Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Superstition

Tyler Cowen links to a paper about Gypsies, and argues that, contrary to the author's contention, their superstitions are inefficient. (Incidentally, the paper is by another George Mason professor who wrote Invisible Hook about the economics of piracy. Now, he writing another book about one of FLG's other interests, superstition. FLG might have to contact the guy.) From the paper:
Gypsies believe the lower half of the human body is invisibly polluted, that supernatural defilement is physically contagious, and that non-Gypsies are spiritually toxic. I argue that Gypsies use these beliefs, which on the surface regulate their invisible world, to regulate their visible one. They use superstition to create and enforce law and order. Gypsies do this in three ways. First, they make worldly crimes supernatural ones, leveraging fear of the latter to prevent the former. Second, they marshal the belief that spiritual pollution is contagious to incentivize collective punishment of antisocial behavior. Third, they recruit the belief that non-Gypsies are supernatural cesspools to augment such punishment. Gypsies use superstition to substitute for traditional institutions of law and order. Their bizarre belief system is an efficient institutional response to the constraints they face on their choice of mechanisms of social control.

FLG has long maintained that all superstitions have a rational basis at their inception. Even if they seem silly or inefficient now that doesn't mean they were always silly of inefficient. From one of FLG's first posts:
Before science, the determination of cause and effect was unsystematic, but it still yielded positive results. Humans controlled fire, invented agriculture, built roads, designed boats, etc. But this cause and effect goes beyond technology.

A 60 minutes story about the response of "boat people" during the tsunami is a great example. These boat people associated the warning signs of a tsunami with a wave monster who was coming to eat them. When they recognized the signs of the wave monster, they ran for higher ground. Sure, they didn't know the particulars of plate tectonics or fluid dynamics, but this myth saved their lives.

Other superstitions can be explained in a similar manner. Opening an umbrella indoors is highly correlated with breaking something. Breaking a mirror before the invention of a vacuum meant that people would be stepping on shards of glass for eight years. Others, such as a black cat being bad luck or throwing salt over the shoulder, were probably created within a context that is now lost to us. Perhaps dirty cats carried the Plague or Black Death, and these dirty cats became black cats as the superstition was passed down. I don't know, but it doesn't matter.

Likewise, Kosher food laws can be explained in the same way. The Old Testament focuses primarily on types of things that are unclean. Dead things, sexual activity, leprosy, and certain foods, such as shellfish and pork. All four are carriers of disease. It is not surprising that ancient people could identify the cause and effect of these being associated with disease. Kosher food laws are the product of accumulated knowledge about food safety in the middle east prior to refrigeration. They didn't need to understand microbiology to come up with them, only cause and effect.

In fact, whether the belief explains the cause and effect accurately is almost irrelevant. The fear of a wave monster is easier to explain to children than the specifics of a plate tectonics. Moreover, childhood fears remain with us well into adulthood. There are a lot of adults who are still afraid of clowns. This fear ensures that the cause and effect lesson will endure.

In fact, FLG wrote a paper, admittedly not a very good one, examining witchcraft in this fashion.

However, Plato agrees, but doesn't think it matters:
Phaedr. I should like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas is said to have carried off Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus?

Soc. Such is the tradition.

Phaedr. And is this the exact spot? The little stream is delightfully clear and bright; I can fancy that there might be maidens playing near.

Soc. I believe that the spot is not exactly here, but about a quarter of a mile lower down, where you cross to the temple of Artemis, and there is, I think, some sort of an altar of Boreas at the place.

Phaedr. I have never noticed it; but I beseech you to tell me, Socrates, do you believe this tale?

Soc. The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I too doubted. I might have a rational explanation that Orithyia was playing with Pharmacia, when a northern gust carried her over the neighbouring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away by Boreas. There is a discrepancy, however, about the locality; according to another version of the story she was taken from Areopagus, and not from this place. Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras dire. Gorgons and winged steeds flow in apace, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures. And if he is sceptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time. Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me.

Anyway, the interesting question for FLG isn't necessarily whether the superstition is efficient now, at this moment, but whether it effectively achieved some goal in the past and perhaps still in the present and into the future.. This goal doesn't even have to be economic. Let's assume that gypsies have been willing to forgo economic growth that comes with interaction and trade with the mainstream of society for an form of autarky to keep their community safe from dilution or destruction.

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