My Friggatriskaidekaphobia – Fri 13th Apr 07

Warm summery evenings. The sound of birds tweeting outside. Lazy evening naps. Being woken up by the sound of kids playing outside. Kids can scream pretty loudly; more so with an airgun pellet to the face.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any irrational phobias, or I don’t expect bad things on this particular day, or maybe it’s because I’m the spawn of Satan himself, but Friday the 13ths are usually good days for me. At least I can’t remember having a bad one.

Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything, because I think that Friday the 13ths tend to be good days for me, I’m no different to people who think the day is unlucky, evil, or occultish somehow. What’s really happening is that if you have certain expectations or presuppositions of something (or someone), even unconsciously, you’ll tend to look for the things that support them and dismiss the ones that don’t.

It’s like when you have a lucky charm; (most people do at some point in their lives, especially when young). Humans are inherently creatures of magical thinking. There is actually a very good evolutionary reason for this but I won’t go into it here. Our brains are wired to infer connections and links between events. Sometimes it backfires though because we start to see links that aren’t there. For instance, you play crap without your lucky necklace, then put it on and enter “the zone”. You kiss the turf before stepping onto the football field and play well, but when you don’t kiss the turf you don’t seem to play as good! You’ve had a few bad days forgetting to take your lucky stone with you then when you take it your day is all sunshine and flowers. Your headache gets worse and worse until you put on your New Age therapy headset and it goes away. Your cancer suddenly goes into remission after you pray to God.

These are all symptoms of Event B occurring after Event A. But, just because one event happens after another, doesn’t make them related. Of course, when it’s put like this it seems obvious! It seems like common sense; so simple. And, really it is. But it’s hard to use cold rational logic when a link seems so strong. Believing that Event B is related to Event A because one happened after the other is a fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc.

For example, if Event B: your favourite team wins on the same day of Event A: you forget to shower in the morning, you are very unlikely to think anything of it! But what if Event B was: someone close to you dying, and Event A was: you had a dream of them dying.

Wouldn’t that mean something? That surely would prove some kind of connection wouldn’t it?!

The truth is, no. Because the event was so personal and the link seemingly so strong (i.e.: on the same day), it would be very hard for a non-critical thinker to see this as anything other than a prophecy; a true vision of the future.

But what if the dream came a week before? Or a month. Or a year. What about ten years? Still as strong do you think? Well, the events that cause someone’s death have no memory or knowledge; they are random occurrences that have unwittingly combined to kill someone, for example in a car crash. The truth is, the “link” is just as meaningful if the “prediction” comes a day before, or ten years before. And when I say meaningful, I mean meaningless; because there is no link.

The odds of winning the lottery are enormous. But somebody somewhere will win it. There are 6 billion people on this planet, most of them sleeping every night and having several dream themes a night. The odds that people will have dreams, and some of those dreams will coincide with actual events is not only probable, it’s actually to be expected! In fact, it would be strange if people never had predictive dreams! Think about that.

Humans are good at seeing patterns that agree with what they think, and ignoring contrary patterns. The technical term is subjective validation and it basically works like this: if I believe in UFOs, my mind is automatically more open to their existence than evidence to the contrary. So if I see a strange spot in the sky, I might think “that’s them!”, or either way it might reinforce my belief. If I already believe in ghosts and feel someone in the room with me, or see something that I can’t explain, I will likely feel “visited”, but either way it will strengthen what I already believe. Ever wonder why sceptics never see ghosts? Or why Muslims never feel Jesus? Why do Christians never ever feel the presence of Allah or Vishnu, only of Jesus? They can’t all be right after all! Yet, religious people consistently report “revelation” of their own God and no one else’s. That’s strange isn’t it? Well, no, because we have an explanation: subjective validation.

To apply it in practice, let’s look at the examples of magical thinking above: you play crap without your lucky necklace then play well with it on. But are you keeping track of all the times you have played well without it? And if the lack of a necklace is playing on your mind then you might not play well anyway. Even an imaginary problem can be real in your mind. What about other lucky charms? How many bad days have you had with the lucky charm? A lot I would think! But, when you have a bad day, do you come home and throw the charm away? No. You’re more likely to not even notice the significance! But if tomorrow you win the lottery or get laid (whichever is the most unlikely) you will probably thank the charm!

I’ll mention one more thing that explains some baffling events. This is actually very interesting, and easy to understand. It’s called regression. Let’s use an example above: you put on your New Age therapy headset when your headache gets bad, and it goes away. Or, you do a rain dance when the drought is at its worse and it rains; you perform a solstice festival on the darkest day of the year and the sun slowly starts to return.

But, we know that headaches come and go. We know that rain comes and goes, and droughts won’t last forever. In fact, you are more likely to do a rain dance when things are at the very worst – but logically this is after the drought has been going on a long time, which means it has far less time to go before the rain comes! Pure common sense. And we know that the seasons mean that we get less sun in the winter, progressively so. It gets darker and darker and darker to the point where we have the shortest day in winter (round about Dec 21st). But once a cycling event reaches its perigee or apogee, it will start to come back the other way. You are more likely to try out a useless contraption when your headache is at its worse, but natural fluctuations dictate that it can only get better after this point anyway! If you’re playing bad at snooker, you might try a lucky charm, but assuming you’re at a certain standard, your average will not deviate too much from that standard. So if you hit ten awful shots in a row, the odds strongly suggest that the next one will be better anyway, whether you use a lucky charm or not. Things like cancer do go into remission. In desperation people try out a lot of worthless junk to make it go away. When it doesn’t go away, the person dies, and no one is around to tell the story of failure. When it goes away (naturally, by itself), the fake therapy/prayer is given the credit.

 

Personally, I find it pretty easy to see the holes in other people’s arguments and beliefs, because I don’t share them. I can be more objective than them because I have no vested interest in the outcome. This isn’t because I’m better or more intelligent, indeed there are many “believers” out there who are smarter than me, but everyone is limited by their preconceptions, even sceptics like me.

Sometimes people deliberately ignore evidence and reason (like a lot of creationists), but very often they simply don’t take any notice because the filtering software in their brain doesn’t process it fully. This, unfortunately, is the nature of the human mind; it’s imperfect. I’ve been a victim of it and I’ve also seen victims of it.

Fortunately, there is a solution. It’s called critical thinking, and it consists of knowledge about how logic works, common sense, and examining beliefs (especially our own) objectively and rationally. It requires no special skill, and anyone can learn it. It sits in your mind like a mental checkpoint, evaluating what you see and hear, like a mailbox filter, and automatically raises a red flag whenever somebody says something like “I saw my dead grandmother the other night” or “my dream came true” or “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq although we can’t present the evidence”.

If I could give one piece of advice (apart from my Insecurity blog the other day), it would be this: learn critical thinking. It will be invaluable in every single aspect of your life, and unlike a lot of self-help trends that come and go, it will never go out-of-date or lose its importance. In fact, in a time when irrationality and superstition appear to be getting stronger in some parts of the world, it might become more important than ever.

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