Thanks to Timothy Sandefur, I’ve just found out that there’s a name for one of the things that I find a continuous irritation in life: the bogus use of probability to demonstrate that a particular occurrence is so unlikely to happen by chance that it must therefore be extremely significant.
A classic example is the fact that there were 911 days between September 11th and the recent bombings in Spain. How significant is that? It seems significant on the surface, but when you take into account the large number of other possible miracle scenarios, it’s not significant at all. The attacks occurred on the 912th day. If they had occurred on 910th or 911th, people would still have made the same connection. That by itself triples the chances of such a coincidence.
But what if the Madrid bombing had been a significant number of days since the invasion of Afghanistan, since the Bali massacre, since the invasion of Iraq, since the capture of Saddam, etc., etc? People would have still found an “amazing” coincidence there, but the chances of such a coincidence occurring are not remote at all when you take into account all of the possible dates that somebody somewhere in the Middle East would deem significant. What if it happened on Bin Laden’s birthday, or Independence Day, or one of the Jewish holy days, etc., etc?
Apparently, there is an axiom called Littlewood’s Law of Miracles that explains such seemingly unlikely coincidences. At first, I wondered if it had anything to do with this Littlewoods, (an ancient and beloved British institution) but that was yet another coincidence.