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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We've got your number

Today's question is: how far should you go in accommodating people's irrational superstitions?

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.


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  2. My sister lives in Richmond Hill and for some reason there was no #8 on their first street. Apparently 8 is lucky. They never did get it switched. Now they live at a house with a 4 in it. Is that the same thing as just 4? The whole thing is a giant ball of crazy if you ask me - and I turned 13 on Friday the 13th!

  3. Y'know, I'm not sure that the town council in question are acting as if the superstition has any basis in reality (in the sense of 'being true'). If - and this is the part that's doubtful - there is any economic significance to bowing to the superstition (eg. the town is trying to attract Chinese-Americans or Chinese immigrants, or is trying to nurture a Chinese community, because of some economic benefit associated with that (group of) ethnicities), then I think the policy is fair enough. Is it substantially different to allowing council funds to support a Chinese New Year celebration (which most UK city councils support to tremendous effect)?

    After all, if the superstition in question has demonstrable effects on human behaviour, making policy on the grounds of those effects is preferable to making policy decisions based on the kind of pipe-dream surreality that most politicians seem to live in, isn't it?

  4. I say we replace all house numbers, floor numbers and phone numbers with bright, friendly, non-threatening shapes and colors.

  5. I fail to understand how naming the 13th floor of a building "12a" or "14" makes it not the 13th floor. Everyone on floor "12a" knows what floor they are on. What this says to me is that people don't actually believe the superstitions... that they believe.

    Then again, I believe that most people entertain superstitions because it's kitsch. "I'm unique! I'm playful! I believe in unusual things! Watch me get overly animated when that thing that I say I'm scared of happens and I'll act like I'm at an emotional impasse even though what I've encountered is obviously an innocuous common occurrence! I'm the center of attention! Yay!"

    You know that if floor "12a" was named the floor it actually IS, there would be a bunch of people feigning indignation... which is the only damned reason this superstition is upheld.

    "If it walks like a duck... and talks like a duck... we'll just call it a horse." There. Problem-that-isn't-a-problem solved.