Hello, everyone! Did you miss me? This week, I have been unable to post anything until now as WordPress was being decidedly unsporting. Did anyone else have any problems?* Fingers crossed I can type quick enough before it stops working again (and how am I going to do that with my fingers crossed? You may well ask…)
As you will know if you read my blog ‘Curse of the Ninth’, I have a passing fascination in numerical superstitions and superstitions in general. As a human being (although there are those who would not necessarily agree), I love the unconscious ability of my brain to see patterns where there is simply chaos. Your brain does it too. Be it the shapes of clouds, raindrops on kittens or shadows in the evening sun, we all construct a world that is more ordered than it really is. It’s all to do with context, survival and, I suspect, having some fun along the way too.
There are two pieces of superstition-based observation that I think are illuminating. One is a favourite of both anthropologists and a genius physicist whilst the other has to do with pigeons. Let’s look at pigeons first:
In 1947, B. F. Skinner revealed the results of an experiment he had done with pigeons. Skinner was a behaviourist who spent his life examining how and why humans (mostly) behave the way they do. The pigeon superstition experiment was fascinating and provided a wealth of debate for decades afterwards. He put some hungry pigeons in a cage to which was attached a mechanism for delivering food. The mechanism triggered randomly, with no link to any behaviour of the birds. After a while, Skinner observed:
“One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.” (from “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon”, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947)
The pigeons appeared to be engaging in some bizarre rituals in the hope of making food arrive in the cage.
So, is that superstitious behaviour? There are many arguments that say it isn’t, particularly as you can’t really ask the bird for the reasons. Pigeons probably treated Skinner with some trepidation as he already “had form” with them. In WWII, he had designed a guidance system for missiles using three, yup, you’ve guessed it, pigeons. It was called “Project Pigeon”. Skinner complained that, because the system relied on three pigeons in the front of the missile, pecking on a screen that showed the target, no-one would take them seriously. Hard to see why really.
The other observations of human behaviour relate to the idea of the “cargo cult”. The wonderful physicist and all-round good-egg, Richard Feynman, used the concept to talk about the descent of scientific research into mediocre, ‘good results only’ discovery, which although he was talking in 1974, often seems to be the case these days (see “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre for some stunning and, at times, frightening examples). The idea of cargo cult is this: in WWII, when the Allies weren’t using pigeons as Sat Nav devices, they were using South Pacific islands as military bases. After the end of the war, they left the islanders to their fate. Many, who had seen food and other resources literally drop from the skies, couldn’t understand what had happened. So they created a superstition out of it. They reconstructed landing strips and supply drop zones, donned headphones made out of bamboo and chanted the words that the original radio operators had used to bring the ‘planes in. When none arrived, they modified the shape of the headphones, changed the words slightly and blamed themselves for the lack of success. Cargo cults still exist today (search for “John Frum” as an example).
In a way, this is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to keep going in the face of a complete lack of understanding and success. There are some days, when writing is difficult, where I wonder whether I should follow some ‘ritual’ that I may have stumbled upon for making the inspiration flow. In this respect, I am not even up to cargo cult standards – I have yet to discover a magic rite that might do the job.
But then I’m not really superstitious. There is no significance in the fact that this thirteenth post has been a trial to write (it has probably taken thirteen attempts to write thanks to the technical issues with WordPress itself); that there are thirteen letters in the name “Project Pigeon”; that, of the two years mentioned, 1974 can be written 1 + 974 which equals 75 x 13 and that the other year, 1947, can be written 1 + 9 – 4 + 7 = 13; even this post has eight hundred and fifty-eight words (sixty-six times thirteen).
No significance at all.
* Turns out they did!