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We See the Pattern! — But Is It Real?

It’s natural to imagine that a deep significance underlies coincidences

Compared to other animals, humans are not particularly strong or powerful. We don’t have sharp teeth, claws, or beaks. We don’t have sledgehammer horns, tusks, or tails. We don’t have body armor. We are not great swimmers or sprinters. How did our distant ancestors not only survive but become masters of the planet?

One important way in which humans far surpass other animals is our pattern-recognition skills. These include

  • communication — written and spoken languages that convey detailed information
  • invention — the creation of tools and other means of accomplishing specific tasks
  • arts — the creation of aesthetically pleasing writing, drawing, music, and sculptures
  • imagining the future — specifying the possible consequences of actions
  • magic — a willing suspension of disbelief; entertaining impossible thoughts

You can take the human out of the Stone Age but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the human. Our distant ancestors developed an unrivaled pattern-recognition prowess that allowed the wimps to become the champs. Today, we are hard-wired to notice patterns, and this innate desire to find them continues to help us understand our world and make better decisions.

However, our infatuation with patterns is also the reason that we are so easily impressed by patterns unearthed by computer algorithms.

Unfortunately, patterns are not always a source of information. Sometimes they are an illusion, like the “image” of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. Sometimes they are harmful (like buying lottery tickets because of a memorable dream). Often, they are a meaningless coincidence.

Though its stores are now generally open 24 hours a day, the 7-Eleven convenience store chain was given that new name in 1946 to advertise the fact that the stores would begin to operate from 7 am to 11 pm. Their signature drink is the Slurpee, a mushy, icy combination of water, carbon dioxide, and flavored syrup, so-called because of the sound it makes when drunk through a straw.

Since 2002, 7-Elevens have been giving away free Slurpees on July 11 because the month and day are written as 7/11. On 7/11 day in 2019, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition headlined “Strange News.” CNN reported the strange news this way:

7-Eleven Day typically means free Slurpees for everyone, but this year’s celebration turned out more special than usual for one Missouri family.

Rachel Langford of St. Louis gave birth to a baby girl on July 11 — yes, 7/11.

That’s not all, baby J’Aime Brown was born at 7:11 pm, weighing seven pounds and 11 ounces. Leah Asmelash and Nadeem Muaddi,

This baby was born on 7-Eleven Day at 7:11 pm, weighing 7 pounds and 11 ounces” at CNN

An MSN affiliate said that  J’Aime was the “luckiest baby alive,” and “might as well be christened Lady Luck.”

Among the avalanche of comments on the story, we can pick out three main threads.

1. It was extremely unlikely.

Wow, talk about a crazy coincidence!

Does anyone know the spiritual meaning of this?

2. She should get something free from 7-Eleven:

A lifetime supplies of 7/11 foods and drinks.

She should get free slurpees for life!! 

3. Use the numbers 7 and 11 when buying lottery tickets:

They better play that number every day

Awesome… Let me run to 7-Eleven & play 711

My personal favorites are

Please don’t name her slurpee!

And why is this news?

Indeed. Why is this news? On average, almost 12,000 U.S. babies are born on July 11 every year, an average of 8 babies a minute. There is nothing remarkable about a baby being born on July 11 or during any specific minute.

Pick a minute, any minute, and it is likely that 8 babies were born during that minute. There are two 7:11 minutes every day, 7:11 am and 7:11 pm, so we expect sixteen 7:11 babies every day, including July 11.

The only reason that a 7/11 birth excites us is that we have been bred to be seduced by patterns, both real and coincidental.

J’Aime’s reported birth weight of 7 pounds, 11 ounces, makes the story a bit more unusual but that is not in itself an unusual birth weight. A skeptic might also wonder if the reported birth weight was rounded up or down a bit, in view of possible nationwide publicity, and maybe some freebies from 7-Eleven—a skepticism encouraged by the fact that the parents contacted news media about the story and planned to contact 7-Eleven, too.

Sure enough, 7-Eleven gave the family a gift basket and donated $7,111 to her college fund. Maybe they can track down all the other 7/11 babies and do the same. Maybe we can try harder to resist being seduced by entertaining but meaningless coincidences.


More on Gary Smith’s take on statistics and AI:

Why an AI pioneer thinks Watson is a “fraud” The famous Jeopardy contest in 2011 worked around the fact that Watson could not grasp the meaning of anything.

Can AI combat misleading medical research? No, because AI doesn’t address the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacies” that produce the bad data.

AI delusions: A statistics expert sets us straight. We learn why Watson’s programmers did not want certain Jeopardy questions asked.

and

The US 2016 election: Why Big Data failed. Economics professor Gary Smith sheds light on the surprise result.


Gary A. Smith

Gary N. Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His research on financial markets statistical reasoning, and artificial intelligence, often involves stock market anomalies, statistical fallacies, and the misuse of data have been widely cited. He is the author of The AI Delusion, (Oxford, 2018)  and co-author (with Jay Cordes) of The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford 2019).

We See the Pattern! — But Is It Real?