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A coincidence is an event that occurred at the same time as another event, but one event did not cause the other event. Such as slamming the door right when an earthquake starts.
Did Event A really cause Event B to happen?: the question posed by every liability lawyer.
A story of coincidence: The head lifeguard at the beach became friends with the store manager across the main street. The lifeguard noticed that when sales of soft drinks were at their highest that near drownings were also at their highest. The lifeguard made a line graph of soft drinks sales and near drownings. The graph lines were almost exactly the same. Should one conclude that buying or drinking soft drinks causes more people to almost drown??
No...they are coincidental. Drinking soft drinks does NOT cause near drownings.
A third factor might exists that caused both Event A and Event B.
Third Factor: Heat (like summer weather) and/or free time (like holidays and vacations) are factors that could cause both events: drinking soft drinks and going to the beach.
People might find this story absurd, but at one time people thought ice cream caused polio because high consumption of ice cream during the summer correlated with high incidents of polio during the summer. Hence, people thought ice cream caused polio.
Returning to topic of coincidental: Sometimes, people reverse cause and effect. Perhaps going to the beach makes drinking soft drinks dangerous...after all, look at the number of near drownings. People draw all kinds of erroneous conclusions.
Opinions and stereotypes are based on what we think we experience (inductive reasoning). Those experiences can be coincidental or have unknown facts. For example, if I go to a particular town that only has red flowers. I might think that only red flowers can grow there. I would not know that the town decided to only grow red flowers and passed an ordinance to uproot any non-red flowers.
Another example...Farmer John had a sick daughter. He hung an herb in the window. The child got well. The child might have gotten well in the same amount of time, without the herb. Maybe the child stopped eating an allergic food. Maybe the mother gave the child medicine without tell the Famer father. etc. If other families used the herb as well with similar results, it would be a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) but it still contains room for doubt. All the families who had the same results could be drawing an incorrect conclusion. It could be as simple as a change in the weather. But these people would probably swear to their dying days that the herb is a cure. It's their conclusion, meaning it is an opinion. People misinterpret facts and draw wrong conclusions all the time.
From a statistical perspective, coincidences are inevitable and often less remarkable than they may appear intuitively. An example: the birthday problem. For a group of 23 people, the probability of two individuals sharing a birthday exceeds 50%.
Interpretation of coincidence
Some researchers (e.g. Charles Fort and Carl Jung) have compiled thousands of accounts of coincidences and other supposedly anomalous phenomena (synchronicity). The perception of coincidences often leads to occult or paranormal claims. It may also lead to the belief system of fatalism, that events will happen in the exact manner of a predetermined plan or formula. This lends a certain aura of inevitability to events.
In The Psychology of the Psychic, David Marks (psychologist) suggests that coincidences occur because of "odd matches" when two events A and B are perceived to contain a similarity of some kind. For example, dreaming of a plane crash (event A) would be matched by seeing a news report of a plane crash the next morning (event B).
- Carl Jung|Jung, Carl G.: Carl Jung publications|Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1973.
- Arthur Koestler: The Roots of Coincidence
- David Marks (psychologist)|David Marks: The Psychology of the Psychic (pages 227–246)
- Collection of Historical Coincidence, nephiliman.com
- Unlikely Events and Coincidence, Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience
- The Power of Coincidence, Jill Neimark, Psychology Today
- Why coincidences happen, (Understanding, Uncertainty)
- The mathematics of coincidental meetings
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