Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things

By Wiseman, Richard | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things


Wiseman, Richard, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE SAVOY HOTEL IN LONDON IS FAMOUS for fine dining, attentive service, grandiose interiors, and, of course, a three-foot high wooden black cat called Kaspar. In 1898, a South African businessman named Woolf Joel booked a table for fourteen at the hotel. Unfortunately, one of his guests cancelled at the last moment, leaving him with just thirteen diners. Woolf decided to ignore the old wives tale that it is unlucky to have thirteen people around a table, and pressed ahead with the meal. Three weeks later, Woolf returned to South Africa, and was shot dead in a highly publicized murder. For decades after the incident, the Savoy didn't allow parties of thirteen to dine at the hotel, and went so far as to have a member of staff join any such group, rather than run the risk of having another murder on their hands. In the 1920s, the hotel asked designer Basil Lonides to produce a sculpture to replace their human good luck charm, and he created Kaspar. Since then, this beautiful Art Deco cat has been joining wealthy parties of thirteen for dinner. Each time, he is fitted with a napkin, given a full place setting, and served the same food as his fellow tablemates.

Superstitious and magical thinking pervade our entire lives. Dr. Samuel Johnson always tried to court good fortune by leaving his house right foot first, and avoided treading on cracks in the pavement. Adolf Hitler believed in the magical powers of the number seven. President Woodrow Wilson believed the number thirteen had consistently brought luck into his life, noting that there were thirteen letters in his name, and during his thirteenth year at Princeton University he became their thirteenth President. His Royal Highness, Prince Philip apparently taps on his polo helmet seven times before a game. Swiss tennis ace Martina Hingis allegedly avoids stepping on the court "tramlines" between points. American basketball star Chuck Persons admitted to feeling nervous before a game unless he had eaten two KitKats, or two Snickers bars, or one KitKat and one Snicker bar. Even Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr is rumored to have placed a horseshoe over his door (although here the evidence is debatable--when asked whether he thought it really brought him good luck, Bohr replied "No, but I am told it works whether you believe in it or not").

Irrationality is not restricted to princes, politicians, and physicists. One recent Gallup poll revealed that 53% of Americans said that they were at least a little superstitious, and an additional 25% admitted to being somewhat or very superstitious. Another survey revealed that 72% of the public said that they possessed at least one good luck charm. The results of my own 2003 superstition survey, conducted in collaboration with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, revealed the same high levels of belief in modern-day Britain, with approximately 80% of people routinely touching wood, 64% crossing their fingers and 49% avoiding walking under ladders.

Superstition Kills

Although the consequences of many traditional beliefs, such as touching wood or carrying a lucky charm, are relatively harmless, the effects of other superstitious ideas have far more serious implications. The sociologist David Phillips was fascinated with investigating whether people's date of birth influenced their moment of death. In an article published in the British Medical Journal, Phillips reported a link between superstition and the precise moment of passing away. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, the word for "death" and "four" are pronounced in almost exactly the same way. Because of this, the number four is seen as unlucky in Chinese and Japanese cultures. Many Chinese hospitals do not have a fourth floor, and some Japanese people are nervous about travelling on the fourth day of the month. The link also stretches to California, where new businesses are offered a choice of the last four digits in their telephone numbers. …

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