How’s This for a Coincidence?

I was on an airplane yesterday, and when I landed I saw that there were about 4 million e-mails on my Treo. This meant, I figured, that Levitt had run some kind of quiz on the blog. And indeed he had — this one, asking what his wife and LeBron James had in common.

The airport I landed at was Cleveland (where James plays for the Cavaliers), and from there I traveled by car to give a lecture at the University of Akron. Akron used to be best known for rubber manufacture; these days, it is best known as the hometown of … LeBron James.

So how weird is that? I had never before been to Akron in my life. Now, on the very day I go there, the quiz question on our blog concerns a man whose name has never before been mentioned on our blog, but who comes from Akron.

This struck me as especially weird considering that Levitt blogged just the other day about the improbability of two events: Florida beating Ohio State in this year’s NCAA football and basketball championships, and the economists Emily Oster and Josh Levin growing up on the same block.

Anyone care to calculate the odds on the Akron connection?


djdawson315

Did Levitt know you were going to Akron? Maybe that caused him to Google Akron, which would lead him to LeBron, which would lead to a quiz regarding his new LeBron knowledge?

markb

It seems to me that, after the fact, the odds are 100%. It would have been much less had you asked the question before the first mention of Lebron James...

wk633

A better odds calculation would be- what are the odds that our brains will form some kind of connection out of unrelated events? Consider the number of 'things' that happen in our daily lives. What are the odds that we don't make what appears to be a coincidental connection between any two of them?

This is the kind of thing that leads to people concluding that the Bible predicted the moon landings because some pattern of words converted into numbers by some weird formula spells 'Apollo'.

Four

Agree with wk633. Also, there is a significant difference between this example and the two Levitt posted. Here one of the two variables that have to match to make a "weird coincidence" is "open" and can be just about anything. Here it came to be you giving a lecture. In the other cases both variables were closed (limited number of outcomes) as it was two economists and two sports teams matching.

egretman

Yes, yes, yes to commenters #2 and #3 and #4. The odss of winning the lottery is astronomical. The odds that the lottery will be won is very high, often better than 50%. Mr. Dubner did not win the lottery. His brain paid out the "lottery".

He could have landed in a city where Lebron James,

1.was married.
2.met his wife
3.got the most career points
4.got the least career points
5.won the championship
6.lost the championship
7.owns the largest Toyota dealership
8.his son was born, greatest moment of his life
9.his daughter was born, greatest moment of his life
10.Dubner got his autograph at the airport
11.Sacramento where his first NBA game was played
12.Athens, where he played in the Olympics
13.played the 2006 NBA All-star game
14.wore #32 his HS freshman year just like Dubner
15.Dubner was visiting a friend who has met Lebron in person.
16. etc.etc.etc

Mr. Dubner's brain which is very good at finding patterns like all brains basically just "paid out the lottery".

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sstrain

well to try to calculate it you could look at the number of different places you could lecture, then divide them by city and find the odds that way. So if there are 200 colleges big enough to host you, then the odds would be be 1/200 (assuming U of A is the only big school in town). You could also factor in how often you travel since you probably aren't in a different place every day.
But I also agree with the other posts that people piece together coincidences and ignore non-coincidences. I think I read somewhere that something with a 1 in a million chance happens to people about once a month. (Which would be if events occurred about every two seconds)

frankenduf

if Lebron James and Mrs. Levitt had dinner together in a mandarin (speaking) restaurant in Akron, and Mr. Dubner's plane landed in the parking lot, and he came in and gave a lecture, then I would believe...
anyone seen babel?- good flick about the richness and paucity of what it means to be "connected" to one another

chrisbryan

Funny, I only read egretman's first sentence, but I basically said the same thing, what are the odds? Oh well, here's my comment, which further describes the lottery scenario.

This is similar to lottery odds idea. People may think, oh wow that person won the lottery what are the odds of that. While it is true that an individual is very unlikely to win the lottery, the odds of SOMEONE winning (say a 1 million dollar jackpot) are very likely to occur. If the odds are one in 10 million and 10 million people enter the lottery, than it is almost guaranteed that someone will win the lottery. Thus, the odds of the city having something in common with Lebron is smaller, although maybe not insignificant, because there is still so many different cities. The question is once you account for the different possible scenarios, as described above, and then account for the whether there are any biases considering what city basketball players come from and what kinds of universities Dubner lectures at.

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kahomono

P(this sequence of events having happened) = 1.00

DigitalAutumn

These responses sound like a group of people tired of an irrational society, and I can understand that for sure. But despite the arguments above, I think it's still reasonable to be struck by a coincidence that occurs to you. The danger which we often encounter is giving such meaning to coincidence that you begin to believe that there is purpose or connection behind it. If Stephen had supposed there was some reason for the coincidence, that would be irrational yes, for the reasons described above. But noticing and commenting on something coincidental seems perfectly reasonable to me. Coincidences may not be as rare as people tend to think, but they can sometimes be striking and unusual in the particular way they take form.

GreatObserver

I can top that coincidence. A few years back on a Friday afternoon in San Francisco my phone rang, it was a woman's voice, but a wrong number. Being in a flirty mood, I chatted her up. It turns out she was in SF on business and from Denver. I was going to be in Denver the following week. She was securities attorney. I was at the time looking for a securities attorney. I asked her where she was staying. She was at hotel where I had already made plans to meet friends that evening in the hotel bar.

When at the bar, I saw a girl in the crowd that I just knew was her. I went up to her and said, "Hi Gretchen." It was her.

egretman

When at the bar, I saw a girl in the crowd that I just knew was her. I went up to her and said, “Hi Gretchen.” It was her.

Oh, my god, that was me! You promised never to tell our story!

egretman

Why didn't you ever call back? You really hurt my feelings. What a coincidence you and me on the Freakonomics blog, huh?

You probably noticed the egretMAN thing. Yeah, after meeting you I went ahead and had that sex change operation we discussed.

Call me!

CleverlyStated

As for the odds you are looking for, I am going to guess pretty low.

Also, in response to the question, "What is the most notable thing that my wife Jeannette and LeBron James have in common?"

I would like to add my late guess that the answer is:
The MOST NOTABLE thing that the two have in common is that they are each parents.

As a bonus, I would like to add that if Levitt's wife hears that this is not the correct answer, the thing that LaBron and Levitt will share is that 'neither are currently married'.

CS

zbicyclist

Michael Shermer, reviewing a book by Charpak and Broch, notes that a miracle is a "one in a million" event and "In the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen roughly once a month."

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&articleID=00094511-E068-10FA-89FB83414B7F0000&colID=13

Dubner doesn't claim this is a miracle. It seems like it's maybe a thousandth of a miracle, or 1/1000. It probably took him a minute to figure out the coincidence. There are 1440 minutes in a day, so the chances are 1440/1000 or 144%.

[Shermer quote accurate; rest is a joke.]

sjk

Since it already occurred, the odds today are 1.

Policy Watcher

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the six degrees of separation in postulating the probability. Of course, that would be ex post facto, or would it?

Curt Sampson

I have to say, the response to this post are restoring my faith in human nature.

Now, does anybody want to calculate the probability that, of all of the events in Mr. Dubner's life that happened between this post and his last one, he would have blogged on this particular event rather than another?

cjs@cynic.net

themaroon

What's even more odd is, I was at E.J and was hoping to ask you what Levitt's wife and LeBron have in common but the Q & A didn't last long enough.

And a polecat is a skunk.

yourlatesttrick

What are the odds of sharing your birthday with a randomly assigned customer service representative? I called T-mobile today regarding my account, and proceeded to verify my name, address and so on. As I was hanging up at the end of my conversation, the service rep, Selena, hesitated for a moment, and said that April is a special month for BOTH of us, and wanted to know if I had any special plan. I asked her why it was special for her, and she said that she and I had the same birth date! How'd you calculate the odds of that?