“Answers with Joe” is a YouTube series that I occasionally run across. As a science lover, I enjoy them. Yesterday, though, I saw Joe Smith trying to explain some amazing coincidences. He appealed to the same thing that Richard Dawkins does: when there are seven billion people on the planet, some billion-to-one coincidences are going to happen.
Joe’s effort to explain this, though, tanks on the very numbers he appeals to.
Joe gives 10 amazing coincidences, then explains the math on just one of them. Before he does this, he relates a common example: a person dreaming about a loved one, and then the loved one dies the next day. Because dreaming about loved ones is common, and because it is not rare that people die, it is almost inevitable that this occurs regularly. That’s a legitimate argument that an atheist can make, sure.
The problem is that although Joe then gives 10 amazing coincidences, he only does the math on only one of them. The story he does math on is the story of an American lady who was visiting France and saw a book in a bookstore that she had loved as a child. She decided to buy it, and when she took it home, it had a note in it. It turns out the book was the very one she had read as a child. Because of the circumstances involved, Joe computes the chances of this happening as 3,331 to 1.
I am sure that Joe would admit that calculation is not very accurate, but I agree with his point. It is very unlikely, but not impossible, that an American’s childhood book would make it across the sea to France, where she would find it in an English-language bookstore. There are only so many of those in France. Also, to help the odds, her childhood book was part of an estate that was sold, and so the book could have gone anywhere at that time.
On the other hand, one he did not explain was the story of Laura Buxton. Laura was a little girl who let a helium balloon loose with a note on it, a “letter in a bottle” kind of thing. She was living in Staffordshire, England, and the balloon traveled 140 miles to land in the yard of another 10-year-old girl, also named Laura Buxton. They met, arrived in similar clothes, and found out that they both had the same pets: a grey rabbit, a black labrador, and a guinea pig. This happened in 2001 when the population of England was 49.5 million.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, there are 6,822 Buxtons in England. So the odds of the balloon reaching a Buxton was 1 in 7,256. Laura is not in the top 100 British girl names, so let’s say 1 in 500 girls in the UK are named Laura and multiply that 7,256 by 500 to get 3,628,000.
Now we have to calculate the odds that both girls were ten years old. Snopes and other sources point out that one child was 9, though they were only a few months apart in age, so let’s say the average age a UK woman lives is 70. The odds, then, that our two Laura Baxtons would be 9 or 10 is 1 in 35. Our odds are now 1 in 126,980,000.
Let’s ignore the fact that they were the same height, wore the same hair style, and each showed up wearing jeans and a pink jumper sporting their pet guinea pigs with similar markings. Let’s just add in the odds of both having a grey rabbit, black ladrador, and similar guinea pigs as their three pets! I am going to argue that is no less than a 1 in 100,000 chance, which assumes there are 495 people with that exact combination of pets. That is very generous. Adding five zeroes to our odds, we are now at 1 in 12,698,000,000,000. So with generous numbers and ignoring a few factors, we are at 1 in 12 trillion, over 1,000 times the population of the world.
I do have to point out that the true story is that a neighbor of the second Laura Baxter found the balloon, thought it was his neighbor’s, and he gave it too her. If we include Laura Baxter’s neighbors, the numbers are smaller, but not 1,000 times smaller. And remember, I left some things out.
No, Joe and Richard, we cannot explain away everything that happens by crunching numbers.
To make this post more worthwhile, let me summarize the story I saw on Youtube right after Joe’s failed mathematical defense of his disbelief. You may enjoy watching the video, though.
A man who had been raised by his mom only (possibly a stepfather) longed to know his dad. He knew only his dad’s name, Larry Lambert. Once he got married, his wife saw that he was obsessed with finding his dad. She told him he should start looking, but he had no idea how, so they prayed. That Sunday, a lady named Mary was late to church because she could not find her Bible. She grabbed her old one, the one with her maiden name on it. You guessed it, that week, she decided to sit in a different seat than she normally did, and it happened to be right in front of the man. Her maiden name was Mary Lambert, and her dad’s name was Larry Lambert. Better yet, he had the “Lambert nose,” and his dad was thrilled to find him.
Go ahead and run the numbers. Keep running them over and over and over as odd coincidences and answers to prayer pile up. I prefer to just enjoy the life of Jesus and the answers to prayer that come on an ongoing basis.
One last note. I had a discussion about this very topic on an evolution vs. creation forum a long time ago, 15 years or so. I started giving them stories. The comments slowly changed from “that was chance” to “spontaneous remission happens all the time” to “I think you’re lying.”
The “all coincidences can be explained by probability” argument just does not work, Mr. Scott and Mr. Dawkins.