## Similar Soldiers

I joined the Royal Australian Air force in 1972. During the ’70s recruitment was high, so it was not uncommon to have  flights of 20(ish) trainees graduating each week or so. On my first pay parade (we all got paid in cash after a lengthy line up) we all stood at-ease awaiting our name to be called out.

When the paymaster shouted out our names, family name first, first name last, we would then snap to attention and march forward for our pay.

This is how it went:

“Wilson, Robert”…. two of us stepped forward!

No problem thinks the paymaster as he glances down at the pay slip and announces, “Wilson, Robert, William”

The both of us stood firm!

He then read out the 6 digit ID number, and we were separated by less than 100 numbers if memory serves (numbers are issued sequentially which just means we joined about the same time).

So, what are the odd of having identical names, and joining the air force within weeks of each other?

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 200. Take a look and leave your comments below.

It’s not easy for me to put numbers on the probability of this happening because name frequencies in Australia were hard to find. However, I did find that the names “Robert” and “William” were as popular there in the 1960s (I assume that the author was between 17 and 25 when he joined) as the were in the U.S., where they took the 5th and 7th spots, respectively. As we’ve seen in past episodes, “Robert” is an enduring name; it was the #1 name for baby boys for decades and has not left the top 100 in more than a century. In the 1960s, “Robert” was the first name in 14,000 boys for every million born and “William” in every 10,000. There is no readily-available source to determine the probability that “William” would be chosen for a middle name, so the first name frequency will have to serve.

The surname name of “Wilson” is also a very common one, but it is difficult to determine just how common it was in Australia at that time. Today, “Wilson” is ranked 5th, occurring in 5,037.98 of every million people. This has probably changed a bit since the 1960s, but it’s our best estimate.
So, 140 of every million boys with the first name of “Robert” will have the last name of “Wilson”, and 1.4 of those will have the middle name “William”. This means that, for every 10 million men this author will meet around his age, 15 will probably share his full name.
The probability of joining the Air Force so close together adds a degree of complexity and to do it justice would require more accurate information about the distributions of these names across ethnic groups and as well as the distribution of ethnic groups in the military. Without that information, my best guess is the probability that another man in a selection of 100 will have this name, given that the author does, which is about 1 in a million.

## Punk Through Time and Space

Years and years ago, I think while I was still in high-school, the punk show on my favorite radio station in Seattle played a set exclusively of early 1970s Australian punk.

Now that’s a pretty arcane sub-genre for you; but I really liked the sound of some of what I heard, so I dug around online and downloaded a bunch of music from a variety of the artists played. One group in particular caught my ear:  The Scientists.

The Scientists are actually pretty well known (as far as ’70s Australian punk acts go), but still, what are the odds I would ever see them live?

Five years later I’m living in Perth in Western Australia and my girlfriend’s father, who was a band manager back in the day, asks if we want to go to a show some old friends had put together. It was a sort of reunion party for the Perth music scene of the ’70s, all these old promoters and managers watching bands that hadn’t played together in decades. And who gets up on stage but The Scientists!

I was flabbergasted. The chain of events that was necessary to take me from hearing those songs on the radio to attending that show is so convoluted and improbable it would strain credibility in a piece of fiction.

[EDITOR: I like stories like this because they reveal the thought process we ALL go through in moments like this. We count every single twist and turn along the road that had to be just right to lead to a specific end result and see it as next to impossible. And indeed, when you start WITH the end result and look at all the details, the odds are, well… crazy. It’s the same argument you often hear against evolution, with comments about the odds of random mutations and natural selection leading to US as just too improbable. Had you planned for that end result from day one and it actually occurred, it would be mind-blowing.

But there’s a subtle flaw in the process that we usually miss: you can’t start from the precise end result because you’re biased by your perspective. You have to start from the beginning knowing nothing. An example starting from the end: What are the odds of YOU winning the lottery? Well, pretty darn slim. Starting from the beginning without a bias on the results: What are the odds of SOMEONE winning the lottery? Nearly guaranteed in most cases.

Applied to this story, if we started from the beginning, ignorant of the results, and we add in a tolerance of years to the equation, and said, “what are the odds of this person seeing a band he loves perform live in the town in which he now lives via invitation” the odds are suddenly a lot less spectacular, even if there’s a few factors that bump them up a notch. Take it a step further and make it “what are the odds of ANYBODY seeing a band they love…” and you’re in that range of a guaranteed event.

And yet when it happens to you, and you feel that sense of awe of everything coming together, not to mention combining it with the amazing power of music, the statistics and figures and likelihoods and other options and open-ended criteria fade away, and you’re instead left with a simple reaction: rock on! And I don’t know about you, but I really like that.]