Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pavlov's curse

I'm sure many of you know about classical conditioning, a feature of learned behavior in which an individual learns to associate two things because of an accidental relationship.  Dogs can be classically conditioned; this was demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in his famous experiment wherein he trained a dog to associate the sound of a bell ringing with being fed.  (That dogs are so readily conditioned this way is why many dog trainers are now recommending "clicker training" as a quick and reliable method for teaching dogs to obey simple commands.)

Of course, it's not just dogs.  People can be classically conditioned.  One day in my school, the bells malfunctioned, and rang at the wrong time -- and several students started packing up their books, even though we'd only been in class for ten minutes.  It's all too easy to turn off the higher brain and let conditioning take over -- because classical conditioning, after all, does not sit very high on the ladder of intelligence, whatever its utility in training dogs (and children).

This tendency to shut off the prefrontal cortex and let ourselves turn into Pavlov's dog is the source of a lot of superstitious behavior.  You go to watch the Minnesota Twins play, wearing your Twins hat, and amazingly enough, they lose -- so you decide that your hat is unlucky.  You've formed an association in your brain between two things that have no real functional connection, instead of recognizing the truth, which is that the Twins suck.

This, of course, is the origin of curses.  All sorts of things have been thought to hold curses; the pyramids, the Hope Diamond, James Dean's Porsche.  Accidental patterns also create the same response in our brains -- thus the "27 Club" (the superstition that holds that famous rock musicians are likely to die in their 27th year, citing examples such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, and conveniently ignoring all of the thousands of musicians who safely make it to 28) and "Tecumseh's Curse" (alleging that because of William Henry Harrison's mistreatment of Native Americans, all American presidents elected in a "zero year" would die in office -- a pattern broken by Ronald Reagan in 1980).

And now we have another instance of that phenomenon, in the news yesterday -- a billionaire who is determined to flout "the Curse of the Titanic."

Clive Palmer, a phenomenally rich Australian mining magnate, has for some reason become convinced that he should rebuild the Titanic.  And, of course, being that money talks, the project looks like it's going ahead, with the Titanic II scheduled to take its maiden voyage in 2016.  This, of course, has woo-woos bleating all sorts of warnings, about how the name is cursed and how the ship is going to sink, and how no one in his right mind should consider traveling on it.  One rather hysterical article about the endeavor (here) says, with apparent relief, that at least Palmer "has not called his ship unsinkable."  Because that, obviously, would be the last straw, fate-wise.

Oh, c'mon, people.  Really?  From what I recall of the story, the original Titanic wasn't sunk by a curse, it was sunk by a great big iceberg.  And as far as I can tell, the only other thing that might possibly be attributable to a Titanic-related curse is the fact that radio stations are still for some reason playing Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

All I can say is: if I had the money and opportunity, and it was going somewhere cool, I would without hesitation book a trip on the Titanic II, as long as I could be guaranteed that Leonardo DiCaprio was not scheduled to be on board.  There is no such thing as "the Curse of the Titanic," any more than the Hindenburg blew up because of its name, or Janis Joplin died because she was 27, or the JFK was assassinated because he was elected in 1960... or the Twins lost because of your hat.

It's kind of scary, really, when you realize how easy humans are to condition.  Part of becoming a critical thinker is rising above our conditioning, and actually learning the principles of scientific induction -- which remains our best tool for discerning which connections are coincidences, which are correlations, and which represent actual causation.  So there's no need to ascribe luck (or lack thereof) to some random circumstance -- there are always other reasons for the patterns you see.  Such as the fact that icebergs can sink ships, hydrogen is explosive, heroin can kill you (as can a gun in the hands of an assassin)... and the Twins still suck.


  1. People make sense of the world by creating stories. In the world of narrative, nothing is disconnected and nothing happens without a cause. Real-world events must sometimes be twisted to make them fit the narrative model and give them drama.

    So if one ship named Titanic sunk, and a second ship with the same name was launched, and it ... just cruised peacefully along for many years, well, that's a bit of an anticlimax, isn't it?

    In other news, one would at least hope that people would wait for a second data point before drawing a line to connect them. After all, any ship that sinks was named -something-.

    Then there's the charming illusion people have that the universe revolves around them. That's why, of the thousands of disappointed Twins fans that day, not to mention those swearing as they watched on TV, it's -my- hat that affects the outcome.

  2. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Ship's Captain speaking. For our maiden voyage of the Titanic II, we have some extra safety protocols that need to be addressed: No Titanic hats or Titanic foam fingers allowed. All deck railings are made of wood for ease of 'knocking,' and we suggest you utilize them appropriately. Animals will be permitted to exclude Black cats. All vanity mirrors will have a plastic coating and no ladders will be permitted. We also ask that no guests on the front deck outstretch their arms or engage in any arm flapping motions. This is an ice-free voyage. Our beverages will not contain them. We apologize for the inconvenience. Also, at nightfall, all guests will need to report to the front deck for mandatory foreign object detection detail. For the safety of passengers and crew, we can assure you that at no time will this vessel stray more than 500 miles from the Equator. For our passengers that are having trouble sleeping due to engine wash from the persistent jet fighter escort, we offer earplugs from the concierge. Enjoy your stay!"