We can’t stop look­ing for mean­ing in co­in­ci­dence

Last week’s com­puter crashes didn’t re­veal a hid­den hand, says as­tronomer David J. Helfand

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - David J. Helfand is pres­i­dent and vice chan­cel­lor of Quest Univer­sity Canada, a pro­fes­sor of as­tron­omy at Columbia Univer­sity and the au­thor of the forth­com­ing book “A Sur­vival Guide to the Mis­in­for­ma­tion Age.” david.helfand@questu.ca

Early Wed­nes­day morn­ing, a com­puter net­work prob­lem forced United Air­lines to ground all of its planes. A cou­ple of hours af­ter they started fly­ing again, the New York Stock Ex­change halted trad­ing for the same rea­son. It couldn’t have been a co­in­ci­dence!

Af­ter all, it was July 8, the day the Wall Street Jour­nal be­gan pub­li­ca­tion in 1889 — and the Jour­nal’s Web site crashed Wed­nes­day morn­ing, too, right af­ter the stock mar­ket shut down. As a quick look at Twit­ter or ca­ble news showed, it was all a bit too sus­pi­cious for a lot of peo­ple to swal­low, es­pe­cially with China’s stock mar­ket tank­ing. Surely all that mis­for­tune had to be con­nected. The tim­ing “ig­nited wide­spread spec­u­la­tion about hack­ing at­tacks and con­spir­acy the­o­ries about who might be re­spon­si­ble,” the Los An­ge­les Times in­toned. Even Congress was on the case. At a Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee hear­ing that had co­in­ci­den­tally been sched­uled for that af­ter­noon, Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski (D-Md.) told FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, “I don’t be­lieve in co­in­ci­dences.”

But it was a co­in­ci­dence. No con­spir­a­cies, as­tro­log­i­cal align­ments or aliens are re­quired to ex­plain it. So why were so many Amer­i­cans pow­er­less to re­sist look­ing for a hid­den cause? Be­cause dis­trust of co­in­ci­dence is hard-wired into the mind.

Our ho­minid brains have been evolv­ing for sev­eral mil­lion years, 99 per­cent of that time in re­sponse to the threats and op­por­tu­ni­ties en­coun­tered on the plains of East Africa. In that en­vi­ron­ment, the abil­ity to rec­og­nize pat­terns quickly was key to sur­vival: leop­ard spots in the Serengeti grass, bad; ze­bra stripes, good. A large amount of real es­tate in the mod­ern hu­man brain is still de­voted to rec­og­niz­ing pat­terns quickly and im­put­ing mean­ing to them. When you are jay­walk­ing and sud­denly rec­og­nize a taxi bear­ing down on you, this is help­ful. When you are try­ing to make sense of rapidly un­fold­ing de­vel­op­ments in an in­for­ma­tion-sat­u­rated world,

your pen­chant for pat­tern recog­ni­tion easily leads you astray.

An enor­mous num­ber of events hap­pen in the world each day. And in­stan­ta­neous global con­nec­tiv­ity means we hear about more of them than ever be­fore. The ex­panded op­por­tu­nity for find­ing pat­terns lit­er­ally bog­gles the mind. But bog­gled or not, those prim­i­tive cir­cuits go to work, and pat­terns — whether they’re para­nor­mal proofs, in­tu­itive cer­tain­ties or con­spir­acy the­o­ries — read­ily emerge.

For ex­am­ple, con­sider this: The last four com­puter out­ages at the New York Stock Ex­change oc­curred in months be­gin­ning with J (July 2015, July 2009, June 2005 and June 2001). Since only three months be­gin with J, the odds of some ran­dom event, such as a stock mar­ket com­puter glitch, hap­pen­ing in any one of them is 3 out of 12, or 1 in 4. To cal­cu­late the odds of sev­eral ap­par­ently in­de­pen­dent events all hap­pen­ing, mul­ti­ply the prob­a­bil­ity of each one to­gether. So the odds of the same event hap­pen­ing four times in a row in months that start with J are 1/x 1/

4 4 x 1/ x 1/4, or 1/ — less than 1 chance in 250.

4 256 And in fact, these out­ages all oc­curred within the 38-day pe­riod be­tween June 1 and July 8. The odds of that are about 1 in 10,000! Re­mark­able? Not re­ally. While those prob­a­bil­ity cal­cu­la­tions are cor­rect math­e­mat­i­cally, they are es­sen­tially worth­less, since they were car­ried out af­ter I ob­served what hap­pened. Such a pos­te­ri­ori assess­ments may be tit­il­lat­ing to our pat­tern ob­sessed brains, but they can nei­ther pre­dict nor ex­plain events. If I were a 45-year-old floor trader at the stock ex­change and no­ticed that the days and months of the com­puter fail­ures added up tomy age, or that on each of those days, I wore a red tie, or that the glitches all oc­curred on my rel­a­tives’ birthdays, I could be equally amazed — and equally in­ca­pable of pre­dict­ing when the next crash would oc­cur.

History is rife with such seem­ingly in­ex­pli­ca­ble co­in­ci­dences, which is what has helped fuel con­spir­acy the­o­rists for gen­er­a­tions. John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son both signed the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence on July 4, 1776, both served as pres­i­dent and both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th birth­day of the United States. The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the lives and deaths of Abra­ham Lin­coln and John F. Kennedy were a hot topic af­ter Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion: Both were elected in ’46 to the House and as pres­i­dent in ’ 60; both had vice pres­i­dents who were South­ern Democrats named John­son with six-let­ter first names; both were shot in the head while seated next to their wives; both shoot­ings oc­curred on a Fri­day; Lin­coln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, and Kennedy was shot while rid­ing in a Lin­coln, made by Ford. How im­prob­a­ble!

The point is, how­ever, that im­prob­a­ble things hap­pen all the time be­cause many, many things hap­pen all the time, and if one searches hard enough, co­in­ci­dences ap­pear as if by magic. Even though the odds of win­ning the Powerball lottery grand prize are greater than 175,000,000 to 1, peo­ple win regularly. You don’t win regularly, be­cause the odds against that are as­tro­nom­i­cally large. But when some­one wins — on their birth­day, or hav­ing bet the ages of their five nieces and neph­ews — they just know why it hap­pened. They, and we, can’t help but no­tice some mean­ing­less de­tail that ap­pears to con­nect one event to another. A pos­te­ri­ori rea­son­ing is won­der­ful, com­fort­ing and com­pletely ir­ra­tional.

On Wed­nes­day, the com­puter sys­tems of two ma­jor parts of Amer­i­can in­dus­try stum­bled. Thou­sands of other com­puter sys­tems could also have had glitches and didn’t. Maybe they will to­mor­row. When they do, we’ll seek mean­ing again. And again, we’ll find it — and it will mean noth­ing.

History is rife with seem­ingly in­ex­pli­ca­ble co­in­ci­dences. But im­prob­a­ble things hap­pen all the time, be­cause many, many things hap­pen all the time.

WASHINGTON POST IL­LUS­TRA­TION

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