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
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.