By Joseph Mazur, Basic Books, March 29, 2016, 0465060951
The law of large numbers is something difficult to grasp. Joseph Mazur’s insightful book will help you understand why coincidences are a common occurrence. Mazur says we should think more about flukes than coincidences, because coincidences imply causality (surprise) and flukes don’t. Flukes just happen, because we live in a world of large numbers of people who are tightly clustered in space and time.
We love hearing the story about how we ran into a friend whom we knew in Palo Alto years earlier in an elevator at Zurich airport. It just so happens we have lots of friends, and our friends have lots of friends, and we’re likely to hear a story like this. Mazur presents us with some really compelling coincidences that imply causality but are really just random events that are bound to happen in somebody’s life.
The rest of the book is about probabilities: their history and how thei work. While I’m not a math person, I understood them quite well. I think most people would given some patience.
Fluke is a fun and interesting book that challenges us to not jump to conclusions. We’re story makers and lovers. Our brain wants explanations. Unfortunately, coincidences are just flukes that make us feel good, because our minds also love surprises.
I happened to find something yesterday that I had been looking for since we finished our renovation about seven months ago. It was a fluke that I happened to look in the back of a closet (something fell behind a shelf), but it was a nice surprise to find what I was missing and had been wondering about for months. The dopamine rush was great, but that’s all it was: a neurochemical surge. It’s cheaper and safer than cocaine but just as addicting. I enjoyed the surprise with the knowledge that I didn’t need to make up a story about why I found it. The fact that I’m writing about this particular book that I finished about seven months ago when I originally lost the things (some spices, if you must know) is also just another happy coincidence, and nothing more. Sitting with that emotion for me is very pleasant.
I hope you enjoy your next coincidence as well!
[k122] Coincidences make magnificent stories.
[k1794] Hidden variables are ubiquitous in statistical data correlation. Without spotting those variables we are bound to mistakenly believe all sorts of nonsense such as to get good college grades one should start smoking because “cigarette smokers make higher college grades than nonsmokers.”
[k1879] The job of statistics is not to find causes, but rather to find suspects.
[k1896] COINCIDENCES ARE DISTINGUISHED stories that arouse our attention to probability.
[k2598] These were the scientific discoveries of unusual people, who by some unaccountable luck met timely flukes and coincidences and wisely recognized them as clues to the answers of big questions. They show us that unplanned happenings can be as useful to discovery as purposeful hypotheses.
[k3186] we tend to suspend belief in reason so as to enter a world that is not our own, an illusory world where we are the ghostly observers of events that tell us something about ourselves as humans. Like most fictional accounts, the stories here, with their embedded flukes and coincidences, show us who we really are as archetypes in the big picture.
“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel Laughter in the Dark, “and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish–but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
[k3462] Rather, those laws are statistically narrative, giving credence to the idea that improbable things are bound to happen more frequently than we would expect. For instance, the collection contains what Hand calls the law of inevitability, which tells us “if you make a complete list of all possible outcomes, then one of them must occur.”