Improbabilities

Insurance underwriters use statistical analysis to identify and calculate the risk of loss from policyholders, establish who receives a policy, determine the appropriate premium, and write policies that cover this risk.  They use data sources like accident rates by age to estimate the probabilities that a person or a population may be involved in an accident during the next year.  Underwriters deal with probabilities.  In life insurance underwriting, they may look at men age fifty-five and know from their data tables that in 2007, 15,224 men died in the US.  By knowing how many 55 year old men there are in the US, they can calculate the expected death rate per 1000 of those men.  In fact of 100,000 fifty five year old men, statistics suggest less than 1000 would die in 2007.

This same type of analysis can be used to look at many things – traffic accidents, for example, may occur at a road crossing or stop sign at a higher frequency than other places.  You purchase a Washington Auto Insurance policy to cover the remote – but predictable – event you will be the one involved in that accident.

There is no way for statistics to predict that you will be in the car that approaches the stop sign at the exact time that another driver fails to stop.  That event is a “coincidence” – an event that happens by accident but seem to have some connection according to Webster’s.  In this case, the coincidence is only that you and the other driver are on intersecting roads at the same time and have arrived at the same unfortunate place simultaneously.

Yet coincidences do occur and some are so far-fetched they make the probability that you and your next door neighbor will have a fender bender at a stop sign 10 miles from your house seem like a certainty.  Many of these improbabilities have been collected and not only make interesting reading but become part of our popular culture. The coincidences in the life and death of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are only one well known example. 

There is another well-known United States political coincidence that bears a closer look – the coincidences surrounding the fourth of July.  John Adams, second President of the United States died on July 4, 1826 – that was 50 years to the day after the birth of the country.  He is reported to have said just before he died “Thomas Jefferson survives.”  Communications being what they were in 1826, Mr. Adams was not aware, that the third President of the United States, Jefferson, had died just a few hours prior to his pronouncement and also on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence.

If that is not sufficiently coincidental, James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States died on July 4, 1831 – making it three of our first five Presidents who died on Independence Day.  All three gentlemen were “founding fathers,” though Monroe did not sign the Declaration of Independence. 

July 4th wasn’t over.  The Battle of Gettysburg was among the largest battles of the Civil War, and was a battle Abraham Lincoln credited as for testing whether our nation could endure.  That battle ended on July 4, 1863.  On the same day, Vicksburg surrendered after a long siege by U.S. Grant and his forces.  Grant subsequently became our eighteenth President.  After 1863, July 4th went quiet until Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was born in Vermont – July 4th, 1872.  How is that for a coincidence?

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