Superstition, Science and Society

13th Mar, 2015

I wonder how many of you woke up this morning, silenced the alarm, clocked the date and lay back and thought of the negative connotations surrounding Friday 13th?

Of course it’s a tradition that many of us have grown up with, along with the more remote echoes of black cats, broken mirrors, ladders, four-leaf clovers, salt, magpies, drains, cracks in the pavement and more, much more, besides. Happily superstitions pervade all cultures rather than just ours.

The BBC provided an interesting look at the history of Friday 13th in February, noting the book of the same name published in 1907 by a financial trader (Thomas Lawson) and the intriguing activities of the Thirteen Club in New York.

While the link to the stock market is intriguing perhaps what’s most interesting about that story is how clearly it demonstrates the resilience of superstition, despite the best efforts of this gentlemen’s dining club – committed to exposing, ridiculing and transcending popular superstitions.

From which point it’s a short step to considering how the pioneers of science must have felt in the face of popular traditions and especially religious ideas. In fact we should note how Christianity itself had to accommodate and, in the case of Christmas especially, appropriate pre-existing traditions (especially the winter solstice).

Thus we (individually and collectively) have a multi-layered, apparently incoherent, epistemological universe including superstition, faith, tradition and science. Each plays a (greater or lesser at different times) role in helping each of us to understand and operate in the world as we find it. In fact we might consider superstitions as the original heuristics.

Of course today science is regarded as the gold standard for all claims to knowledge – and the cloak of science is claimed by a range of intellectual endeavours outside the scope of the physical sciences.

While there can be little doubt as to what Karl Popper would have made of the scientific pretensions of the social sciences it is a fact that their promoters have succeeded in elevating the principles of economics (especially) into apparently immutable laws that transcend humanity.

How else to explain the reification of concepts including the utility maximising rational economic agent, the profit maximising business, the laws of supply and demand, the perfect market and more?

Returning to the stock market, Mr Lawson’s 1907 book exposed the paranoid concerns surrounding Friday 13th and its capacity to knock the strongest bull market off track. Thus even the financial elite was suffused with superstition at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1930s Keynes endorsed this perspective with the role he afforded to animal spirits in explaining market behaviours.

So, where do you think we are today? Assuming that no-one would seriously assert the triumph of science, then we are left to acknowledge the messy partial and provisional nature of human knowledge.  One might hope that would be a source of both humility and strength for individuals and society.

Perhaps this very contingency, complexity and uncertainty is central to what makes us human and so at the heart of the concerns expressed by some digital pioneers as to the future of Artificial Intelligence and its relationship with human freedom. As Schonberger and Cukier (Big Data 2013) put it:

“The future must remain something we can shape to our own design. If it does not, big data will have perverted the very essence of humanity; rational thought and free will”

So having thrown off many (but certainly not all) of the historical shackles of tradition, authority and ideology today we should forge ahead in the same spirit, seizing control of our own futures.

From our perspective that includes developing and improving our forecasts from experience (the Bayesian approach), taking a probability based approach to future scenarios, and at least as importantly not being afraid to step outside the artificial constraints of liberal market ideology to develop effective long-term solutions to today’s many global problems and challenges.

As someone once said, you should never let a good crisis to go to waste.

Touch wood you’ll agree.