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

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."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."