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Has Superstition Evolved To Help Mankind Survive? 621

Posted by samzenpus
from the step-on-a-crack dept.
Pickens writes "The tendency to falsely link cause to effect — a superstition — is occasionally beneficial, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. For example, a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but 'if a group of lions is coming there's a huge benefit to not being around.' Foster worked with mathematical language and a simple definition for superstition to determine exactly when such potentially false connections pay off and found as long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favored. In modern times, superstitions turn up as a belief in alternative and homeopathic remedies. 'The chances are that most of them don't do anything, but some of them do,' Foster says. Wolfgang Forstmeier argues that by linking cause and effect — often falsely — science is simply a dogmatic form of superstition. 'You have to find the trade off between being superstitious and being ignorant,' Forstmeier says. By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, 'quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often.'"
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Has Superstition Evolved To Help Mankind Survive?

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  • First (Score:5, Funny)

    by Philotic (957984) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @11:59PM (#24957247)
    I heard getting first post increases your life expectancy.
    • Re:Fist (Score:5, Funny)

      by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:05AM (#24957321) Homepage Journal
      Fist -- apply directly to your forehead!
      Fist -- apply directly to your forehead!
      Fist -- apply directly to your forehead!

      Because homeopathy is superstition.
    • Re:First (Score:5, Funny)

      by NoobixCube (1133473) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @01:02AM (#24957791) Journal

      Trolls are notoriously hard to kill, so I'd say you're right :P.

  • Not so sure (Score:5, Funny)

    by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:03AM (#24957299) Journal
    I hope they knocked three times on their desk and spun around in a circle before they did this study...
    Otherwise the results are completely wrong.
  • not the same (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mapkinase (958129) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:04AM (#24957311) Homepage Journal

    Superstition is not as easily verifiable as scientific statements. I am not talking about money, science is more expensive that Mythbusters. I am talking about the design of scientific statements.

    The director of the scientific institution I grew up in said once that good scientific paper should answer to one yes-or-no question.

    Science is about analysis, superstition does not care. Science about cleaning up cause-effect relationship in nature to make a repeatable experiment in the lab, superstition just takes cause-effect pairs as they are - in a raw form mudded with all kind of unique circumstances.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ramul (1103299)
      so science is an improved version of superstition in terms of its value to humankind - thats what he was trying to say i thought
    • by Haoie (1277294)

      If anything, fear evolved to help mankind survive.

      For example, fear of snakes or spiders due to their venom. Natural enough, right?

      But go overboard, or be irrational, and you've got yourself a phobia.

    • by Moraelin (679338) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @02:24AM (#24958325) Journal

      Well, I see his point, though. The mammalian brain didn't evolve to make scientific reproductible experiments and calculate the error bar. Any given creature wouldn't have enough data or the chance to perform some meaningful experiment. So learning some cause-effect pairs, no matter how flawed, is all that was available and better than nothing.

      E.g., if you're a goat and trying to eat one kind of bush gives you some nasty thorn wounds, you just remember that and move on. From now on, you avoid that bush if you can. You don't have the luxury to sample enough such bushes and enough such goats, divided neatly into two groups for a proper double-blind test, to see if you have a good sample. (And probably wouldn't live long if you did.) In practice, maybe that bush was growing through a barbed wire fence, but you wouldn't know that.

      The same would apply to the early humans too. If cousing Urgh and aunt Graah ate the funny spotted mushrooms and died, you avoid those mushrooms. You don't divide the tribe in two halves and do a double blind experiment to see if it was really the mushrooms.

      So they're not the same, but one of them was all that was available. And we're built to jump to conclusions, basically.

    • Re:not the same (Score:4, Informative)

      by williamhb (758070) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @05:48AM (#24959385) Journal

      Superstition is not as easily verifiable as scientific statements. I am not talking about money, science is more expensive that Mythbusters. I am talking about the design of scientific statements.

      The director of the scientific institution I grew up in said once that good scientific paper should answer to one yes-or-no question.

      That's the ideal. Unfortunately in practice a vanishingly small percentage of scientific papers ever have their experiments reproduced (ie most science is never verified but only subjected to the "does this sound plausible and agree with what I already thought" test of a peer-review). Meanwhile, papers in their analysis regularly overstretch what can really be concluded from the data -- because the importance of the result is a factor in whether or not the paper would be accepted. So, as the original article mentions, we do end up quite regularly with scientific results that are not much better than "rustling grass means lions are coming (even if you live in a country with no lions)". If you are not someone who reads scientific proceedings, quite a few dodgy studies turn up on the BBC website -- the BBC tends to run a general-interest story about "what scientists have discovered" at least once a week, and because they pick the "interesting" ones they usually end up picking ones that have either rediscovered the obvious, or made an overreaching conclusion from miniscule data.

      Obviously this varies from field to field within science. But I have an awkward feeling that a large number of studies from the LHC will follow this pattern: the experiments are so hideously expensive to run that the results will be accepted without much experimental checking or reproduction. (And any reproduction could only occur in exactly the same facility, so hidden variables would be that much harder to reveal.)

      One solution, at least in the cheaper sciences, is for the research councils (the science funding bodies) to fund studies that intend to reproduce or verify results more often. The issue is that if an experiment is only funded once, it only gets performed once, and never gets verified.

  • Placebo effect (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AoT (107216) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:05AM (#24957315) Homepage Journal

    Belief in Homeopathic medicine would also be beneficial because of the placebo effect.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Don't forget that homoeopathy was at its most popular when conventional medicine was at its most dangerous (arsenic, mercury, 'bleeding') - so it may have had genuine survival value then. Not the best example of 'superstition', when 'no treatment' can be safer than 'bad treatment' whatever the placebo effect.
  • by syousef (465911) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:06AM (#24957329) Journal

    There are plenty of examples of flawed superstitious beliefs leading to an equally large disadvantage or equally great damage. For examples see what happens to people who join cults. For a really good extreme example much more elloquently stated than I possibly could take a look at Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" and look for a persuasive argument why Nancy and Ronald Reagan consulting fortune tellers and horoscopes might not be a good thing when Ron's got his finger on the nuclear button. Wiping out most species on the planet has to qualify as an evolutionary step backwards.

    • by blahplusplus (757119) * on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:50AM (#24957675)

      "There are plenty of examples of flawed superstitious beliefs leading to an equally large disadvantage or equally great damage. "

      No doubt but knowing who has truth from who doesn't is a hard problem, science and peer review are are flawed because humans aren't good at detecting what is true from what is not in their own thought processes, concepts and philosophies.

      If there were errors in how we think about things (ie. base concepts) then there are errors all the way down. I've been studying this, concepts are the lenses by which people see and interpret the world but few people understand the process by which concepts/knowledge are conceived by a person before they are passed down.

      All people operate under tremendous amounts of ignorance, hence Socrates said "All I know is that I know nothing", he knew knowledge was endless.

      Socrates often said his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. Socrates believed wrongdoing was a consequence of ignorance and those who did wrong knew no better. The one thing Socrates consistently claimed to have knowledge of was "the art of love" which he connected with the concept of "the love of wisdom", i.e., philosophy. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it. It is debatable whether Socrates believed humans (as opposed to gods like Apollo) could actually become wise. On the one hand, he drew a clear line between human ignorance and ideal knowledge; on the other, Plato's Symposium (Diotima's Speech) and Republic (Allegory of the Cave) describe a method for ascending to wisdom.

      Socrates believed the best way for people to live was to focus on self-development rather than the pursuit of material wealth. He always invited others to try to concentrate more on friendships and a sense of true community, for Socrates felt this was the best way for people to grow together as a populace. His actions lived up to this: in the end, Socrates accepted his death sentence when most thought he would simply leave Athens, as he felt he could not run away from or go against the will of his community; as mentioned above, his reputation for valor on the battlefield was without reproach.

      The idea that humans possessed certain virtues formed a common thread in Socrates' teachings. These virtues represented the most important qualities for a person to have, foremost of which were the philosophical or intellectual virtues. Socrates stressed that "virtue was the most valuable of all possessions; the ideal life was spent in search of the Good. Truth lies beneath the shadows of existence, and it is the job of the philosopher to show the rest how little they really know."

    • by corbettw (214229) <corbettw@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday September 11, 2008 @01:01AM (#24957775) Journal

      I love it when people use examples that not only don't prove their point, but actively work against it.

      look for a persuasive argument why Nancy and Ronald Reagan consulting fortune tellers and horoscopes might not be a good thing when Ron's got his finger on the nuclear button.

      Did Reagan launch any nukes during the 80's? No? Then your argument is completely flawed. In fact, since he didn't launch after consulting fortune tellers, it would appear that using fortune tellers actually helps prevent nuclear annihilation. Or maybe I'm just being superstitious in seeing that cause and effect.

      Wiping out most species on the planet has to qualify as an evolutionary step backwards.

      It's almost like you've never read any Darwin or Dawkins, whatsoever. As long your species thrives, you're an evolutionary success, regardless of what happens to other species. In fact, if you beat other species at the game of survival, you're an unqualified success. So, no, wiping out other species by theoretically "pushing the button" is not an evolutionary step backward.

      • by k33l0r (808028) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @02:49AM (#24958475) Homepage Journal

        look for a persuasive argument why Nancy and Ronald Reagan consulting fortune tellers and horoscopes might not be a good thing when Ron's got his finger on the nuclear button.

        Did Reagan launch any nukes during the 80's? No? Then your argument is completely flawed. In fact, since he didn't launch after consulting fortune tellers, it would appear that using fortune tellers actually helps prevent nuclear annihilation. Or maybe I'm just being superstitious in seeing that cause and effect.

        "Post hoc ergo propter hoc"

        You are committing a logical fallacy. By the same logic:
        Reagan ate breakfast each morning. Therefore breakfast prevents nuclear war.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tnk1 (899206)

      Nancy and Ronald Reagan consulting fortune tellers and horoscopes might not be a good thing when Ron's got his finger on the nuclear button.

      I would like to point out that we made it through 8 years of Reagan and horoscopes and fortune tellers and whatever else he did, and not only are we all still here, but he's now gone.

      Perhaps that's luck, but I know that Reagan himself mentioned that he woke up after 1982 and realized that there really could be a nuclear war by accident, and he moved forward from there.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Alsee (515537)

      Wiping out most species on the planet has to qualify as an evolutionary step backwards.

      Unless of course you're a cockroach, in which case it's a huge leap forward.

      -

    • by Moraelin (679338) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @08:15AM (#24960159) Journal

      Well, that's a recent thing though.

      E.g., antibiotics exist only since the 1930's. So only since then you have choices like, basically, "do I trust the doctor and take these pills, or do I trust the shaman and take this extract of Aqua Clara?"

      If you go back, say, 5 centuries, already the choices were a lot more like:

      A. "Do I trust the alchemist and drink the Aqua Vitae, or do I trust the barber-doctor and let him draw a pint of blood, do I trust the priest and pray real hard to God?" All three were wrong, and actually the first two were _worse_. The alchemists only had distilled alcohol as a cure-all placebo, and drawing blood tended to be worse in the vast majority of cases than doing nothing. So blind faith and superstition might actually have been the better choice in a lot of cases.

      B. "Do I trust the superstition that storing pots and dishes with the opening downwards repels evil spirits, or am I an enlightened renaissance man and laugh at such superstitions?" Again, actually the superstition had a point. Dust setting into pots was harmful, and even if nobody had seen a microbe, some people did figure out a correlation between how you store your empty pottery and how often you get sick.

      Heck, as late as the 19'th century, during the cholera outbreaks, the superstitious folks had better chances of survival. Mortality in the homeopathic hospitals was actually lower than in the proper medical establishment ones. Of course, homeopathy was still bullshit, but the doctors also bled you dry as the only treatment method they knew, while the homeopaths merely gave you harmless water to drink. (Or rather, solutions of something or another, but so dilluted that they were effectively just water.) The homeopathic solution didn't help, while the other actually caused extra harm to someone already dehydrated and weakened.

      Likewise, in the 90'th century, some 50% of the women who gave birth with a doctor would die of septicemic shock, whereas among those who trusted a midwife mortality was a _lot_ lower. Some people actually proposed that doctors wash their hands after performing autopsies on corpses, and before operating or helping people give birth, but that was discounted as a ridiculous superstition. Well, what do you know? The superstitious guys killed a lot less patients. There actually were some nasty germs which the rest got off corpses, and just helped transplant them into previously healthy people.

      Etc.

      And if you go even further back in time, to when the brain evolved to jump to conclusions and make such hasty generalizations from too little data, the choice was even simple. "I tried to go through this thorny bush, and it hurt for a week. Do I (A) generalize and avoid this kind of bush, or (B) think you can't learn anything from a sample of one, and try again with a dozen other bushes like this?" Or like, "I ate that spotty mushroom and threw up my immortal soul, and was sick for a week. Do I (A) hastily generalize that there's something evil about them, and avoid them, or (B) think it was just a statistically insignifficant coincidence, and try again?"

      Simply put, option A was the _safer_ one. Sure, it was sometimes wrong. Sometimes it wasn't the bush, it was the patch of poison ivy it was in. Sometimes it wasn't the mushroom, it was simply an illness which happened at the wrong time. But there was no way to know better anyway. Getting some quick empirical cause-effect rules was the best you could do.

      Option B wasn't that safe at all. A lot of time trying something harmful again, just to see if you got the cause right, would outright get you killed.

      Don't get me wrong. I'm not against science or medicine or anything. Sure, _nowadays_ that's a better choice than superstition and empirical generalizations. Very much so. But the interval where we even had that choice at all is infinitesimal, at evolution scales. We had medicine for less than 100 years, the human species alone is 200,000 years old.

  • A Moron!!

    Sorry, at my age, I shouldn't be so flamey. Samz, my man, stay off science stuff. I understand you're into literary stuff? Do that.

  • by catbutt (469582) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:15AM (#24957405)
    Our brains are made to continue to think about things until we figure them out....that's what curiousity is and it's key to intelligence.

    Problem is, if our brain is unable to find the answer, it's best to have some sort of exception handler break it out of the loop. That's where superstition comes in. So we don't spend all day trying to answer questions about, say, how we came to be, as opposed to trying to figure out why our bow and arrow doesn't shoot as straight as we'd like.

    That's my theory anyway.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BountyX (1227176)
      hmmm, thats a very intresting take. it explains why i spend my entire work day pondering the meaning of my meek existence. If i was supersitious, I would have stopped procrastinating hours ago...
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Maelwryth (982896)
      I would have thought it was a product of our society being unable to adequately explain (either through their ignorance or just a lack of language) why things were dangerous. Where does evolution come into it? Is the article saying that knocking on wood is hard wired into our brains? Being worried about rustling grass isn't a hard wired phenomena, it isn't even a superstition. It's the result of being told about bloody lions eating people. Fear is an evolutionary advantage. Superstition isn't.
    • Superstition is just one facet of a 'belief system'.

      The 'belief system' exists so that the brain can cope with congitive dissonance. [wikipedia.org]

      You can break the mind loop with other things besides having a superstition in your belief system.

      Examples: Sleep, food, sex, drugs

    • We are always trying to find patterns. Some of these might bear up against scrutiny and some might not. Some might have corner cases and some might not.

      Kid drops lollipop and learns about gravity and slowly builds up an idea that if you drop something it falls. Hand the kid a hydrogen balloon and you'll see that "WTF!" look when it goes up when you let it go.

      Kid learns that rocks sink when you throw them in water. I still remember that "WTF!" look on my 4 year old son's face when handed him a chunk of pumic

    • Zeus (Score:5, Informative)

      by ShakaUVM (157947) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @01:17AM (#24957905) Homepage Journal

      The problem with this article and other stories is that it's not superstition they're dealing with.

      I recall one study where they shocked cats or something if they walked too close to an object, and reported that the cats had developed a "superstitious" aversion to the object, obviously showing how gullible and stupid all of us carbon-based life forms are, and how religion is probably just a complex fraud.

      Of course, the problem is that the cats weren't being superstitious. There WAS actually an invisible man in the sky throwing fucking lightning bolts at them, and they learned that correlation.

      I know that if I got hit by a lightning bolt every time I climbed to the top of half-dome, I'd damn well stop climbing to the top of Half Dome. I don't need Zeus, or even a working understanding of electromagnetism, to come to that conclusion. I'd avoid it.

    • by plover (150551) * on Thursday September 11, 2008 @01:53AM (#24958151) Homepage Journal

      So we don't spend all day trying to answer questions about, say, how we came to be, as opposed to trying to figure out why our bow and arrow doesn't shoot as straight as we'd like.

      VEG-e-tar-i-an - Native American for 'bad hunter with crooked arrow.'

  • Not Exactly. (Score:4, Informative)

    by BlueBoxSW.com (745855) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:15AM (#24957415) Homepage

    What is described in the example is known as Partial Reinforcement, not Superstition.

  • by obeymydog (1243568) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:23AM (#24957473)
    Ignoring the painfully vague inclusion criteria for "alternative" treatments, it's just plain wrong to lump every non-pharmaceutical/medical treatment in with a sham like homeopathy. There's solid biochemical/clinical research to support a number of therapeutically active plant compounds and conservative treatment strategies that would probably be considered alternatives to conventional medical protocols. This sort of arrogant badmouthing keeps patients from getting decent information about their treatment options.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:27AM (#24957491)

    This might be a fascinating bit of research, but the story posting isn't even particularly thinly-veiled cannon-fodder flaimbait. It's practically guaranteed to bring out religion apologists and armchair scientists alike in droves.

    [Scientist argues that] science is simply a dogmatic form of superstition.

    WTF!?
    Science only works because it isn't superstitious ! The very fact that we can use the methods we call "science" to discover the nature of reality refutes this assertion in its entirety. That was the statement of a hack.

    By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, "quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often."

    (Emphasis mine.)

    Again: WTF!?
    The practitioners of science are the strongest bastion against this sort of dogmatic, superstitious thinking. It is disingenuous to say that "quite a lot of scientists [are superstitious and therefore inept at science]" because that fraction, and certainly that absolute number pale utterly in comparison to the number of people who live every moment of their daily lives, years on-end, in an opaque fog of superstitious belief that some particular list of claims about reality is inerrant while all similar ones are fallacious, and reality can just get bent because "huh, scientists sure are stoo-pid!".

    Now we have to endure a flame war between religious zealots, crank science adherents, scientists, and rational non-scientists all seizing this story as a chance to advance their righteousness and deride their opponents, and perform damage control when they suffer affronts in kind.

    My predictions (which might admittedly be partially self-fulfilling):
    1)at least 850 comments before this story leaves the main page. (Page views galore! Screw enriching the readership; flamefests are more profitable.)
    2) A dozen or so comments by the religious regulars who feel they are making the world a better place by spamming the same thoughtless garbage several times a thread, no matter how many times it's refuted. How some of these people have good karma is beyond me. (Please help fix this problem if you have mod points and don't feel like playing whack-a-religious-nutjob-a-mole.)

  • Murhpy's law? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:32AM (#24957539) Homepage

    As a programmer I constantly refer to Murhy's law. It helps me through the day by expecting the worst and being positively surprised when my code does what it's supposed to. ;)

    Superstition? Why the hell not? It's not very rational is it... But it seems to work for me.

    But those elaborate see-a-black-cat-throw-salt-and-spit-over-your-shoulder superstitions? Naah...

    • Nope, you're good (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Gazzonyx (982402)
      No. Perfectly reasonable; as programmers we can attest to the fact that everything always goes wrong. Haven't you ever heard the definition of programmer?
      Programmer: The kind of person that looks both ways before crossing a one-way street.

      I always assume that my code is the only working non-OS process and everything it has to interface has crashed and burnt without having the common decency to inform anyone or even try to restart, the log drive is full and my every memory allocation fails. Then again
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Tim C (15259)

        Programmer: The kind of person that looks both ways before crossing a one-way street.

        Damn right I look both ways before crossing a one-way street! I've been nearly mown down by enough cyclists and even motor vehicles going the wrong way not to!

  • by PPH (736903) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:34AM (#24957565)

    Superstitions, culture, religion has had its place in ensuring the safety of the believers. Take a look at the dietary restrictions of various religions. Often, they concocted supernatural explanations for diseases or parasites that we understand today. Like prohibitions against eating pork or shellfish. The cost of continuing to avoid such foods, even when we understand the science and can prepare them safely is minimal.

    However, there are times when the refusal to understand explanations behind superstitions cost our ancestors dearly. Take cats. Cats coexisted with ancient man as efficient means to keeping rodents out of grain stores. After a time, some civilizations came to hold cats in high regard, even worship them. Ancient Egypt is one example. Enter Christianity. Rather than examine the basis of other religions and cultures reverence for the cat (understanding their practical utility shouldn't have been that hard, even in the middle ages), they associated cats with pagan religions and eventually witchcraft. Cats were feared, driven out of human habitations and killed en mass. Now, the bubonic plague arrives. Societies that didn't buy into the cat loathing of Christianity fared far better then those that did.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bigbird (40392)

      Cats carry fleas and the bubonic plague as well as rats. What makes you think having lots of cats around would have helped?

      Also, I can't really find any evidence for your claim about Christianity causing cats to be driven away ...

      • How many rats do a cat need to survive. How many flea per rats, how many maximum possible flea per rats. Now add 1 plus 1 and see why cat would have helped by reducing greatly rodent population and thus reducing the possibility of contamination , spread, and natural reservoir for the plague.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Dr_Barnowl (709838)

        Well, even if cats are carriers, they are also predators.

        One cat will dispose of multiple rats, therefore even if cats are carriers, the total number of carriers diminshes. In the absence of predatory checks on the rat population, the numbers of carriers increases (esp. with all these scrummy corpses around to eat!).

        I was able to find a charming letter [nih.gov] from 1899 to the British Medical Journal on the subject of cats as plague carriers though.

  • by DrBuzzo (913503) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @02:14AM (#24958267) Homepage
    Superstition, religion, paranormal beliefs, myths and alike are really hard to pin down to any one cause but they seem to be rooted in some tendencies of the human psyche. It would be an oversimplification to say they're a survival mechanism, although that may be part of it.

    Humans have a tendency to extrapolate their feelings into physical terms because our brains work through analogies. A person might feel "warm and friendly" but really it's just subconcious cues we get. It's not a stretch from here to believe from this that people places and things have some kind of magic essence or that places are cursed or blessed.

    on top of this the human brain seems geared to problem solving. It wants all effects to have a cause or a meaning. Thus fate, luck, good fortune and such come into being from this.

    There are also some coping mechanisms - people don't like to think of death as non-existence so the afterlife is invented. People do not like to feel out of control, so lucky charms or prayers or rituals are invented.

    There may also be some myths based on observations but with the mechanism wrong - pork, for example, would be considered unfit by the law of god but really it's just a meat that carries more pathogens than many others.
  • superstition (Score:3, Interesting)

    by venicebeach (702856) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @02:26AM (#24958339) Homepage Journal
    Think about the situations in which people are likely to develop superstitions and its a clue to what's going on.

    Two of the most notorious groups of superstitious people are athletes and gamblers. You hit a home run with your shoes tied a certain way, and the association is made - never changing those shoes again! I know a guy who dropped a penny before playing the slots. He hit big, and now drops a penny before every pull.

    I think these circumstances have the following important characteristics: lack of control or partial control over outcomes; high potential for reward. I think this combination of factors leads us to pay extra attention to the relationship between our actions and their outcomes and we are therefore more likely to draw spurious associations.
  • by bmo (77928) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @03:18AM (#24958653)

    "if a group of lions is coming there's a huge benefit to not being around."

    JESUS CHRIST IT'S A LION GET IN THE CAR!

    http://www.encyclopediadramatica.com/Image:Jesus_Christ_it's_a_lion_Get_In_The_Car!.jpg [encycloped...matica.com]

    --
    BMO

  • by urIkon (1073202) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @04:51AM (#24959111)

    I can't believe no one's touched on this yet.

    http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~fle/gazzaniga.html [ucf.edu]

    Executive summary:

    Neuropsychology student is studying split-brain patients- people with injuries or diseases that inhibit the hemispheres of the brain from communicating. Their brains function normally kind of, except no information is passed between the two hemispheres.

    Speech, or more specifically, translating what you see into words, is predominantly handled by your left hemisphere. Your left visual field is handled by your right hemisphere, and your right visual field by your left.

    One experiment he conducted was showing different pictures to each eye at the same time, and then asking the subject to point to a card showing a picture that relates to the image shown.

    One subject was shown a picture a picture of a chicken claw to his right eye (left hem.), and a snow covered landscape to his left (right hem.). The subject then pointed to a chicken with his right hand (again, controlled by left hem), and a shovel with his left (right!). Obviously, the logic behind his choice was the claw belongs to a chicken, and you need a shovel to shovel snow. However, when asked to explain his choice, the subject responded with something to the tune of, "The claw belongs to a chicken, and you need a shovel to clean the chicken shed."

    Even though acting independently he was able to correctly deduce the response, the lack of communication between the hemispheres meant that when his left hemisphere was trying to put it all into words, it was unable to recall why he chose the shovel from the right hemisphere of the brain.

    Gazzaniga (the student conducting the test) believes that in the left hemisphere of the brain lies what he calls the interpreter: a part of your brain whose sole function is to try to rationalize what we do not understand. An evolved speculation machine. Like the article said, I probably served an evolutionary purpose in that it kept us paranoid and safe in the grasslands, but odds are this is also the same part of the brain that saw lightning and concluded there must be an unseen humanoid in the sky making it. Or, when the great questions of "why?" and "how?" concerning our world began to plague the mind, the same brainpiece reached the same god conclusion.

    It may have been evolutionarily useful at the time, but like male nipples, serves only to confuse, bewilder, and slow progress anymore. Nietzsche killed it.

  • by sorak (246725) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @09:20AM (#24960813)

    by linking cause and effect - often falsely - science is a simply dogmatic form of superstition.

    Examples, please? Could someone tell me about the large number of superstitions that are often correct, and the number of scientific claims that are incorrectly stated as fact? The reason superstition survived isn't because it is more likely to be correct. It is because people were scared to death of what would happen if they were wrong.

    Science is not dogmatic. Scientists base their opinions on evidence, and change their minds if contradictory evidence arises. In other words, they admit when they are wrong and learn from their mistakes.

    "You have to find the trade off between being superstitious and being ignorant," he says.

    To rephrase that, "you have to choose between having a small amount of knowledge, or a large amount of misconceptions". I personally think that being misinformed is a form of ignorance in itself.

    By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, "quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often," he says.

    So does anybody know if this guy is a creationist? This sounds like the kind of vague generality that would only be made in reference to creationism, or possibly the Atkins diet.

  • Science is a mechanism for filtering superstition out from reality. In fact that's pretty close to a one-sentence summary of what science is for, and what the difference between science and other approaches to understanding the universe are.

    What Wolfgang Forstmeier seems to be doing is noticing a tendency for scientists to fail to use the scientific method in situations where they should, and generalizing it to a general case. He's concluding that, since individual scientists may be superstitious, it follows that science is superstition.

    This is of course a common superstition about science.

  • I haven't (Score:3, Funny)

    by SnarfQuest (469614) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @11:15AM (#24962805)

    I haven't succumbed to superstition (knock on wood), nor will I ever (cross fingers)!

  • Lions? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Guppy06 (410832) on Thursday September 11, 2008 @12:10PM (#24963779)

    "if a group of lions is coming there's a huge benefit to not being around."

    I can has cro-magnon burger?

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