Michael Shermer, author of the monthly “Skeptic” column in Scientific American, sometimes comes across as being more interested in debunking the false, than in persuading us of what he perceives to be true. That approach doesn’t always get people to change their minds, as politicians and litigators often learn the hard way.
Still, it’s worth paying attention to what Shermer has to say in his May 2005 column, about how rumors and urban legends can arise from human error in pattern recognition:
- Shermer recounts the 1969 rumor that Paul McCartney was dead, fueled by fans’ intensely-focused exegesis of Beatles lyrics (A Day in the Life) and album covers (Abbey Road).
- He tells of using a cheap turntable to corroborate the rumor by playing the song Revolution 9 backwards: Turn me on, dead man … turn me on, dead man.
- He lists some recent examples such as the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich and the face of Jesus on an oyster shell (remarking that the shell “resembles Charles Manson, I think”).
Shermer observes that natural selection has caused our brains to acquire the very useful skills of pattern recognition and association learning. “We are skilled enough to have survived and passed on the genes for the capacity of association learning. Unfortunately, the system has flaws.” He labels one of these flaws as “TMODMP, the Turn Me On, Dead Man Phenomenon—if you scan enough noise, you will eventually find a signal, whether it is there or not.”
Shermer notes how our sociability — our tendency to hang around together and talk to each other — can exacerbate the problem of false pattern recognition:
Anecdotes fuel pattern-seeking thought. Aunt Mildred’s cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed—maybe it works.
But there is only one surefire method of proper pattern recognition, and that is science . Only when a group of cancer patients taking seaweed extract is compared with a control group can we draw a valid conclusion.
We evolved as a social primate species whose language ability facilitated the exchange of such association anecdotes. The problem is that although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon has endured the winnowing process of natural selection....
Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.
(Extra paragraphing added.) Unfortunately I can’t post a link, because the articles posted at the SciAm Web site as I write this are from the April issue.
 QC editorial comment: What Shermer calls “science” is really just a sensible reluctance to rely too much on assertions that haven’t been tested against observed real-world evidence. It’s much the same as declining to put too much stock in any given person’s individual religious experience. After all, lots of people have religious experiences; the trick is to be able to distinguish a St. Paul from a David Koresh or Jim Jones or Marshall Applewhite.