Finding Patterns


I recently watched a fascinating video of Michael Shermer giving a talk about the human tendency to believe in strange things and its association with humans’ hardwired survival skills. Michael Shermer is a historian of science and is the editor in Chief of the “Skeptic” magazine. I remember reading this magazine in Canada and found it an interesting read, unfortunately I haven’t seen it around in Melbourne and might get a subscription. It’s a science magazine, it explores cultural influences on science, pseudoscience, the use and misuse of theory and statistics. From reading the articles I got a sense of advocacy in the resistance of superstition and irrationality. I think I am generally a logical person and tend to gravitate to logical thinking however; I had a conversation awhile ago with someone about researching true knowledge being liberating. However, to gain true knowledge is to research about not just the topics you’re interested in but to venture out and to keep an open mind. Learn as much as you can about all topics, topics that may appear logical, irrational, superstitious, religious, sceptical...etc. So I try to keep an open mind.

Anyways, back to the talk Shermer talks about the act of believing, “belief”, is a default option for humans. We naturally resort to belief because it’s the easy option, it’s difficult to not believe. Scepticism is not natural. Humans are pattern seeking primates and use association learning i.e. we look for patterns and this is how we learn.

Shermer talks about “Patternicity” which is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. He gives an example of Skinner’s study with a pigeon and describes a pigeon was placed in a box and he had to press one of 2 keys and tries to figure out what the pattern is and is given a reward in a hopper box when the pattern is discovered. When rewards are randomly assigned and there is no pattern, they will try and figure out any kind of pattern. And whatever they were doing just before to obtain the reward they will repeat that particular pattern, this is what “superstition” is.

Shermer explains that patternicity is an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not. A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is. He gives an example of imagining you are a hominid walking on the plains of Africa 3 million years ago. You hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Your next decision could be the most important because your life may depend on it. If you think the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out to be just the wind you have made a Type 1 error, hence no harm done. You’re more vigilant and cautious. However, if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it turns out it’s a predator, as Shermer puts it “You’ve just won a Darwin award.”

Awhile back I wrote about the idea of being controlled by fear in my blog “South Park Intelligent Social Satire.” I wrote about the meaning of the South Park Imaginationland episode and how it was trying to convey that terrorists attacks in the Western World have invoked a climate of fear and fear is used as a controlling mechanism. I also wrote about how this triggered the thought of fear, “where it stems from and whether we have socially conditioned ourselves through various means such as religion, or perhaps it is a human trait. We are species competing for survival and have developed this attribute of fear induced by our competing nature.” Shermer has provided some illumination. We are species which are poor at estimating probabilities, so in this case, the cost of believing that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind is relatively low compared with the opposite. Thus, there would have been a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real. Consequently, we have inherited a nature of caution or perhaps fear. We tend to default to the safe option (it’s better to be safe than sorry) which is to be cautious, to be on guard of a threat.

Patternicity has evolved due to natural selection for the cognitive process of assuming that all patterns are real and that patterns represent real and important phenomena. Assuming that these patterns are real is where “belief” arises and these beliefs can be self-deceptive. Shermer then talks about lack of control is linked to the propensity to feel patterns and gives an example of how baseball players are notoriously superstitious. Batters are more superstitious than fielders and this is due to the probability of success, fielders are 90-95% successful and are less superstitious tendencies and batters are 7/10 are successful and hence more superstitious.

I was looking up the definition of “superstition” and found this meaning, “A belief in something not justified by reason or evidence.” So superstition is brought about by feeling more patterns and this is linked by the lack of control. This is all semantics and gets all tangled because people have different perceptions, they even have different perceptions of the words they use to communicate their perceptions. It just seems too generic to say that to see more patterns, to believe, is evidence of a lack of control, well this is what I think Shermer is implying. So how is lack of control brought about? believing in something that is “not justified by reason or evidence?” However, there is so much that is unknown in the universe; we haven’t enough evidence and cannot conclude to a solely sound definition. Those who are sceptical, who search for the evidence and do not blindly believe are supposably “in control”? I’ve always had this thought, more the thought of those who blindly believe or delude themselves into believing something that is not justified by reason and evidence, are they happier than those who are sceptical and find answers that lead them to more questions, to more unknowns? Personally, I find searching for true knowledge as liberating, I find when I’m in the act of this I’m happier, however, I can see how delving into more unknowns can produce a void and how people would want to fill that void by believing in something.

Image Credit: Simon Page

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