Nov 11 2011
Numerology is a funny thing – the magical belief that numbers possess a mystical meaning and power beyond their mathematical notation. Numbers speak to us, they resonate somewhere in our brains. Perhaps it is because they present an opportunity for pattern recognition and data mining. But it seems to be more than that. We notice when the odometer ticks over from 29,999 miles to 30,000 miles. And we notice when there are funny patterns with numbers.
For example, today is November 11, 2011 – 11/11/11. Skeptics understand that there is no cosmic significance to this. Our calendar numbering system is completely arbitrary, and so the date has no more significance than the change from Dec 31, 1999 to Jan 1, 2000 (putting aside the debate about when the new millennium actually started). With Y2K there was a number-based computer issue, one that was largely fixed by feverishly updating old code. With 11/11/11 there’s nothing but a pretty pattern. Next year we will have 12/12/12, which is just as insignificant, although some people claim (I think mostly not seriously) this will be the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar.
But still, it’s cool. There is something as least passingly neat about the fact that today is 11/11/11.
For those less skeptically inclined, patterns in numbers can go beyond a superficial aesthetic attraction, however. They can seem to convey real meaning, and contain supernatural power over events. As an example I recently received the following e-mail from an SGU listener about numerology is South African cricket:
Just a little point about superstition in tha game of Cricket.
When the score hits 111 (Nelson) or 222 (double Nelson) and so on this is referred to as Nelson – Beware! To counteract this the fans, some umpires and team mates stand on one leg until they get off the point of Nelson i.e onto 112.
During the match between South Africa and Australia on 11 Nov 2011 and with the score on 111 the two tv commentators were discussing the amazing power of the Nelson score:
“Just want to point out though, it was the number 11 who got the highest score in the Australian innings”
“It was too and an impressive 14 it was”
“Would have been even better if he’d got 11”
“It was nearly the eleventh time a number 11 had done that!”
“The 8th wasn’t it?”
As the camera panned around to their team mates standing off the pitch all on one leg, the batsmen played a simple shot, moving the game off 111 and onwards to 112 as the commentators continued buzzing about the power of the amazing Nelson.
Shortly after with S Africa on 125 not on 111 but requiring a further 111 to win the commentators groaned,
“Ohh Here we go again!”
Thanks for the great podcast! (changed my life – honest)
This is nothing, of course, but superstitious thinking, which is common in sports. Superstitions are a way to create the illusion of control over uncontrollable or chaotic events. In team sports particularly an individual might feel they lack the control they would like to have, and so engage in all sorts of superstitious behavior to increase their odds of victory. This is even more bizarre among fans, who feel they can influence the outcome of a game they are watching on TV by the donning of a lucky shirt, or by being out of the room when a difficult field goal kick is attempted. Numerology is a type of superstition.
You will also see in the e-mail several examples of the common flaws in logic that people commit in order to maintain their belief in the magical property of numbers. The first is data mining – looking for coincidences among a large set of data. Often we do not naively appreciate how truly large the data set is, because we only notice the pattern and do not notice all the potential patterns that are not there. Player number 11 got the highest score in the Australian innings. What about the other innings? What other performance measure might be attributed to number 11? How many potential 11s were not realized? The commenters see a few – the high score was not 11 but 14, but it was “nearly the 11th time” that player 11 got the high score. The number 8 was converted to “nearly 11” – of course it’s also nearly 10 and nearly 12.
We saw this kind of numerology after the events of 9/11/2001. Here is an exerpt from a 9/11 numerology site:
September 11th (9+1+1 = 11) is the 254th day of the year (2+5+4 = 11) which means there is 111 days left in the year. New York was the 11th state to endorse the constitution and New York City has 11 letters. World Trade Center buildings 1 and 2 were 110 stories tall. The Freemasonic Statue of Liberty right near the Trade Center stands on an 11-pointed star pedestal. The number “11” itself is two pillars side by side like the twin towers. It was even American Airlines (AA = 11) Flight 11 carrying 11 crew members that allegedly hit the north tower.
We see these alignments and our monkey brains are uncomfortable with the notion that this is all coincidence. This is partly because we miss all the possible numbers that do not align. How many letters are there is “World Trade Center?” Why would there be any significance to the number of letters in “New York City?” This is also an example of retrofitting, something we are very good at. We are really adept at finding patterns, making things fit.
The process of science and critical thinking, however, is a filter that helps us determine which patterns are real, meaning that they are the result of some real phenomenon in the world rather than just random chance. Our monkey brains also have reality testing filters. Our pattern recognition engine often fights with our reality testing module – which one tends to win probably determines much about our personality, at least along the conspiracy thinking to skeptical axis.
Anyone, however, can consciously apply a critical thinking filter to apparent pattern recognition. One good quick rule of thumb is to ask – is the pattern only apparent in retrospect, or does it successfully make predictions about the future. Real patterns should persist, fake ones are no more likely than any other pattern. For example, from that same 9/11 numerology site we have this:
3-11, March 11th, 2004 ( Madrid “terrorist” bombings )
6-11 June 11th, 2007 ( FBI/UN Nuclear Terrorism Law Enforcement Conference )
9-11 Sept. 11th, 2001 ( New York City/WTC “terrorist” attack )
12-11 Dec. 11th, 2010 ( Another event yet to come? )
The first three examples are retrofitted and cherry picked. If the pattern is real, however, then the author predicts that there should be a significant terrorist event on 12/11/2010. There wasn’t. The pattern is therefore falsified. Of course you can engage some special pleading to rescue it (perhaps a terrorist plot was averted on that day and has not been made public), but that can be done to rescue any failed hypothesis.
All of this is just one more example of the flaws in our evolved cognition, and the methods we can put into place to compensate for them. It’s OK to notice numerical alignments, even celebrate arbitrary numerical milestones. It can be fun. As long as we don’t confuse such arbitrary or coincidental occurrences for a mystical power in the universe.
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