Superstition – inevitable?

There are some great photographs at The Big Picture ( of launches to, and activities on, the International Space Station (ISS). Have a look at Journeys to the International Space Station.

I quite like this one because of the strange contrast between a religious blessing and the technical manifestation in the Soyuz rocket.  This is really an example of how even rational humans will indulge in superstitious actions. Especially before a trip, a sporting or theatrical performance and similar activities.

Bruce Hood, author of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable talks about this sort of apparent superstitious activity by otherwise rational people. He relates how some of his colleagues have a ritual they go through before sending of a manuscript to a journal. This seems to happen, he suggests, whenever people undertake an activity over which they don’t have full control.

Bruce was interviewed by D. J. Grothe in the For Good Reason podcast recently. Entitled Why We Believe in the Unbelievable it’s worth listening to. He argues that many superstitions are inevitable, but this doesn’t in any way reduce the need for scepticism.

During the interview Hood mentions the superstitious customs around manned (peopled) Soyuz launches. One of the space tourists, Charles Simonyi mentioned the custom of cosmonauts urinating on the wheels of the bus before the launch. (From Holy Water to urine!). Also there is the custom that the commander of the unit kicks each cosmonaut in the backside as they enter the vehicle! Yes, I often worry about the Russians too!

Anyone who has watched a Soyuz launch will have noticed the mascot the cosmonauts always carry. It hangs in the capsule just like a the stuffed dice some people hang above their car windscreen. It’s usually a stuffed toy like a bear or a duck and does indicate when the capsule reaches orbit and things start floating.

Thinking about Holy Water – I thought recently that this is probably the ultimate homeopathic preparation. Water diluted with water. And these can be dangerous if they are used in place of proper treatment.

In his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, Massimo Pigliucci relates how the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia advocated a miracle cure for AIDS:

“The treatment consists of priests hurling water to the faithful (and the recalcitrant), while at the same time beating them with wooden crosses, for good measure. Interestingly, while men must be totally naked, women can wear panties, though the medical principle behind this gender-based discrimination is not entirely clear. The priests are also – unconscionably – telling  people that they can’t use standard “Western” medication because the interfere with thew action of the holy water.”

Some superstitions may be harmless but this sort certainly isn’t.

See also: Supersense Blog


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2 responses to “Superstition – inevitable?

  1. Watching the Deniers

    Thanks Ken, it is quite amazing when you look at the contrast.

    Obviously it is something deeply ingrained within our psychology: I have to admit I’ll use the phrase “knock on wood” in my every day speech when I’m talking about situations or events I’d prefer not to eventuate.

    Climate change could be avoided? Knock on wood 😉

    I think the insight that some aspects of religion, conspiracy theories etc. are about trying to control the world and to feel we are in charge of events hold true.

    The universe is a big place, full of many unknowns. I think it is very human to try and reduce events to a scale we can control.


  2. He he. Interesting. I wonder when habit becomes superstition. I’d imagine the first cosmonaut to pee on the bus just wanted a pee and there was no portaloo handy! Do you think he immediately made the link between the leak and successful return to earth? Or did his co-pilot, and thus a superstition is born?


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