Superstition and basic mathematics have a way of clashing.
From an early age, as far back as I can remember but kindergarten was probably my first conscious experience, I doubted the existence of god. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t superstitious or didn’t believe in god, because I was and I did. When it came to Little League I did all the cliché things: I never stepped on the chalk down the base lines, I wouldn’t wash my pants after I had a good game, and I always did this thing where I tap the plate three times before every pitch.
This never affected the outcomes, but at the time I thought it had everything to do with why I was a good player and why my teams won so many baseball games.
I remember one game, specifically. I was in 7th grade playing on my middle school’s softball team, and we were opposed by a completely inferior team. Our squad was undefeated on the season and we were taking on an historically weak school.
I must not have been alone in this overconfidence, because we got the shit kicked out of us early on. I think we were losing like 10-5 in the last inning, for whatever reason.
I led off the final inning with a single, and eventually came around to score to make it 10-6. Sitting on the bench watching my team take our final at bats, I meaninglessly closed my fist and knocked twice on the wood where I was sitting. Tap, tap. There were two outs.
That batter got a hit, so the inning continued. We were still losing like 10-8. So when the next hitter came to the plate, I did the same thing. Tap, tap. That batter got a hit, and the inning kept going. I did the same thing for the next couple guys, and they both got hits.
I got up and grabbed a bat — because I was on deck — when the final out was made. And I thought to myself, the reason the final batter didn’t get a hit to bring me to the plate was because I wasn’t sitting on the bench, and didn’t knock twice on said bench. I was convinced that my silly superstition is what kept us in the game.
Nonetheless, we lost.
In sports, especially, I was as superstitious as they came. And my best friend would tell you that I still have my superstitions, even if I deny them publicly.
Humans are conditioned to seek patterns. To that end it makes sense why so many people are superstitious, for better or worse. But as a math person, it’s my contention that it doesn’t make sense to be both (a) atheist and (b) superstitious at the same time.
You either believe in nothing, or you believe in everything.
There is no better recent example than Trey and I in our blackjack excursion over the last half-decade. See, when we began at age-21, we really didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Our first time playing I was shamed off the table for not playing properly; I had a full table talking shit to me for hitting a hand I shouldn’t have hit, and for staying on a hand I shouldn’t have stayed on.
When I went home, I studied basic strategy and told myself what happened that night at the casino would never happen again. But Trey and I were still far from the blackjack players we are today.
And, mainly, early on we just received bad information. Dealers would tell us dumbass shit like “face follows face” — positing that picture cards come back-to-back — or that adding or removing hands changes the odds against your favor.
The thing is, I still can’t convince Trey that these things are not true. I can’t convince him that hitting on a 12 against a 2 is the proper play, or that hitting soft 18 against a picture card is better for the player mathematically. He plays a certain way, and I give him shit for it. I play my way, the math way, and he give me shit for it.
Now, blackjack is a terrible game for the player and I wouldn’t recommend anyone wasting their money on it. But the fact remains: our first blackjack strategy was also our worst blackjack strategy.
Blackjack notwithstanding, this is true in every single walk of life. To keep things on topic, we could use the bible for instance. For all of its flaws, the bible was mankind’s first version of the truth, and there was probably a time when it did some good for humanity. It was the best we could do before we knew better.
Well now we do. We have the scientific method, and the theory that there’s some divine creator has yet to be proved, so the evidence is overwhelming against it.
I played blackjack for multiple years before I came to the conclusion I’m at now, where I play “by the book,” as they say. I take emotion and superstition out of it and just play according to the math. Trey would tell you that’s boring, for it isn’t the way it was when we started.
But maybe there’s another reason why superstition is so popular. Maybe people just like it because it’s fun. I can see that, and if I have even a shred of magical thinking in my blood, it’s likely for this reason and this reason alone.
As Christopher Hitchens writes in God is not Great:
Thousands of people consult their “stars” in the newspapers every day, and then have unpredicted heart attacks or traffic accidents. (An astrologer of a London tabloid was once fired by means of a letter from his editor which began, “As you will no doubt have foreseen.”)
In his Minima Moralia, Theodore Adorno identified the interest in stargazing as the consumption of feeble-mindedness. However, happening to glance at the projected situation for Aries one morning, as I once did to be told that “a member of the opposite sex is interested and will show it,” I found it hard to suppress a tiny urge of excitement, which in my memory has outlived the later disappointment.
I once dated a girl who believed in astrology. Her mom even had this really large book of the zodiac that had this crazy-long explanation for how well our two signs coexisted. I presume I don’t have to waste many more words describing how well that worked out.
At the time, though, it was gospel. It was written in the stars. This was before I abandoned religion, or the wishful hope that there was something out there greater than myself. I was still at the point where I thought anything was possible, and if it wasn’t the classic, omnipotent “god,” then maybe it was something else. The stars seemed like a reasonable alternative. After all, at least I knew those were real.
But there are an infinite number of ways a person could be superstitious. There aren’t, however, an infinite number of ways of being right. Just as in blackjack, or baseball, variance swamps just about everything.
In that case, the number zero means a lot more to me than infinity. It represents the number of gods insofar as the number of reasons to be superstitious.
As such, the only god I acknowledge is the one I can quantify. And I call that math.
The construct of my thesis may be the ultimate straw-man argument, and I acknowledge that. But if there is even one superstition that is true — let’s use me knocking on a random slab of wood at age-12 for example — then that means that they all must be true. If there is One True God, then in the same vein how can there not be a million-billion different gods?
I think the reason I got so “in” to Sabermetrics — baseball’s version of atheism — was because they stripped down all the narrative nonsense, all the meaningless statistics that are more noise than useful data. And I thought, even back then in 2011, that the people who actively rejected the advanced metrics had a higher probability of being people of faith, or believers. Because math doesn’t require a leap of faith, it just is.
The real leap of faith is to believe in the first version of the truth. In a religious sense that means that you are believing in documents that were written 2,000 years ago in an illiterate part of the Middle East; in a blackjack sense it means the first way you play is the only way; in a baseball sense it means the same stats that mattered before the sport was integrated matter present day.
It rejects progress in the name of pride, or wishful thinking.
No matter which way, I think progress is supposed to hurt. Challenging the things you believe… is supposed to hurt. When I quit believing in god, it hurt because a major part of myself wanted it to be true. When I started playing blackjack differently — or properly, I guess you could say — I wasn’t comfortable with it. When I started following Sabermetrics rather than the typical batting average and runs batted in, I was basically throwing away 15 years of my life when I, too, thought I knew what the hell to look for.
Now that I look back on it all, I wonder how I could have gone so long being wrong — when I pride myself on being right all the time.
I think superstition is cute, more than anything. I think it’s a playful way to be light-hearted about things that are happening in reality. I still joke with my mom when she’s wearing a Rangers shirt, that ‘The reason we’re losing is because you are wearing that stupid shirt.”
She gets it. We both get it. And this is coming from the guy who used to throw all of his Duke basketball clothing in the trash can when they were losing, who once threatened to run away when they were losing by 21 points at halftime against Maryland in the 2001 Final Four. I was 11.
And Duke ended up winning that game.