and dependent upon the rates of migration from Kentucky to California during those sixty-five years as well as how often Bibles are sold or given away.

But there are two other interesting thoughts I have about this story. One is a question: why was the essay still there after sixty-five years? This suggests that the Bible was rarely used. Then again, it was discarded, unless it was acquired after its owner passed away.

Finally, I have to wonder about Ms. Shurtleff’s explanation for what happened. She is quoted as saying, “I believe it’s God showing His Grace to us and His love, making us aware that there are stranger things that happen.” If God wanted to show Ms. Shurtleff a miracle, why did he choose such a mundane document, a merit badge assignment? Why not a love letter or some other meaningful document?

By Ben Radford

Amazing coincidences happen all the time — but are they simply the product of random chance, or do they convey some hidden meaning? The answer may depend on whether you believe in synchronicity.

The term synchronicity was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung had a strong belief in a wide variety of paranormal phenomena, including psychic powersastrologyalchemy, predictive dreams, UFOs and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). He was also obsessed with numerology — the belief that certain numbers have special cosmic significance, and can predict important life events.

Jung’s concept of synchronicity is complicated and poorly defined, but can be boiled down to describing “meaningful coincidences.” The concept of synchronicity came to Jung during a period of mental illness in the early 1900s. Jung became convinced that everything in the universe is intimately connected, and that suggested to him that there must exist a collective unconscious of humankind. This implied to him that events happening all over the world at the same time must be connected in some unknown way.

In his book “137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession,” Arthur I. Miller gives an example of synchronicity; one of his patients “told Jung that when her mother and grandmother died, on each occasion a flock of birds gathered outside the window of the room.” The woman’s husband, who had symptoms of heart problems, went out to see a doctor and “on his way back the man collapsed in the street. Shortly after he had set off to see the specialist a large flock of birds had alighted on the house. His wife immediately recognized this as a sign of her husband’s impending death.”

Is synchronicity real?

There is, of course, a more prosaic explanation for curious coincidence: birds are very common, and simply by random chance a flock will appear near people who are soon to die — just as they appear daily around millions of people who are not soon to die.

The appearance of synchronicity is the result of a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias (sometimes described as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses); we much more easily notice and remember things that confirm our beliefs than those that do not. The human brain is very good at making connections and seeing designs in ambiguous stimuli and random patterns.


Carl Jung
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Credit: Library of Congress
If Jung’s patient came to believe that a flock of birds meant that death was imminent, she would start noticing flocks of birds, and remember the times when they coincided with a loved one’s death. But she would not likely notice or remember the countless times when flocks of birds appeared over people who lived for years or decades longer. Put another way, a person dying when a flock of birds is present is an event; a person not dying when a flock of birds is present is a non-event, and therefore not something anyone pays attention to. This is the result of normal human perceptual and memory biases, not some mysterious cosmic synchronicity.

It’s easy to see why synchronicity has mass appeal; it provides meaning and order in an otherwise random universe. One famous (and more modern) example of synchronicity is the “pennies from heaven” phenomenon described by advice columnist Dear Abby. Thousands of readers have written Abby over the years telling personal stories of thinking about dead loved ones while they happen to find a penny — often with the finder’s (or the dead loved one’s) birth, marriage, or death year — and taking that as a comforting sign that their departed loved ones are thinking of them.

Yet countless people find pennies all the time; some of them will have recently thought of a dead relative, and a smaller subset of that group will find a penny with a significant date on it. Statistically it would be unusual if this did not occur regularly — but of course most people prefer to think of the event as a touching sentiment instead of a cold, random coincidence.

Synchronicity and pseudoscience

Robert Todd Carroll, in his book “The Skeptics Dictionary,” notes that “even if there were a synchronicity between the mind and the world such that certain coincidences resonate with transcendental truth, there would still be the problem of figuring out those truths. What guide could one possibly use to determine the correctness of an interpretation?” There is no scientific or objective way to determine whether synchronicity is valid or not; it’s all subjective personal opinion and experience and flexible definitions.

Taking the example of Jung’s avian banshee, if you truly believe that the presence of birds is a portent of death, there are many questions that need to be examined: How many birds are needed? One? Dozens? Hundreds? Is it any type of bird? How soon before a person’s death do they appear? Minutes, hours or days? Does it differ from person to person? And even if the proposed synchronicity was true, how do we know whose death the birds’ presence foretells? Perhaps there was a dying person elsewhere in the building whose death the birds had come to mourn, and it was not Jung’s patient’s husband at all.

Or, let’s say, for example, that you were thinking about taking a vacation to a destination two states away. You could drive there, or fly, or possibly take a train … but as you ponder it, a fly buzzes into the room and lands on your head. Jung would claim that synchronicity indicates that you should fly there; the universe has given you a clear sign by connecting your thoughts with the outside world and its future. Except that it hasn’t, not really; the cosmic connection is all in your mind. To see why, imagine that it happened to a Spanish speaker; in that case, the synchronous co-incidence of thinking of a mode of transportation while a fly lands on you evaporates, since the Spanish word for the insect fly (mosca), is not the same as the word for an aerial method of transportation (volar). Surely any transcendental, universal truths don’t depend on what language you speak.

Though Jung had no background in science (his interests lay in mysticism and psychology) he — like many modern New Age writers, including Deepak Chopra — invoked quantum physics in support of his ideas. Jung’s ideas about synchronicity were given a veneer of scientific respectability through his friendship with physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who helped promote them.

Synchronicity is an interesting philosophical idea; unfortunately there is no evidence that it actually exists. It is not surprising that synchronicity — like many ideas of Jung and his colleague Sigmund Freud — have not been proven. Even the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, which was based in part on Jung’s work, has been widely challenged as invalid and unscientific. A century ago when Jung came up with the idea of synchronicity, it seemed to be an exciting, cutting-edge theory. Unfortunately for Jung, it is one of many fruitless quasi-scientific ideas in history that has not stood the test of time.


Republished courtesy of the author. See the original story in Live Science here.

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is Thanks to friend of the blog Brian Hart for alerting TOMBC to this story.

(Submitted by Friend of the Blog, Brian Hart)

Not twins.

Not twins.

Haven’t we all heard the old saw that everyone has an exact double somewhere in the world? Lookalikes are a form of coincidence – coinciding features that make people look so much alike that they seem to be twins, except they  are unrelated. They are having a special experience, and as photographer Francois Brunelle articulates below, it is not that they look like a celebrity – they look just like someone else. Brian Hart submitted this article a few months ago, and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This is our gift to you – whatever holiday you are celebrating, or none, enjoy this special piece of photojournalism.

“Brunelle has studied the human face since he started out as a photographer in 1968, at the age of 18. He said he was ‘fascinated by the resemblance between look-alikes.’

‘It is not about looking like famous people,’ he said. ‘The project is about looking like other people.

‘The fact that two persons, totally unrelated to each other, sometimes born in different countries, share the same physical appearance is really the essence of (it).'” – from the article.


(Submitted by friend of the blog, George Hrab, of Geologic Podcast)

Leave it to our good friend George Hrab to send us a music-related coincidence, and one of the nicest ones you’ll ever see.

According to the source article, this Berlin street performer was minding his own business playing “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat when who should walk by? Jimmy Somerville, the group’s lead singer. I’ll let the video (sadly filmed sideways) explain the rest:


I can only imagine both people were just as thrilled by the moment, but for entirely different reasons.

Odds on Current Events

(Based on a link submitted by reader Sean Duncan)

The Independent Investigations Group, which as you loyal, dedicated, and detail-oriented readers know is a Los Angeles, California-based organization that investigates claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience, is affiliated with The Odds Must Be Crazy and provides a lot of our support and backing.

The IIG regularly receives all sorts of communication regarding a wide variety of topics, including requests for advice on how to handle unusual situations related to the IIG’s fields of expertise. In this case, listener Sean Duncan decided to write in and get the IIG’s assistance with a subject he’d been discussing with a friend. Here is that email:


My name is Sean and I live in Shelton, WA. I’m emailing because a skeptic of skepticism asked me about how, sometimes in disasters, thousands of people will die in a particular building yet one will survive for days or weeks because they are in the right place at the right time. I told this person that I would contact the Independent Investigations group because they like to calculate the odds of things. With so many people calling this phenemona a miracle, it might make for a good segment on The Odds Must Be Crazy. If you have the desire to calculate the odds of this Bangladesh woman surviving 17 days, we’d both appreciate it.



Through this communication a long discussion thread was started to address the question and build a complete picture of what would be required to answer it. We found the results really interesting, and have decided to share some excerpts with you below:

Comment by Barbara Drescher:

There is absolutely no way to calculate the odds of such a thing; it would require knowing everything about the building at the time of the collapse as well as defining the context (e.g., the odds of surviving, given that one is in the building when it collapsed, or the odds of it collapsing right when one is standing in that spot?).

How I would respond to such a question would be to ask more questions. If it is a miracle that she survived, then what is it that the other 1100+ people died? How many people do you think survived for several days, but died before they were rescued? Would it be less of a miracle if it was 15 days or more of a miracle if it was 18 days?

This kind of thinking is flawed because it is “post hoc”, or after-the-fact. Given what we know happening, the odds of that happening are 100% (because it already happened). Even if we predicted that a survivor or two would be found this long after, it’s still not remarkable because it happens. People will always be “in the right place at the right time” and “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. When we think about all of the circumstances that must be “lined up” for such a thing to happen, it looks remarkable, but something has to happen. Some set of circumstances is going to be the set that occurs. Someone will eventually win the lottery.

I’m reminded of the research that Hugh Ross did in which he calculated an outrageous probability that the universe would produce human beings. It was so outrageous that he concluded that it must have been an act of God. However that kind of thinking is exactly like asking someone to pick a number between 1 and 600,000,000,000, then being shocked by the number they picked, given that the chances of them choosing that number were 1 in 600,000,000,000.

Comment by IIG Chairman Jim Underdown:

It reminds me of two related issues. The question is like asking what are the odds of surviving a car crash. It depends on the car, the speed, the driver, what it hit – and countless other factors.

The post hoc example I like is the paint bucket that fell off a ladder. What are the odds it would produce exactly that spatter pattern? … 100%!

Comment by Jerry Schwarz:

It may be important to emphasize the difference between the probability that a specific person will survive for that long and the probability that one out of the thousands of people in the building will survive.  I suspect that many people don’t understand that difference.

Comment by IIG Steering Member Dave Richards:

The kind of statistics I have a real problem with are ones where there’s a bimodal or multimodal aspect. For example if you plot the ages of death for 10,000 individuals on a histogram, it won’t be a nice bell curve – there’s going to be a big spike in infancy due to childhood diseases, another spike in middle age from heart attack and stroke because that’s when those usually happen, more spikes from various cancers for people that outlive the other stuff, and then finally a spike when the body just finally gives out from old age. To boil such a spiky graph down to a single average age for longevity is pretty much a useless statistic. But this kind of thing is done all the time in news articles.

Jim Underdown responds:

I guess I’m arguing that because each car crash (plane crash, building collapse) is unique, and survivability depends on lots of factors dependent on that particular crash, making general predictions (or assigning odds) about someone surviving any such incident would be beyond the amount of useful information you’d ever have access to in a random event like this. The odds you’d come up with in your car crash statistics might easily be useless unless you added in lots of other controls like speed, car make, alcohol, etc. A sober person who never drives a Mack truck more than 20 miles an hour will be well beyond the insurance company’s risk tables. (Sort of along the lines of shark attack risk for those who never go near water.)

The correspondent is interested in whether we can assign odds to her having survived. There’s quite a difference between calculating the odds that someone would survive, and that this particular woman would survive.

Barbara Drescher rounds up the strategy of developing probability: 

Starting with a very specific question is essential and without one, it’s not even possible to guestimate.

And I think that’s the disconnect that people have when they think of these kinds of occurrences as miraculous (I don’t think it’s relevant whether they consider it an act of God or just a really amazing coincidence). Post hoc thinking has the luxury of being vague, but it’s not the vagueness that makes it bad.” And following up: “I just don’t see how that’s relevant. The question isn’t about how statistics are used. It’s about whether an event is extraordinary, probabilistically speaking.

IIG Steering member Spencer Marks adds:

… the way I read the question about the odds didn’t seem (to me) strictly a question about the odds of surviving the collapse of the building, but of the survivor living for 17 days. That question of course is ALSO not a matter of “odds,” but of many different environmental factors such as the ambient temperature, perhaps humidity, his availability to water, his general condition before the collapse … Like Barbara said, this is not a matter of odds but purely biological and physiological science at work, and that should be mentioned!

Bay Area IIG member Leonard Tramiel summarizes: 

There is a very good reason that the odds here are different. It’s related to the reason that it is considered a “miracle”.

It happens rarely. We can state the odds of being in a car crash because this happens many times every day. Surviving a building collapse for more than two weeks … not so common.

Given the poor statistics, we are forced to consider computing the statistics and that is hopeless for either building collapse or car crash.

Overall we found this was a rather interesting (you can feel free to disagree with us without hurting our feelings) look into the thought processes that sometimes go into analyzing stories like this.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled stories. There will be further interruptions.

The Randi Show

What are the odds that the incomparable James Randi would upload a video to YouTube about a crazy coincidence? Well, considering the source, I imagine quite high. Regardless, this is fun, so we just had to share it with you.