Celebrities die in threes. The moon landing was a hoax. Climate change is a myth. And President Barack Obama? Not born on U.S. soil.
Oh, how we love our conspiracy theories, our superstitions, our beliefs that fly in the face of facts, logic and science. When asked about climate change, half of Americans recently polled by Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science said they didn’t believe in it. (Nearly all scientists said they did.) And how many of us, when Michael Jackson died, thought yes, of course, he completes the Ed McMahon-Farrah Fawcett trio?
Scientists say this is no surprise. We’re wired to do this. Our brains are great at solving scientific puzzles — and to leading us to believe that celebrities live and die under different rules of the universe than the rest of us.
“The human brain was built to look for patterns and causes, but you can be misled,” said Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist at California Institute of Technology and author of “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.”
“And you can start to not believe in science,” Mlodinow said. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and an author who has written about the topic, agreed.
“We are pattern-seeking primates,” Shermer said. “We connect the dots, and often they really are connected. But we don’t have a baloney detection module that says this is a true pattern and this is not. We just assume all patterns are real.”
Basically, Shermer said, you can show people a random collection of anything and they will find a pattern.
This is a good thing. Connecting a rustle in the trees to, say, a predator that can eat you is a good cause-effect pattern to recognize. It’s the basis of science, too, in that we search for explanations for why things happen and why things are the way they are.
But it’s also the foundation for all kinds of silliness and mischief.
“We don’t intuitively grasp randomness,” Shermer said. “We don’t look for randomness and chaos.”
Casinos bank on our attempt to find patterns where they don’t exist, as in the spin of a roulette wheel. Will the marble land on red or black or one of the two green squares?
A long run of red would make it seem black is “due” but the reality is the wheel has no memory. Every spin has the same odds as the spin before, and the spin after. And yet, we stand there calculating the chances a certain number, a certain combination, will come up again. And the casino rakes in millions.