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Alas, Not Babylon Again: The problem of Pareidolia in skeptical arguments

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posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 03:13 PM
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"If you make enough predictions, you're bound to get some of them right; and if you look for patterns in noise, you'll probably find them."

These very reasonable remarks are often uttered by intelligent skeptics in response to claims of the extraordinary or the supernatural. Relevant examples might include: beliefs in 9/11 foreshadowing, numerology, 'Bible Code' prophecies, or any kind of 'hidden message' imbedded in another pattern.

Take, as a more detailed instance, Morgan Robertson's 1898 novella, "Futitility or, the Wreck of the Titan," published only a few short years before the sinking of the Titanic, which describes - with surprising detail and accuracy - the sinking of the titular ocean-liner by an iceberg during a trans-Atlantic voyage. Many conspiracy theorists believe that this similarity between the work of fiction, and the later extraordinary event, implies some element of psychic foreshadowing, or perhaps a ritualistic plan by the Illuminati to subliminally foreshadow events of ritual murder by inserting them in the popular culture beforehand.

Naturally, when confronted by such a claim, the intelligent skeptic replies that coincidences happen, and that if you go about looking for psychic foreshadowing in literature, you will of course find something similair to a real event that happens later on. If he is truly wise, the skeptic may even take note and point out the fact that it is only the relative extra-ordinariness of the real event that makes the alleged fore-shadowing even remotely convincing: It is only because the sinking of the Titanic was a rare and unusual event that its similarity to something found in popular culture strikes the mind as unusual. Were I to go searching for foreshadowing of my breakfast this morning (bacon, eggs, and toast) I would, perhaps, find numerous examples on my own bookshelves of such an event having taken place. But this would not surprise me, because breakfast is not an extraordinary event.

My purpose in this thread is to point out that this irrational pattern-seeking is not the sole province of conspiracy theorists. Skeptics themselves are often guilty of this rather embarrassing pareidolia.

Take, for instance, the case of Betty & Barney Hill: One of the seminal cases of early research into alien abduction. In the wake of the original story, many skeptics commented on the similarity between the aliens described by Betty Hill while under hypnosis, and a monster that appeared on an episode of the "Outer Limits" twelve days before the supposed abduction. The resemblance was not particularly striking... but there were the “large, wrap-around eyes” Betty had described... sort of.

The trouble with this argument is that it's identical to the fallacious reasoning used in the “Wreck of the Titan” example: With virtually all of contemporary art, media, and popular culture to cherry-pick from, a determined skeptic couldn't but help find something that was slightly similar to a short, humanoid creature with minimal features and large eyes. It's a given: Something previously unknown, whence become known, will always be found to resemble one thing more than it resembles others. This is trivially true.

After all the pompous and precise comparison of Betty Hill's abductor to the TV monster, the single most impressive fact at the end of the day was just how dissimilar they were! This cheap and lazy pareidolia, which skeptics lament whenever it's used by conspiracy theorists, is, ironically, used all the time by skeptics themselves when they argue against the objective occurrence of the extraordinary or the supernatural.

Take, as a second instance, the case of John Titor, the alleged time traveler. The story is almost certainly a creative and brilliantly executed hoax, and there is ample evidence to suggest this... which is precisely why it is so mind-boggling that the most commonly voiced objection to the John Titor story is that it bears a strong resemblance to the apocalyptic novel, Alas, Babylon, written in 1959 by Pat Frank. For this is not an argument at all.

I must confess that I was quite taken by this theory at one time, and cheerfully suggested it to others. That is, until I actually read Alas, Babylon for myself, whereupon the first thing that struck me was just how dissimilar the two stories are. Indeed, the supposed points of similarity were as vague and superficial as the TV monster and his rather comical eyes. Aside from the name of the town (Fort Repose) and locale (central Florida) nothing else of the setting or characters really comes through. And the events of the novel are in no way similar to the events that John Titor describes. A nuclear strike by Russia, and a generally positive and patriotic outlook are all they really have in common. A few odd coincidences pop up (seeing a mushroom cloud over Jacksonville, for example, or the safety of Omaha Nebraska) but nothing even approaching the level of synchronicity present in the “Wreck of the Titan” case. If they were just two novels, we would surely notice the similarity, but we wouldn't claim plagiarism.

Now, my only purpose in this thread is to point this out: This way in which skeptics argue that extraordinary claims are contrived, merely because they bear some resemblance to something from popular culture. This is not a good argument. It is as fallacious and unsupportable as 9/11 foreshadowing in an episode of the Simpsons.

A confused but otherwise reasonable skeptic, having heard my argument, may now rejoin that the two cases are not similair: That what is important is the extra-ordinariness of the claim being supported by the similarity, not the nature of the similarity itself. The similarity between the "Wreck of the Titan" and the sinking of the Titanic is rejected because the claim of psychic fore-shadowing is extraordinary and unnecessary - there is a better explanation: That the similarity is a coincidence. Whereas, with Betty Hill's alleged abductors, the similarity to the TV monster is accepted, because the claim that the similarity supports (that the alleged abduction was a hoax, dream, or hallucination) is less extraordinary, and more reasonable than the claim that the abduction took place.

I hope, having now seen the objection laid out, that you can spot the obvious problem with this line of argument: It is a logical fallacy to accept or reject evidence on the basis of the conclusion it is meant to support. The problem is not the claim itself, but that the pattern being used as evidence was cherry-picked from random noise. We reject the "Wreck of the Titan" similarity because it is pareidolia, not because it is used to support a claim of psychic foreshadowing.

Furthermore, we have already noted that in the case of pareidolia, it is only because the real event is itself extraordinary that the alleged foreshadowing convinces the untrained mind that there is a connection between the two. Consequently, I assert that in the absence of physical evidence, we must resist the temptation to reject claims of an extraordinary or unusual occurrence as contrivance or fabrication on the grounds of their similarity to previous incidents found in history or popular culture. To use such similarities as evidence of contrivance is as fallacious as using them as evidence of conspiracy.

If we must, we may reject such claims on the basis of a lack of evidence, but that is all.

-R




posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 03:30 PM
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reply to post by RedBird
 


I am sorry to report that I have had entirely too much to drink. I am also on my phone, which is making this very hard to read.
But, This is looking very interesting. So I promise to return tomorrow to look through this more thoroughly.
Good day and I will be back tomorrow.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 04:04 PM
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I suspect mine may be an original argument. I would like to take this opportunity to distill three general principles from my thread, and suggest them as axioms:

1. Something previously unknown, whence become known, will always be found to resemble one thing more than it resembles others.

2. The relative extra-ordinariness of a confirmed event increases the likelihood that it will be claimed to have been foreshadowed or foretold on the basis of its similarity to a previous event, real or fictional.

3. The relative extra-ordinariness of an unconfirmed event increases the likelihood that it will be claimed to have been contrived or fabricated on the basis of its similarity to a previous event, real or fictional.

I call them: "Redbird's Laws of Pareidolia"

-R



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 04:33 PM
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Awesome topic!!

No lie, I've been heavily researching pattern recognition, and spatial recognition of the senses as to gaining a better understanding of cognition and the evolution of psychology. I've been putting it off for a while now, but I've always wanted to create an epic thread for ATS about this very thing! I'd like to thank you for saving me the trouble lol!!!

I do have a couple things to add... I won't go into explaining them myself, but present the information as to allow readers to gain a better understanding.

Other contributing factors:

Apophenia
en.wikipedia.org...

"Apophenia /æpɵˈfiːniə/ has been defined as the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data."



The human tendency to see patterns that do not actually exist is called apophenia. Examples of apophenia include the Man in the Moon, faces or figures in shadows, clouds and in patterns with no deliberate design, such as the swirls on a baked confection, and the perception of causal relationships between events which are, in fact, unrelated. Apophenia figures prominently in conspiracy theories, gambling, misinterpretation of statistics and scientific data, and some kinds of religious and paranormal experiences. Misperception of patterns in random data is called pareidolia.



Cognitive Bias'
en.wikipedia.org...



Many biases in judgment and decision making have been demonstrated by research in psychology and behavioral economics. These are systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment.


The combination of acting in accordance with multiple of these can create some amazing delusions.

IMO, these are some of the most interesting aspects of reality. From everything that I've read, it would appear that Sigmund Freud was so much closer to the truth of our being than any other individual in history. Not that he wasn't ever wrong, but I'd say he had a 95% success in correctly identifying the complexity of what it is to be human.

I'm not sure as to the depths of your knowledge, but if you have researched the relevant fields to these topics... I would love to compare and contrast our understanding of them. There's sooo much more I would like to know myself and admittedly, I'm most likely to be wrong in my comprehensions of these said topics and their roles.(Although I doubt it!!! lol)

I have developed what I see as one of the most accurate theories to date in regards to cognition using neurology and psychoanalysis to essentially reverse engineer our understanding. This then allowing to apply basic principals of logic, providing the ability to rule out many accepted theories pertaining to Cosmology, Theology and so forth.

If interested in discussing these things pleas PM me. If not, no worries...

again, great topic for a thread, S&F's!!

Edit: Additional Information

You might be interested in researching "Audio-visual simultaneity judgments", if you have not already. Using google scholar will provide a good amount of information.


edit on 8-12-2012 by MESSAGEFROMTHESTARS because: additional information



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 04:48 PM
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reply to post by MESSAGEFROMTHESTARS
 


Thank you for your reply!

This is, indeed, a fascinating topic, and it is great to encounter others who also find it interesting.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 04:54 PM
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reply to post by RedBird


The trouble with this argument is that it's identical to the fallacious reasoning used in the “Wreck of the Titan” example: With virtually all of contemporary art, media, and popular culture to cherry-pick from, a determined skeptic couldn't but help find something that was slightly similar to a short, humanoid creature with minimal features and large eyes

 


Do you think when the Titanic was made that absolutely no one thought it was sinkable? Or that these things weren't in the minds of people who were writing fiction?

Let's take another example and break it down. In 1998 there were two disaster movies that mirrored each other. Armageddon and Deep Impact.

This was also around the time the Hale-Bopp was coming to make a pass near Earth and Heavens Gate professed the world was going to end:


March - May 1997. Another comet struck fear in the hearts of doomsday disciples in 1997 when Comet Hale-Bopp passed close to Earth. An amateur astronomer mistakenly believed the comet was trailing a mysterious "companion object" and the rumor quickly spread over the fledgling Internet (remember Usenet?). This and a few other rumors combined to the tragic mass suicide of the Heavens Gate cult members.


news.discovery.com...

The Deep Impact people said* they based their movie off of Lucifer's Hammer, a book from the 70s, which was a time when a major doomsday event in Earth's past was discovered.

*

The first was the 1970s discovery of evidence leading to the Chixiclub crater located under Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.


What does this all mean? When something comes up in the news, popular culture, etc. Media, Film and literary work will cover it. It is simply a marketing strategy to sell a story about a topic that is getting attention or being talked about. Nothing more.

If a comet/asteroid struck would it suddenly make the writers of the previous film and written work prophetic or psychic in any way? No.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 05:10 PM
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My purpose in this thread is to point out that this irrational pattern-seeking is not the sole province of conspiracy theorists. Skeptics themselves are often guilty of this rather embarrassing pareidolia.


In my opinion, it's not about about identifying particular groups of people that these things may be present in... these are the FUNDAMENTAL principals of cognition for everyone(well that is, a "healthy" mind, removing physical)

To put it simply... it's coalescence and frame of reference(both physical and conscious perception) encompassed by physiological fundamentals. Which isn't anything new, in regards to present day theories... but I suggest that much of what is accepted today as truths about their relationships are incorrect.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 05:21 PM
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reply to post by MESSAGEFROMTHESTARS
 


True enough. The phenomenon is universal, I just think it is important to point it out wherever we find it.

Most of us quickly recognize 9/11 foreshadowing in the Simpsons to be nonsense, and will say so. But we are much more hesitant to dismiss claims of fabrication made by debunkers, even when they use the same method of argument.

The point I am making is that a fallacy is a fallacy, regardless of who is arguing, or what conclusion they are arguing for.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 05:38 PM
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reply to post by boncho
 


Yes, popular culture is self-referential, and elaborative -- but that does not make 'arguments from similarity' any less weak. If anything, it makes them weaker still. The sheer number of works of fiction which describe or depict unusual or otherwise supernatural events only makes it that much more likely that a genuinely unusual or supernatural event will be dismissed out-of-hand as having been contrived or derived from popular culture. The more fantastical and elaborate a peoples' literature, the more likely it is that any truly fantastic event will be claimed to have been either fabricated or foretold. It's the double-edged sword of imagination: If human society possessed no works of fiction or imagination, we would be far less likely to believe in foretelling or prophecy. We would also be far more likely to believe in the sincerity of those who report extraordinary events.

The popularity or number of movies about an asteroid impact does not make an actual asteroid impact less likely, or the claim of one more suspect; anymore than the profusion of books about ship-wrecks would make an actual ship-wreck in any sense "foretold."



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 06:15 PM
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reply to post by RedBird


If human society possessed no works of fiction or imagination, we would be far less likely to believe in foretelling or prophecy. We would also be far more likely to believe in the sincerity of those who report extraordinary events.

 


If no one had imagination than it would be pretty believable if someone came up with a prophecy no?



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 06:17 PM
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reply to post by RedBird


The popularity or number of movies about an asteroid impact does not make an actual asteroid impact less likely, or the claim of one more suspect; anymore than the profusion of books about ship-wrecks would make an actual ship-wreck in any sense "foretold."

 


If the claim of an asteroid impact is not backed on scientific and based on popular culture then the claim is suspect.

I don't know how to relate that to your analysis of the skeptics position because I can't see it being used with the same reasoning.

The Hill example, is one where people where under hypnosis, the story came to light. I don't see how a skeptical argument that the entire story is dismissed because of a television show that aired a few weeks before. I also am having trouble seeing that as an equal comparison of the asteroid example I broke down earlier in the thread.

Where was the entire story dismissed because of a TV show?
edit on 8-12-2012 by boncho because: (no reason given)



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 07:07 PM
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Originally posted by boncho
reply to post by RedBird


If human society possessed no works of fiction or imagination, we would be far less likely to believe in foretelling or prophecy. We would also be far more likely to believe in the sincerity of those who report extraordinary events.

 


If no one had imagination than it would be pretty believable if someone came up with a prophecy no?


OK, I see your point.



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 07:15 PM
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reply to post by RedBird
 


Can you break down the argument of the "sceptics version of ___________" the way that I broke down the asteroid example.

I'm not going to say Pareidolia, because I don't see that as an accurate description.

I'm just trying to see how you relate the two together, because after the OP I had trouble identifying the two as the same thing. I don't see the Hill example as a good one either, because the story is not completely dismissed by just a sic-fi show being aired a week before.

Is this a fair judgement?



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 07:17 PM
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Originally posted by boncho
reply to post by RedBird


The popularity or number of movies about an asteroid impact does not make an actual asteroid impact less likely, or the claim of one more suspect; anymore than the profusion of books about ship-wrecks would make an actual ship-wreck in any sense "foretold."

 


If the claim of an asteroid impact is not backed on scientific and based on popular culture then the claim is suspect.


We cannot take for granted that it was based only on popular culture - that is my whole point.

Most of the events we take for granted as having happened have little or no scientific confirmation of them. I can offer you no scientific proof that I had bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning. But you don't care if I can prove it or not, because there is nothing extraordinary about my breakfast claim.

I am not saying we should take extraordinary claims at face value -- not at all!

What I am saying is that even if fifty science fiction authors wrote fifty books each about an asteroid impact destroying New York, this would not make someone's claim that an asteroid was about to strike New York any less believable. It would already be an unbelievable claim in the absence of any evidence -- that is not in dispute. My point is that the existence of a similair event, already, in popular culture, would not make the claim any less believable; since - as I have shown - any truly unusual or extraordinary event that did take place, would be bound to resemble some one thing from popular culture more than it resembled others.

Your objection seems analogous to the objection I anticipated, and refuted, in my original post: The strength of an argument is not determined by the nature of the conclusion it is given in support of.

-R



posted on Dec, 8 2012 @ 07:20 PM
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Originally posted by boncho
reply to post by RedBird
 


Can you break down the argument of the "sceptics version of ___________" the way that I broke down the asteroid example.

I'm not going to say Pareidolia, because I don't see that as an accurate description.

I'm just trying to see how you relate the two together, because after the OP I had trouble identifying the two as the same thing. I don't see the Hill example as a good one either, because the story is not completely dismissed by just a sic-fi show being aired a week before.

Is this a fair judgement?


Yes, that is a fair judgement.

I intentionally chose two "alleged" events that have more mundane explanations precisely to show that the arguments from similarity are unnecessary, and comparatively weak when compared to the other arguments against the objective occurrence of the extraordinary (namely, the absence of physical evidence, and the availability of more prosaic explanations.)



posted on Dec, 10 2012 @ 07:18 PM
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you make a good point.






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