I have excerpted my latest JREF article below. It is about how an understanding of how randomness works can help us grasp coincidence and how it can do away with seemingly “miraculous” events like having a “predictive” dream.
If you are interested, you can find all my JREF articles here.
Many people have a legitimate fear of numbers, equations, and probability. This “math anxiety” keeps much of the lay public from ever willfully learning about mathematics; indeed, ignorance in this regard is often touted. Commonly used phrases like “I’m not a numbers person” and “I hate math” betray that fact that a good portion of society does not understand math and consciously avoids it.
Comprehending this deficit and doing something about it should be taken up within our school system; we should engage students with math early, often, and more rigorously.
But mathematical illiteracy plays a role in perpetuating not just equation ignorance, but pseudoscience. Not understanding just how much of your life is governed by randomness generates many a fallacious belief about the way that the world works. It should be clearly understood that randomness creates coincidence. That is to say, if there were no coincidences in life, we could speculate that some outside force is controlling the events in our lives. However, with true randomness comes the expectation that coincidences will happen: there will be cancer clusters, your friend will call you just when you were thinking about them, and last night’s dream will have somehow “predicted” the events of the following day. It is with the last example, predictive dreams, which I would like to press on with. With a short lesson in randomness and probability, we can see that so-called predictive dreams (and any other event “too amazing to be a coincidence”) are nothing more than random happenings. You don’t have ESP, it’s not fate, and it’s not magic.
“I Dreamt This Would Happen!”
The purpose of this example is to show that many pseudoscientific ideas about the way the universe works are driven by a misunderstanding of randomness and probability. While predictive dreams are harmless, I would suspect that this belief characterizes the kind of thinking that underlies pseudosciences like astrology, ESP, and parapsychology.
Let’s overcome our math anxiety with a dreaded word problem. Let’s stipulate that the chance of a dream to some extent matching the events of the following day is 1 in 10,000. This means that out of 10,000 dreams, the vast majority, 9,999, will not match any future events. Let’s also assume that having a non-matching dream one night will not affect the dream of the next night, so each night is independent from one another. So given these stipulations, the odds of having a dream that does not match any real life event is 9,999/10,000. When people speak about predictive dreams, it is not as though they have them every night. If this were happening, we might consider it to be more than coincidence. However, anyone who has experienced this phenomenon (myself included) will probably tell you that they do not hit a homerun every night. It is this fact, that an amazingly serendipitous event only happens once in a while, that alludes to chance as the rational explanation.