Reason and Reasonability

Last week, a colleague of mine – a highly competent, intelligent scientist – stated, during a food conversation, “If you keep eating salad, you’ll turn into a rabbit”.

I find such irrationality, from people whose job apparently involves the strict application of reasoned thought, both highly amusing, and comforting, in that it indicates someone happy to be laughed at, and at themselves (always a sign of a true human being).

The other day, whilst cycling into work through the cemetery, I saw a couple of pairs of magpies; and then (cue a harsh scrape on a cello) a solitary one.

I’m not superstitious; though, like most people, I was when I was young, during those sponge-like formative years when the tendency is to believe anything the trusted elders come out with, before developing the habit of asking “Why?”, or "How?”. This, and an acquired inclination in later years to initially distrust supposed adults, was accompanied by a frequent furrowing of the brow, which has rendered me a model argument for botox. So, I’ve long since been comfortable with walking under ladders; don’t worry unduly if I break a mirror, and so on. However, I once tried to shift the habit of spitting and saying “Rabbits” whenever I spied a lone magpie… and it turned out to be a bad day.

Now, n = 1 is anecdotal, not scientific; the flimsiest of associations, which we normally – rationally – refer to as coincidence. So, willing myself to exorcise this last remaining fallacy demon from my psyche, I this time gave a figurative two fingers to ol’ ‘one for sorrow’, continued into work and went about my day….

…. there was a message in my E-mail inbox, one which I knew immediately would be bad. So, I quickly decided to stick my head in the sand and deleted it without reading. Solved that problem, eh? But I recollected that magpie, and made that tenuous association all over again. Should have spat and said “Rabbits”. (Or maybe I’ve just stumbled across evidence to suggest the evolutionary link between the magpie and the ostrich is a bird-brained jackass.)

Next, you’ll be telling me scientists buy lottery tickets! Eeeesh!

3 responses to “Reason and Reasonability

  1. Lee – the single magpie equation clearly has more than one solution, as I generally resort to the requirement to greet it politely (e.g. ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie.’) rather than say ‘Rabbits’.
    I go along with Bohr who allegedly had a lucky horseshoe on his wall, and when asked ‘surely you don’t believe in such superstitious nonsense, Professor Bohr,’ (or words to that effect) replied with something like: ’I’m told it works whether or not you believe in it.’

  2. Brian – I too have an horseshoe, a gift from an equestrian friend when I moved to my current workplace. She said I have to keep it upright (ie ‘U’-shaped), otherwise the luck will spill out; so I do. As to whether it makes any difference….
    Bohr’s comment could be applied many ways: a good scientific theory doesn’t have to, er, make sense (and Quantum Theory doesn’t to most of us); a dose of irrationality is necessary to the scientific endeavour from time to time; to religion (from a believer’s viewpoint).
    Glad I’m not the only one with an inclinination to talk to magpies (providing we’re not turning cuckoo).


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