Science and superstition

Ewen Callaway wrote an interesting little piece over at The New Scientist last week that’s actually kind of funny, if you don’t take it too seriously.  The point of the article is to say that Darwin’s theory of evolution explains why people believe in superstitions. It’s nothing new, I heard this before: people believe in superstitions – including religion, I presume – because some superstitions help us to survive.  The logic is a bit back-assward: essentially, if evolution is moving in a positive direction and superstitions have persisted, they must be beneficial.

Superstition is defined as the tendency to falsely link a cause to an effect. The article states:

The tendency to falsely link cause to effect – a superstition – is occasionally beneficial, says Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

For instance, 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 says.

In general, an animal must balance the cost of being right with the cost of being wrong, Foster says. Throw in the chances that a real lion, and not wind, makes the rustling sound, and you can predict superstitious beliefs, he says.

The article goes on to quote Michael Shermer, the professional skeptic, as saying

“Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not,” he says. “When it isn’t, we err in thinking that it is, but for the most part this process isn’t likely to remove us from the gene pool, and thus magical thinking will always be a part of the human condition.”

Now, I really don’t think Darwinism has much to do with it, though I don’t have a problem with the concept that people make wrong cause-effect associations; I think this happens fairly often. However, primitave cultures, as far as I know, were less linear in their thinking than we are; the cause-effect principle is foundational to modernism.   Foster has to back off a bit from his theory when talking about why superstitions still exist in today’s modern, scientific world: “My guess would be that in modern life, the general tendency to believe in things where we don’t have scientific evidence is less beneficial than it used to be.”

Now, here’s where it starts to get really funny:

However, Wolfgang Forstmeier, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology in Starnberg, Germany, argues that by linking cause and effect – often falsely – science is a simply dogmatic form of superstition.

“You have to find the trade off between being superstitious and being ignorant,” he says. By ignoring building evidence that contradicts their long-held ideas, “quite a lot of scientists tend to be ignorant quite often,” he says.

Like I said, I think people often make incorrect cause-effect associations, and I would expect that it’s more common if you expect to find a cause-effect association, making scientists prime candidates. I don’t really know… But, I can tell you this: no good can come from walking under a ladder.

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1 Response to Science and superstition

  1. Quixote says:

    You mean my dismal bank balance may NOT be the result of overspending? Whoa. Science rules!

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