What are the Chances?

Scientific American has a nice piece by Michael Shermer on why our brains have difficulty grasping far reaching probabilities.   Every time you pick up the phone to call someone and they just happen to be trying to call you at the same time, you’ve witnessed a minor miracle — if by minor miracle we mean something occuring that is improbable – though quite statistically possible. If you have a dream that someone is going to die, and not long after, they do, then you might be tempted to conclude that you’ve witnessed something tragically incredible – but again, though improbable, this event is also statistically possible. From the article:

The average person has about five dreams a night, or 1,825 dreams a year. If we remember only a tenth of our dreams, then we recall 182.5 dreams a year. There are 300 million Americans, who thus produce 54.7 billion remembered dreams a year. Sociologists tell us that each of us knows about 150 people fairly well, thus producing a social-network grid of 45 billion personal relationship connections. With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans, it is inevitable that some of those 54.7 billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4 million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45 billion relationship connections. In fact, it would be a miracle if some death premonition dreams did not happen to come true!

How much easier it would be to blow holes through new age shibboleths if we could grasp the understanding that, statistically, every alleged act of clairvoyance, ESP, astrological prediction, etc can be explained without relying on supernatural reasoning. Imagine, if this triumph of the mundane came to be, how many fragile sensibilities would be shattered, how many books would not be sold, and charlatans would not be successful in hoodwinking mystified audiences.  But really, what are the chances of that?


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