Sunday, May 13, 2007

Not-so-amazing coincidences

Perennially popular before the Internet, and downright inescapable since the Internet, are lists of "amazing coincidences," such as this one recently posted at Seldom are any objective sources provided, other than Ripley's and the like, but sometimes a quick Google is enough to render the supposed amazing coincidence not so amazing at all, and maybe not even coincidental. For example:
Months after the Titanic sank, a tramp steamer was traveling through the foggy Atlantic with only a young boy on watch. It came into his head that it had been thereabouts that the Titanic had sunk, and he was suddenly terrified by the thought of the name of his ship -- the Titanian. Panic-stricken, he sounded the warning. The ship stopped, just in time: a huge iceberg loomed out of the fog directly in their path. The Titanian was saved.
The Encyclopedia Titanica, however, points out that ex-sailor William Reeve's account of his "amazing" premonition, written 32 years after the fact, flatly contradicts newspaper accounts at the time that put the Titanian's brush with the berg quite a ways from the spot where the Titanic went down. It was "thereabouts" only in the sense of "also in the North Atlantic." (Incidentally, the Titanian incident was not "months after the Titanic sank," but in 1935, which was 23 years after the disaster.) Given the frequency with which ships encountered bergs in the North Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries, is Titanian's encounter a generation later so remarkable? Here's another:
In Detroit sometime in the 1930s, a young (if incredibly careless) mother must have been eternally grateful to a man named Joseph Figlock. As Figlock was walking down the street, the mother's baby fell from a high window onto Figlock. The baby's fall was broken and both man and baby were unharmed. A stroke of luck on its own, but a year later, the very same baby fell from the very same window onto poor, unsuspecting Joseph Figlock as he was again passing beneath. And again, they both survived the event.
This one seems to be partially true, as Time magazine actually mentioned the incidents in a roundup column in its Oct. 17, 1938 issue, saying the second fall occurred "last fortnight." But according to Time, the falls involved two different children, two different windows, two different buildings, two different streets -- which renders the story much more plausible, if considerably less amazing. I wonder how many small children did fall from high-rise windows, in the days before day care and air conditioning. (It occasionally happens still.) Moreover, Time reports that Mr. Figlock worked as a street sweeper, and that both incidents occurred while he was on the job. Someone whose job requires him to be in the street all the time is clearly at greater risk of being hit by anything that falls from windows; one wonders what else landed on Mr. Figlock during his career, other than these two celebrated kids.

In a useful essay on coincidence, Dennis McFadden of the University of Texas (and of the Austin Society To Oppose Pseudoscience) writes: "Generally, people tend to underestimate grossly the probability of any event that happens to them, especially one perceived as 'strange.'"

Yes, Mr. Figlock's twofer is remarkable even without the embroidery, and yes, it's fun to learn that the victim of cannibalism in the celebrated 1884 case of the ill-fated yacht the Mignonette had the same name as the victim of cannibalism in similar circumstances in Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Chapter 12), published 46 years earlier -- but one still must point out that Richard Parker is a fairly common name in the English-speaking world, and that cannibalism among desperate seamen long predated Poe.

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