As most people know I live in Vancouver (well actually Richmond, which is right outside Vancouver) But anyway, Vancouver and the lower mainland enjoy a relatively moderate climate. We get a lot of rain, but in the summers it never gets too hot and in winter it never gets too cold. Although we do get anomalies where we get 3 feet of snow or like this year a massive heat wave that causes people to melt like that witch in the Wizard of Oz.
A couple years ago we had one such anomaly. Only it was in winter.
Actually it’s rather an interesting story. Our water supply was temporarily contaminated making it unsafe to drink. Fortunately we were expecting some rain and that would basically flush out the water system. So we got some rain. But then we got some snow. Lots of snow. Honestly I can’t remember the exact chain of events, whether it was a lot of snow and then a lot of rain or vice versa but for simplicities sake, we got a lot of both.
Now, almost directly across the street from my house is this big old field. (I think they grow pumpkins or something) What happened was this field flooded, then froze. Creating something I never thought I’d see…an outdoor skating rink.
Field sans snow and ice.
Now any of our readers from Ontario or Alberta or the Interior of BC or any place in Canada I suppose is like “big deal we get that all the time” Well we don’t! Although some people do skate on frozen ponds and lakes in the Vancouver area…they’re really not supposed to. The Vancouver park board has to okay it first and in order to do that the ice has to reach 13-15 cm thick, which hasn’t happened since 1993.
What makes my rink unique is that it was never a pond or lake. It was a giant field that flooded and froze. There was no chance of the ice breaking and anyone drowning in freezing cold water.
What proceeded to happen were first me and my friends starting skating on it. Then more people showed up, pretty soon it was in the local newspapers and then there were hundreds of people out there.
It was an amazing experience, something that I don’t think will happen again unless a lot of independent factors line up just right.
So what’s my point? Why am I telling you all this?
Well for one, it’s just a really nice story for winter.
However in all seriousness, it represents a very important lesson for skeptics. That lesson is coincidence.
A coincidence is an event or series of events that occur at the same time as if planned but are actually mere chance. To skeptics, this definition is very familiar. So often with paranormal claims or otherwise, a simple explanation involving a coincidence is all one needs to explain what appears to be something miraculous.
My experience with the frozen field was a coincidence: a series of random events that happened to coincide with each other to create a specific result. The important term there is random. If I had been so inclined I could have claimed it was a Christmas miracle. (FYI there already is a “miracle on ice”)
At times I’m very surprised by how many people stoutly refuse to believe in coincidences. Why is that? Human beings seem to have trouble understanding randomness. We like to assume that things happen for a reason. There’s probably some deep evolutionary psychological reason for that, but on basic levels it can easily be cured with a dose of critical thinking.
Paranormal claims are people confusing coincidence with cause and effect. Have you ever heard someone explaining why they think their house is haunted? Do they often tell you how they constantly have their keys misplaced only to find them later just when they need them? Or what about claims of psychic powers? Suppose someone has a dream about it raining and then it does rain? Or someone was thinking about a friend and they get a letter from that friend?
There’s a very good entry over at the Skeptic’s Dictionary about large numbers and coincidence and I recommend it to our readers.
But I’d like to talk a bit about how we humans perceive coincidence. I think it would be fair to say that most of us have a cause and effect mindset when we view the natural world. Sort of like a game of billiards. None of the balls will move unless they are struck by another ball. The white ball taps the 5-ball which taps the 6 ball which hits the 7 ball which knocks the 8 ball into the corner pocket. Aside from sinking the 8-ball prematurely, this is a demonstration of cause and effect. (With a prime mover too)
Not pictured: Prime Mover
In reality things are a little less ordered. Not to suggest that cause and effect is a flawed mentality but I think a good analogy for the natural world would be Texas Hold’em Poker.
In Texas Hold’em, you have two cards plus the three community cards and then two more cards called a turn and a river. You make the best five card hand possible. So at the beginning of the game you could have two aces (the best starting hand possible) but still lose the game if the community cards don’t go your way. Beyond how you bet, bluff or check, you are completely at the mercy of chance when it comes to the community cards. If your opponent makes a straight or flush, (which can only happen by chance) you will lose despite having the best starting hand possible.
In skepticism we often look to explain some phenomenon with the simplest and most reasonable way possible. Not because we’re boring but because we want a theory that explains the most with as little implications on the natural world. So if we were to explain that the reason the field froze was because of Snow Miser,
a supernatural being with control over snow and ice…we also have to explain how such a being came into existence and how he controls the snow and ice and that’s just so much more complicated. Plus we would also have to find a way to sync our explanation up with our current scientific data on climate and temperature.
Coincidence is one of those things that get ruled out far too easily. When we are confronted with a seemingly inexplicable phenomenon that seems as though some supernatural force planned it, we need to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that coincidences do happen.
Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver.
Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can.
Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.