Friday, October 28, 2011

What are the Odds?

I recently ran across this article about identical twin sisters having babies on the same day in the same hospital.  It reminded me of an Oprah show a number of years ago about a young boy and young girl who were best friends in a Russian orphanage, were adopted separately and were reunited by accident in a restaurant in Michigan.  I may not have all the details right, but the details don’t matter.  The point is that the audience oohed and ahhed over the seeming miracle.  A story about such a coincidence always causes people to look for connections or causes and ask the question:  What are the odds?  Well, let’s do some critical thinking.

The question is not about the odds of these two particular youngsters meeting again or of these two women giving birth on the same day.  The question is about the odds of the producers of the Oprah Show going out and finding such an extraordinary situation or the odds of a newspaper reporting an unusual coincidence.  (There have also been stories of a mother and her daughter giving birth on the same day.)  Consider that there are over 300 million people in the US doing their daily activities, including being born or adopted, having traffic accidents, going on vacation, shopping, working, dying, attending schools and sporting events and movies and concerts and restaurants, climbing mountains, skydiving and a full range of other activities.  It is very likely that several unusual coincidences would arise somewhere over a period of time just by chance.  If part of your job is to look for heartwarming or freakish stories, as a news agency or a television show would be, they should be relatively easy to find.  Notice that we are not specifying that we find a story about twins giving birth on the same day.  The requirement is only to find unusual coincidences.  The odds of doing so are high.

I don’t want to be a party-pooper, rather a devil’s advocate.   As you may know a devil’s advocate in Roman Catholic law is an official appointed to present arguments against a proposed candidate for sainthood.  Even the Catholic Church sees the appropriateness and necessity for healthy skepticism and critical thinking when making important decisions.  Likewise it should be appropriate and necessary for us all to exercise caution, to think things through more carefully before ohhing and ahhing and assigning mysterious or supernatural causes to a surprising event.  It’s especially important when we are faced with the “snake-oil” vendors trying to sell us miracle products or services using amazing stories, fancy scientific-sounding arguments or faulty statistics.

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