Encountering the Irrational

Encountering the Irrational October 29, 2011

I was surprised — though I shouldn’t be — by two examples of irrationality among my acquaintances and friends last weekend. The first was at a poker table, where two guys I’ve played with fairly regularly — friendly acquaintances but not guys I know particularly well — were wearing these braided rope necklaces. I thought they actually looked kind of cool, until one started talking to the other about how it was supposed to make him feel better and prevent aches and pains.

The next night I was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant that is owned by a couple that I have known for years — again, friendly acquaintances but not people I’d call close friends. The restaurant is extremely old, built in the 1880s, and from my table I could see a sign in the glass-encased hostess stand that said — this is not an exact quote, but close — “This location has been investigated by Ghost Hunters and found to be haunted.”

I didn’t say anything in either case, I just chuckled. But it reminded me of Tim Minchin’s brilliant poem Storm. I’ve been in similar situations many times.


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  • Aquaria

    In my bedroom, we often get the feeling of a cat jumping onto the bed and walking around the bed. That first pounce onto the bed can be strong enough to wake us up. Cause: We live not far from a railroad track, so the first feeling of the train when it’s close feels like the pounce, and the rest of the train going by is the walking around the room.


  • Artor

    The braided necklace thing might actually help. The placebo effect is pretty astonishing sometimes. As long as they can suspend their rationality, it actually can become rational to believe in its efficacy.

  • The latter doesn’t seem particularly irrational. I mean, true, they MIGHT believe that the place is actually haunted, or they might just believe that being associated with a TV show might bring in an extra customer or two, as might urban legends about the place being haunted. If my business were not expressly involved in science or skepticism, I’d likely take advantage of any such advantage in marketting myself.

    At most, it means they are hoping that some percentage of their potential customer base is irrational.

  • mobius

    Storm was the first experience I had of Tim Minchin. IIRC, it was brought to my attention on Pharyngula, so it is one of the many things I have PZ to thank.

    Storm is still my favorite Minchin piece despite having come across many many other pieces that I really do love. Which says to me that Storm is a truly remarkable performance. And, on top of that, has such a pointed and appropriate message.

  • Aquaria

    The braided necklace thing might actually help.

    I remember last year during the NLCS when the camera panned to someone in the Phillies dugout wearing one of those stupid necklaces. It was the bat boy.

    One of my rules about fads is that the sure sign that they’re past their sell by date is when they show up in kid culture. You knew when breakdancing, disco, and new wave had outgrown their usefulness when you saw them on Saturday morning kids’ cartoons.

    So the kid wearing one of those ridiculous necklaces means they’re past their sell by date. They’re bullshit, anyway, like those stupid power bracelets. Or earth shoes.

  • dingojack

    For those unfamiliar with Tim Minchin – Dingo

  • Azkyroth

    I suppose that’s closer to home than finding out both your Chem 1A lab partners are creationists…

  • wscott

    I got to see Minchin perform Storm live a few weeks ago (along with other routines, of course). What made it even more brilliant was the concert was in The People’s Republic Of Boulder, the Rocky Mountain Capital for all things woo. Most of the packed house was loving it, but there were definitely a few people sitting in stony, unamused silence. One assumes they’d never heard Tim before and were dragged there by friends.

  • Pustulio

    You of all people should know how notoriously superstitious poker players are. My favorite joke at the poker table is “you know it’s bad luck to be superstitious” whenever someone says or does something really irrational in the name of luck. Few people get it.

  • cp3o

    Ed – Just a note to let you know we have similar stupidities (though fewer of the fundie xtians) and that your efforts are appreciated this side of the pond – even if “The restaurant is extremely old, built in the 1880s” produces a sagacious head nodding amongst those of us who live in a village mentioned in the Domesday Book (compiled in 1086) and where the village’s restaurant/hotel, built as a family home, was started in the 1430s, extended and embellished 200 years later but still has the Orangery and a Lodge added almost three hundred years before your 130 year old restaurant was built.

  • roland72

    Heh – @cp30 indeed I had a little chuckle at “extremely old” – my house was built in 1847 (not drastically old by London standards) and my college had a “New” Court that was built in 1823, most of the college having been rebuilt in 1593. And even that’s not remarkably old as Cambridge colleges go.

    Didn’t listen to Tim Minchin (it’s the middle of the night here) but what do you do when you discover that people you thought you knew well are woo-ists? A good friend of mine was going to get some reiki (think he was recommended it by someone) and I said in a friendly sort of way that it wouldn’t do anything – and I got the “that’s just your opinion” response. I mean, he’s wrong! In the end I sent him an email with a link to a real-world-based review of it and left it at that, but it left me feeling very odd.

  • jamessweet

    The braided rope necklace tng, and how you thought it actually looked pretty cool, reminded me of another thing:

    There a these amber teething necklaces that are fashionable for New Age-y parents to put on their infants, with the silly idea that amber releases, uh, some kind of something or oer that is soothing. Yeah….

    Thing is, my wife thinks they are really cool looking (I don’t disagree) and unlike other necklaces, they’ve been designed to be safe for infants to wear, i.e. no choking or strangulation hazard. So she sorta wants to get one for our youngest. I hate to say it, but I’m opposed just because I know that a lot of parents will know what it is, and I don’t want anybody thinking that anybody in our family buys into that crap! Hehehehe….

  • cp3o

    @ roland72 – re your friend and reiki

    I think you’re asking why people make decisions that, on the face of it, are irrational. It’s a fascinating question.

    It is sometimes said that one cannot use rational argument to counter that which has been accepted irrationally – however I suspect that there is always a seemingly rational justification (be it conscious or not) based upon the information the decider has, the training (formal and informal) they’ve received, the investment that they have made (time, effort, money) in their lifestyle and their personal needs. By their personal needs I mean the basic drivers found in B2B selling – acceptance by peers/approval by authority/increased financial reward/ability to control/maintenance of position or status/avoidance of blame/dissipation of guilt/sex etc..

    I suspect that without a detailed knowledge of someone’s needs it is unlikely that we can present a response which will overcome the other factors. Therefore a polite but firm indication that we disagree on rational grounds is probably all that we can do – remembering that trying to press the wrong buttons may serve both to entrench the error and to alienate the person we want to help.

  • zoboz

    The building my firm moved into has a reputation for being haunted – it’s an old, historic home that some say has an old owner’s specter peering through the windows late at night. In fact, the very day we moved in about two years ago, a pair of ghost hunters showed up and asked to be shown around. Did we let them? You bet. They were characters in their own right, and the fact that the building has some quirky stories about it only makes working there more fun.

    I love telling people about our alleged ghost, too. Sure, I always preface things by explaining that none of us believe in it, I mention that we’ve never seen or heard or felt or smelled or sensed any sign of anything remotely unnatural, hell, I tell them flat out that “we all know there’s no such things as ghosts, but here’s the story for those who want to believe anyway …”

    And then I tell the story with as much campfire-tale creepiness as I can muster up. After all, people who don’t believe in ghosts like ghost stories, too – and telling someone who does believe in ghosts that they don’t really exist is sort of like telling a smoker that cigarettes are bad for their health. They’ve heard it a thousand times, they know what the science tells them, they know they’re being irrational, but it sure as hell isn’t going to stop them from doing what they want to do.

    From a business perspective, I think it’s had a bit of a benefit, too: people love talking about our old building and our ghost, and it certainly is one more thing that makes us memorable. Has it brought a lot of extra revenue through the doors? Probably not. But I’d be willing to bet that it helps create a sense that there’s a little something special about coming to our place. The ghost may not exist, but I’m glad the stories do.

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