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The Superstitions We Can’t Shake

Russ Dobler

October 29, 2018


Look, none of is perfect. We jaywalk, mark ourselves “Interested” for our friends’ events (even though we know damn well we’re not going), and when no one’s around, we drink milk straight out of the carton.

And sometimes, in certain situations, it’s hard to practice what we preach. As skeptics, we know the logical fallacies and flaws in thinking that lead to superstitious belief, and we decry those faults when we see them in others.

But who among us is guilt free? Despite all the mental discipline and critical thinking training, don’t we all have at least one superstition that we still believe—at least a little bit? I put that question to some prominent members of the skeptical community to see if the best of us still have feet of clay, so maybe we can all sleep a little easier (on the right side of the bed).




Richard Saunders (CSI fellow, host of the Skeptic Zone podcast): “I fly a lot. Mostly Australia to the USA, internally within the USA, and then back to Australia. Over the years, for some reason, I have gotten into the habit of when I enter an aircraft, having half of my foot on the bridge, the connector, and the other half on the aircraft itself, so my foot straddles the threshold for the time it takes to make one step, so a quarter of a second. Somewhere in the back of my mind, it's like having one part of the foot on the ground and one part in the air. However, I seem to find myself doing it every time I enter an aircraft.”

Kenny Biddle (skeptical investigator specializing in ghost photography): “My favorite superstition is ‘things always happen in threes,’ especially when it comes to celebrity deaths. Whether it's on social media or people I'm hanging out with, this superstition seems to be the most popular. I find it fascinating to hear people cherry-pick celebrities they know of and say, ‘Well, so-and-so died yesterday ... should be another one soon. Ya know, they always go in threes!’ I get a kick out of bringing up other celebrities they didn't know passed or were never aware of (usually because they weren't a fan), which throws off their ‘groups of threes.’ The response often changes to, ‘Oh ... well then we can expect another one!’ (or two, whichever makes it to three).

“For me, there's only one superstition I hold onto, primarily through force of habit. When buying a product off a store shelf, I sometimes take the box that sits two or three behind the one in front. I don't do this all the time, usually whenever I find the slightest (or obvious) damage to the box. Whether the corner has been crushed or the plastic wrap has a small slice in it—I go for a box that's in the best condition. The superstition is that the damaged box, no matter how insignificant, will contain a damaged product or missing parts. In contrast, the "perfect" box should be in perfect condition with all the pieces. Does it always work out? Absolutely not. But I still tend to do it. It makes no sense, just one of my little quirks.”

Michael Marshall (journalist, project director of the UK’s Good Thinking Society):“Perhaps the closest is the idea that talking about something before it happens could ‘jinx it’—that speculating on what could go wrong, or (worse) remarking how perfectly everything is going, might then be tempting fate and something bad will happen. I know it won’t; I know that’s not going to have any bearing on events or outcomes, but a part of my brain still chirps up to say, ‘Don’t say that, you’ll jinx it!’”

Susan Gerbic (CSI fellow, founder of Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia): “I have a difficult time stepping on cracks when I’m out for a walk and paying attention to the ground. I don't think it's because of any idea that I'm going to break my mother's back, but maybe some kind of OCD feeling of stepping inside the squares. I really don't know why I do it, but I do. My personal number is eight, but for no other reason other than I was born on 8-8. It has just always been my number that I use whenever someone asks for a number. No reason why I couldn't pick number six or three or one, but I gravitate toward eight. I don't know if that is superstitious or just weird me.”

Benjamin Radford (deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer, author of numerous books on the paranormal): “The kind of superstitions I tend to believe would be things that I doubt work, but I do them anyway ‘just to be sure.’ One example is pushing ‘Walk’ buttons on crosswalks. I doubt they're connected to anything or make the light change faster—and I've never bothered to test it or seek evidence for it, though I surely could—but I do it anyway. Because it gives me the illusion of control!”

Leighann Lord (comedian, emcee of the annual NECSS conference): “My family has a belief of not ‘talking something up.’ It doesn’t work for positive things. You can’t ‘talk up’ $1 million or anything remotely pleasant or comfortable. But you can ‘talk up’ bad circumstances: rain, losing money, or getting fired.”

Daniel Loxton (CSI fellow, editor of Junior Skeptic): “I’m terrified of flying—a phobia I deal with, when I absolutely must, partly through medication and partly through ritual. I wear certain kinds of clothes. I buy the latest issues of two specific magazines I don’t usually buy. I bring one candy in particular (peanut M&Ms) … . Those rituals are about comfort or self-soothing rather than magic. I also do occasionally knock on wood, but only as a sort of conversational performance ritual.”

Kavin Senapathy (journalist, cohost of the Point of Inquiry podcast): “I actually have OCD, which often manifests in superstitious thinking! So I've worked on eliminating any superstitions for my own mental health. But before that, oh boy I had so many. For example, when my daughter was a baby, I thought that thinking good thoughts about her future (e.g., picturing her graduating, or getting married) would doom her to terminal illness or other disaster. To alleviate that ‘bad luck thought’ I would knock five times on wood or certain kinds of upholstery.”

Clay Jones (pediatrician, contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog): “I feel uncomfortable with the number thirteen. This comes up every morning when I am eating breakfast before getting ready for work. I am an early riser and don’t want to wake my kids, so I can’t turn the TV volume up too high. Twelve on the volume dial is a bit too low and fourteen is a bit loud. But I just can’t put it on thirteen. So I put it on twelve and am currently still trying to learn how to read lips.”

Mick West (operator of metabunk.org, author of the conspiracy-debunking book Escaping the Rabbit Hole): “I don’t really believe any superstition, but one thing that I enjoy is a personal version of ‘synchronicity,’ where the TV show Jeopardy is sending messages to me and my wife. We keep having the strangest of coincidences where topics we discussed came up as clues. For example, I asked my wife one day what the Spanish was for ‘chicken with rice,’ then thirty minutes later on Jeopardy, the exact same question came up. There’s a Jeopardy ‘coincidence’ almost daily. I can totally see how people can slip into the idea that it means something or even into full-on delusions of reference. Of course, it’s just that with sixty-one questions every day, there’s a Birthday Paradox effect. One of those sixty-one questions will intersect reality, especially if you are primed to look for it.”

***

Hmm, two flying superstitions and an emphasis on OCD behavior! As for me? Yes, I never get up on the “wrong” side of the bed (i.e., not the side you got into bed from), and I still wonder who’s talking about me when my ears ring—left side for bad stuff, right side for good. It’s surely a metaphysical gossip indicator and not from all the loud music.

Russ Dobler

Russ Dobler is a geophysicist, journalist, and board member of the New York City Skeptics. He edits a science and skepticism section for the pop culture website AiPT! Comics and would love to publish your work there. Russ can be found on Twitter @russdobler46.