Today’s Illustration: What Are The Chances?

Who: Persi Diaconis & Frederick Mosteller — Two math professors

  • Persi Diaconis was an American-Greek mathematician at Stanford and former professional magician – Wikipedia
  • Frederick Mosteller was one of the most eminent statisticians of the 20th century. He was the founding chairman of Harvard’s statistics department – Wikipedia

What: An empirical study and report about “coincidences.”

  • Reported in the Journal of the American Statistical Association — “Methods for Studying Coincidences”
  • “A coincidence is a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.”
  • “Statistical probability” is typically the standard by which we call something a “coincidence.”  i.e. — “What are the chances that a person would be born and die on the same day.” [1]
    “What are the chances that someone would will the New Jersey state lottery twice.” [2]
  • “The more we work in this area, the more we feel that Kammerer and Jung are right. We are swimming in an ocean of coincidences.” [3]

Four Possible Explanations For A Supposed Coincidence:  The article indicates that there are four typical explanations for what we call a coincidence.

Human Psychology:  We see or remember what is relevant to us.  For instance, after one buys a particular car, they begin seeing more and more of them on the road.  We see it as a coincidence, but it was actually previously neglected.  There is a “heightened perception” that is at play.

Accepting “Close:” We count something strange even when it is “close.”  It really is not that strange and not that unusual.  We are willing to accept what is “close” as unusual or a strange coincidence. “We often find ‘near’ coincidences surprising.”

Statistical Numbers: The larger the number of people involved in the “coincidence,” the more likely that things will appear together. It may be rare when the number of people is two or ten, but when the number of people is thousands or millions, things are more likely to happen.

“Succinctly put, the law of truly large numbers states: With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.”

“Suppose that a group of people meet and get to know each other. Various types of coincidences can occur. These include same birthday; same job; attended same school (in same years); born or grew up in same country, state, or city; same first (last) name; spouses’ (or parents’) first names the same; and same hobby. What is the chance of a coincidence of some sort?”


And finally, the rest are thrown into the category of . . . .

Hidden Cause: There is a cause for such an occurrence, it is just not known.  The cause is hidden from sight and from knowing at the present time.


Key Illustrative Thoughts:

  • providence
  • prophecy
  • the Messiah
  • miracles
  • “It just so happened”
  • “luck”
  • The story of Ruth / Esther / Joseph
  • God’s will
  • salvation
  • God’s plan & program
  • mysteries


Sermonic Example:

(use whatever information from above you find useful)

. . . . The writers of this article identify four possible causes for what we call a “coincidence” — very unlikely occurrence of something happening that we cannot identify as being caused to come to pass. . . . .  The fourth explanation implies that there is a cause, it is not a coincidence, but the cause is not known.  That is a convenient way to dismiss all other explanations.

We have a fifth explanation . . . . The Lord’s providential working in the lives of people and specifically in the twists and turns of His people.  As we look at the story of Ruth, the Scriptures say it this way . . . .

“Then she left, and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers. And she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.”

Yes, there are examples of coincidences where something supernatural is actually taking place!  The story of Ruth is one of many examples! . . . . .


2. “a front-page story in the New York Times on a “1 in 17 trillion” long shot, speaking of a woman who won the New Jersey lottery twice. The 1 in 17 trillion number is the correct answer to a not-very-relevant question. If you buy one ticket for exactly two New Jersey state lotteries, this is the chance both would be winners.


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