Archive for October, 2007

Troubling thoughts about superstition


This post is inspired by thoughts from two actual researchers into the psychology of belief: Stuart Vyse, author of the engaging book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, and Bruce Hood, who gave a talk at this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival. I think everyone should learn something about the psychology of belief, as an inoculant against falling for common pitfalls in thinking. But that’s a topic for another post.

I recently had a disquieting train of thought about the difference between superstitious and rational beliefs.

At their root, superstitions are simply over-eager assignments of cause and effect.

A famous baseball player (says Vyse) once had a great game after eating chicken. Thereafter, he always ate chicken before a game, in case not eating chicken caused him to have a bad game. This behaviour survived (one infers) countless games where he ate chicken but didn’t win.

Then there’s the pigeon experiments. Put a pigeon in a room, and it’ll do its pigeon thing. Then start to introduce rewards (food pellets, for example) at random intervals, not affected by the pigeon’s behaviour. They will begin to obsessively repeat a single behaviour (say, turning left) that they happened to be doing when the first pellet appeared. Apparently, they think that doing that causes the reward to appear, even though pellets don’t appear all the time they exhibit the behaviour.

It seems that superstitious behaviour – generalizing cause and effect from a single accidental coincidence – is a natural consequence of the mental makeup of widely-different vertebrate species. And at its root is the slightly over-productive instinct that, if A is followed by B, then A caused B. It’s a useful heuristic in evolutionary terms, but it’s also a classic post-hoc logical fallacy.

On the other hand, in science, we try to distinguish real patterns from coincidences in a reliable way. We run trials. A team of scientists suspects that eating chicken causes winning, so they set out to test it. They run an experiment. In one part, athletes eat chicken before the game 500 times. In the other part, athletes eat something else before the game 500 times. The team can then see whether meals with chicken are, in fact, followed by wins (compared with how often chicken-free meals are followed by wins).

But science is a lot of work, and everyday life is filled with situations where we need to decide causation. We can’t always get rigorous evidence about whether chicken is reliably followed by winning.

So at what point does the not-quite-scientific belief turn into a superstitious belief? The pigeon or the athlete infers causation on the basis of a single event: that is superstitious. The researcher infers causation on the basis of a thousand-subject scientific trial: that is not being superstitious. Where exactly is the crossover between science and superstition?

The troubling fact is, of course, that there is no crossover. There is no point at which superstition suddenly becomes science.

I probably have several beliefs about causation which are much closer to superstition than they are to science on the continuum. From beliefs about people (first impressions – this person is shallow, that person is reliable) to ideas about how to get a computer to perform a rare task (like getting the headphones to work on my Linux machine at school).

This is disquieting indeed, since science and scientific thinking form a central part of my ethical outlook on life. Am I actually just as guilty as my superstitious ancestors of basing my beliefs on bad evidence?

Not completely. There is some reassurance to be had. It has to do with certainty, and I get to quote a Scottish philosopher at the end.

Facts that have been studied and established with scientific experiments deserve a high degree of certainty. (Never absolute certainty – that is reserved for instincts and delusions.) Facts that come from extensive experience but haven’t been rigorously tested scientifically deserve confidence, but less than scientifically-tested facts. And so on, down to say, me clicking a box in the control panel of my computer and finding that my headphones work again. It’s only happened once, and I’m not prepared to undo it to see if it works again, but I will maintain the belief that, should the problem present itself again, the same solution will work again. This is a very tentative belief – it would take very little evidence to persuade me that it is false.

Is it still a belief then, if it’s so tenuous? Of course it is. It will guide my actions should my headphones stop working again.

So here is the conclusion to this troubling line of thought: No matter who you are, you almost certainly hold some beliefs that are superstitious, in that they are based on the same sort of evidence as the athlete’s chicken=winning belief. This is unavoidable – not just biologically but practically in our busy lives.

But it’s not a bad thing, so long as you (in Hume’s words) “proportion [your] belief to the evidence.”

Those people who suggest that you cannot live entirely on sound, empirical scientific beliefs are right. It would just be too much work.

Those who suggest that you have to commit yourself wholeheartedly to unsupported claims are wrong. There is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know. It doesn’t preclude acting decisively, and it is a good inoculant against unjustified dogmatism and fundamentalism.

[edit 2007 November 1]
Just a day after writing the above, I got to the section in Richard Dawkins’ book, Unweaving the Rainbow, where he discusses just this. He also reminded me of the source of the pigeon experiments – they were performed by the great psychologist B. F. Skinner. The boxes in which the pigeons underwent these experiments are called Skinner boxes.


Identity and forgetfulness


A bit of philosophical dissonance to ponder …

The observation is one of the most replicable in the literature: Whether tested in 1893 or 1999 (West & Bauer, 1999), among adults in Western cultures, the average age of earliest memory is age 3 to 3½ years. (from the APA Online)

Four- and three-year-olds can readily recall events from their second year. Yet, by the age of ten these earliest memories have receded behind what’s been dubbed the “reminiscence bump.” (from some recent Canadian research)

Add to this the sense that, without my memories, I would cease to be really me, and I find myself in a philosophical predicament. My daughter, Kaia, is unlikely to consciously remember anything that happens in the next two years. By the time she’s ten, she’ll probably have the adult “reminiscence bump” – no conscious memories before three years old.

What does this mean for her identity? Will ten-year-old Kaia be a literally different person from the Kaia I see today? Or am I wrong that my memories are key to my identity?

Perhaps – probably – there is a sensible compromise that will make sense of both the inescapable certainty that the baby is the same person as the teenager and adult, and of the intuition that our memories are a key to our identity.

But I haven’t worked it out yet. For now, let me know what you think. How do you resolve this conundrum?

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme


Here’s an interesting experiment from the mind of Pharyngula, exploring the idea of memes. But more importantly, it’s a fun little game. Here it is …


There is a set of questions below, all of the form , “The best [subgenre] in [genre] is…”.

Copy the questions. Before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

> You can leave them exactly as is.

> You can delete any one question.

> You can mutate either the genre, medium or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best timetravel novel in SF/ Fantasy is…” to “The best timetravel novel in Westerns is…” , or ”the best timetravel movie in SF/Fantasy is…, or ”The best Romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”

> You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] in [genre] is…”.

> You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions.

Please do include a link back to the ‘parent’ blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers.

Remember though: your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate, and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.

My great-grandparent is The Flying Trilobite.

My grandparent is Leslie’s Blog.

Papa is The Meming of Life.




Pharyngula says:

  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers.
  • The best romantic movie in historical fiction is…Cold Mountain.
  • The best sexy song in rock is…Gloria, by Patti Smith.


The Flying Trilobite says:

  • The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopias is: Gattaca (1997)
  • The best sexy song in rock is: #1 Crush by Garbage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet soundtrack
  • The best cult novel in Canadian fiction is: JPod by Douglas Coupland (2006)


Leslie’s Blog mutated it to:

  • The best timetravel television in SF/Fantasy is: Heroes
  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

THE MEMING OF LIFE’s mutation:

  • The best romantic movie in scientific dystopia is: THX 1138
  • The best sexy song in traditional is: “Chan Chan” by the Buena Vista Social Club
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

And the Friendly Humanist’s contribution:

  • The best romantic novel in scientific dystopia is: The Dispossesed
  • The best sexy attire in traditional is: the codpiece
  • The best satirical movie in comedy is: Life of Brian


Now to propagate it:

I’ll see if the Friendly Atheist picks the meme up from me before he gets it from Meming of Life. (What does sexual competition look like in meme-propagation? Will it matter to Hemant that his blog inspired my blog, right down to the title?)

And in the parenting line, perhaps AgnosticMom would like a go.

Another parent, at A Mindful Life – like me, she probably doesn’t have time for this sort of thing.

A recently out humanist who has recently grappled with creationism, ThinkTooMuch could probably use the time playing with his fellow freethinkers.

Finally, I’ll try to pass on my memes to the top of the critical-thinking food chain: Ben over at Bad Science would probably enjoy this.