How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

The World Won't End. Neither Will Superstitions

We look for omens and clues that give us a sense of control over the future.

In case you haven’t heard, the world may end soon. Very soon. On December 21st at midnight, in fact, the last date on the Mayan Long Count Calendar. Tosh, you say. Just more whacky apocalyptophobia. Well, should we survive this latest Doomsday, in ten days we will only have made it to a new reason to fear the calendar. Triskaidekaphobes beware! Next year is 2013.

Scoff if you will, but the superstition about the number 13 is common enough that elevators in many high rise buildings, particularly hotels, go from floor 12 to 14. Ontario’s provincial roads go from Route 12 to Route 14. Don’t try and find #13 Rue anything in France. Or Gate #13 at many airports. Irish license plates normally end in the last two digits of the current year, but car dealers worried fewer people would buy cars next year to avoid plates that end in 13, so they got the government to change the rules so the license plates on cars sold in the first half of the year will end with 131, and 132 if sold from July through December.

Romans were spooked by the number tredecim, ostensibly because Judas, betrayer of Jesus, was the 13th guest at the Last Supper, though the Bible says nothing of the seating order at that memorable meal. The Crucifixion was on a Friday, ergo paraskevidekatriaphobia, fear of Friday the 13th (Paraskeví =Friday in Greek), which makes September and December next year particularly scary since both feature a Friday the 13th. The Vikings got all triskaidekaphobic after the 13th God in the Norse pantheon, Loki, went from good guy to bad by killing the God Baldr, the God of joy and gladness, and then was the 13th guest to arrive at the funeral. Ancient Persians believed order was maintained by the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, each of which would keep the world running smoothly for 1,000 years, until the 13th century when things would collapse. Iranians today celebrate Sizdah Bedar, which translates to ‘getting rid of 13”, on the 13th of Favardin, the first month on the Iranian calendar. They celebrate outdoors with picnics, , at the end of which they ritually throw away the green sprouts brought to the picnic specifically to absorb all the ill fates of the coming year.

There are plenty of modern forms of triskaidekaphobia, of course. In 2007 Brussels Airlines had to repaint the logo on their planes when passengers noticed it was composed of 13 dots.  In the British National Lottery, 13 was the least popular number in the Lotto (pick 6 numbers) game. Guess how many witches in a coven. Yup, 13. There is even an eerie triskaidekaphobic connection with the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. It runs out of days at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, the calendar’s grouping of years in units of 394 years. (insert ominous music here! DUNH DUNH DUHHHHHH!!!!!!

Of course, 2013 is happy news for triskaidekaphiles, those who love the number 13. Egyptians did. The 13th and last rung on the ladder to eternity was where the soul found everlasting life. The little known 13th labor of Hercules – killing the lion of Cithaeron - did it for our hero, winning him the right to make love to each of King Thespius’s 50 daughters, one a night for 50 nights (the 14th labor?). Nobody turns down the extra donut in a baker’s dozen.

Of course 13, (and the version of it that occasionally falls of Fridays) is not the only number phobia. Many Asian cultures are tetraphobic, afraid of the number four. No mystery why. The word for four sounds like the word for death, so many buildings don’t have a 4th floor, a 14th, a 24th, etc. nor any floors between 39 and 50. (14 and 24 are particularly bad, since they sound like the words of ‘die for sure’ and ‘easy to die’). The navies of Taiwan and South Korea avoid the number 4 when they mark their ships.

And the best number phobia of all, semantically at least, is Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, fear of the number 666, which is linked in the Bible (in Revelation 13….just sayin’) with Satan. After leaving the White House, Nancy Reagan famously had the address on the family home in Los Angeles changed from 666 to 668. On the other hand, Kabbalist Jews believe 666 represents creation and perfection of the world.

Which brings us to the point of this fun little excursion into numeric superstitions. They’re all about the same thing…finding some way of extracting meanings that give us a sense of control over the uncontrollable…our destinies…the future. Peter Bernstein’s wonderful book, Against the Gods. The Remarkable Story of Risk, describes how mathematicians mastered probability theory and allowed us to predict the future with reasonable accuracy, giving rise to everything from the insurance industry to decent poker playing. But most of us still feel at least a little powerless against fate, and powerlessness is scary, so we look for our talismans and signs and omens – whether in the stars or the tea leaves or the numbers – to give ourselves the illusion that we have some control over what is going to happen, a reassuring sense that we can in fact steer our flimsy boat against the stormy winds and currents of fate.

That’s what superstitions really are, in the end, just one more form of irrationality in the face of fear. But before you belittle the foolishness of those who think the world will end on a symbolic date or fret about the bad luck that certain numbers might bring, consider that one of your fears might make the coming year feel a little ominous as well. Ophidiophobes, beware. 2013 is the Chinese Year of the Snake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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