What are the superstitions of our age?

In 1848 Emerson wrote a list of the superstitions of his age. He didn’t mean literal superstitions, like ghosts, but beliefs that are pervasive and unfounded. He listed:

  • fear of Catholicism
  • fear of Pauperism
  • fear of immigration
  • fear of manufacturing
  • fear of radicalism or democracy
  • faith in the steam engine

What are the superstitions of our age?

My list:

  • Faith that the universe makes sense
  • Assuming binary logic applies everywhere
  • Belief that life is fair
  • Faith we can be objective
  • Faith technology will save us
  • Assuming Intelligence > Wisdom


What do you think the superstitions of our age are? Leave a comment.

44 Responses to “What are the superstitions of our age?”

  1. Rose

    Faith that governments will save us

    1. Daniel

      Faith that a typical 9-5 job is a really (the only) secure source of income.

  2. Bryan Zug

    I will take this opportunity to blend bullets 1 and 4 into an alternate superstition supposition:

    – The idea that the universe makes no sense


  3. Jeff

    Simple but complex:

    Faith in Mankind

  4. Lester Burnham

    Mine is a slight alteration of #1: Fear of the consequences of the realization that the universe might not make sense.

    Kind of like the famous saying “if there were no God, man would have to invent him”. I think we invent patterns where none exist so we can maintain a sense of comfort and relative importance.

    I compare it to star gazing. We sit here and find patterns in the sky above, but we need to consider that those patterns only exist in this one place at this one point in time. Shift the angle only slightly and those patterns all disappear.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I love the constellation example – I’m sure it demonstrates at least one kind of Cognitive Bias in that we assume our point of view is the only point of view.

  5. Shantnu Tiwari

    Here’s a few:

    1. Belief that we all have one true love, and we just have to wait for them. It means of course that we don’t have to do any work on our relationships, as any problems mean we haven’t found the “one”.

    2. In addition to your point 1, I have: Belief that the Universe “helps” us, and that everything happens for a reason. Again, I have no problem with the sentiment, just that it is used to make excuses, as in “The time isn’t right for me. It’s not in my Karma yet”.

  6. Malcolm

    Faith in averages (e.g. medical doses; across populations and in vivo),
    Faith in rules and/or structure
    Faith in familiarity

  7. David Janke

    Looking at the broad population, I would say the original list (unfortunately) holds up pretty well:

    fear of Islam
    fear of “freeloaders” (i.e., Pauperism)
    fear of immigration
    fear of off-shoring and automation (and other things that destroy unskilled jobs)
    (? fear of radicalism or democracy)
    faith in computers/the Internet

    I like Malcolm’s “Faith in averages”. It makes me think of “Faith in medical studies” as another superstition

    Interesting exercise. Similar to (i think) Paul Graham’s exercise of trying to figure out what we believe that future generations will laugh at

  8. Greg Linster

    This quote from the late Neil Postman sums up my views: “These include the beliefs that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

    I would add the belief that evil can be overcome too.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Wow – any quoting of Neil Postman wins 10 points on my blog. Thanks for that.

  9. Larry Kunz

    Can’t help noticing that all but one of Emerson’s superstitions was a fear — and none of yours is. Have we really done such a good job of overcoming fear? No. We just cover it up better.

    On the whole your list is good, but I’ve seen faith in technology wane significantly since I grew up in the 1960s. And maybe it’s because I’m older, but most of my cohort would disagree that intelligence trumps wisdom. In place of those two, I like the ones that Malcolm contributed: faith in averages and faith in familiarity.

    Thanks for a terrific, thought-provoking post, Scott.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I didn’t mean anything specific by which verbs I used. I’m sure if I thought about this list more it would come out very different. This was the first few things that came to mind.

  10. Indy

    In the same vein as Malcolm’s point about averages and Neil Postman’s thoughts:

    Belief that putting a number on something constitutes measuring it.

    Belief that measuring something automatically constitutes the ability to control it.

  11. Mithun

    Superstitions differs from society to society and from land to land.

    One Superstition that exists among the white collar workers is that you can climb the corporate ladder by playing corporate politics.

  12. Niko Gamulin

    Hi Scott,

    When we use the wrong models or rely on beliefs that are not congruent with with the system the outcome can deviate from expectation or sometimes it can even match the expectation and the latter case can further reinforce false beliefs.

    Regarding the first two beliefs (faith that the universe makes sense, assuming binary logic applies everywhere) I would like to mention Stephen Wolfram, the founder of Mathematica and the aouthor of the book A New Kind of Science. In one of his speeches he mentions that the Math might not be the best tool for modelling the natural phenomenas and that if we knew powerful computers long time ago we might develop a different and more appropriate abstract framework for the world we live in. At this point of course I cannot maintain that he is right but anyway I believe too often we make conclusions too soon.

    The belief that life is fair depends on your philosophy about what’s fair and what’s not :)

    I agree with you that we cannot be objective.

    What would be the technology supposed to save us from? The way of life or some apocalypse? :)

    Inteligence speeds up the way towards wisdom :)

  13. Angry Nerd

    Sadly, I have to agree that the original list holds up pretty well. We’ve replaced Catholicism with Islam and the steam engine with technology. The big change is that we’ve switched from fear of democracy or radicalism to blind faith in moderation and democracy (the vast majority of the west still favor few changes, and believe that democracy is the best/only system- though they may be right about this). I could also add:

    The belief that things use to be better in the “good old days”.

    The idea that “it won’t be happening to me”.

  14. John

    My list:
    Fear of atheists
    Fear of the rich only getting richer
    Fear of immigration
    Faith that the return manufacturing will save the country
    Fear of homosexuals
    Faith that technology always improves life

    1. Hinheckle Jones

      Fear of religion is at the top of my list of superstitions that other people have.

  15. Chris Atherton

    Belief that if there is neuroscience of it, we understand it
    Faith that all cognition, emotion and behaviour can be explained by brain imaging
    Belief that if you have a mouthpiece, you should always use it

    1. Scott Berkun

      On the first two – it’s comprable to trying to understand architecture by studying a brick under a microscope. Some patterns only manifest at specific layers. Look too close, or too far, and you don’t see them.

      It seems social media has made that last one impossible to ignore.

  16. Paul W. Homer

    A quick reading of the definition of superstition says it revolves around causality. That is, tying two events together by an supernatural cause.

    “Faith that the universe makes sense”

    It makes sense. We might not be intelligent enough to get the joke, but it certainly makes sense.

    “Assuming binary logic applies everywhere”

    Formal systems don’t fully map to informal ones. Spock was a bit of a knob some days.

    “Belief that life is fair”

    What goes around, comes around, except when it doesn’t. Definitely should be at the top of your list.

    “Faith we can be objective”

    We can overcome our hard-wiring, if only for brief moments. Then it is time to hit a bar and drown our sorrows …

    “Faith technology will save us”

    Dude, we have no alternatives. The moment some hairy guy figured out that he could play with fire, we set ourselves on an irreversible course. Hundreds of thousands of years later is too late to call a foul :-)

    “Assuming Intelligence > Wisdom”

    How about just “assuming intelligence”. How many bright people do you know that are ‘always’ bright. If we really were intelligent, we would have beaten up that guy whose was playing with fire …

    My list:

    “The notion that we are all special”

    “Most people are good”

    “The free hand”

    “Things will work out”

    “Just do it”

    any other platitude that seeks to simplify our world into a tasty sound-bite

  17. Gregg

    The belief that the human race must survive. Implying that, somehow, the universe will be in peril if we don’t.

    The belief that life has (or needs to have) meaning. But meaning has to be derived. Words have meaning because they refer to things other than themselves. They are a product of human thought.

    The belief that the way the universe works follows a mechanical model as opposed to an organic model. At present, we can only fully understand what we ourselves can create (our inventions). So we impose this model on the universe because it’s familiar… it’s simple… understandable. But the universe isn’t mechanical, it’s organic. It isn’t made, its grown. It isn’t simple it’s complex.

    The belief that all that we can perceive is all that there is to perceive.

    The notion that if we (as a species) can’t make sense of something, then there is no sense to be made of it. The sense of the universe is likely beyond our ability to comprehend.

    The belief in absolutes. Absolutes only exist within pre-defined limits.

    With ignorance comes fear. With knowledge comes arrogance. To overcome our fears without becoming arrogant, we must accept how little we know now while at the same time recognizing that we will likely never know everything.

  18. Leam Hall

    I have to take a contrarian view of #1. I have faith and the universe makes sense. People, now, I’m not sure sure about…

  19. Firstborn

    I’d add the following to the list:

    * Faith in true democracy existing somewhere out there
    * Faith in mass media output having any relation to what’s actually happening in the world
    * Faith in all people having the same capabilities

    1. Shantnu Tiwari

      I would modify that slightly to: Faith in the Laissez-faire, anything goes, capitalism

  20. Marco Mo

    #3 Belief that life is fair”

    It’s not. There is no rhyme or reason why good or bad stuff happens to anybody. Billions of people better than me have a tougher life than me. The worst thing to be is ashamed of your success if you’ve worked your ass off for it. Enjoy everything. It might be as good as it gets.

    You come with nothing and you leave with nothing and the worms don’t give a s__t what type of suit you’re buried in. All the praying, feng shui and flying planes into buildings will never overcome statistics and probabilities. Life is a bell curve and everything from getting killed by a derailed train to scoring a lottery is simply a matter of probabilities.

  21. Sean Crawford

    That if we keep talking and talking and even running a Calgary Herald newspaper series, about the joys of walkable, livable neighbourhoods then, one day, developers will magically see the the light and sacrifice a few houses to put in a few focal points, parks and spare buildings.

  22. Joel Kline

    Some great posts. I would add:

    Faith in science
    Fear of change
    Fear of personal disagreement

    1. wot

      “Faith in science” is a superstition? Believing in facts is delusional?
      I dunno … it just has to be better than believing in the 2,000 year old superstitions of sheep herders about imaginary friends.

      1. Paul W. Homer

        “Facts” as we like to call them all hold a degree of ‘relative truth’. That is, they can (and often do) change over time. If you put all of your faith in a medical treatment, which is later proven to have dangerous side-effects, then yes “Faith in science” is a superstition.

        Not that I’d recommend it, but a 2,000 year old superstition does have 2,000 years of vetting (it may not work, but it may not blow up either). A 5 year old scientific discover could easily be disproven or turn out to be based on questionable ‘facts’.

        Science is a way of rigorously organizing our facts and knowledge with an ‘aim’ to improve their quality, but it is still subject to the whims of humanity.


  23. Judy

    Interesting that, although capitalism has featured, consumerism has not. Not sure how to put this succinctly; perhaps: Fear of not having enough? This seems to drive us in the west more than anything else.
    Love Gregg’s post. Seems to share my world view!

  24. Robert Breedlove

    Faith that the information age as the greatest democratizing catalyst in human history.

    Assumption that a revolution of consciousness is inevitable.

    Belief that one’s closely held beliefs are shared by large groups of people.

    Fear of ecological, political and financial instabilities.

    Faith in referential statistics that “they” say.

  25. Breedlove

    Fear of the local water supply.

  26. Damon

    I always think that it is interesting that so many believe that all our technology will save us or should I say our advancements will somehow make us better people. I always loved reading The paradox of our time (http://www.xdude.com/paradox.htm)

    Also it’s interesting that people believe that more information or the easy access to the information equates to knowledge

    Faith in getting a college diploma makes you smart or guarantees you a high paying job

  27. Elliott

    You know, I actually think it’s really only a slight shift from the original list. Substitute a few words and you’re about 90% of the way there.

    – fear of “Catholicism” = “religion” in the form of the “Islamic threat” (I put that in quotes as a way of saying “I’m not ascribing to any particular viewpoint for the purposes of this response”)
    – fear of Pauperism = Unchanged. Most folks are one battle with cancer away from losing pretty much everything, even if in our world that means their TV and second car.
    – fear of immigration = Unchanged, duh
    – fear of manufacturing = Unchanged, except now, manufacturing in other countries
    – fear of radicalism or democracy = radicalism or capitalism. The rise of groups like the Tea Party and watching our fool-proof system implode and take so many down with it (at least for now) has been wrenching
    – faith in the steam engine = technology. Somehow the Internet and iPhones are going to fix it all.

    Same movie, different cast. My two cents.



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