The other day I threw a crumpled bag into a bin and almost missed. It hung on the edge for a while. Quite suddenly it began collapsing into the bin, flexing as it did so. In a strict sense this was all understandable; I’d crushed the bag, meaning the energy of my fingers was stored by the resistance of the material to being folded which, once the pressure of my hand was released, began undoing itself.
But it did look a bit like a mortally wounded object quietly collapsing into death. And that got me thinking about the way humans see patterns in things, even when there aren’t any, and then about how even science can lead us along disastrously wrong tracks, sometimes.
It’s all to do with pattern matching. We innately put structures on anything we see. That’s how people see faces in random shapes – such as burnt toast – for example.
The theory is that pattern matching was a survival trait. Out on the African veldt, our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed it not just because they might be jumped by a hidden predator, but because they could also spot lurking prey. Because any pattern in the local flora might be predator or prey, the system tended to trigger even when nothing was there – but the false alarms didn’t matter, because there was no cost to them. Whereas failure in a life-or-death situation usually meant death. Pattern matching was also very important within the social groups, for recognising faces – in particular, on a friend-or-foe basis.
And so we got very, very good at subconscious pattern-matching what we literally saw – a process that also framed and guided how we are hard-wired, meaning it influences how we think.
Among other things, this is how conspiracy theories get legs. But another outcome has been that even the strictest methodology can sometimes get suckered in by an apparently consistent pattern and structure – one that appears compelling and where rigorous analysis of the internal structure can’t find fault. Often this structure is built on only partial data – where what isn’t questioned is the single mis-step that led to that pattern being found – and often that mis-step is socially mediated.
That’s also how miscarriages of justice sometimes occur: someone innocent is ‘profiled’ and given place in the pattern – sometimes, to the point of being charged and having to go through the court system, even though the link is a single piece of circumstantial evidence – or an intellectual structure that has been made to fit. That’s how witch hunting worked, for instance.
The sciences sometimes fall prey to the issue, often because things aren’t completely understood. The ancient Greeks knew the Earth revolved around the Sun, but then along came Ptolemy and his geocentric thinking, which seemed to fit the pattern as it was known. It was only as time went on that things got complicated, when the movement of the planets (in particular) didn’t fit the simple model. One answer was to add ‘epicycles’, in which the planets went through circular motions around their fixed points. And then epicycles had to be added to epicycles.
Finally Copernicus and others went back to the old Greek notion of a central Sun, which resolved all the problems – especially after Tycho Brahe pointed out that planets orbited in ellipses. The Ptolemaic system, with all its epicyclic epicycles and other hideous complexities, was in fact purely a human intellectual artefact. But it didn’t go down without a fight, shall we say – leading me to wonder about how the illusions of truth produced by conceptual pattern-matching tend to also inform our ideas of ‘reality’. Especially, again, when socially mediated.
I see this phenomenon all the time in history, where the interpretative side of the discipline revolves around identifying patterns in the past – the ‘meaning’ of the raw data – and then arguing over them.
I also wonder about the whole of quantum mechanics – the real stuff, not the new-age woo – which is just so bizarre that Einstein, certainly, thought the more likely explanation was that he and his colleagues, whose description of it remains the orthodoxy, had missed something.
I’ve written all of this in the very broadest terms, because it’s such a very broad topic and I’m asking questions rather than offering answers. But I think it’s worth a further look. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015