ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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Paranormal researchers sometimes say that certain suggested 'natural causes' for the paranormal are so unlikely, they are less likely than the paranormal! While it's not a great argument in favour of the paranormal, it does suggest an overlooked cause of some spontaneous paranormal reports - pure coincidence! Many uniquely puzzling cases may have several different causes that happen to come together.

Coincidences behind the paranormal

Here are some common attributes of many paranormal reports:

  • They are rare. If they weren't, we would probably have explained them all years ago. Many people may only experience one or two apparently paranormal events in their lifetime. A few people may have many experiences while some have none at all.
  • They are one time events. In other words, one person experiences something weird once in one location. Many other people may go to the same place, deliberately looking, and not have the same experience. In effect, these experiences are almost irreproducible.

Of course, there are certain places where many people may experience strange phenomena at different times, such as hauntings. But we are, here, mostly considering one off reports, like sightings of UFOs, alien animals, etc.

These two important attributes of many anomalous reports are shared with coincidences. They, too, are rare and difficult to reproduce. Are the roots of such reports in xenonormal coincidences? Consider some examples.

UFO report as a coincidence

Someone sees a satellite crawl across the night sky, being unfamiliar with the sight, thinks it is a UFO. Various factors need to come together for this sighting to be reported as a UFO:

  • it must be a bright satellite - most are too faint to be seen without optical aids
  • someone has to look up at the night sky at the right time
  • satellites take just a few minutes to cross the sky, so the observer needs to look in the right direction
  • there must be no clouds or mist to obscure the view
  • there should not be too much streetlight to obscure the view
  • the observer must be unfamiliar with the way satellites appear in the sky

These are just some of the more important factors that must come together to generate such a UFO report. Change any of the factors above and the report won't happen. It is a coincidence involving many factors coming together by random chance.

A researcher, on investigating this report, has to decide what it represents and whether it is anomalous or xenonormal. It is likely that misperception and witness memory may affect the witness report, so that it may no longer obviously resemble a satellite. For instance, it might be reported as being brighter, larger or moving much faster than a satellite. However, if it is known that a bright satellite was visible at that exact time and position, and the observer is unfamiliar with how they look, it is still a likely explanation. In addition, if the observer is convinced that it is an alien spacecraft, this may affect their report.

Ghost as a coincidence

Now consider another example. Someone is walking along a dark road at twilight when they see a shadow, cast by someone's washing blowing in the wind, on a wall, that resembles a moving person. Startled by the 'person', they don't notice the washing, and report it as a ghost. What factors are involved here:

  • some washing hung up that resembled a human figure (a coat perhaps)
  • if the shadow fell in a different direction it would not resemble a person
  • the shadow hit a wall (as opposed to the ground) making the 'figure' look vertical
  • low lighting increases the likelihood of misperception (see corner of eye phenomena)
  • the observer believed in ghosts

Again, you could add lots of lesser factors in as well to come up with a fairly unlikely coincidence. On investigation, a researcher would be extremely lucky to find a similar shadow at the same location, given the number of factors involved. However, if the noticed the washing line, they could do a few experiments to try to reproduce the effect.

A real example: a witness noticed a woman in a red coat ahead of them along a street but moments later she had 'vanished', like a ghost! An apparently different woman was then seen along a side street - she was carrying a red coat! The witness had not noticed the woman take off her coat making her look completely different. By coincidence (!) the woman had removed her coat during the few moments when the witness was looking elsewhere.

Anomalous photos

Water sprite?Anomalous photos almost always seem to involve a coincidence. Millions of people, all over the world, between them take many millions of photos every day. It's inevitable, by sheer chance, that some of these photos will show something odd that the photographer didn't intend (like orbs) or didn't notice at the time of exposure (like insects). And, just occasionally, a photo will show something weird that the photographer did see and intend to shoot. All, however, could be fairly unlikely coincidences.

In the example here, right, there is a mysterious mist, apparently hovering over a river (a water sprite?), together with two tiny flying rods at the top. The golden area is the sun, shining through a gap in overhanging trees, illuminating the river bed. The 'mist' is actually the reflection of the sun from the top of the water, while the flying rods are caused by passing insects.

The factors involved in producing such a photo might include:

  • the sun happening to shine through a gap at just the right angle
  • someone taking a photo covering that area, also from just the right angle
  • the river being shallow and clear enough to produce reflections from both the bed and water surface
  • the exposure time being long enough to show insects as flying rods (they also have to be in focus)

And so on! In fact, this photo was taken deliberately to catch the mist effect, which was visible at the time of exposure, but it might easily have been missed if it hadn't been the intended subject. If you analyse almost any anomalous photo you will find that many such unlikely factors have to come together to produce the effect seen.

You could also do a similar analysis on other reports of spontaneous anomalous phenomena. Consider what might be involved to generate a xenonormal report of a Bigfoot, a Man in Black, falls from the sky (such as frogs), monsters, etc.

Telepathy as a coincidence

In many cases of apparent telepathy, it is said that the 'sender' had a high emotional need to contact the 'receiver'. How could this extraordinary fact possibly be explained by coincidence?

To see how, you need to consider the following. We all tend to worry about the welfare of our loved ones from time to time. It is human nature and usually completely unnecessary. In such cases, we generally quickly forget about such unjustified concerns. But every now and then someone will worry about a loved one at exactly the time that they are indeed in trouble, upset or in danger. This will happen somewhere, sometime, to someone by sheer chance, from time to time.

In this situation you have all the ingredients of apparent telepathy. The 'sender' is indeed in trouble or upset and so highly emotional and probably wants to contact the 'receiver'. By chance, the 'receiver' happens to be worrying about the 'sender' at the same time! There you have it - a pure coincidence where the 'sender' emotionally needs to contact the 'receiver' who is worrying about them at the time. The high emotion involved in the incident, not to mention the weirdness of it, makes it highly memorable. Unlike all those hundreds of times when they worried unnecessarily! If this happened once in a life time it might seem dramatic but, it might almost be inevitable statistically if the receiver got worried about someone tens of thousands of time over that period.

Such examples of apparent telepathy are less frequent these days than they used to be. That's because technology, like mobile phones, means we can contact each easily most of the time. It is possible to have a much more up to date idea of what people are really up to and therefore there is less need to worry about them.

Coincidences that cause the xenonormal

When analysing real life anomalous cases, many turn out to be xenonormal and a lot were full of coincidences, like those in the examples above. So, it turns out that the very unlikelihood of such coincidences, which might make the paranormal appear a more realistic option, is actually the cause of such cases.

The very important lesson to draw from this is that, when investigating, you should never reject a possible explanation just because it appears ridiculously unlikely. We are all used to the 'likely', it is the unlikely that commands our attention by its apparent weirdness. In many cases it is interpreted by the observer, often meeting something unfamiliar to them, as paranormal.

Common factors - witnesses

There are some other factors in common between many of these 'one off' cases, apart from their rarity and irreproducibility. These factors often include:

  • witnesses unfamiliarity with the phenomena being experienced (xenonormal)
  • 'noisy' perception (eg. often poor conditions for viewing, hearing, etc. promoting misperception)

It is unlikely that an astronomer would not recognise a satellite or a zoologist mistake an otter for the Loch Ness Monster. But others, without such specialist knowledge, might well report such xenonormal phenomena as paranormal.

Though many people will see one or two things they don't understand during their lifetime, some people repeatedly report odd phenomena. When people see several UFOs during their lifetime, ufologists call them 'repeaters'. People who repeatedly report ghosts and similar phenomena may be considered psychic by researchers. One possible factor involved in this is belief. People who believe in the paranormal are more likely to report anomalous phenomena.

Multiple experiences

Hauntings are the main example of recurring phenomena at a single location. Unlike one-off reports, hauntings are associated with multiple experiences, often by many witnesses. While such phenomena are unlikely to be explained by coincidence, some individual incidents recorded at a haunted site may be. Once a location is well known to be haunted, many people visiting it will be expecting to see weird things. This effectively lowers their 'experience threshold'. They may report, as strange experiences, coincidences they would normally write off as uninteresting. The same phenomenon may be responsible for UFO flaps. One well-publicised UFO sighting may encourage people living in the same area to report their own coincidental experiences as UFOs.

So coincidences may even play their part in recurrent phenomena, if only at the periphery. The idea of coincidences should certainly be examined in all one-off anomalous cases. None of this means that the paranormal does not exist but it does explain how some one-off xenonormal incidents get reported.

Cases with multiple causes

One of the unspoken assumptions made by anomaly researchers, whether they are looking at xenonormal or paranormal explanations, is to assume that each incident in a case has a single cause. Indeed, sometimes they assume that all, or many, incidents have the same cause (eg. 'the ghost', ' the magnetic field'). While it might seem 'neat' to assume a single cause, there is no logical reason why it should be so. On the contrary, as described above, the irreproducibility of many cases may be a tell-tale sign of multiple factors needing to come together.

If someone sees a UFO, and it is known that Venus was in the right part of the sky at the time, an investigator may assume Venus is the cause. But what if the observer was familiar with Venus? It then becomes an unlikely explanation. Maybe an additional factor, like thin high cloud giving the planet an unusual appearance, contributed to it looking unfamiliar.

Some ' natural explanations' can appear so simplistic that they seem less likely than a paranormal cause. This will often lead the witnesses to reject such an explanation even if it is, in essence, correct. There could be more factors involved.

If no single explanation seems to fit a case, you should always consider the possibility of multiple factors. Many cases, when analysed, turn out to rare coincidences. You should always try to keep the number of different contributing causes to a minimum but don't go with a single cause if it doesn't fit.

What are the odds?

Witnesses routinely overestimate the odds against an event happening by pure random chance. If you think of a friend and then they phone you 5 minutes later, it is tempting to think it must be telepathy or precognition. But what are the odds of such a thing happening by pure coincidence?

To find out you need to consider such things as how often your friend calls, how often you think of them and so on. But you also need to consider the probability that anyone, anywhere in the whole world will have such a coincidence occur to them in any given 5 minutes. Suddenly the odds against chance don't look so extraordinary. There is a good chance that such a thing is happening to someone, somewhere in any 5 minutes, even if the odds are millions to one against it happening by chance to one particular individual. Of course, if the coincidence keeps happening to the same individual, the odds against chance start to stack up again.

The odds of two events coinciding is called conditional probability and it is calculated using something called Bayesian logic. It is how you would work out the odds of getting that phone call just after thinking of someone. In the example above, Bayesian logic ensures that the overall probability of anyone getting such a call after thinking of their friend, not just one individual, is taken into account. It should therefore always be used in such cases.

Very often, it is difficult to work out what the odds against a particular coincidence happening by chance are. But by using Bayesian logic we can be pretty certain the odds are nothing like as high as might first seem apparent.

Factors affecting the odds

Suppose there is, on average, a 1 in 10000 chance of a particular event happening in any period of a single year. Predicting when it happens accurately would appear to be amazing. However, there are few truly random events in nature and, as a result, such an unlikely event may not be as unpredictable as it might appear at first sight.

Factors which may make it more predictable include:

  • precursive signs - events that typically occur before the rare event
  • circumstances - certain factors may come together that make the event more likely or even inevitable

In the second case, the odds of a rare event happening may shorten or lengthen due to measurable factors that affect it but do not produce precursive signs. If someone is aware of these factors and how they affect the event, it could make prediction easier.

So, when checking the odds of an unusual event occurring you need to consider that:

  • odds may vary over time
  • experts may be able to spot when an event becomes more or less likely

It is crucial to realise that the person who makes a prediction is as important in a premonition case as the event itself. They may have expert knowledge, that they are not even consciously aware of, including casual experience of similar events, that could make them better at recognizing precursive signs or important causal factors. It is the not the average odds of ANYONE predicting the event at ANY time that matters, but the particular odds of THAT specific person predicting THAT specific event and THAT specific time. There is a good chance that the these specific odds are not as high as the average ones.

When does a coincidence become paranormal?

Simply because a coincidence is extremely rare, it doesn't make it paranormal. Provided the event does not contradict any physical laws there is no need to invoke the paranormal to explain it. People tend to think of coincidences as paranormal if some sort of 'paranormal process' is associated with them. For instance, if you use dice to select a set of lottery numbers and win at your first attempt, it would be considered a lucky coincidence. But if you consulted a psychic to select the numbers, or dreamed of them, many people would think it was precognition. But such a once-off event, however bizarre, cannot be easily separated from blind chance. Only if someone repeatedly dreamed up winning lottery numbers could the paranormal be justifiably suspected.

People who favour the paranormal explanation for a reported incident often use the unlikelihood of its being a coincidence as an argument to support their case. So, for instance, if someone suggests that a plastic bag caught by the wind just happened to resemble a human figure floating down a road, many people would consider it so unlikely that they would think a ghost a more likely explanation for the report. But such an unlikely coincidence is not impossible, simply infrequent. If it was a common occurrence, people would quickly recognise it for what it was and never consider any paranormal explanation. Since one of the features of the paranormal reports is that they are infrequent, this hardly rules out rare coincidences as possible explanations for many reported incidents. Suppose a wind-blown floating plastic bag DID drift along a road, it is perfectly possible that one or two people, out of many observers who notice the incident, may think it was a ghost. The sheer unlikelihood of a coincidence does not, of itself, make it paranormal.

© Maurice Townsend 2009, 2011