Why there are hardly any real coincidences

In recent months, social networks and the media are increasingly giving us unpleasant news on the same topic.

It seems that in 2016, not a few days go by without another message about the death of a star of the first magnitude or about the shooting with a large number of civilian casualties.

For example, in July, there was an unusually frequent increase in attacks on civilians in European cities, the last of which was on 26 July.

And yet, these seeming coincidences, or "black bars", only reflect how we relate to news and store it in memory.

"Skeptics say that if you take a large enough sample, then some kind of coincidence will inevitably show up, " says Bernard Bateman, visiting professor at the University of Virginia and author of Connecting with Coincidence.

"If you flip a coin 1000 times, it can come up heads seven or eight times in a row. However, the probability of intentionally throwing heads eight times in a row is negligible. In the first case, the sample is quite large, and therefore it is not surprising that something unusual can happen."

"Events of a certain kind can become more frequent by accident. For example, dozens of plane crashes occur a year, and when four or five of them fall within one week, this is an accident and does not mean that the week was especially dangerous for world airlines."

"A skeptical statistician would say that anything could happen in a large enough population, and would call such a coincidence completely coincidental."

However, there is one problem with the use of the word "random".

"In statistics, random events are called events that are not related to each other, " he adds. "But in reality, it is almost impossible to prove that there is no connection between events, especially with such widespread media coverage. Randomness on the scale of the universe is difficult to justify."

Consider, for example, discoveries that were undoubtedly made at the same time.

The attorneys of Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray filed applications for the invention of the telephone with different patent offices on the same day - February 14, 1876. Both devices and the prototypes tested had many similarities and several significant differences.

However, this is not such a startling coincidence.

In their work, they used the results of both their own experiments and the research of many other scientists who were interested in a new unexplored industry - telephony.

Inventions did not emerge out of thin air on the same day. These were the fruits of painstaking labor, and each of the inventors strove to get ahead of their competitors and be the first to patent a working design.

Therefore, it is not surprising that both scientists working on the instrument for transmitting and receiving sound signals submitted their applications on the same day.

And even the apparently increased number of celebrity deaths this year can be attributed to similar reasons.

According to BBC obituaries editor Nick Serpell, in the last three months of 2016 compared to last year, we have had a phenomenal number of reports of famous people passing away. David Bowie, Prince and many others are gone.

From January 1 to March 31, 2016, 24 obituary were published, while, say, in the same period in 2012, only five.

Serpell believes there may be several reasons for this: first, 50 years ago there was a significant increase in population, and therefore more people are dying now.

"Those who became famous in the 1960s are now in their 70s and are starting to die, " he told the BBC.

"In addition, there are many more celebrities now than before. Thanks to modern technology, many public figures have entered our homes. And my father and grandfather only knew movie stars, because there was no television."

A similar explanation can be found for a strange coincidence from the history of comics. In 1951, two new comic book series were published in the United Kingdom and the United States. Both talked about a little boy, his dog and their antics. And there, and there the boy's name was Dennis the Menace (Dennis the Menace).

Until that moment, the comic book authors had not seen each other's work, but the stories were so similar that in both countries the foreign version had to be renamed to avoid confusion.

The likelihood that two comics with the same title and a similar plot could be released five days apart on both sides of the Atlantic is extremely small, but Bateman is confident that this coincidence has a lot to say about the spirit of the time.

"Ideas are in the air, " he adds. "Even if the authors of those comics are really not connected in any way, they probably took advantage of ideas that were popular in society."

"The same thing happens with the news - we begin to pay attention to events that at first glance are not related to each other, because we are aware of the latest trends."

This effect is amplified by news editors who see the popularity of a particular topic, be it the demise of a celebrity or an animal attack on a person.

They know what people are talking about and want to play on it by covering more or less similar events.

Bateman also notes that we are more likely to remember catchy coincidences. It seems to us that bad news comes in three - but in reality, the probability of paired events is much higher.

We just remember exactly the sequence of three events, since this is more unusual.

This reflects how selective our memory is - we are more likely to remember extraordinary events.

So if you feel like dark headlines are falling on you like an avalanche, it may say more about your character than about the situation in the world.