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In praise of superstition

Published on 16 July 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Rational men will hold superstition[1] in contempt. As a skeptic I’d tend to agree. With one proviso: what we may consider “superstition” may have “positive latent function”. In other words, we outsiders may be too ignorant to understand the unspoken rational reasons for this or that behavior we observe and all too readily dismiss it as superstition. Prejudice truly is superstition – from ignorance. I came across an article about scapulomancy lately[2], which illustrates this point. A Canadian Indian tribe, when at loss as to where to find caribou for their next meal, heats a shoulder blade from a caribou over the fire, and deducts from the cracks and blotches in the heated bone instructions as to where to go hunting. The decoding occurs in accordance to set rules – a system of sorts.


Scapulomancy then seems to be the “method of last resort”, when the tribe is at its wit’s ends as to where the next meal shall come from. Why would a beleaguered tribe entrust superstition with making what might turn out to be its “ultimate” decision? Scapulomancy is not a local oddity: this ceremony is widespread across Asia and North America. In Western cultures the equivalent was reading the innards of sacrificial animals, or flight of birds. The author of the article comes up with an interesting conjecture: it is a “randomizer”: it compels random behavior and breaks bad habits. We are creatures of habit (we often call it experience, or wisdom). Working from analogy we’ll implicitly argue: “if it worked last time, it will work again”. It is a simple, self-evident, and lazy proposition (unless one is short of time for deeper reflection), and dangerous to boot. For, in the case of the hunt, the caribou may apply the same line of reasoning and shun places where one member of its group has been killed. Reciprocal anticipatory responses may tendentially increase the odds of failure when using habit as a heuristic. A randomizer eliminates the implicit preference we give to habit – the “true and tested” no longer gets preferential treatment. The “randomizer” imposes irregularity and gives every option the same chance – especially the counter-intuitive ones. Economists speak of “risk” when they know the odds and the possible range of outcomes but can’t predict the impending event. “Uncertainty” is the world of “unknown unknowns” – no predictions please, Mr. Rumsfeld. We tend to fudge the two concepts and blithely to argue “measurable risk” when we in fact are in a world of unfathomable uncertainty. The randomizer destroys self-delusion: uncertainty is king. “It seems safe to assume that human beings require a functional equivalent to a table of random numbers if they are to avoid unwitting regularities in their behavior which can be utilized by adversaries,” says M. MOORE. When deciding whether to go to war or not, divination brings a welcome element of surprise that may befuddle the enemy. It may also be a way to counter behind the scenes conspiracies, which tend to anticipate the public decision (unless, that is, the augur is in cahoots). Somehow I like the idea of giving the counterintuitive an even break

[1] In blog 58 I’ve argued redeeming value for amulets and charms, and other harmless superstitions.
[2] Omar Khayyam MOORE (1957): Divination — A new perspective. American Anthropologist 59: 69– 74. This article is free on the net.

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