How to Explain Weird Coincidences: Dr. Beitman Discusses
Coincidences video series part 3

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—For some people, God is clearly the force behind strange coincidences. He is the one arranging these seemingly improbable events. Others say, “The universe did it for me.” Some statisticians say, “It’s all explainable by probability.”

Many people have fixed beliefs about how the world works, and they approach coincidences with the intention of confirming those beliefs, said Bernard Beitman, M.D. As he establishes Coincidence Studies, he looks to all possible explanations. And he thinks there are multiple explanations; no single explanation can cover all coincidences.

In part 2 of this video series, he discussed a strange coincidence involving Oprah Winfrey. In 1982, before she was famous nationwide, she thought she would like to play the character Sophia from the book “The Color Purple” if a movie adaptation was ever made. Producer Quincey Jones happened to see her on local TV while in Chicago and decided she should play Sophia in the adaptation he was considering but hadn’t yet announced. Oprah got the part she hoped for coincidentally without seeking it.

What was behind this coincidence?

When these kinds of coincidences occur—which Beitman categorizes as serendipitous coincidencesneeds are sometimes met reciprocally.

It is “as if the meeting had been arranged by someone,” Beitman said.

As unlikely as that meeting is, some statisticians would say that in large populations low probability events will happen—no mystery here, it’s all explained by math. 

Beitman cautions against the strictly mathematical approach.

The common criticism statisticians raise against people who see meaning in coincidences is that they’ve overestimated how improbable the event is. Statisticians have said people are not intuitively good at understanding probability.

They use confusing problems to support this. They ask people, for example: “How many people do you have to have in a room to have a 50 percent chance that two people have the same birthday?”

“Huh?” said Beitman. “That’s hard. … We don’t think the way the birthday problem asks us to think.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t tell if an event is random or if there’s a pattern or design behind it.

Thomas L. Griffiths at the department of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University and Joshua B. Tenenbaum of the department of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted a study that suggested people are intuitively good at assessing whether an event is random or not.

The birthday problem asks people to assess the probability of a situation that involves precise mathematical values (50 percent, two people, the number of days in a year, et cetera).

With the help of a random event generator, Griffiths and Tenenbaum instead started with a single event and asked test subjects to assess whether it was random or not. The subjects had a relatively high rate of success using their intuition.

While some coincidences can be at least partially explained using probability, probability can’t explain all coincidences, according to Beitman. Some coincidences seem to “point to something else going on here,” Beitman said. “That’s when some people say ‘God’ [is behind it].”

Science has been built through recognizing patterns in events and seeing meaning in them. As a psychiatrist, Beitman sees the development of diagnostics through “coincidences” between individual case studies, for example. In material sciences, anomalies could initially be dismissed as coincidences, but upon further investigation lead to new discoveries. 

Some people would say Oprah’s coincidence involved a connection of minds, hers and Jones’s. 

Beitman sees a connection between his mind and his patients’. He gets in his patients’ minds and helps fix things in there with them. “I liken it to opening the hood to a car,” he said.

Does that connection happen in a way we don’t yet understand, and could it be possible for the minds of two individuals who have never met, such as Oprah and Jones, to connect when there’s a reciprocal need?

This is the third part in a series of videos with Dr. Beitman. Check here for all parts in the series: Coincidences Video Series

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