Sacramento Bee

Who's Afraid of Friday the 13th?

by Howard Fienberg
September 13, 2002

While most Americans claim to love science and technology, they often revert to pseudoscience and superstition, including belief in aliens, psychic powers, haunted houses and toiling under the heavy weight of Friday the 13th unluckiness.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines superstition as the "unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious or imaginary." So what draws us to such imaginary beliefs? Perhaps they give a sense of control over things uncertain and uncontrollable. Discovering exactly why things happen may be difficult if not impossible for a lay person, so the rationale provided by superstition offers a comfortable refuge from painful reality. Science is difficult and time-consuming, while pseudoscience is quick and easy.

Superstition is not limited to otherworldly events such as UFOs and mind-reading. Some baseball fans insist on going through rituals about every game; while they cannot participate directly, they are convinced that they have the power to help their team win. Some lottery players will always use the same "lucky" numbers, believing that the laws of chance will bend in their favor. Once in a while, the fan's team wins or the lottery player wins a big prize. Because we often focus on these positive events and disregard the times when our charms failed, we easily see cause and effect. Over time, the associations we make get stronger and become harder to dispel, no matter how nonsensical.

Of course, these examples mostly involve ordinary people. Surely the scientifically savvy, such as medical practitioners, are immune to such things. According to a 1987 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, 64 percent of emergency room doctors and 80 percent of emergency room nurses believe that the moon affects the mental state of their patients. They claim that they get swamped with cases when the full moon is out. Many link it to changes in barometric pressure.

However, there is no systematic evidence that the full moon produces any increase in births, deaths or emergency room admissions. Studies published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, the Journal of Emergency Nursing and Psychological Report have found no correlation between any of these events and the lunar cycle. Calls to crisis hot lines have been plotted against phases of the moon. So have murders and other crimes. None of the statistically and scientifically rigorous studies show an association between full moons and such behaviors. But the belief persists.

Is there any real harm in superstition? Sometimes. Fear of bad luck results in missed opportunities and makes us ever more gullible. The immense sums raked in by psychic hot lines, where people subsume their own judgments to the whimsy of strangers, should certainly concern us if the callers are not that wealthy. Credulous thinking normally leads to poor decision making. When ordinary citizens are no longer able or willing to think critically, complex thought itself can become a realm reserved for "experts." They can make the decisions while we just watch TV.

People's inability or reluctance to understand science and scientific practice, rather than simply accepting it, makes them vulnerable to rummy thinking of all kinds. Superstition is the easy way to live, but the more citizens give in to the seductive pull of faulty reasoning, the less control they actually have over their lives and society.

Howard Fienberg is senior analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving public understanding of scientific and social research.

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