Sheeplock and Dachson we’re at the scene of a recent fire at a well-known pub. The building was lost due to a lightning strike but fortunately no one was there at the time. They were there to solve a dispute about rebuilding. The bar was owned by two brothers, one of which was very attached to the current site and another who wanted to build on a new site that would give them access to a bigger group of patrons. It turns out, the first owner, Shane, was amenable to moving but for one important fact – after the fire was out, they found a tap handle that was made by their father who originally built the bar. Shane saw that as proof that their father wanted them to rebuild there – the odds of that one item remaining after a fire were just too big to ignore. It had to be their father reaching out to them. Zane, his brother, didn’t believe it was a sign but couldn’t convince Shane otherwise.
Sheeplock consulted with Dachson for a moment to compose his reply to the brothers. “Shane, I can appreciate keeping a connection with your father, but alas I do not think he is speaking from beyond the grave to you. In events such as fires, it is quite common for odd things to escape destruction.” At this point, he looked to Dachson and asked “Just how common is it for random items to survive natural catastrophes?” Dachson responded “It is actually quite high. Rarely is a structure reduced completely to ash or rubble.” Sheeplock continued “So you see, I would have been surprised had nothing survived the fire. What you are seeing is just coincidence, plain and simple.” At that point Sheeplock ventured into what was left of the bar – the fire department having already made it safe to do so. He looked around, even poking his wooly head into the wreckage of a bathroom when he exclaimed “Baah! See here, some of the plumbing around this toilet is still intact. Look around, I’m sure you’ll find more items unharmed”. In fact, they did: a mug, a chair, one of those take apart metal bar toys, an ash tray and other bits.
Sheeplock continued “You have also assigned a cause to the survival of the tap after it happened. I must ask you then, what if the tap hadn’t remained intact, would you have had any such thoughts? If your father had left instructions to rebuild the bar here in the event of a fire if the tap handle escapes harm then THAT would be something interesting. I hope now you have the knowledge to remove your supernatural thinking and work with your brother to build a new bar. Since the tap did survive, you could use that as an opportunity to pay homage to your father by letting it have the first pour.”
The first problem Sheeplock pointed out relates to our problem understanding statistics and the odds of events – plus asking the wrong question. We often think coincidental occurrences have special significance because we think about them wrong. Instead of asking “what are the odds this tap handle would have survived the fire?” we should ask “what are the odds that anything in the bar would have survived the fire?” to get the information we need.
Let’s look at another example – you’re late getting to work and so rushed you forgot to tip the barista at your favorite coffee house. Then, on the highway you get pulled over for speeding and you know it’s the universe getting even with you for forgetting the tip. What are the odds you would forget the tip and get a speeding ticket? Once again, you should ask “what are the odds anyone would get pulled over on this highway?” If the odds are 1 in 100 and 1000 cars are on the road, then about 10 people are getting tickets – you just happened to be one. Maybe don’t drive so fast.
The other problem our duo pointed out was retroactively assigning a cause to an event and cherry picking things to support the argument. It wasn’t until after Shane saw the tap handle that he surmised his father’s spirit was at work. If the tap handle hadn’t survived maybe he would have thought his father caused the lightning to get them to move, or maybe he would have had no supernatural thought at all. In cherry picking, Shane ignored the evidence against supernatural influence, like the plumbing and ash tray, and focused on just the tap handle.
We’re a little too good at retroactively assigning causes where they didn’t exist, especially if it’s supernatural or religious. Usually it’s because we didn’t understand the odds. When the Challenger shuttle exploded during take-off some said it was God striking us down for trying to reach the stars. Oddly enough, the International Space Station hasn’t been smacked back to Earth yet. The Titanic had similar things said because it was viewed as an act of extreme hubris to build such a great ship that God had to sink it. All the smaller, non-hubris-laden ships were what, then, just practice?
Another classic example is when we think about something and it “magically” happens. You know your partner had a rough day and couldn’t make dinner so you picked up a pizza on the way home. When you come in, your partner exclaims “Oh my, I was thinking about pizza all day. We must be connected and you read my mind.” Well, no. That person likely thought of hundreds of other things that didn’t happen and only focused on the one that did. If you’d brought home Chinese they might have just said “Oooh, what a surprise!”. Plus, here in the US, pizza is such a common meal the odds of someone picking it for a last-minute item are really high.
So, coincidence, odds, retroactive causation, pizza, ghostly spirits – there was a lot to cover in this article. These errors in thinking affect all of us and they aren’t always easy to stop. Like so many other habits – practice make perfect. Whenever you hear “What are the odds?” think of how the question was asked. Was it correct or were you thinking of the odds of one occurrence and not the odds of any occurrence? Look for those times when you might assign a cause after the fact. If you can, find others to talk with and discuss your thoughts, with an eye towards improving. Now, Sheeplock has to run off and visit his sister who just had twin baby boys!