Cambridge University wants to know about your coincidences!

The Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge has a call for you to submit to them your stories of coincidences.

Why are they doing this?

By recording your coincidence stories, you can help them build a picture of what kinds of coincidences are out there and which ones seem to ‘get to’ us the most. Your coincidence stories can also help them explore the scientific explanations which account for them – whether by doing the maths to calculate the chances of a coincidence, or speculating on the weird and wonderful workings of our brains.

What exactly do they mean by coincidence stories?

Coincidences tend to be ‘surprising matches’ – sometimes they are lucky, sometimes unlucky, sometimes just mind-boggling. To help you recall the coincidences that have happened in your life, here’s a list of some common types of coincidence:

  • Surprising repetitions: for instance when you’ve had not contact with someone for ages, then find two connections to them very close together in time. Or when over several years multiple members of the same family are born with the same birthday. Or even a repetition of a really rare event – like winning the lottery twice, or your life being saved twice by the same person!
  • Simultaneous events: for example when two people phone each other at exactly the same time.
  • Parallel lives: such as when two people in a small group find they share a birthday or an unusual name, or when two people discover their lives match each other in bizarre details.
  • Uncanny patterns: imagine picking letters in Scrabble that spell your name.
  • Unlikely chains of events: perhaps you lost your false teeth overboard and found them inside a fish you caught twenty years later?

OK, so where does being Skeptical come into play?

Often when some apparently amazing coincidence happens, we are naturally inclined to attribute the supernatural to the event, but there are in fact far more natural explinations.

To illustrate, I used to watch “On the Buses”, a UK TV show with my dad. Many years later, on 16th November 2008 to be precise, I recalled that experience from my childhood and wondered where the primary actor, Reg Varney, was now. A little later I was truly surprised to discover that on the one and only day that year that I had remembered Reg, he had died.

Many might indeed think something supernatural had taken place, but there is of course a far more natural explanation.

First, memory can be a tricky thing. I might indeed have recalled that memory many times, but forgotten that I had done so. So I had only remembered this one instance because of the odd coincidence of his death on that same day. Each and every moment thoughts pass through your head and most of them will not be remembered.

Secondly, there is a finite and rather small number of famous elderly people. There is also a rather large proportion of the population that is familiar with them, and so with only 365 days in the year, you can be certain that there will always be a group of people out there thinking of them. This means that on the actual day they die, all those that just happened to be thinking of this famous but elderly person will be truly blown away by what is in reality a statistical certainty.

So do you have an amazing coincidence to tell them about?

If so, then pop on over here, and enter the details.

Keep you story personal – about you or someone you know. The only thing they do ask is for you to steer clear of are premonitions or déjà vu, purely because – whilst fascinating – they’re quite common and also difficult to analyse.

Optionally you can also leave an email address, so that they can get in touch to find out more.

So what stories do they have so far?

Click here to see.

Where are they going with all this?

Their stated aim  is to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining! However they also acknowledge that uncertainty is not just a matter of working out numerical chances, and aim for an appropriate balance between qualitative and quantitative insights.

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