Sunday, November 13, 2005
  Superstitions



Every Halloween or Friday the 13th, TV stations feel obligated to run a feature about 'Our Superstitions'. You know the script: the standard handful of medieval English beliefs, like ladders, black cats, 13's, mirrors. We are supposed to feel brave and modern if we don't believe in those particular superstitions.

Just plain silly. Those old English beliefs have been dead for 200 years, and nobody genuinely holds them now.

In fact each of us owns a large stock of private superstitions. We drive down Chestnut instead of Broadway because we saw a bad accident on Broadway once. We walk an extra block to pass by the First National, because we saw an interesting woman there once. We always add a certain line to each source code module because a program failed once for lack of that line. We make sure a certain folder is cleared before shutting down the computer, because we suspect that last year's system crash had something to do with that folder.

A superstition is nothing more than a crystallized piece of inductive reasoning.

A superstition isn't based on enough data to call it a theory or a statistic, but the odds are still on its side. If a bad accident happened on Broadway, there's probably something about Broadway that favors accidents, no matter how slightly. If we saw a pretty lady in front of the bank, it may indicate something about the bank's choice of employees. If the extra line in the C++ source helped once, it stands a fair chance of helping again.

Personally invented superstitions may be wasteful, but they're essentially healthy.

Operating without superstition can be bad for your career if not your health. For instance, let's say you appointed a friend as head of FEMA, and the friend demonstrably failed. Personal superstition would lead you to step carefully away from friends on your next opportunity to appoint a major official. If you walk under that very same ladder a week later, we are entitled to question your common sense.

However!!! Official superstitions are both wasteful and unhealthy, because they require all of us to sacrifice money and time to serve a false correlation that exists only in the fevered imagination of certain 'experts'.

Two prime examples: Global Warming and Bird Flu. Both of these, like all superstitions, begin with a limited set of valid observations. Global warming starts from the unquestionable fact that the last decade has been warmer -- at least in urban areas -- than most decades in living memory. Bird flu starts from a genuinely fatal disease affecting third-world chicken farmers and butchers. But both of these superstitions proceed boldly into raw fraud and tyranny, based solely on somebody's desire to infect the world with fear.

The global warming superstition tries to claim that increased CO2 is the cause of our relatively warm decade, despite piles of long-term data showing that CO2 is a LAGGING variable, not a LEADING variable. Whatever it is that drives our heat cycles -- most likely solar variation and volcanos -- it increases earth temperature BEFORE it increases CO2.

The bird flu superstition is not quite so bizarrely loony, but it takes an actual disease and carries it through two stages of pure speculation. What if the virus mutates into a form that can be transferred between humans? What if the virus also becomes wildly contagious? Those are not demonstrably wrong, but they are low-probability events, and when you require two low-prob events to happen together, you're betting on a loooooooooooong shot.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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