7 February 2011
So maybe I’m crazy, but look at the picture on the left. These are shots of sand dunes on Mars, taken by the Mars Recon Orbiter. The images were taken about a year apart, and yes, they do change quite dramatically. But look at the image on the left.
Remind you of anyone?
It’s truly amazing how the human mind tries to make order out of nothing. We see this in daily life and it actually goes much deeper than that. We naturally try to group events that are totally random into some type of pattern.
Every spring, I get emails asking which day is best to mow the lawn to prevent onion weeds returning in the late spring and summer. You can actually find this date in the Farmer’s Almanac along with fake weather forecasts. I was once asked to “please put this date on during your weathercast so everyone will know when to cut them”!
Why do people insist on believing in such things?
It’s called confirmation bias. There is an excellent article on Wikipedia that starts with this definition:
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.
If someone mows the yard on the date suggested then two things happen. The first is that they WANT their belief to be true, because it will be a handy way of keeping the onion weeds down. Secondly, if they happen to have fewer onions that year, they will ascribe it falsely to mowing on that certain date! People remember the events that confirm a belief but ignore the ones that don’t!
Astrology and homeopathic medicine both survive and make money for their promoters based on confirmation bias. In the case of homeopathic medicine, it’s a form of the placebo effect. There is a saying about homeopathic remedies that is very true: What do you call homeopathic medicine that has been subjected to peer reviewed double blind tests and that works?
There is an excellent book that I highly recommend on the subject of human reasoning. It’s called How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich. The next time a gambler tells you he is on a streak or a basketball player says he is shooting free throws way above his normal average, hand them a copy.
I once saw a TED talk where the speaker made a very good case for redesigning the high school math curriculum to teach statistics instead of algebra as the core math course. When I interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, he mentioned that college students should have classes in critical thinking. He is spot on, IMHO.
If American students were introduced to critical thinking skills and some basic statistics in high school, the companies selling these magic bracelets (See this post) would soon be out of business. I can’t help but wonder if the reason these folks are allowed to continue their deception is because of the lack of critical thinking on part of the government bureaucrats who should be shutting them down.
In Australia, they have been. The government forced them to admit it they were lying, and to offer full refunds:
Pick up that book. It’s a great introduction to critical thinking.