Life at № 42
From Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us
by Sara E. Gorman, Jack M. Gorman, M.d., Jack M. Gorman, Oxford University Press
Rabbit Feet and Other Strange Beliefs
Many definitions of superstition involve the notion that superstition is established by a false assignment of cause and effect. Superstition is an extremely powerful human inclination that perfectly fits the notion of filling the ignorance gap. We cannot know why many things around us happen, so we invent reasons or ways to try to control occurrences and we assign causes to nonrelated incidents that may have occurred alongside an event. We all know how this works, of course, and we are all guilty of engaging in superstition, even if we do not consider ourselves particularly superstitious people. We might re-wear clothing that we thought brought us good luck at a recent successful interview or eat the same cereal before a test that we ate before another test on which we performed well. These are examples of superstitious behaviour. Many psychologists, medical researchers, and philosophers have framed superstition as a cognitive error. Yet in his 1998 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, Michael Shermer challenges the notion that superstition is altogether irrational. Shermer effectively asks why superstition would be so pervasive if it were a completely irrational, harmful behaviour. Shermer hypothesises that in making causal associations, humans confront the option to deal with one of two types of errors that are described in classic statistical texts: Type I errors involve accepting something that is not true, and Type II errors involve rejecting something that is true. Shermer proposes that in situations in which committing a Type II error would be detrimental to survival, natural selection favours strategies that involve committing Type I errors. Hence superstitions and false beliefs about cause and effect arise. This is precisely the argument we made earlier with our example about avoiding orange and black after an attack by an orange-and-black animal: erring on the side of caution and believing something that may not be true is more beneficial than potentially rejecting something that may be true—for example, that everything orange and black is a threat.”
Well, that explains a lot.