Jan 27th 2015

Pareidolia in Politics: The Face of Faith's Corrupting Influence

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

We gaze at the night sky and see the comforting order of constellations in the random distribution of stars. We look up and discern shapes of animals in the wispy condensation of clouds. We breathlessly share on social media images of Jesus on burnt toast or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Elvis as a potato chip. Welcome to pareidolia, the human brain's amazing ability to perceive patterns, particularly the image of a human face, in what are in fact purely random phenomena.

In the Beginning...

We humans cannot turn off our instinct to see familiar shapes in the world around us; pareidolia means that our brains demand that there be order even when none exists. And just as we abhor the absence of visual order, we too are unable to accept the unsettling idea of "I don't know" when confronted with the disorder of the unfamiliar. So we make up comforting answers to all that perplexes us, just as we create reassuring images from clouds and toast. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world, that we see design and significance in the absence of both.

In the abyss of great uncertainty, our ancestors developed elaborate creation myths and gods of the sun rain and oceans to explain the mysteries and happenings of daily life. War gods helped in victory, or not. Fertility gods helped, or not. Religion was our first attempt to predict and manipulate the future; it was also our first stab at physics and astronomy. Ironically, as we gained knowledge about the physical world, the need for multiple gods diminished. As the gods of the gaps grew smaller, we rejected multiple deities to insist rather randomly there is only one. But as did our primitive forebears with multiple deities, we still believe we can communicate with our one god and influence his behavior, because by doing so we gain some control over, impose some order on, the chaotic mysteries of the world. So we still have one more god to go, one more to assign to the pantheon of the fallen. The early quest for knowledge led to religion; ever-greater success has obviated the need. Our very effort to understand nature ultimately undermined the means by which we sought to reveal nature's mysteries. We are just slow to acknowledge that god is superfluous.

Filling the Void

Only one to go, but we are not there yet. Aching with this need to fill the void of the unknown, people east and west all share a compelling quintet of yearning on which religion is founded: fear of death; the desire to explain away nature's mystery; hopes for controlling one's destiny; a longing for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of power. Note that nowhere in that equation of religion's foundation is a demand for reason, fact, or evidence to support one's belief. Instead, the religions we create demand that we simply believe through faith, as a means of self-justification. Pareidolia predisposes us toward such folly. A great leap it is not from seeing an image in a cloud to believing that the image is real. We gladly believe, we desperately want to believe, in the god we created, in the images and answers we made up. We do so in the absence of any objective supporting evidence because faith tautologically rejects the idea that such evidence is necessary.

Religion is like our appendix, a vestigial remnant from a primitive past. Perhaps in a few millennia the god of Abraham will invoke the same curious amusement as rain and sun gods do today. Or perhaps our god will simply be shelved along with Zeus and Jupiter. Some day. But until then, we suffer the consequences of a population that believes in the absence of evidence and, more curiously, rejects an objective reality that conflicts with beliefs easily proven false. And here we come to how all this ties to the politics of today.

In our rush to still the pang of ignorance, we confound faith and fact. Pareidolia rears its ugly head as we see things that are not there and are blinded to things that are. Because faith demands no proof, people cling stubbornly to a belief in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. We see patterns because we want to; we reject what we dislike because faith allows that. Faith trumps fact. Reality is optional. So we have a group opposed to irradiated food that ignores the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and death. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cell phones or cell towers. Life-saving diagnostic x-rays are eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns like global climate change. This ignorance has deadly consequences; ask the parents of every child who died from a preventable disease from unfounded fears of vaccines, or subsistence farmers looking at starvation in the face of crops withering in a changing climate. In Africa, eight healthcare workers combating the Ebola epidemic were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help murdered the only people who could provide assistance. As do those African villagers, climate deniers reject widely accepted scientific fact and accumulated knowledge. Without any anchor in the sciences, reality is an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. As in Africa, this deadly ignorance is borne of unfounded fear and denials based in the irrational rejection of basic established fact.

Fiction, Faith and Fact

When fiction becomes confused with fact, we sever our critical tether to reality. The conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of scientific evidence. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same so that with every winter storm comes the pathetic and childish assertion that the world could not be getting hotter. When presented with evidence, skeptics selectively demand more "proof" without understanding what that concept means in scientific inquiry. Yet, with considerable irony again, when we are not discussing climate change, many hold beliefs securely for which there is no proof at all, the flipside consequence of misunderstanding the scientific method. The anti-vaccine movement demands no proof of the link to autism, which has been thoroughly discredited. They simply believe.

This elevation of faith to fact, and confusing belief with evidence, has real consequences. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in conservative opposition to President Obama over the past seven years. By untethering ties to reality, by claiming faith is sufficient proof of any belief, the GOP can with a straight face blame Obama for everything bad, no matter how far removed from Obama in reality, and give him credit for nothing good, independent of how directly his actions led to that good. No leap of logic or time or reason is too great for them to link Obama with something unpleasant, and no cause and effect, no matter how obvious or self-evident, is too strong for them to dismiss, reject or ignore. Facts do not matter.

The idea that the GOP has substituted faith for fact is easily enough proven. Take any area of improvement -- lower unemployment, rising stock market, declining gas prices, an expanding economy, health care -- and then ask any conservative friend if Obama can be credited for any of that. When the inevitable answer is no, ask the following question: Is there any circumstance, any result, any area of improvement that can be attributed to Obama? Elevated gas prices were his fault, but prices lowered in spite of him. He was blamed for the declining stock market he inherited, but given no credit for a market that more than doubled during his tenure. His economic policies were blamed for high unemployment, but those same polices have nothing to do with rates falling below 6 percent. What could Obama have done, what outcome could we have seen, for which a conservative would be willing to credit him? The untenable but predictable answer is none, at least in the faith-based world of conservatives.

We can only come to this deep divide, this unbridgeable political chasm, because political opponents simply cannot admit that the other side has had any success. And that position is possible in the face of undeniable success only because facts are rejected as nothing but inconveniences, easily dismissed as irrelevant to the greater ideal of faith. This slide away from an objective reality is the primary cause of extreme polarization because faith allows for the creation of an alternative universe in which an opponent is easily demonized by dismissing ameliorating facts. A big leap it is not from believing in god and the devil to believing in anything at all, including that the president is a radical Christian but also a Muslim and a foreign-citizen socialist who will take your guns away. Facts don't matter; we create a fictional order in the face of randomness and then call that real, and the chasm becomes ever wider. Faith and ignorance are not benign, and they become downright dangerous when they are confused with rationality. Pareidolia is great for a kid lying in the grass looking up skyward; it's not so great as a foundation for a political movement.

Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com.



Obama to Blame for Hurricanes, Disease -- and Everything Else

Published 22.12.2014
Rudy Giuliani  is blaming President Obama for the murder of two NYPD officers. Says Rudy, "We've had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police. I don't care how you want to describe it --...


A note from the Editor:






To follow what's new on Facts & Arts please click here.


     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."