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Review - Beyond Coincidence - Martin Plimmer & Brian King


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There are three ways to write about fringe science, the intriguing possibilities at the edge of scientific knowledge that tends to infuriate the more po-faced scientists.

The first, typical of some tabloid newspapers, is pure acceptance. Someone says they saw something, so it happened. The second, beloved of many TV "documentaries" is pseudo-detachment, where you show some sign of realizing that there could be perfectly rational explanations of what is being covered - then plunge in and report the accounts without any attempt to test them or suggest alternative reasoning. Finally there's the true popular science sc/keptical approach. Ideally this still keeps an open mind - all too often, sadly, even otherwise very good scientists prejudge issues - but isn't swayed by hearsay and the all-too-faulty common sense.

This book, which could have been a solid type three, in fact adopts a broadly type two approach. Perhaps it's no coincidence (?!) that one of the authors is a fly-on-the-wall documentary maker. So what we get is a few chapters that mention the possibilities that coincidences are just that - and a shortish interview with mathematician Ian Stewart emphasising the contribution of probability - but at the same time, these introductory chapters are full of "but it still seems incredible" type of sentiments that totally undermine any rationality.

We then get about 200, taken at face value stories of coincidence. [My daughter would point out they even missed a coincidence in one story. One of the twins in a "separated at birth" story is called Tamara, just like one of the characters and actresses in the TV show "Sister, Sister" with an identical theme.] Now many of these stories are great fun (though they get a bit samey after a while) - and we all love telling about our own coincidences - but in the end the book doesn't succeed as popular science because it's all about second hand stories, not about accurate measurement and deduction. There's not enough analysis. It would have been much better to have had the top (say) 40 stories, and given a few people like Ian Stewart the chance to give them a context.

It's not a bad book - it is enjoyable light reading and coincidences are genuinely intriguing - but it could have been so much better.

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Reviewed by Peter Spitz              


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Last update 05 June 2007