“Why do the Earthlings consider birthday and anniversary years divisible by five and 10 especially significant?” the Dread Commandant asked at a recent senior staff meeting. “Why do they go gaga over centennials and triennials and quadrennials and –”
“We get the picture,” I interrupted. “It’s simple. They possess five digits on each of two hands. From time immemorial, their system of counting is organized into groups of fives and 10s.”
“And they consider their mere physiology sufficient cause to venerate the number, say, 25?”
“Oh, you mean a quarter century?”
Apophenia, the interpretation of meaningless phenomena in meaningful ways, seems hard-wired into your human brain. On Oct. 10, 2010 – 10/10/10 – more than 39,000 couples in the United States were wed, nearly 10 times the nuptial number of the comparable day in the previous year. Elvis impersonators hit the jackpot on 11/11/11, when the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel recorded 200 bookings, four times the norm.
My office might hang 117 miles above sea level, but I’ve seen enough of human behavior to take an educated guess about who’s pushing the wedding numbers agenda – as in “easy-to-remember-anniversary” numbers. It’s the grooms.
A public service warning to all paraskevidekatriaphobics, those who suffer from a fear of Friday the 13th: Today – Friday, July 13, 2012 – is ominous in more ways than one. Or two. In 2012, Friday the 13th occurs three times, each 13 weeks apart. Today is the third in the sequence, the knockout punch. We can only hope your survivalist bunker is well stocked with water and canned goods.
These charming Earthling attitudes aren’t restricted to numbers. When 1993 PGA Champion Paul Azinger strides across the green to mark his ball, he always pulls out a Lincoln-head penny and positions it on the putting surface so Abe’s gaze is directed at the hole. Always. Hey, when lining up a long downhill double-breaker, “two heads are better than one,” said the Dread Commandant, convinced he had coined a phrase.
You’d think modern science would dispel many of your phobias. Lightning, for instance, was once considered a weapon hurled from thunderclouds by malicious gods. But in the words of Dave Barry, “Thanks to modern science we now know that lightning is nothing more than huge chunks of electricity that can come out of the sky, anytime, anywhere, and kill you.” So lighten up.
Superstition is often defined as the irrational belief that certain actions or rituals magically bring about good or bad outcomes. We in the Mother Ship prefer to put it this way: superstitious humans aren’t acting irrationally – non-rationally – they’re using flawed rationality, mistaking correlation for causation. If you’re seen leaving a building right before it bursts into flames, does that make you the arsonist? Paul Azinger isn’t acting irrationally … or at least he wasn’t at the ’93 PGA, when he stuck to his penny protocol and took the trophy. The proof is in the putting.
Some of your bugaboos are sonic in nature. In Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam, those with a phobic bent shun the number four, a homophone for the word for death. This tetraphobia of the East influences the assigning of numbers to cell phones, floors in buildings (skipping four, as you in the West sometimes skip 13) and names to streets. If this strikes you as silly superstition, imagine your Western numbering system containing an exact sonic match for “bloodbath.” How’d you like to live on Bloodbath Boulevard?
What prompts some superstition isn’t fallacious rationality; it’s goofiness. The fear of walking under a ladder isn’t superstition; it’s common sense. If, however, you firmly believe that if you use the same pen when taking a test that you used when studying for the test, the pen will remember the answers, well … the pen is mightier than your gourd.
In a way, we aboard the Imperial Vaporizer envy those who believe that crossing the path of a black cat portends ill fortune. Those people live in a more exciting universe than we, a place in which the groom who drops the wedding band during the ceremony dooms the marriage; and where tying a knot in a handkerchief wards off evil.
Those who hold a strictly scientific view of the universe should be the first to concede that the supernatural, though not empirically verifiable, is also not empirically refutable. Those strict scientific folk might have no use for the supernatural, but they can’t dismiss the notion of its existence without contradicting the empirical-refutation tenet of their worldview. These matters are an open question.
On this Friday the 13th, take a moment to celebrate those admirable souls who believe that a mind or power outside themselves determines the events of their lives. They might come to the wrong conclusions, but they’re on constant lookout for connections. They’re champions of order; foes of chaos.
And to the true believer on this gloriously inauspicious Friday, July 13, 2012: Relax. Embrace your superstition. As the Dread Commandant so reassuringly put it, “Take a deep breath. And never mind that it rhymes with death.”