A Chance Occurrence? Think again.
Have you ever wondered what are the odds of winning the national lottery? Or even the odds of two people having the same birthday in our science communication class? Not to mention the odds of being positive for the dreadful HIV virus?
Naturally, people would concur these chances as coincidences. The first and foremost sensation that people often rely upon is their feeling, before any logical explanation comes into place.
Any random event or occurrence would make a person think twice, and shrug it off as mere coincidence. As it seems, anything could happen as we live in a world full of surprises. The only question is: how often would that special something happen to us?
In the chapter, ‘Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves’ from the novel, ‘The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’, Natalie Angier uses multiple anecdotes to illustrate the usefulness of statistics. Anecdotes are literacy tools that help the reader to understand a complex concept.
As Angier suggests, ‘The more one knows about probabilities, the less amazing the most woo-woo coincidences become.’ (p.50).
These questions that lead the reader to ponder upon are answered by the calculations of probabilities. By using statistics to calculate probabilities, the notion of random occurrence starts to dissolve while a distinct pattern slowly arises.
In the Birthday Buddies situation, finding someone who shares the same birthday as you is not some kind of cosmic intervention. The ‘coincidence’ can be calculated through the means of probabilities, as probabilities show that ‘small numbers can take on grand airs’ and be ‘more meaningful than they are’.
Another example would be the flipping of a coin. As there are two sides to a coin, there is a fifty percent chance of tossing a head (or a tail). Out of a hundred flips of the coin, there is a chance of getting a string of six or seven heads or tails in a row. As probability suggests, the likelihood of getting the same side of the coin decreases with each toss. Yet, people do get suspicious when the pattern repeats itself.
‘Most of us are not accustomed to a probabilistic mindset, and instead approach life with a personalized blend of sensations, convictions, desires, and intuitions. (p.53).
Even though probabilities do justify the occurrence of these coincidences, the notion of its randomness just makes people queasy. It is inevitable to control the human emotion, as everyone is subjected to different perceptions and emotions.
‘Yes, life is full of miracles, minor, major, middling C.’ (p.51)
All in all, the whole idea of statistics, numbers and probabilities just brings about a cold shiver down my spine. I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I majored in psychology, never expecting to calculate a probability sum or letting statistics haunt me again. But, I guess I was wrong. Statistics and probabilities do play a crucial part of our lives, and there is no escape from it. What do you think?
Angier, N (2007) Probabilities: For Whom the Bell Curves. In The Canon: A Whirligig of the Beautiful Basics of Science (pp.47-70). Scribe publications pty ltd, Australia.