Skepticism

AI: Coincidences

Someone once said no coincidences would be proof that god exists. A few days ago I was  on a train, and was just about to take my book from my bag. The book I was reading was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, the Essential Penguin edition. As I did so, I noticed the guy opposite me was reading the same book, same edition, and was roughly 3/4 of the way through like me. I didn’t get my book out, because he’d have noticed and I didn’t want to talk to anyone at that particular moment, or even exchange any “huh! We are synchronised!” looks.

A very minor coincidence, especially compared to some of the corkers I’ve heard about (and I’ve had a few myself). I once bumped into a friend in a bakery in a part of the city I was only in for the day. He usually lives 200 miles away and was also there just for the day. We passed through the bakery for no longer than five minutes, but it was enough to coincide. The best part? He was at the exact moment I tapped him on the shoulder, telling his colleague about me. He turned, saw me, and said to his colleague, “er, and this is her”.

Situations like that always make me think of the number of near-misses that we simply never find out about.

What are your epic, important, silly or amazing coincidence experiences?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Tracy King

Tracy King

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35 Comments

  1. January 15, 2010 at 3:05 pm —

    I randomly chose 6 lotto numbers and 4 of them ramdomly fell out of the machine exactly the same!!! Its a miracle, god does exist (sarcasm), and I’ve got $694 to prove it !!!

  2. January 15, 2010 at 3:11 pm —

    Hi there!

    I did have one of those: “Meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in years randomly at a distant location” moments, but in my case, he lived about 10 miles from the place, and I lived 45 miles, and it was the only place in NJ to get anime back in the day. So not as much of a coincidence as yours.

    A cooler one is that my in-laws’ first names (Joan and Eugene) are both the same as my parents’ middle names. :)

    Also: it always bugs me when those paranormal shows question simultaneous events with: “Coincidence??”. Of COURSE it’s a coincidence. The events are “Co-Incident”! Whether it’s paranormal or not, it’s STILL a coincidence. :P

  3. January 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm —

    My best friend from college has an uncommon but not extremely weird name. During our senior year, I went on a job interview a few states away, and one of the people working there had the exact same name except for one letter left off the end, and that’s the place I am working at now. I told my friend when I got back, but she wasn’t impressed. Unfortunately, this coworker is nothing like my friend (who is now several states away) and I’ll never be friends with her outside of work.

  4. January 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm —

    @catgirl: This reminds me…

    My first name is Marilee. It is not a common name, especially among women around my age (I’m 28), and there are several variations of the name (like my aunt Merrilee). I’ve only met one other Marilee, and she was quite a bit older than me, and I’ve only met a few other women with my name (spelled differently), and they too were all quite a bit older than me.

    One random Friday night, I was at “my” dive bar, which I’ve been going to since I was 20 (lol). This really good looking dude about my age was there that night. He’d been there a few other times, but we’d never really had a chance to talk.

    He and his friends happened to set down next to where me and my friends were sitting. We all started up a conversation.

    Turns out, he was there with his friends nursing a broken heart.

    Apparently he had broken up with his girlfriend that day.

    Her name was Marilee. Spelled exactly like me. It was rare enough to find someone (especially my age!) with my name, but rarer still to find someone with the exact same spelling.

    We were both very, very creeped out, and I got the feeling it was kind of uspetting to him, so I avoided him as much as I could.

    Poor guy.

  5. January 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm —

    @catgirl:

    What I meant was, my friend and coworker have the same first and last names except for one letter. I’m not sure if I made that clear.

  6. January 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm —

    Also, everyone in Phoenix knows each other. It gets really freaky sometimes how connected everyone is. My friend R. knows everyone. One day I saw him on the facebook of one of my girl friends. I asked how she knew him. Apparently she met R. through her boyfriend.

    Her Boyfriend is from Chicago, not Phoenix. They’d met at some random-assed rave many years ago, in Chicago. (My girl friend was living in Chicago at the time, but she’s from Phoenix.)

    This boy gets around, and he is connected to nearly every.single.one of my friends. It’s freaky.

    Phoenix is weird, though. It’s a large city — the 5th largest — but it feels very much like a small town sometimes.

  7. January 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm —

    I used to regularly run into friends, acquaintances, and other random people I know wherever I went. For example, I’m from Cincinnati, and when I went to the Grand Canyon, I ran into an old camp counselor from a camp I went to in Michigan. Then, same trip, I ran into some students and faculty from my grade-school.

    That kind of thing happened a few times, but the other incidents were closer to home. And although the whole time I lived in South Korea I was expecting it to happen, it seems to have tapered off.

    Now I only run into people in semi-predicatable places, events that have common interest, that sort of thing.

  8. January 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm —

    My family and I were traveling through Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s. We stopped at the point on the island that is the farthest east you can go and a van pulled up next to us and the family has a license plate that is from the same county as us in Florida. My father, being a postal delivery man, asked them their last name. They responded, and being really good at his job he was able to tell them their exact street address and they lived just a few blocks from us.

    My wife has, on several occasions, ran into people she knows in airports when traveling around the world.

  9. January 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm —

    Oh, I just thought of this one. When I was in 8th grade, I had a huge crush on a boy named Marty. He moved to Belgium that summer and I assumed I’d never see him again. Then, during my freshman year at college, I saw a guy that looked just like him ! There were two other students in the whole university that came from my school, and one day one of them mentioned to me that Marty from 8th grade was also there, and that I guy I had seen really was him. Plus, he lived in the same dorm as me, and his room was exactly one floor above mine.

  10. January 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm —

    My wife and I met while working together in a bookstore. On our first morning shift together (having met only 20 minutes or so before) we went to have a cigarette before the store opened. When we got outside, we both pulled out the same brand and type of cigarette (a brand, somewhat hard to find in the burbs). We laughed for a moment and then she looked at me and said “Wait, do you buy yours at the Cumberland Farms on 527? I said that I did and she started laughing. She went on to explain that she once asked someone behind the counter at the store if anyone else ever bought this particular brand, (because they are more expensive and rare for the burbs). The counterperson told her “Not really, just you and some guy who used to live in New York and moved down here”.
    Turns out I was ‘the guy’.
    We started making out on the spot.
    Not really.

  11. January 15, 2010 at 4:05 pm —

    I got a spooky one: One evening, conversation with friends, pizza, beer… nothing out of the ordinary. We were all bsing about what we’d do if we had a gazillion (or pick a number more than what you made) dollars. Someone trotted out the tried and true “I wanna really fast car that gets shitty gas mileage.” and someone else said something along the lines of “I’d like to travel all over the world, so a car wouldn’t really work” and then the conversation went to how you can take your car with you no matter where you go if you have enough money… Then I uttered this phrase: “I wonder how much it would take to get a Beamer to Europe.”

    That phrase, the conversation and all of it’s irrelevance would have been dumped from my mind like yesterday’s cat litter, except the next day I get a letter in the mail addressed to “William Grant” (my name) from a shipping company thanking me for choosing them to ship my BMW to France and they hoped that I would keep them in mind the next time.

    Have you ever had one of those times in your life where you look for the cameras?

    Turns out (of course) that there was this OTHER William Grant that was so much cooler than me. For a few months I was getting some of his mail, mostly junk mail. There wasn’t much I could do about it seeing as how my address was on the envelopes and I never got any other contact info, but I was able to find out that in a life so secret even I didn’t know about it, I owned a Beamer, took vacations to France, owned quite a bit of IBM stock and was looking for a house in California.

    From time to time I’ve wondered: “What am I doing now?”

  12. January 15, 2010 at 4:08 pm —

    Tuesday night. My daughter needed some art supplies for school so we went to Hobby Lobby. As I’m wandering around trying to find a specific type of pencil a woman with her teenaged children is walking down the aisle talking with her kids. She looks up at me and says “And there’s Gabriel now.” Turns out she was my cousin who I haven’t seen in a decade or more. She had just been telling her son that he must have gotten his height from the Brawley side of the family because he was tall like her cousin Gabriel. Her oldest son is named Steven and he is 16. My oldest son is named Steven and is 17. I thought it was nice.

  13. January 15, 2010 at 4:11 pm —

    @swordsbane: That would make a great hard boiled short story.

  14. January 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm —

    @swordsbane:

    That is pretty awesome. Did you ever find a way to contact your alter-ego? Do you think he has gotten any of your junk mail?

  15. January 15, 2010 at 4:18 pm —

    @catgirl: No. I tried contacting the people sending me the mail, but since I had no way of proving I was this other guy, they wouldn’t give me any info, and the one’s sending the junk mail were just reading from a list anyway.

    I figure one of the legit companies I called up decided to follow up and contacted the guy themselves, and that’s why I stopped getting the mail after a while.

    Another strange coincidence: For a while now, I’ve also been seeing women that look exactly like my ex-wife, every time I go over to her place to visit.

    I’m telling you it’s errie…. :)

  16. January 15, 2010 at 4:19 pm —

    I actually can’t think of any. Therefor, God.

  17. January 15, 2010 at 4:31 pm —

    Aw crap, now I have one and have to share. So much for god!

    There’s a minor one and a major one. The minor one was that three of the four musicians in the 200 person army basic training company were in the same 3 bunk corner of the room. The major one comes from staying in contact with one of those guys. I’m from the middle of nowhere in eastern Oregon, he’s from St. Louis, and one day he asks me about someone I went to high school with. Turns out he and my then only gay friend from highschool had somehow gotten together and in talking about friends, had found out they both knew me. Gotta love the internet.

  18. January 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm —

    @Gabrielbrawley: If it was one of those, the last part would go like this: I’d get a visit from an assassing looking to wack the guy. I’d narrowly escape being killed, only to be accosted by the police who are convinced I’m this rich guy with underworld connections playing the poor man to avoid both the police and the mob. I’d escape from them after finding out some of them are corrupt. Then I’d run into this other man’s very sexy daughter who’s been desperately searching for her father and she is unknowingly carrying something the mob really wants… I would take pity on her and vow to help her find her father and sort this whole mess out, but we can’t go to the police because we don’t know who to trust. She would be so grateful that I agreed to help that we would have phenomenal “danger sex” and we’d go on to find out her father was really killed three years ago by a clown in a bizarre balloon accident, but he left a clue to the thing she’s carrying which will be hidden in one of her earrings which will unlock the secret to his wealth. She inherits everything, including the proof to bring down the mob, expose the corrupt cops, and we go on to become dictators of the world just so we can foster cats……

    This awesome story of course will be made into a movie where I will be played by Brad Pitt and I’ll make a ton of money from the story rights, plus making a little on the side by publishing it as an autobiography, which will… by coincidence of course have information in it that the mob doesn’t want in it, so they will place a contract on me and…

    …well, you get the idea…

  19. January 15, 2010 at 4:43 pm —

    @swordsbane: Pretty close to what I had in mind.

  20. January 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm —

    I can’t decide who would play the love interest. Right now it’s a tie between Megan Fox and David Tennant…..

  21. January 15, 2010 at 5:24 pm —

    I regularly walk through the city center and don’t meet anyone I know. How’s that for coincidence?

  22. January 15, 2010 at 5:42 pm —

    well, that’s one of my favorite books… and hardly anyone reads it and I have the penguin paperback edition I bought in London.

  23. January 15, 2010 at 7:12 pm —

    I was once having lunch with my father in a random road side cafe. As we were ordering I heard someone over my shoulder say,”Hey isn’t that Don Mclean” I turned to see who knew me, turns out the singer Don Mclean was at the next table. oh yeah my dads name is also Don Mclean.

  24. January 15, 2010 at 10:22 pm —

    Shortly after I was transferred to a very small office in a very small desert community about a hundred miles east of Los Angeles, a man who was with someone visiting someone else down the hall, stuck his head in the door of my office and noticed a map of a development in Scottsdale, AZ (which was another hundred miles east of us). He mentioned that he was from Sweden and had just bought a winter home in Scottsdale. I mentioned that I only knew one other Swedish person, a man who was a manager for SAS at the Los Angeles International Airport.

    His reply was, “You know Gunner?”

    I was one hundred miles from home. He was half a world from home. We had a connection to a city 100 miles farther away and we had a mutual friend.

  25. January 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm —

    A few days ago I was on a train reading my book, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, the Essential Penguin edition. I noticed this woman sitting on the other side of the train. I saw her reach into her bag and partially pull out a copy of the same book I was reading, same edition as well !!! She also had a bookmark in approximately 3/4 of the way through like me. For some reason she decided to not pull the book out and went back to more mundane things.

    I’m glad she didn’t notice that I was reading the same book as her and start talking to me; she looked like one of those chicks who would say this was fate and that god brought us together if we had started talking.

  26. January 15, 2010 at 11:08 pm —

    In my efforts to impress a young woman, I explained (lied) that I was somewhat clairvoyant. She called my bluff and agreed that if I could guess her phone number, she would take ME out on a date.

    I made a big show of preparing myself and held her hand to get a feel for her “energy”. I started slowly, writing it down as I spoke:

    “Six…eight”

    This was the easy part – at the time, all of the phone numbers in the sprawling metropolis of Muskogee,OK began with either 682, 683, 684 or 687 (this was before we had to dial the area code for local calls). This meant I had a one in four chance to get the prefix right, but the odds to guessing the entire number were 1 in 40000. I went slow, I didn’t want to strike out just yet – she was cute.

    “two”

    She was completely unimpressed. Hope this works.

    “three”

    Or something like it. I don’t remember the actual number, but when I finished, she got quiet and asked how I had done it. When I kept the act up, she just said “call me later” and left.

    Of course I was skeptical. What if she had just pulled a fast one on me and only pretended that I had guessed her number?

    Later, I wasn’t sure who was more surprised: her, when I had written the number down or me when she answered the phone later that night.

    Ok, sure, there could have been a bit of a “Clever Hans” (or “Philandering Joe”) effect, but I got the number right.

    True story.

  27. January 15, 2010 at 11:55 pm —

    My former husband and I went to dinner at the home of a friend/co-worker. During dinner we were exchanging travel stories, and when my husband mentioned a cross country bike trip with a stop in upstate New York 17 years previous, friend’s wife said she grew up in that tiny lakeside town.

    Turns out she was also one of the three girls who let him and his friends set up their tent in her yard and fed them a spaghetti dinner.

    No god.

  28. January 16, 2010 at 1:42 am —

    Not exactly epic, but I had an interesting one at work tonight. I was looking up a patient (who turned out not to be in the database) with the same birthday (different year) as my sister. Instead, I found a patient with the same name s the one I was looking up whose birthday was the same as my mother’s (again, different year).

  29. January 16, 2010 at 6:35 am —

    Decidedly pedestrian compared to some, but:
    – Once called my buddy just as he was about to call me. He picked up the phone, and before he could dial, there I was. Impossible now that cell-phones are taking over.
    – Met our old neighbours in a Swedish amusement park. (I live close to Oslo.)
    – Stayed in a camp ground cabin in Finland where a class mate had signed the guest book.
    – Commented to my American friends on the Norwegian flags in a New York City Radio Shack, just as a Norwegian ex-pat and her friend visiting from Norway was passing by walking in the other direction.

    Haven’t married a single one of these people. I feel cheated.

  30. January 16, 2010 at 8:22 am —

    I was returning from lunch and taking the lift up to my floor at work. I looked in the mirror and inexplicably thought to myself, “Is that a new overcoat?” I had had that coat for at least three years and had been wearing it all winter.

    Moments later, I walk to my desk, beside the colleague I sat next to and saw every day. She looks at me and asks, “Is that a new overcoat?”

    Feeling slightly freaked out, I responded rather coldly, “No, I’ve had it for three years and have been wearing it every single day all winter.”

    So far, any flashes I may have had have been focused on the rather banal.

  31. January 16, 2010 at 9:15 am —

    Both Chip Denham (official statistician for the JREF) and Jeffrey Rosenthal (“Struck by Lightning”) have said that due to the laws of large numbers, over the course of one’s lifetime one or two (or a few) of these sorts of events are pretty much inevitable. Especially when you’re flexible about what’s considered “this sort of an event.”

  32. January 16, 2010 at 10:30 am —

    I just remembered another one. I had a friend visiting me from North Carolina. She called to make sure she had the directions right. She had stopped for gas a few miles outside of Madison and would be there shortly. She asked about another friend of mine who we both knew, thinking it would be cool for the three of us to get together and catch up, talk about old times, etc. But it had been over a year since she and I had talked and I had lost track of this other friend because he had been dodging his ex-girlfriend after she became my fiance (long story) She had since become my ex-fiance, but by then I had no idea where he was.

    An hour later, both of them show up at my door. Apparently, she had hung up the phone in the gas station, turned around and he was standing there, waiting to use the phone. At a gas station… what are the odds?

  33. January 16, 2010 at 11:47 am —

    The biggest one I can think of happened back in high school. A little backstory: I started dating a guy named Matt my sophomore year of high school – I was 16, he was 15, and we had sex. His parents found out and his mom flipped – we weren’t allowed to talk on the phone and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere together. She didn’t insist we break up, but we could only see each other at school. It was horrid because we really did love each other. (We ended up dating for nearly 5 years.)

    Anyway, during this time of no contact, my parents took the family to Disney World for Christmas. It was my first time there, and I was fairly excited because I never really got to go anywhere. Last I heard, my boyfriend’s plans were to stay in North Carolina and spend the holiday with family.

    On Christmas day, my family was leaving the Magic Kingdom to get lunch and nap. The ferry pulled up and let people off, but they couldn’t take anyone on because they were having some kind of problem. We were told to wait for the next ferry, so we did. I’m sitting there talking to my sister, when all of a sudden she stops and says, “Um, is that Matt??” The second ferry had pulled up and there was my boyfriend! I was shocked, and so were his parents. Apparently after school let out, his parents informed him that they had changed their minds and were going to visit grandparents near Orlando. He didn’t even know he was going to Disney World until Christmas morning, when they opened their presents.

    It was very odd to be in such a big place, on such a busy day (there were so many people there because of the millennium celebration and Christmas) and run into the one person I wanted to see more than anything. We ended up begging his mom to let me tag along for a while. She didn’t want me to, but I think realized that we weren’t going to run off and have sex in Cinderella’s castle. She kept her eye on us and I felt very uncomfortable the whole time. I can’t remember if she actually TOLD me to leave after an hour or so, or if I just got tired of feeling like a whore.

  34. January 16, 2010 at 1:11 pm —

    @DisGRUNTled: OK, COTW.

  35. January 16, 2010 at 6:19 pm —

    Some really great stories in there!

    I’ve been working on my logical fallacy knowledge, so let me try it out here. Am I correct that is basically the Lottery Fallacy? Crazy things happen all the time because of so many interacting variables creating what seem like unlikely events. In fact, while the odds of a SPECIFIC event are low, the odds of SOMETHING weird happening are very high.

    I also think there’s some post-hoc revisionism that goes on as well- we all love a good story, especially about an unlikely event. As time goes by, the details get slightly tweaked to make it seem ever more amazing. Not maliciously mind you, it’s just how we are, I think.

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