Nov 11 2011

11.11.11

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:

Hi Chaps
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”

“Exactly”

“It was nearly the eleventh time a number 11 had done that!”

“The 8th wasn’t it?”

“Yes correct”

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.

29 responses so far

29 thoughts on “11.11.11”

  1. Kawarthajon says:

    There actually was a terrorist attack on December 11, 2010 – a bombing in Sweden that killed one person and injured two others.

    The date is irrelevant and not auspicious in any way, however, because there are terrorist attacks almost every day somewhere in the world. If you google any random date with the word “terrorist” you are sure to find an attack somewhere in the world. Especially in a place like India, which has too many terrorist groups to count and there is probably a bombing, shooting or plot discovered most days of every year.

  2. daedalus2u says:

    It is Nigel Tufnel Day

    http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/11/11/spinal-tap-nigel-tufnel-day/

    He was the musician who required his amplifiers to go to 11 instead of the 10 that regular amplifiers went to.

  3. bachfiend says:

    Stephen King’s latest novel ‘11.22.63’ (strongly recommended, but then again, I like Stephen King) uses the Americans’ confusing way of giving dates.

  4. Yeah – terrorist attacks are like earthquakes, they happen every day. So predicting an earthquake is a sure thing. But since a prediction is made, that implies a significant terrorist attack or earthquake, otherwise it’s like predicting the sun will come up in the morning.

    American dates are not inherently confusing. We write July 1, 2011, which directly shortens to 7/1/11. That makes perfect sense. Do you write 1 July, 2011?

    It is only the advent of computers and the default ordering by numbers that makes the American dating system inconvenient. So I use the international system for, say, dating computer files I want to keep in order (2011-07-01).

  5. ConspicuousCarl says:

    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.

    That’s because bad things happen in threes, so it’s all real. QED, doctor.

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I think the comma its not needed if they order it as 1 July 2011. I may have heard british news people on TV say “first July twenty eleven”.

  7. Willibrord says:

    But, but, but — “Trade Center” has 11 letters, and “World Trade” *almost* does :-p

  8. tmac57 says:

    Bachfiend-

    Americans’ confusing way of giving dates.

    I was just thinking that everyone else has a confusing way of giving dates 😉
    Must be just my monkey brain.

  9. SARA says:

    The sports commentator’s desperation to make significance out the insignificant by creating “almost significance” was hysterical. “almost 11”
    Or it would be, it wasn’t so clearly the natural bent of the human mind, looking for patterns where none exist, looking for extra natural involvement in the mundane.
    The common American story of comparing Lincoln and Kennedy is another classic example. Once people have enumerate all the odd correlations, you can ask them what they mean to imply and they are quite stumped. They love the idea that it implies something, but they haven’t a clue what it really implies.
    Why we want some mysterious “other” hand in these events is beyond me. But I don’t exclude myself from the crowd. If I don’t stop myself and consider it rationally, I find myself cataloging these patterns and looking for deep significance without even realizing it.
    Its easy to dispel the idea, with a moment of consideration, but why does my mind waste time doing it in the first place?

  10. thequiet1 says:

    I hope the commentators weren’t taking it as seriously as it seems when reading the transcript. Cricket is a bit like baseball with the amount of statistics there are for people to pore over and find anomalies.

    At least this is distracting from Australia’s worst batting collapse in over 100 years occurring in the same game.

  11. martinc says:

    Steve, yes we do write and say 1st July 2011, here in the the UK. It’s the most common way round we say it but the pervasive US culture is making your format more common.

  12. banyan says:

    Woah, this post has exactly eleven comments!

    Wait… shit…

  13. ChrisH says:

    Really?

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    I read this during breakfast this morning just before my 14km City2Sea run. My time was 1:14. There’s an 11 in there, and the 14 is repeated from the race distance. There were 11 comments when I looked in but I didn’t have time respond. Now there are 13 comments. Bad luck. And my race number was nearly 1111 (in fact, it was 1811). Pity is wasn’t at least 1411 or 1311.

    “…yes we do write and say 1st July 2011, here in the the UK”

    Here in Australia we also write it logically as day/month/year 😉

  15. ChrisH says:

    BillyJoe7:

    Here in Australia we also write it logically as day/month/year

    Though, when you are trying to keep files in chronological order it makes more sense to do year/month/day. So if you scan photos from 1973, it makes sense to name them Photo19730705Num01 to Photo19730705Num20, which places them before Photo19850810Num01.

    This is only from my experience of scanning in historical documents from an organization I belong to. It makes it easier to have the file name reflect the date instead of depending on some random datebase.

    Which is possibly why names in some countries are often in the order of “family name”, “given name”… which means you could be 7BillyJoe.

    November 11th is also Statehood Day where I live. But not many folks remember it, even though it happened in 1889, which predates Armistice Day. I did put a flag out, but had to pull it in when the wind and rain became too strong.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    “when you are trying to keep files in chronological order it makes more sense to do year/month/day’

    Fair enough, but I was countering the month/day/year jumble.

    “Which is possibly why names in some countries are often in the order of “family name”, “given name”… which means you could be 7BillyJoe.”

    Actually I would be JoeBilly. Someone else had already chosen BillyJoe – though I have never seen him comment on this blog – so I was forced to add a numeral. On the science-based medicine blogs, I am BillyJoe.

  17. HHC says:

    My pattern recognition engine pictures a Porsche 911 on the date. Perhaps its our association of words with numbers that create fantastic images.

  18. ChrisH says:

    Yeah, the month/day/year really does not make much sense. My daughter and I have been using the day/month/year format for the masses of forms required for a senior in high school.

  19. ccbowers says:

    The order of day, month, year is strictly a matter of convention. I’m surprised at all the petty comments on here about one being inherently better more logical than another. You can rationalize any order, and it all matters very little as long as it is understood. I understand the issue with having documents in chronological order, although I wonder why there is no separate date “tag” or date identifier.

  20. thequiet1 says:

    “I’m surprised at all the petty comments on here about one being inherently better more logical than another.” – ccbowers

    Most skeptics don’t discriminate by or race, class or culture, so we have to find something. Date formats make as much sense as anything else.

    day/month/year FTW.

    year/month/day when file order is important.

    month/day/year if you are trying to be difficult.

    Yes, I am datist.

  21. ccbowers says:

    Where do the hour, minutes and seconds go?

  22. ChrisH says:

    Would it depend on if you are using a 12 hour or 24 hour clock? 😉

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    ccbowers,

    “‘I’m surprised at all the petty comments on here about one being inherently better more logical than another”

    I can’t speak for the others but my comments were not meant to be taken seriously. 🙂

  24. BillyJoe7 says:

    Nobody noticed that my race number 1811 sums to 11
    Also my time of 1:14 equals 74 minutes which sums to 11
    And the race results came out today and my place of 3134 also sums to 11

  25. SteveA says:

    “American dates are not inherently confusing. We write July 1, 2011, which directly shortens to 7/1/11. That makes perfect sense. Do you write 1 July, 2011?”

    I always used to be baffled by the American system of writing dates as month/day/year, when day/month/year seems so much more logical. However this system is not peculair to the USA, a few years ago I visited the British Library’s newspaper archive and found that all the Victorian newspapers used month/day/year.

    I don’t know when British usage switched to putting the day first, but it seems that the current American convention is, like many other things, a reflection of old practice from across the pond.

  26. SARA says:

    If we ever vote on silly topic skews in Neurological comments – I’m voting for this one. I had to laugh.
    You remind me of my friends and I at happy hour, happily discussing pointless minutia with all relevant background facts and their possible implications.

  27. BillyJoe7 says:

    Sara,

    “I had to laugh.”

    I don’t know about the others, but I think we’re on the same page with this. 😀

  28. tfk says:

    Ironically, the US Independence Day is referred to in (almost) the European format: 4th of July. (Not to mention that 4 + 7 = 11.)

  29. ChrisH says:

    Now it is time to discuss how illogical it is to assign numbers to certain months that do not match the meaning of their names. Those months being September, October, November and December. And I know it has something to do with arbitrarily deciding that the beginning of a new year should not be the middle of March, but the 1st of January. They could have just as easily made the 1st of March the beginning of a new year.

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