Popular Delusions IX: Numerology

As you can see from this picture, the building where I live has no thirteenth floor:

Triskadekaphobia

But of course, what this picture depicts is a mathematical impossibility. My building does have a thirteenth floor; it’s just that it’s mislabeled as the fourteenth floor, with all the floors above it similarly mislabeled by one.

This may be a small thing, but every time I step into the elevator, it’s a jarring reminder of how superstitious beliefs still permeate our society. I can see the logic in, say, a casino mislabeling its thirteenth floor – after all, that business makes money primarily by catering to irrational people. But an apartment building, really? I live in a modern high rise in a well-to-do section of New York, and I can assure my landlords that they would not have difficulty finding people willing to live on the 13th floor.

Numerology and number phobia may be among the oldest of superstitions. Ironically, the specific numbers that are considered “unlucky” vary from culture to culture – in Western societies it’s 13 (ironically, Indians consider 13 to be a lucky number), while in Eastern cultures, 4 is usually thought of as unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the word for “death”. 11 is unlucky in Italy, for a similar reason: the Roman numeral “XVII” can be rearranged to spell “VIXI”, which means “I lived”. 666, a very unlucky number indeed in Christianity, is lucky in many Eastern cultures. 7 is often considered lucky in the West and 8 in the East, but both of these are unlucky to Buddhists.

The usual accompaniment of unlucky-number superstition is numerology, which can be found among groups from September 11 conspiracy theorists to Jewish devotees of the Kabbalah (who call the practice gematria). All devotees of the practice use the same technique: assigning number values to letters and words, then putting those numbers through an arbitrary series of mathematical transformations until they arrive at some number arbitrarily deemed “significant”. A related method is to sort through huge numbers of numerical facts, looking for a number which several of those facts share in common, and assuming that those facts must also be connected.

Since there are literally no rules to this process, and since there are vast pools of numerical data to draw from, it’s no surprise that devotees of this method can arrive at whatever numbers they deem to be significant. But the significance is not in the numbers themselves. Like seeing patterns in clouds, the significance is imposed on the numbers by the mind of the observer. This can even be done with apparent mathematical rigor, as in this column from Jane Bryant Quinn:

David Leinweber, an expert in quantitative investment, satirized the “science” of prediction by sifting through numbers to see how he could have forecast the performance of the U.S. stock market from 1981 through 1993. He combined the total volume of butter produced each year in Bangladesh with the number of sheep in the U.S. and a few other variables, to produce a formula that forecast the past with 99 percent accuracy.

If precise, quantitative formulas can be so easily exploited to find seeming significance in patternless numerical noise, it’s no surprise that the far less rigorous devotees of numerology can do the same. The mathematician John Allen Paulos, in his recent book Irreligion, has an example of how easily these spurious correlations can be concocted:

Think of any four numbers associated with yourself (your height or weight, the number of children you have, your birthday or anniversary, whatever) and label them X, Y, Z and W. Now consider various products and powers of these numbers. Specifically consider the expression Xa Yb Zc Wd, where the exponents a, b, c and d range over the values 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, or the negatives of these numbers.

…Among all these values, there will likely be several that equal, to at least a couple of decimal places, universal constants such as the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, the fine structure constant, the boiling point of carbon, and so on. (p.23)

The astronomer Cornelis de Jager, who came up with this formula, was able to use it to prove that there is a deep connection between the laws of the cosmos and his bicycle: the square of his bike’s pedal diameter, multiplied by the square root of the product of the diameters of his bell and light, was 1,836 – the same as the ratio of the mass of a proton to the mass of an electron. A shocking cosmic kismet? Proof of some grander and deeper significance to the manufacturing of Dutch bicycles? Rather, like all numerology, it is simply an example of the law of truly large numbers: although the odds of one particular coincidence are small, given enough data, the odds that some coincidence will occur are very good indeed.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    My favorite was after September 11, 2001, if you typed the numbers 911 into a document, and changed the font to MS Wingdings, the symbols for 911 became an airplane flying towards what looked like two towers.

    I just tried it again, but I think Micro$oft must have changed it. It’s now something innocuous.

  • http://intrinsicallyknotted.wordpress.com Susan B.

    Of course, if you’re working with integers you can make them equal whatever you want. I’d be more impressed if someone found a deep connection between, say, pi and e.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    ha! look what i posted last summer:
    http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/search?q=elevator+pop+quiz

    what possesses us to take pictures of elevator buttons?!

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar (India)

    ……what this picture depicts is an engineering impossibility, since the structure from 14th floor upwards cannot float on air……..

    I am pained to see that critical reasoning and scientific temper is so conspicuously absent even in the general North American population, since we usually feel that it is only in our country (India), that we have such ignorance. We usually look upto USA for norms of behavior. Who shall we look upto now ?

  • Jim Baerg

    Hey Ebon don’t you know it’s bad luck to live in a building put up by people who can’t count?? :-)

    Susan B.

    e^(i*pi)= -1 :where i=square root of -1

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    I can see the logic in, say, a casino mislabeling its thirteenth floor – after all, that business makes money primarily by catering to irrational people.

    I think this is perhaps slightly unfair: for people who enjoy gambling to a moderate and healthy degree, I’m perfectly happy to accept that they are paying for the service of a ‘thrill’ in the same way others might pay for rollercoasters.

    Agree with your general point as ever!

  • Sean M.

    Susan: You might be interested in e^(i * PI) + 1 = 0, where e is the base of the natural logarithm, i is the square root of negative one, and PI is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. You can prove it with first year Calculus! I think its a testament to just how elegant and cool this construct called mathematics is; the more theistically minded sometimes cite it as proof for a deistic god (shrugs bemusedly).

  • Samuel Skinner

    Trust me- ignorance permeates large parts of the populations of most countries. Although many people here who are from America may think some of the stuff the Europeans are doing is better, we recognize that a good portion of their nations are idiots. The differance though appears to be the fact that Europeans don’t flaunt stupidity and celebrate it as a good thing. I mean, elitist is an insult in the US!

    As for this particular supersticion… yeah, it is silly, but it only exists by social inertia. All the non-religious supersticions mostly have died out due to the extra work required… I think. Anyone have any recollections of people doing something that would count (Aside from the new age stuff)?

  • Steve Bowen

    I mean, elitist is an insult in the US!

    I’ve heard it said quite often that it is possible for a US presidential candidate to appear too intelligent.
    On numerology and gambling, I am often amazed at how many of my otherwise rational friends and aquaintances will include “significant” numbers in their lottery ticket every week. If pressed they agree it will make no difference to the already remote chance of winning the jackpot, but they do it anyway. Another good lottery exampe
    le is the person who says “I was only one or two numbers away from winning” ( they had 2,5,7,24 and 36: Winning ticket was 3,4,9,23 and 34)as though that really means they were any closer to winning than if their selections hads been say ten or more digits away.

  • http://www.nullifidian.net/ null

    Oddly enough, today’s episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less appears* to deal with numerology. Coincidence? I think so!

    * I haven’t yet listened to check.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    Dammit Ebon, I was going to do a post about people’s fear of numbers! You must have inserted a computer chip in my brain when I dozed off during the Christopher Hitchens interview at the CFI conference so you could download my ideas! :-)

    On Old Country Road in Carle Place on Long Island, there is an office building with the address 666. At night, the 666 numbers are lit up brightly. I tried to take a picture of it with my digital camera so I could use it in a post, but the image was too blurry. I like how they make the number so prominent. It’s like an in your face refutation to all of the fears people have about it.

    Funny thing about the #4 in Chinese cultures. Last summer, my family and I had a stopover in Hong Kong on our way to visit her family in the Philippines. We were meeting an HK trademark attorney I knew for lunch in Central. She gave us the address of the restaurant and told us it was on the 4th floor. So that afternoon we get to the building, with my 6 year old son and 4 year old daugher in tow, and get into an elevator. I go to press the for the 4th floor, and there is no 4 button! I was like WTF? We ended up getting off at the 3rd floor while I walked around trying to find the damn place. Finally, I noticed the restaurant. There was a stairway to get up to it. I told the HK attorney about it when she showed up, and she explained to me the thing about how the 4th floor in Chinese culture is like the 13th floor in American culture. Chinese culture, as well as Asian culture in generally, is big on taboos. If you say something like “This will be the death of me!”, to them saying it will make it happen.

    What is bizarre is that many of these societies are so modern and technologically advanced, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, and yet their culture is still so permeated with taboos and superstitions. It is depressing too, because it makes me think that if they can’t shake such things, then how can we expect religious and superstitious beliefs to disappear in our own society?

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    I faced a similar issue to Tommy in the dorm building I lived in last year. I lived on the 13th floor of the building, but it wasn’t labeled on the elevators. What we actually had there was an odd arrangement where the elevators stopped between pairs of floors, and then you had to walk up or down a half-flight to where you wanted to be. The last stop was between the 12th and 13th floors, but only the 12th was labeled. You could still get to the 13th from that stop just like any other floor; it just wasn’t labeled.

  • Stephen

    Yes, I did a big double-take on my first visit to America when I discovered that my hotel had no floor numbered 13. I couldn’t believe that that sort of superstition was still rife in the late twentieth century; I’ve never met it in Europe. On the other hand, we still have homeopathy and astrology in abundance, so I mustn’t get condescending about it.

    Nice to see Professor Cornelis de Jager get a mention: he’s a charming person, who was still giving talks to the public on astronomy well past his eightieth birthday. (His equally charming daughter runs Hotel Molenbos on Texel, which can be warmly recommended if you happen to be going that way and aren’t on an absolute shoestring budget.)

    @Spanish Inquisitor: I thought that trick was actually done with one of the flight numbers involved, but I just tried to reproduce it and also failed.

  • Christopher

    Like the professor from “The Number 23″ told Jim Carey “You’re looking for the number 23, so you’re finding it.” Look long enough, hard enough for any number you’ll eventually find it and start ascribing all sorts of significance to it (whether said significance is real or imagined).

  • K

    Until the apartment complex starts losing money due to their obvious superstition pandering, they have no incentive.

  • Brock

    Dominic Self– Marketers who deal with any product subject to addictive behavior always market to the addict, not to the temperate user. The basic rule is that 10% of the market uses 90% of the product. A good way to see this is to look at liquor ads, and you will see how they are geared towards the addict (It’s always time for Michelob!) Ebon’s example is relevant because the casino cares as much for the business of the gambling addict as it does for the business of ten non-pathological gamblers.
    I think this can be applied to the apartment owners, who are more concerned about the person who refuses to rent on the 13th floor than they are about the skeptics who are amused by the phenomenon. Certainly I would be amused, but it wouldn’t keep me from renting in the building if the owners found that they had to cater to the superstitious.

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    At the state park where I am working at the moment we have cabins that can be rented like hotel rooms. A woman had called and reserved cabin #11 but due to some circumstance we could not rent it so we informed her that we could give her cabin #13. She refused and would offer no explanation. I’d say with certainty it was due to superstition.

    To offer a second anecdote on this topic: as a child, I was immersed in a fundamentalist church that preached heavily about the rapture. Being very young at the time, this type of belief affected me deeply and I developed a sort of quasi-prophetic notion about the supposed event that was imminent. Jesus “had told me” that when I spotted 7 crossing jet contrails in the sky, then that would signal his return. It didn’t take long to for seven sightings to mount and when Jesus didn’t split the sky open, I was disappointed. Needless to say, in the grand tradition of updating and rationalizing failed prophecies, I thought that 7 must not have been the right number and that it should have been 49. I lost interest before I ever made it to 49.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859405216390259275 Rose / Intergalactic Hussy

    I work in a building with no 13th floor and always joke with my friends on the 14th floor, “How does it feel to be on the real 13th floor”…lol

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    Me, I notice that you live in a building with it’s own club. Pretty sweet! :)

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    While in Korea back in the day, I visited a friend in Seoul whose parents lived in one of those high rise apartment buildings. The floor buttons were labeled 1 – 2 – 3 – F – 5… etc.

    “F” of course is the first letter of “Four” and not at all the character pronounced “sa” which is both “three” and the character for “death.”

  • Chris Parra

    So, how far does this superstition with the number 13 thing go in these apartments? Does anyone live in #148? Or is it kept permanently vacant just because the numbers add up to 13 and it’s on the thirteenth floor which is mislabled as the fourteenth?

  • rob

    I’ve always considered the lack of a thirteenth floor in buildings to be a charming and harmless cultural quirk. I rather hope it continues. Anybody with actual 13 superstitions won’t be fooled by relabeling the elevator button, anyway.

    A few years ago I was sitting on the bus and I noticed a guy playing with numbers on a little notepad sitting next to me. I have always been a little interested in math, despite not having a head for it, so I was probably staring as I challenged myself to figure out what kind of math he was doing just from the equations he was using. He caught me staring and said, with that indulgent old man tone, “Oh, are you interested in numerology?”

    I said I was interested in math and he apparently assumed they were the same thing, because he went on to explain how he was using numbers from the bible to predict lottery numbers. He flipped back through the notebook and explained how he had failed to multiply or add or square root before he subtracted or cubed, so therefore he had played the wrong numbers. To his credit, he was keeping track of lottery numbers and comparing them to the numbers he actually played, almost like he was actually testing himself… except it never even occurred to him that the entire system might be flawed.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Stephen:

    I thought that trick was actually done with one of the flight numbers involved, but I just tried to reproduce it and also failed.

    As I recall, the flight number (which I don’t think was one of the actual flight numbers, it was just claimed that it was) produced a skull and crossbones, the Star of David, and something else (I had thought a hypodermic needle, though I don’t see that in the Wingdings font that I have), not necessarily in that order.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I say someone fire up their wingdings font and keep typing things until something threatening comes up. That font is in on all these conspiracies!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Numerology has got to be a textbook example of seeing patterns where there are none. There are so many lovely real patterns in numbers, too! I suppose that exacerbates the problem.

    So am I bad that I thought it was cool that I turned thirteen on a Friday the thirteenth? (Nothing terrible happened. If was fun imagining all the scary things that might, though).

  • insertcotku

    e^(pi*i)+1=0

    Euler’s Equation.

  • Dahmer

    The 666 thing is another misconception that xians have. The actual number is 616.


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