Tag Archives: superstition

My son, the enigma machine

Little Roo has been babbling for some time now. Until now, it has been the fairly standard oohs, aahs, yelps and giggles. But the other day, we heard something that sounded distinctly like “Dada”. The joy! The amazement! He can talk and he knows who I am!


Or does he?

I couldn’t help think of the entertaining talk by science communicator, author and libel crusader, Simon Singh, that I’ve seen a few times at various events. The story, in its essence, goes something like this: within the Hebrew text of the Bible (the ‘Torah’) lie many coded messages that foretell future events. All one needs to do is remove all punctuation and spacing to leave a single string of thousands of letters, and the predictions pop out like a wordsearch puzzle. Using this technique, the Bible successfully anticipated the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald (“dallas” “president kennedy” “oswald”), Hitler’s evil intent (“hitler” “evil man” “nazi”) and “Newton”‘s theory of “gravity”. This theory was popularised by Michael Drosnin and his ‘Bible Code’ book – plus TWO follow-ups – which have supposedly sold millions of copies worldwide.

Then those pesky scientists, who like to destroy a nice story with ‘evidence’, came along to put the cat amongst the pigeons. One of them, Brendan McKay, a mathematician and computer geek, thought that if there was an array of thousands of letters, the chances of randomly coming up with some relevant words was well within reason, especially if you allow reading forwards, backwards, diagonally, skipping rows, etc. (as well as variations in Hebrew spelling). So he was challenged to find the same sort of predictions in a non-sacred text. He devised an algorithm – a series of calculation steps  – to mine the mystical and secret-containing book, Moby Dick.

It turns out that, using the same technique, Moby Dick predicts Leon Trotsky’s murder (“trotsky” “ice” “hammer”), Princess Diana’s death (“princess” “wales” “lady diana” “henri” “paul” “dodi”) and the 9/11 terrorist attacks (“world” “trade” and “center” “twin” crossed with “building” “Osama”). I also came across Dave Thomas’ work, which does a pretty good job at finding secret messages in a U.S. Supreme Court document (“hitler” “nazi” and so on), in Drosnin’s Bible Code itself (“vain” “hoax” “megalo-mania”), as well as predicting anti-Judeo-Christian messages in the Bible. These findings debunk the sanctity of the Bible and tell us that coincidences, no matter how spooky, are just that – coincidences.

There’s a video by Singh to explain it more graphically (the first 4 minutes are about the Bible Code):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

from 5×15

To take it back to Roo’s babble, most of time it sounds like this:


And this supposed random exploration of sounds and syllables is a part of how we develop the ability of speech and language. Babies move from gurgling vowel sounds at 2-3 months of age to add in consonants at 6-7 months, much like Roo is doing in the clip above. At this stage he’s as likely to say “gaga” or “baba” as he is to say “dada”, and we wouldn’t assume he’d developed an astoundingly early fascination with American songstress, Lady Gaga, or rapper of science – yes, a science rapper – Baba Brinkman.

From 6-12 months, Roo will continue to experiment with this vocal play, and it won’t be until he’s over a year old that sounds will start to carry meaning. For instance, he might make the sound a car makes or utter monosyllabic words in place of a more complicated phrase, and he will also start to understand the meaning of sounds he cannot yet say. At 18-24 months, he should then be at the stage to start using multisyllabic words in short sentences. There’s a correlation between early babbling and linguistic ability later on, as a review by Carol Stoel-Gammon explains:

…infants who produced more in the prelinguistic period (i.e. more vocalizations at age [3 months]; more CV syllables at age [1 year]) had superior performance on subsequent speech and language measures during childhood.

So, my initial sound clip, of Roo saying “dada”, is more likely to be a version of the Bible Code – a chance coming together of noises, among a cacophony of vocal explorations, to form a sound that is recognisable to us. Our temptation to believe that he’s forming meaningful speech seems to me to be a form of confirmation bias – the way in which we filter out the negatives and remember only the positives, thereby confirming our already-held beliefs. This is especially true if we retrofit the associations – there are many phrases that we could associate with JFK’s assassination or words that could be formed from two or three simple syllables, but we need only a couple to convince ourselves that ‘there’s something in it’.

We are tempted to add significance to coincidences all the time. When something relevant happens on a special day or when a psychic stumbles upon a personal fact (often in a room of hundreds of people), it’s often said that it’s “too spooky to be just coincidence, don’t you think?”. Practitioners of pseudoscience, like psychics and astrologers use this – intentionally or unintentionally – to convince readers that they have hit the nail on the head, when in actual fact they threw many nails in the vague direction of the person in the hope that one will strike its target.

I feel like a pigeon…

Photo courtesy of thierr26.free.fr (under Creative Commons licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/)

One of the famous tests by behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner was an experiment in which food was presented to hungry pigeons at pre-determined intervals. The pigeons in the experiment would then associate whichever random behaviour they happened to be performing at the time (e.g. pecking at a particular spot, nodding its head, walking in a circle, etc.) with the appearance of the food, and a type of learning called operant conditioning would take place.

Each pigeon would keep displaying the random behaviour until the food re-appeared, thereby reinforcing the association and strengthening the false association between cause and effect. This was interpreted by Skinner as the pigeons showing ‘superstitious’ behaviour. In fact, as demonstrated on illusionist Derren Brown’s TV programme, this seems to work in humans too.

So why am I writing about pigeons? Well, I feel like I’m experiencing my own version of this superstitious behaviour with our little boy. It’s probably fair to say that he’s at the lower end of the bell curve of hours of sleep per day, given the average of around 16 hours a day. So we find ourselves having to do a lot of soothing between his unerringly regular feeds.

This means we’ve taken to all sorts random behaviours, from sitting him in a particular chair to playing Bach DVDs. Sometimes one of these will work and we then become convinced that that is what he needs to lull him to sleep.

It’s also very tempting to start to draw conclusions about what he does and doesn’t like on a higher emotional level, especially when a smile or a fixated stare coincides with a stimulus. It seems that early newborn smiling does not necessarily carry any emotional content and is rather a spontaneous event for up to at least one month. Their vision also has a long way to go in development. Any stimulus that co-occurs with such a behaviour can easily be causally linked in the observer’s mind, which obviously has implications for the emotional state projected upon the infant.

Clearly, social smiling and cognitive awareness do start to develop within the first few months of a baby’s life, but I thought I’d make this cautionary note on an intriguing behavioural trait that we all exhibit from time to time.

And it may be the case that walking sends my son to sleep, but I can’t help feeling like a pigeon when I’m on my third lap of the block.