Despite the objections of sceptics, lots of folks like to keep their options open when it comes to superstitious behaviour. It’s probably a hangover from childhood when we still believed that there might be magic in the world. Continuing to retain that child-like faith in the power of charms and spells, an enormous number of otherwise seemingly rational people still cringe should they accidentally break a mirror; they are the same people who avoid walking under ladders and stepping on cracks in the pavement, regard the number 13 with dread … and, broadly speaking, have an unflinching faith in the power of certain talismans to bring the possessor good luck.
With our recent planned dives cancelled by bad weather, I was handed a list of chores that I’d previously managed to avoid. “That’s just my bad luck.” I thought, as I begrudgingly began weeding the garden. Plucking out a bunch of clover, I suddenly realised that one of them had four leaves. “That”, I thought, “is definitely a sign that good luck is on its way.” I slipped the leaf into my wallet and left it to work its magic.
The following morning my computer blew up, taking with it all of my records that I’d failed to back up. I bought a new computer and new software and then spent two weeks trying to configure the thing. “It’s only a piece of machinery”, I said to myself, “and no match for half-a-million years of evolutionary development.” It was. I relented and called in a friend who’s an expert in these things. He managed to fix everything in two-hours flat.
I told a Scottish friend my tale of woe. He explained to me that four-leaf clovers are only lucky if you happen to be Irish – which I’m not. I believed him and flushed the cloverleaf down the loo. As I did so the cistern fell off the wall and shattered to bits. I had to buy a new one and then pay a plumber to install it.
Thinking logically about all that had happened, the rational part of my mind assured me that my chance finding of an unusual plant leaf had absolutely no bearing on the subsequent spell of ‘bad luck’. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps fickle fate had just given me the finger.
My friend, Dr. Gretta Wrassebender – a person who was denied admission to the Society of Sceptics when she refused to attend one of their Friday 13th meetings – was unsympathetic.
“That’s no more than you deserve for believing in superstitious hocus-pocus rather than well established and scientifically proven fact,” she said. “And it’s not the sort of thinking that has any place in diving.”
I wasn’t altogether convinced that she was playing with a full deck of tarot cards. It’s not necessary to look into a crystal ball to realise that with the exception of a few basic Laws of Physics, the majority of divers pay little attention to science preferring instead to rely on faith in what they’ve read or heard – but don’t necessarily understand – to keep them safe from harm.
In that regard nothing quite compares with the diving computer as an amulet supposedly capable of warding off ‘bad luck’. Seduced by the packaging and the features, many divers have absolute faith in the ability of this one instrument to keep them safe from harm. With no understanding of the fact that a diving computer is just a very sophisticated timing device, their brain switches off at the same time as the computer turns on.
To be fair, I can’t claim any expertise in the workings of dive computers. But several years ago, I did ask a world-respected authority on the subject of decompression what were the differences between the various algorithms touted by computer manufacturers.
“That’s easy.” He said. “It’s all a question of mathematical mumbo-jumbo and the selective use of a soldering iron. And you can quote me on that.” I have.
It was an honest answer, especially given all that is known about the mechanics of decompression sickness. And it almost echoes what – centuries ago – a bloke wearing a tall pointy hat and dark cloak with silver moons emblazoned all over it might have muttered before threatening to turn everyone within spitting distance into an un-thinking dullard.
The above article first appeared in the on-line Nekton Magazine in December 2004.