Friday, July 29, 2011

Very Superstitious

An interesting thing about living abroad is the way weird cultural idiosyncrasies that seem so foreign and strange can turn around and make you examine the weird parts of your own culture.

A few weeks ago Aleks, one of my colleagues from Serbia, told me how she would never leave both the door and the window open (something I do often in my office on hot days). In Serbia, they have this concept of a "deadly draft" (she was unsure how to translate it) - allowing wind to flow through the house is bad for the health. As we joked about how this superstition may have come about, one of our Slovak colleagues agreed that the deadly draft is very much a thing here in Slovakia as well.

A quick internet search finds a lot of Americans living or traveling in Europe experiencing this same superstition in Poland, Germany and France.

Now, I'm a firm believer in science (the body of knowledge that has been discovered using the scientific method), but I'll still make sure to put on a hat and a warm coat on a cold day to keep from catching a cold. However, it seems that there's not really any scientific proof that cold temperatures cause colds, a commonly held belief in our country. If you think about it, it makes sense - why would being cold weaken the immune system enough to let the cold bugs win any more than running a marathon or not getting enough sleep? All of these things are taxing on our immune systems. From the National Institutes of Health:

"Although a connection exists between the number of cases of the common cold and the fall and winter seasons, there is no experimental evidence that exposure to cold temperatures increases the chances that you will get a cold."

However, when people are told something their whole lives, the brain will come up with ways to justify previously-held beliefs and be more open to evidence that agrees with these beliefs (which is why you're probably frantically searching for this NY Times article). For example, it took a night or two of Googling before one of my Korean colleagues was willing to admit that maybe people can't die if they go to sleep at night with an electric fan on in their room (Korean fan death - it's a thing).

This all might seem kind of silly and harmless, but superstition and belief in non-scientific explanations of our world have contributed to ignorance about the AIDS epidemic (remember South African President Jacob Zuma saying he wouldn't get HIV as long as he took a shower after sex?) and resistance to vaccination campaigns that could save thousands of lives.

I'm not about to go crusading around the world, making people stand in the rain without a coat, sneaking fans into the bedrooms of Koreans or breaking windows open in Slovakia, but I do think the world could do itself a favor by taking the advice of Stevie Wonder: superstition ain't the way.