Tackling superstition

Apologies it’s been so long, but I’m crazy busy working every day and don’t  have a lot of time. I spend a lot of my space on this blog bashing religion, but I should specify that I don’t think religion is the main problem. Religion is in turn fed by irrationality and superstition, I think weeding out this root cause could solve a lot of the problems we have today.

I spend a lot of time talking with the people at my new job, not least because a large proportion of them speak Spanish and I like to practice. One of my colleagues provided an example of such irrationality at work. She said that she took her flatmate to the bank machine to take out rent money, and after he withdrew the money, he folded the notes over, and a number handwritten on the outside note was the exact same number as the amount of money he’d withdrawn. “How do you explain that?” she said smugly.

My response was to ask her how many times she’d taken money out, folded it up and there was a different number written on the outside note, or how many times there hadn’t been any number written on the note. A statistically unlikely event will still happen if you repeat the situation an excessive number of times, and that doesn’t make it a coincidence, much less a supernatural event.

Dawkins goes through a similar idea in one or other of his books, which I’ll paraphrase here. A TV psychic looks into the camera and tells the audience to look at their watches and clocks, proudly declaring that someone’s will stop right at that second, and that they should call in. 5 minutes later, a few people are calling in, amazed that he was correct. I mean, what are the odds that my watch would just happen to stop right when he told me it would, that’s amazing!

Except that it’s not. If millions of people are watching and they’re each looking at several timepieces, the odds of one of them stopping aren’t all that huge. Next we have people saying “my watch didn’t stop just then, but I was speaking to my aunt in Canada and hers did stop just then, she’s across on the other side of the world and wasn’t even watching, that’s amazing!” Except it’s not. If we’re now including not only the millions of people who are watching but all their friends and relatives that aren’t, then the Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental (PETWHAC) just grew significantly, but conversely it seems more amazing that a watch belonging to someone who wasn’t even watching had stopped.

So, how do we tackle such basic superstition? Fortunately I think the education system can do a lot of the work for us.

I suggest we start with a basic education in statistics and probability. I’m not hot at all on statistics but I have the basics and it helps a lot. There’s a lot of logic that goes along with it too which often isn’t emphasised. For example, just because there are two possibilities, doesn’t mean that they are equally likely. Most mathematical problems used to teach probability involve 10 different coloured balls in a bag pulled at random, but this is only useful for illustrating equally likely outcomes. There isn’t, as some apologists seem to think, a 50/50 chance that God exists, just because he either does or he doesn’t. A building either stays up or falls down, that does not mean that there’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll fall down at any given moment.

A knowledge of the scientific method would also go down well. My friend wouldn’t have made her silly mistake if she’d known about recall and confirmation bias (she only remembered the time there was a number, and not the hundreds of times there wasn’t), both of which need to be accounted for when we’re practicing science. Put Philosophy of Science on the school science syllabus! This will also make sure everyone knows why clinically controlled trials are essential in proving the efficacy of a treatment, why randomization, blinding and placebo controls are important, and hopefully get rid of people’s faith in unproven alternative medicines. Win/win.

Last but not least, we need to foster an environment of critical thinking. I took a Critical Thinking class at school. It was terrible. We got a history teacher who barely knew the first thing about the subject for a single session a week for 40 minutes, and all he did was teach us what a non-sequitor was (which I could’ve figured out from my Latin class) every week, and we’d mess around for the rest of it. If that was taught properly, that would’ve been the most valuble class I could have taken. But then I suppose Catholic schools aren’t too keen on having rational critically thinking students, are they? Fortunately I’m happy to hear that Critical Thinking will be going on the GCSE syllabus.

As a final thought, remember that dwindling church attendance numbers are not in themselves good news, since lots of these people are losing faith in organised religion simply to go into New Age bollocks or become superstitious and just believe in ‘something’. We need to tackle the root cause, not just one of it’s branching weeds.

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One Response to Tackling superstition

  1. berenike says:

    “But then I suppose Catholic schools aren’t too keen on having rational critically thinking students, are they?”

    {Berenike falls about laughing]

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