Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The importance of doubt.

People who know me realize that I am- believe it or not- somewhat opinionated. Okay, stop laughing. What a lot of folks don't necessarily realize, however, is that I have a healthy degree of doubt about my own observations about the world.* This isn't to say that I lack self-confidence or I don't believe that my opinions are correct- like all people, I generally do believe my opinions are correct. It's just that as I have gotten older and learned more I have developed a healthy appreciation for the value of doubt. Let's face it- we're all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and however much you may believe in your own views, you need to make at least a tiny mental note to be careful about trusting them too much.

This is partly why I have a hard time accepting things like miracles. A miracle is, by definition, an event outside of common experience that cannot be reproduced at will. Often they are poorly documented- or documented only by those who have a vested interest in their confirmation- and fly in the face of everything we know about the world. And, generally speaking, events that seem to violate established, rigorously-tested scientific theories tend, on the average, to do so only in appearances and not in actual fact. Wrapped up into this category of miracles are the supposed appearances of religious symbols through otherwise natural processes- such as the Chicago overpass Virgin Mary, the Jesus toast, and so forth. These last items are examples of what is known as pareidolia, or the tendency to see faces or symbols in random or non-specific stimuli. One common example from the more secular end is the so-called man in the moon** or the face on Mars. What's happening with pareidolia, of course, is the complex feature detectors in your brain are being tricked by "noise" from the real world. And if they're tricked enough, then your brain essentially concludes "Hey, there's a face!" Given the commonality of pareidolia, and our growing knowledge of how the brain processes information, I thus tend to conclude that most religious icons that somehow appear in the natural world are- more than likely- not evidence for divine intervention.

But how do you teach about Pareidolia? How do you teach people to retain doubt about something as basic as whether or not they see a face? Well, as it turns out, you use iPhoto. You see, iPhoto includes a feature that identifies faces in an image. This is a neat trick that is meant to help people label their pictures and it works much like the human brain:*** it sorts through a mass of features and identifies those combinations that usually signal a face. The problem, of course, is that like humans, iPhoto suffers from pareidolia. It sometimes concludes something is a face when, really, it isn't. And now, several enterprising souls have produced a flickr gallery of some of iPhoto's flubs.

Some you definitely understand:

Others... not so much:

Funny? Yes. But also, a great tool for teaching the importance of doubt.

* Ask my wife if you don't believe me. She's been around for about a million remarks from me to the effect that "My opinion is X, but I may be influenced by Y, so I could be wrong." Fortunately this tendency did not express itself during our wedding ceremony.

** I don't love this example, actually, because the moon has never once looked like a face to me. Seriously.

*** albeit much, much more slowly. Whereas the brain has a massively parallel processing system that enables it to pick out faces very quickly, iPhoto is stuck with a more or less linear architecture. The only thing that saves iPhoto is that electronic processors are much faster than our electro-chemical hardware.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It IS good that you stuck with "I do" during the ceremony, honey. - D'sSW

Thursday, April 16, 2009 9:40:00 AM  
Blogger Marf said...

While I can sometimes see the face on the moon (not always, though) I don't see the face in that virgin mary overpass thing. All I see is what it actually is... A crack in concrete with a water stain.

Saturday, April 18, 2009 12:41:00 PM  

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