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    Categories: Random AsidesSkepticism

Bad Chart Thursday: The Pareidolia Plot

As skeptics, we’re probably all familiar with the concept of pareidolia, perceiving a distinct pattern, often an image, in randomness, such as the many sightings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in food items (grilled cheese, tortillas, pizza, Cheetos), stains on walls, wood grain, gnarled trees, and even in a dirty sock. The same process is at work with sound, such as hearing distinct words in music played backwards.

Our brains seek patterns, and we often see meaning in these patterns, even though they are randomly made. This meaning is inevitably culturally specific. One person’s Virgin Mary, for example, is another’s Darth Vader eating a giant sno-cone:

Perceiving these patterns is a trait humans share across the globe, although the meanings tend to bring out the narcissism in us. In keeping with this combination of factors, I decided to graph instances of pareidolia around the world as a function of distance from my house.

I had no idea that doing this would lead to the greatest discovery of my life.

Just bear with me here. Here’s the initial scatter plot.

Seems pretty random, right? But look a little closer. Do you see him? The sideburns? The mustache? Let me help you out.

That’s right. When you graph pareidolia related to where I live, you get Ron Freaking Swanson. (Might also correlate with Burt Reynolds. Further testing is needed.)

Melanie Mallon: Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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  • I have a bathroom tile, directly opposite the toilet, with either Karl Marx or Radagast the Brown on it. If I make my own bad scatter chart, that would be the closest instance of pareidolia, smack dab on the y-axis.

    P.S. Many of the greatest discoveries of all time were made in the bathroom, e.g. Archimedes' principle., Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh.

    P.P.S. Why are so many of these images of bearded, mostly white men? Secret plot by the patriarchy?

    • Scott Simpson describes a similar situation with the bathroom tiles in his shower in this episode of You Look Nice Today. It creates a serious problem for him. Warning: Don't listen to it while drinking or eating anything you'd rather not spray around your immediate surroundings. Also, might not be the best thing to listen to out loud at work...

      http://youlooknicetoday.com/episode/three

    • OMG, it's TRUE! It's all a patriarchy pareidolia plot. And I just furthered that plot with Ron (albeit minus the beard).

  • I'll have you know that Queen's _Another One Bites the Dust_ totally says, "It's fun to smoke marijuana" backwards. Really. It does.

    • That one totally cracked me up when I heard it. Yes it does sort of sound like that and the preacher that was playing it most certainly heard it because he was going on at length about how evil it was to get kids hooked on the noxious weed.

      The richest past of it all is that the song it its original forward direction is ABOUT A HITMAN MOWING DOWN HIS PREY!!

      Talk about having your priorities straight, jeez.

      • No! For the last time, Melanie, we're passing this joint around. You may NOT put it in there. I don't care if it's fun!