Fluke: The Maths And Myths Of Coincidences by Joseph Mazur (book review).

What odds would you give for so many books about mathematical odds coming out in such a short period of time? ‘Fluke: The Maths And Myths Of Coincidences’ as the title suggests is more about coincidence than your luck at the casino. Mind you, from my perspective, I see such clumping on a regular basis. Although occasionally, some publishers hear the plans of other publishers to do books on particular subjects, it can take anything up to eighteen months for completion, especially on some subjects. By rearranging their printing schedules, it is also entirely possible to have them out in short order as well. That’s my example of coincidence isn’t always what it seems. They might not as well, but these coincidences happen all the time.


Joseph Mazur in his book, ‘Fluke: The Maths And Myths Of Coincidences’ looks at the odds of rare coincidences happening and hammers off ten that have regularly happened. When he backs this up with the maths in a later chapter, its less that they won’t happen and more a matter of when, even for very long odds. When he compares this to hands of poker, the odds aren’t as high as you might think. Still pretty high but not impossible.

What he can’t explain is how we can spot them ourselves. You know the ones. A recurring number combination making a connection or why certain elements of luck or bad luck tend to happen to the same people all the time. I bet you all have stories of where its either happened to you or friends. For my own part, I haven’t been outside of a six mile walking distance in the past decade and only go in town shopping once a week, yet even thinking of people I know but haven’t seen in years, even those purely by face and not to talk to, cross my path the second week. Did I miss them the previous weeks? Not that likely, at least from those I’ve been able to ask but I’m still not if I’m precogging or making it happen. I’d love to see Mazur calculate that, especially in a limited couple hour span. Reading how he determines this for others is quite an eye-opener and if you have a bent for statistics, then you should be able to work out how to calculate how your coincidence is outside of synchronicity.

Mazur points out that chance events happen all the time and that we tend to have a habit of tuning into them. When you combine them on a general scale where, say, picking up a book that belongs to someone you know, then it happens a lot more than you would think. Many years ago, when I was in a Bristol second-hand bookshop, I picked up a copy of a book that belonged to another SF fan I knew at work in Somerset. Odder still, he’d never even passed the book that way. Mazur describes how books can passed along to various bookshops by various readers by various means and it’s not hard to see them travel or even be picked up like that. The odds go down, if you visit a lot of bookshops and especially on a particular subject. I’m pretty sure you’ll read this book and work out that some coincidences are bound to happen. It would be more of a surprise if they didn’t.

Don’t be put off by the statistics calculations or graphs shown. If you gamble at all, then you must have a sub-conscious knowledge of betting odds, so it’s akin to that really. Being able to look at the contributing factors differently might also give you better insight and especially, as one example shows, being careful with roulette wheels that develop a bias. Mazur points out that it is possible for the same number to come up many times in a row and equally that it is still possible for another number to come up as well. I’m not going to name banks here but if yours has changed their password number to avoid duplicate or more repetitions of one number, let alone consecutive numbers, then they have actually reduced NOT increased the odds of someone with a bit of computer software to find your number. Of course, the reason some banks have changed for this option is because too many people were doing multiple same numbers already but just because they do, doesn’t mean it reduces the odds. It’s the same with passwords. Just because you’re told to include combinations of upper and lower case letters doesn’t mean you’ll do entirely what they say. See, I’m applying Mazur’s logic already. If anything, it shows people don’t really understand, let apply statistical logic, mostly for practical reasons.

Something I knew vaguely but never been put into words is the oddity of American justice where some apprehended, although innocent of a particular crime, will go for a plea-bargain than risk a heftier and often life-threatening sentence if a jury finds them guilty, even when they’re innocent. When you bear in mind the USA is third, after Russia and Rwanda, for the number of incarcerated citizens, you do have to wonder how evidence is determined to make you guilty rather than prove innocence. Not that the UK is entirely guiltless in that but we tip in the other direction and remedy errors.

Mazur looks at ESP and points out predicting card symbols has better odds than a bunch of chimpanzees typing a line of Shakespeare. In other words, the odds would work without precog. I’ve commented in the past that I never thing card forecasting doesn’t reflect real life and I hope different kinds of tests are applied than this one.

What comes out of ‘Fluke’ is that the odds against might be high but not impossible and you need to be aware of not only them but the contributing factors that reduce the odds. Whether or not there is a pure fluke or the expectation that it will happen eventually and that you might be the lucky recipient depends on the odds. Joseph Mazur’s book will make you think about this. I do wonder if knowing some of the ingredients to up the odds in your favour would increase your ‘luck’ but, then, I wouldn’t bet on it.

GF Willmetts

June 2016

(pub: One World. 273 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78074-899-3)

check out website: www.oneworld-publications.com

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