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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Pareidolia Can't Explain the Latest Shocking Mars Strangeness

The Mars rovers such as Opportunity and Curiosity have photographed an astonishing variety of anomalous-looking things on Mars. They are discussed in this series of blog posts. You can find more examples by doing a Google image search for “Mars anomaly.”

Two recent examples are the "Mars mouse" shown at the top of this original NASA photo, and the Mars dome shown at the top of this original NASA photo. The composite photo below shows the "mouse" and "dome."

orb face

In September 2015 one of the Mars robotic probes photographed what looks like a long spoon, one that rather seemed to be levitating above the ground. Now a newly examined photo from Mars shows another “long spoon.” Below are the photos side by side. The original NASA photos can be found here and here

When such anomalies occur, skeptics are quick to trot out what they call a “scientific explanation”: pareidolia, the supposed tendency of the mind or brain to interpret random pieces of matter as being something familiar, like a face or a spoon.

Is this actually a scientific explanation? No, it isn't. Evoking pareidolia is just another way of saying something is a coincidence. Whenever you say that something is coincidental, you never are giving an explanation; you are instead really indicating that you have no explanation.

Imagine the case of someone who photographs a cloud that looks very much like a human figure. There are two ways in which a skeptic might respond: he might claim that it was just a coincidental arrangement of matter, or he might say that it was pareidolia that the cloud is being compared to a human. But both responses are basically the same thing.

Both responses involve two assumptions:
  1. There was merely a coincidental random arrangement of matter.
  2. The mind interpreted this random arrangement of matter as something meaningful.
If I merely say that it was just coincidence, I am explicitly stating the first of these two, and leaving the second as an unstated, implicit assumption. If I merely say that it was pareidolia, I am explicitly stating the second of these two assumptions, and leaving the first assumption as an unstated, implicit assumption. But it's the same thinking in both cases. So appealing to pareidolia really is just saying “It was a coincidence.” And you never explain something by saying it was a coincidence. When you say, “It was a coincidence,” you are really saying, “I have no explanation.”

Consider these cases:

  • You are gambling with a poker dealer who deals himself five consecutive royal flushes in spades (the highest possible poker hand). When you ask him to explain this astonishing stroke of luck, he says, “It was just a coincidence.”
  • You have a son who comes home five consecutive days with a suitcase of money, which the son claims are casino winnings. When asked to explain how he could have been so lucky on five days in a row, the son says, “It was just a coincidence.”
  • You find out about the scientific fact that the electric charge on each electron in the universe is precisely the same (to twenty decimal places) as the electric charge on each proton in the universe, the only difference being that the sign is opposite. When asked to explain this, a scientist says, “It's just a coincidence.”

Now, are any of these statements actual explanations? No, they are non-explanations. The person appealing to coincidence is always someone saying the equivalent of, “I have no explanation.” An explanation of a physical thing occurs when you mention some causative factor that explains the characteristics of the thing. You do no such when you evoke pareidolia.

Of course, it sounds more appealing to say, “The scientific explanation is pareidolia,” than to say, “The explanation is that I have no explanation.” But when you evoke pareidolia, you are simply saying it was a coincidence; and by saying that you are giving away that you have no explanation. Pareidolia is a non-explanation masquerading as an explanation. 

If scientists were to produce an account of how Mars might have a tendency to produce geological objects looking like long wooden spoons, that would be an actual explanation for the startling pair of spoon-like objects. But no such account seems possible, given that no desert on Earth tends to produce such objects naturally.