Intellectual Toolbox Week continues with a phenomenon which inspires a great deal of American nuttery.
Pattern RecognitionA twig snaps. You freeze, staring into the darkness. A form gathers itself into a bear. You run and don't look back. If it turns out to be a bear-shaped bush that sent you dashing across the savanna, well, you'll probably never know your mistake. You're gone and, like those with the most acute pattern recognition, you live to reproduce, and pass down your sharp eyesight and honed reflexes. Fear is protective. There's no upside for standing there too long, blinking into the darkness, thinking, "Hmmm, now is that really a bear?"
Thus human beings are good at finding meaning in patterns, and acting on those meanings, even when the meaning is a spurious one. It worked well for tens of thousands of years.
Doesn't work so well now. Modern life doesn't serve up many predators to detect lurking in the shadows. But our complex world still deluges us with information, more so than any rain forest, and people still want to find meaning in their half-seen perceptions and passing glances.
Often it's benign. Who hasn't felt a frisson of pleasure, detecting bunnies and ducks in the clouds? Who hasn't gazed at an object and suddenly recognized something hidden, such as the cheerful face in the photo of the red Austin-Healey Sprite above? There's a harmless pleasure in it.
Sometimes the pleasure is not so harmless. The Sept. 11 attacks are among the best documented crimes in modern history, but naturally, a few facts among the multitude don't easily fit, or don't seem to easily fit, and to those of a certain twist of mind, it is natural to apply their finely-honed pattern recognition to that bare framework of inconsistency and then stretch the most elaborate fantasies over it. Suddenly, to their eyes, the official version of what happened is a lie, and this flimsily supported fabrication is the truth. It's as if some viewers convinced themselves that giant bunnies were really lurking in the clouds and started demanding that the Air Force shoot them so we could make rabbit stew.
Why do people conjure up these conspiracies? Epic events — like 9/11, like the Kennedy assassination—create vast volumes of data, enough to provide grist that some people, inclined to reject the standard narrative by an intrinsic suspicion, can stare into the sea of information and recognize whatever pattern or plot they care to find. They find a validation in it, a false power, a way to elevate themselves among the common herd, who credulously believe that World War II actually happened. Thus every smudge in the sky, every blurred light becomes an alien mother ship, every plausible explanation is discarded for a malign one backed by a few scattered twigs of evidence. That there are actual conspiracies, from time to time, only makes matters worse. Those also back up their belief that they have secret knowledge, and they insist that anyone who questions them is being willfully blind and a dupe.
There is no question: pattern recognition can be useful, leading us to draw valid insights out of masses of random information, recognizing significant designs and meanings. Sometimes there really is something dangerous in the shadows.
More often there isn't, and pattern recognition leads us down the road to over-reaction, self delusion and folly. The key is applying rigorous thought to immediate impressions. Before you bolt, ask: what am I really seeing here? Examine all the facts, not just the ones that line up with the dots you want to connect. Is that really a bear? Or is it a bush? Gather all the facts, don't just cherry-pick the ones propping up your hunch. Are we seeing instances of a new trend? Or is it the "three examples make a movement" lazy lifestyle reporting you see, even in respectable newspapers?
The key to pattern recognition is to use it, rather than let it use you. Otherwise, one salient detail pops out and suddenly you're fleeing in misplaced terror across the veld. Some people can be set off by a single observation. They see an inverted triangle, and the epiphany hits them: "Oh my God -- Lou Malnati's ... Illuminati! How clearly do they have to spell it out?!?!" There are a lot of people who think like that; try not to be one of them.