Photo: elevator buttons © Shane Adams via flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Last month I went to my favourite conference (the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution), and checked into the conference hotel. The desk clerk gave me room 1310, and I headed for the elevator and pressed the button for the 13th floor. And then I did a double-take. The 13th floor? I don’t remember ever staying on a 13th floor; in North America, at least, buildings usually hop from the 12th floor to the 14th with only a mysterious lacuna in between.
Nothing untoward happened to me on the 13th floor, of course. But my stay in room 1310 made me think about the 13-is-bad-luck superstition, and what it says about the human concepts of the universe. What kind of thinking is behind our usual no-13th-floor convention? First, we have to believe that the universe is constructed such that the 13th of something is disfavoured. Second, there has to be some agency (whether natural law or supernatural) omniscient and omnipotent enough to keep track of what things are the 13th of something (floors, days, whatever), and to punish us for being on those things. And third, that same omniscient and omnipotent agency has to be dumb enough to be hoodwinked by our labelling the 13th of something “14”.*
I realize “superstitions are weird and irrational” isn’t the most original thought ever. Actually, it’s not so much the superstition itself that gets me – it’s that last part, that the resulting bad luck can be averted by such a transparent relabeling exercise. But the thing is, I’m not prepared to guarantee that I don’t have similarly odd beliefs – at least, when I’m not paying deliberate attention. As scientists we like to think of ourselves as carefully rational, but in my experience this is only true when we deliberately turn that rationality on. I’ll give you two examples from my own life. For years, when sterilizing canning jars, I carefully put a fork in each one because my mother always told me it stops them from cracking. A little thought about the physics makes it completely obvious this can’t be true (but I did manage to connect this, in a blog post, to vaccination and global warming). More recently, making snacks for my son, I caught myself believing that a jam sandwich is junk food, but that jam on toast is a perfectly good thing to serve a child.
So I’m smart enough to make fun of the 14th-floor ploy; but dumb enough to think that toasting bread makes it healthier. I think this makes me just like everyone else – scientist or no. What about you? Do you have a similar story you can entertain us with in the Replies?
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) June 27, 2017
*^My mother, in saying “Oh, sugar!” when something went wrong, was expressing a similarly peculiar opinion about the deity.