The whole question comes up because last week, town councillors in Richmond Hill, Ontario voted to ban the number four from any new street addresses. "The number 4 in different Chinese cultures," councillor Greg Beros said in an interview, "the Asian culture, in their language it sounds like the word death, and that has a very bad connotation for them."
Notwithstanding that Mr. Beros seems to be confused on the difference between "Chinese" and "Asian," not to mention the fact that "Asian" is not a language, he is correct that in traditional Chinese folklore the number four does have bad associations. And the town had already set a precedent in this direction by previously outlawing addresses containing the number 13.
My reaction, predictably, is: seriously?
At what point do you just have to say, "I'm sorry, that's ridiculous?" Now, don't get me wrong; I'm all for treating people with respect, and that includes granting them the right to believe whatever they want to. But that respect of their right to belief does not extend to a requirement that I respect the belief itself. You are perfectly free to believe that the letter "S" is unlucky, and to refuse to buy a house with an address containing an "S." It is also within your rights to refuse even to drive past 767 South Sissinghurst Street. But it is well within my rights to consider your belief superstitious nonsense, and there is no reason in the world that town governments should feel obliged to act as if your claim has any basis in reality.
Oh, I know a lot of this has to do with money. Town councillors are concerned with economics, and a lot of economics has to do with selling real estate. If a significant fraction of the houses aren't going to sell (as would be the case in my "letter S" example, assuming a large number of people believed that), the town governors' actions would be simple pragmatism. But in Richmond Hill, it's just two numbers -- 4 and 13 -- that are outlawed. (Councillor Beros emphasized that house numbers containing 4s were okay, such as 14, 24, and so on -- it was only the single-digit number 4 that was verboten.) So we're not denying the majority of the housing to a substantial proportion of the population, here. The solution is simple: if you don't want a house with the number 4, then don't buy one.
Of course, I recognize that this is a losing battle. Because of the weirdness associated with the number 13, many airplanes have no 13th row, and skyscrapers no 13th floor. (If you're curious, the origin of the "unlucky 13" myth isn't certain, but may have started because there were thirteen people present at the Last Supper, an event that certainly didn't end well.)
Superstition, unfortunately, is still rampant in the world. As I mentioned in a post last week, the list of beliefs in lucky and unlucky actions is long (and bizarre). But rational people need to be unafraid to identify those beliefs as what they are (i.e. untrue), and there's no reason in the world anyone should have to cater to the silly demands of someone who wants us to treat their mythology as if it were fact.