Daft Claim of the week: solar eclipse is not just a cosmic coincidence

Why oh why is always the religious who spout complete and utter bollocks on an almost regular basis by manifesting magical thinking.

Today we have the Rev Dr Peter Mullen, a priest of the Church of England, writing in the Guardian yesterday about the solar eclipse. There he writes

The sun is huge and ninety-three million miles away and the small moon is in our backyard, a mere quarter of a million miles away. Yet in an eclipse their discs precisely cover each other. Don’t therefore imagine that anyone designed it that way. It’s just a cosmic coincidence, isn’t it, Professor Dawkins?

Well, I hate to be slightly picky, but the Earth’s orbit is actually not perfectly circular so the distance between the Earth and the Sun varies slightly over the course of the year, from a minimum of 91 million miles to a maximum of 94.5 million miles, so it is not the consistent perfect fit he claims. However, that is not the real problem here, he is essentially pointing at a coincidence and claiming it was “designed” to be that way. Oh, and he is also rather weirdly directing a cosmology observation at an evolutionaly biologist.

Coincidences can and do happen, for example right now I just happen to be wearing a pair of Italian shoes and looking on the map, I can see that Italy is shaped like a boot … so don’t imagine that this is just a coincidence, it was all obviously designed to work out like that by a higher power … right? That is of course a daft claim, and so the the cosmic one.

From a statistical perspective, coincidences are inevitable and often less remarkable than they may appear, especially when dealing with very large numbers. For example, when somebody famous dies, you will find individuals who would not normally have thought about that specific famous person, but just happened to be thinking about them on the day they died. From their viewpoint, something amazing has happened, clearly a psychic event, yet the truth is that when you have famous elderly folks and a population of millions, it would in fact be astonishing to not find such a coincidence happening.

When encountering a coincidence, it can indeed be very tempting to think that something magical or supernatural is going on, this is perhaps quite natural for us because we have been naturally selected to infer agency behind the patterns we observe, it gave our species a distinct survival advantage. The illustrate that, imagine an early paleolithic hominid ancestor of our out on the plains …

  • Early Paleolithic hominid hears a rustle in grass – if attributed to wind and it is in fact a predator, he is lunch. If attributed to a predator, and it is in fact just the wind, he survives.

The side effect from such thinking is that it also naturally leads to a belief in spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention.

In the end, a coincidence is just a coincidenc, and is not evidence for anything supernatural at all, a data sample of just one is not enough to establish anything.

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