Scientific literacy on the rise (Must put a stop to that then…)

Late last year, I posted a piece on a hoax news story then doing the rounds online, concerning a local councillor in Ireland who claimed that his area was especially suitable for cloud computing because of all the clouds. The post received a bucket load of hits, scooping the Daily Telegraph (who ran the original story without realising it was a hoax) and getting picked up by bloggers at Slate magazine.

Today I bring you the story that an Irish parliamentarian (yes, a member of the national parliament rather than of a local council) has proposed a change in the law regarding car registration plates, to allow motorists to avoid license plates that contain the number ’13’. You know, because ’13’ is so unlucky.

And this time, I kid you not, it ain’t a hoax.

Of course, fear of the number 13 is not confined to car buyers in Ireland. Frequenters of high-rise American hotels will be familiar with this range of elevator button options:

Spotted (by me) in San Antonio, Texas

In short, the number 13 has been freaking people out for centuries. But of course, there is no real reason for this apart from common belief and superstition. And although centuries old, I would have thought that most people realise that there’s really nothing in this thing, especially given the march of science and all that.

So why is a prominent parliamentarian arguing that car registration plates be amended now? Well, in Ireland, the law says that the first two digits of car license plates have to represent the last two digits of the current calendar year. So, with 2013 on the horizon, Michael Healy-Rae, TD (member of parliament) for South Kerry, is getting his piece in early. Being an astute numerologist, he has spotted the ’13’ problem, and is arguing for legislation to deal with it.

Healy-Rae (right) with his dad, who held his parliamentary seat before him. I don't know the guy in the background. But I do fear him

In fairness, Healy-Rae is pitching his suggestion in terms of other people’s stupidity, rather than his own. He is asserting that it’s the motorists of Ireland who won’t be able to cope with ’13’ on their license plates, rather than him. So confident is he that this is the case, he is predicting a decline in car sales steep enough to threaten the welfare of the entire motor industry.

Here is the guy himself:

…you might be one of these men who change their car every three years, and 2013 is your year to change. People like you are after going to the garages and saying they’ll wait until the next year before replacing their cars, simply because they do not want to drive cars carrying a number which is often thought to be unlucky…

But nonetheless, even if you blame your irrational proposals on the stupidity of your electorate, the outcome is the same. This national parliamentarian wants the national law changed in order to facilitate a superstition.

The website has prepared this graphic to help illustrate the key concept underlying this news item. Feeling stupid enough yet?

In effect, the argument here is that we should pander to superstition and irrationality, rather than — I don’t know — promote a degree of critical reasoning and scientific literacy among the population? It makes me think that politicians might not really want their electorates to develop critical reasoning abilities…

(Phew, and I managed to get through this entire post without using the word triskaidekaphobia. Lucky me…)

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  1. Christian vdB

    What an idiotic proposal! However, it does give an opportunity to point out that in terms of information theory, the leading digit in our registration numbers is pretty redundant. Nearly every vehicle on the roads has a number beginning with 0 or 1; there are a few 9s and a very thin scattering of other digits.

    I’ve argued for years that just the last digit of the year should be used, and registration numbers should be recycled when a car is scrapped (i.e. 3-D-123 could be a car registered in 2013, 2003, or any other year ending in 3); in the vast majority of cases the approximate age of the car (to within a decade) is obvious anyway.

  2. After the Dáil votes this through at least they’ll be able to get on with more serious matters like black cats, ladders, shadows, the dangers of throwing salt over shoulders, broken mirrors, opening umbrellas indoors and ensuring there’s enough wood around for everyone to be able to touch it.

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