Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Faces in the woods

One of the first things I ever wrote about in this blog was the phenomenon of pareidolia -- because the human brain is wired to recognize faces, we sometimes see faces where there are only random patterns of lights and shadows that resemble a face.  This is why, as children, we all saw faces in clouds and on the Moon; and it also explains the Face on Mars, most "ghost photographs," and the countless instances of seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, tortillas, and concrete walls.

When I first mentioned pareidolia, four years ago, it seemed like most people hadn't heard of it.  Recently, however, the idea has gained wider currency, and now when some facelike thing is spotted, and makes it into the mainstream press, the word seems to come up with fair regularity.  Which is all to the good.

But it does leave the woo-woos in a bit of a quandary, doesn't it?  If all of their ghost photographs and Faces on Mars and grilled cheese Jesuses (Jesi?) are just random patterns, perceived as faces because that's how the human brain works, what's a woo-woo to do?

Well, a recent post at OccultView gives us the answer.

Entitled "Photographing Spirits, Faeries, and Trolls," the writer admits that pareidolia does occur:
Photographing nature spirits is tricky business.  Nature spirits, fairies and trolls don’t exactly resemble human beings.  Any image of such an entity could simply be pareidolia, which is imagining meaningful shapes in random patterns.  Then again, there is always a chance what appears to be a fairy is actually a fairy.
Okay, so far so good.   So how do we tell the difference?  We can't, the writer says, because even if it is pareidolia, the spirits are still there:
There is also a third possibility…intentionally created pareidolia.  Even if non-physical beings can’t necessarily be photographed, perhaps they can manipulate their surroundings to give themselves shape.  Might they use branches and leaves to give substance to their formlessness?  What appears as pareidolia may not always be the result of purely random patterns but the result of serendipity and synchronicity. 
So, in other words -- if I'm understanding him correctly -- even if analysis of the photograph showed that the image we thought was a Forest Troll turned out to be a happenstance arrangement of leaves and branches, it's still a troll -- it's just that the troll used the leaves and branches to create his face?  (At this point, you should go back and click the guy's link, if you haven't already done so -- he includes some photographs of "Woodland Spirits" that he took, and that are at least mildly entertaining.)

Well, to a skeptic's ear, all of this sounds mighty convenient.  "No -- the ghostly image wasn't just a smudge on the camera lens; the ghost created a smudge on your camera lens in order to leave his image on the photograph."  What this does, of course, is to remove photographic evidence from the realm of the even potentially falsifiable -- any alternate explanations simply show that the denizens of the Spirit World can manipulate their surroundings, your mind, and the camera or recording equipment.

The whole thing puts me in mind of China Miéville's amazing (and terrifying) short story "Details," in which a woman admits that cracks in sidewalks and stains on walls and patterns in carpet that happen to resemble faces are just random and meaningless -- but at the same time, they are monsters.  "For most people, it's just chance, isn't it?" the main character, Mrs. Miller, says.  "What shapes they see in a tangle of wire.  There's a thousand pictures there, and when you look, some of them just appear.  But now... the thing in the lines chooses the pictures for me.  It can thrust itself forward.  It makes me see it.  It's found its way through."

It does bear keeping in mind, though, that however wonderful Miéville's story is, you will find it on the "Fiction" aisle in the bookstore.  For a reason.

Of course, it's not like any hardcore skeptic considers photographic evidence all that reliable in the first place.  Besides pareidolia and simple camera malfunctions, programs like Photoshop have made convincing fakes too easy to produce.  This is why scientists demand hard evidence when people make outlandish claims -- show me, in a controlled setting, that what you are saying is true.  If you think there's a troll in the woods, let's see him show up in front of reliable witnesses.  Let's have a sample of troll hair on which to perform DNA analysis, or a troll bone to study in the lab.  If you say a house is haunted by a "spirit," design me a Spirit-o-Meter that can detect the "energy field" that you people always blather on about -- don't just tell me that you sensed a Great Disturbance in the Force, and if I didn't, it's just too bad that I don't have your level of psychic sensitivity.  Also, for cryin' in the sink, don't tell me that my "disbelief is getting in the way," which is another accusation I've had leveled at me.  Honestly, you'd think that, far from being discouraged by my disbelief, a ghost would want to appear in front of skeptics like myself, just for the fun of watching us piss our pants in abject terror.  ("I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do believe, I do believe...")

In any case, the article on OccultView gives us yet another example of how the worlds of science and woo-woo define the word "evidence" rather differently.  The two views, I think, are probably irreconcilable.  So I'll end here, on that rather pessimistic note, not only because I've reached the end of my post for the day,  but also because I just spilled a little bit of coffee on my desk, and I want to wipe it up before the Coffee Fairy fashions it into a scary-looking face.

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