Friday, May 8, 2015

Superstition and the Search for Signal

I heard once that the difference between a superstition and a myth is that a superstition makes testable predictions whereas a myth refers to things that happened once and shouldn't be expected to repeat. A superstition, for example, would say, "Walking under a ladder is bad luck," i.e. anyone who walks under a ladder can be expected to have bad luck. A myth would say, "There was a time when the moon and the sun talked every day and were bright in the sky at the same time." This myth would go on to tell how things changed to become as they are now, so that the state of things now is irrelevant to whether or not the myth is true.

All that is to say, of course, that I engaged in some modern superstitions today in trying to connect to the internet. I was walking around my apartment holding my laptop and trying to find the spot of best connectivity. I didn't want to be wandering around randomly, but I don't know exactly how wireless connections work, and this lack of knowledge is what leads to superstition. Without further ado, then, here are the superstitions that guided me:

Internet comes from the sky, so holding my computer at a higher elevation will lead to better connectivity.

Internet has a hard time going through walls, so I should put the computer near a window.

Turning computers on and off often fixes things, so rapidly turning my wireless receiver on and off will give me a better signal.

Some of these ideas might be closer to the truth than others; I know, for example, that the wireless router that somehow projects internet is in the apartment above me, so having my computer closer to the ceiling might actually help. I've been calling these superstitions because some technology can seem a bit mystical to those of us who don't know exactly how it works. Since the internet isn't supernatural, though, all of these statements could be tested with experiments.

Why can't superstitions that involve the supernatural be tested with experiments? If there is, for example, a spirit that turns milk sour when not appeased with rice, any useful experiment on this superstition would have to control for the activity of the spirit, which isn't possible. The alternative, running the experiment while assuming that the spirit doesn't exist, is putting the answer before the question. If a person assumes that there's a plot against them, nothing other people say will convince them otherwise.

In any case, I'm writing this from a laptop three feet off the ground next to a window and I'm turning the wireless receiver on and off whenever I get any trouble with the signal. Take that as you will.

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