A few weeks ago we were talking about false discoveries, scientists claiming to have found evidence of extraterrestrial life. But why are we so easily deceived and jump to conclusions? How bad is it and what can we do about it? That’s what we’ll talk about today.
My younger daughter first ate spaghetti when she was around two years old. When I put the plate in front of her, she said “hair”.
The remarkable thing is not so much that she said that, but that you all immediately understood why she said it. spaghetti are a bit like hair. And as we get older and learn more about the world, we find other things that look like hair, too. Willows, for example. Or pug. Even my hair looks like hair at times.
Our brains are pattern detectors. If you’ve seen something, it will tell you when you come across similar things. Psychologists call this apophenia, we see connections between unrelated things. These connections aren’t wrong, but they’re not particularly meaningful. The fact that we see these connections therefore tells us more about the brain than about the things that our brain connects.
The famous Rorschach inkblot test, for example, uses apophenia to find out what connections the patient willingly draws on. Of course, these tests are difficult to interpret because when you start thinking about them, for all sorts of reasons, you will come up with all sorts of things. Seeing patterns in clouds is also an example of apophenia.
And there are some patterns that we can recognize particularly well, which are most important for our survival: Faces. We see faces everywhere and in everything. Psychologists call this pareidolia.
Perhaps the best-known example is Jesus on a toast. But there is also a Jesus on this dog’s butt. There’s a face on Mars, a face in that box, a face in that pepper, and this washing machine has had enough.
The face on Mars is worth a closer look to see what’s going on. In 1976, the Viking mission sent back images of its orbit around Mars. When one of them looked like a face, a guy named Richard C. Hoagland went on TV to explain that it was evidence of the lost Martian civilization. But higher-resolution images of the same spot from later missions no longer look like faces to us. What’s happening?
When we lack information, our brain fills in details with what it thinks is the best-fitting pattern. That’s what happened, too, if you remember my earlier video, with the channels on Mars. There were never canals on Mars. They were pictorial artifacts, aided by vivid imagination.
Michael Shermer, the American science writer and founder of the Skeptics Society, explains this phenomenon in his book “The believing brain”. He writes: “At this intersection of non-existent theory and nebulous data, the power of belief reaches its climax and the mind fills the gaps”.
He gives as an example what happened when Galileo first observed Saturn in 1620. Galileo’s telescope at that time had a poor resolution so that Galileo could not really see the rings. But he could see that there was something strange about Saturn, it didn’t seem round. Here is a photo that Jordi Busque took a few months ago with a similar resolution as Galileo must have seen. How about you Galileo claimed that Saturn is a triple planet.
Here, too, the human brain is not just a passive data analysis machine. The brain doesn’t just look at a picture and say, I don’t have enough data, maybe it’s noise or maybe not. No, it will find something that matches the noise regardless of whether it has enough data to actually reliably draw that conclusion.
This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. It is better to see a mountain lion when there is no one than not to see a mountain lion when one is there. Can you spot the mountain lion? Pause the video before I spoil your fun. It is here.
A remarkable experiment to show how we can find patterns in noise was carried out in 2003 by researchers from Quebec and Scotland. They showed their study participants pictures of random white noise. However, participants were told that half of these images contained the letter “S” under Noise. And indeed, people saw letters where there weren’t any.
Here’s the fun part. The researchers then took the images where the participants identified the letter “S” and overlaid them. And this overlay clearly showed an “S”.
What’s happening? Well, if you randomly scatter dots on a screen, every now and then they randomly look like an “S”. Then, if you selectively pick random distributions that look a certain way and discard the others, you will actually find what you are looking for. This experiment shows that the brain is really good at finding patterns. But it is extremely bad to calculate the probability that this pattern could have arisen by chance.
One final cognitive bias that I want to mention that is built into our brains is anthropomorphism, that is, we assign agency to inanimate objects. That’s why we get angry about our phones or cars, for example, even though that makes absolutely no sense.
Anthropomorphism was first studied by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel in 1944. They showed people a video of squares and triangles moving. And they found that the participants described the video as if the squares and triangles had intent. We make up such stories, of course. That’s why we have absolutely no problem with animated films whose “main characters” are cars, sponges or potatoes.
What does that mean? This means that our brains have a built-in tendency to jump to conclusions and make meaningful connections when there aren’t any. So we have astrophysicists who shout “aliens” every time they have inexplicable data, and why we have particle physicists who get upset about every little “anomaly” when they should know they are almost certainly wasting their time. And that’s why I’m afraid that if I listen to Beatles songs on two different radio stations at the same time, Paul McCartney will have died.
Joking aside, that’s why so many people fall for conspiracy theories. When someone you know gets sick, you can’t dismiss it as an unfortunate accident. They will look for an explanation and if they search they will find one. Maybe that’s some kind of radiation or chemicals or the evil government. Anyway, the brain wants an explanation.
So remember: our brains come up with a lot of false positives. We see patterns that aren’t there, we see intentions where there aren’t, and sometimes we see Jesus on a dog’s butt.