Random AsidesSkepticism

Throwback Bad Chart Thursday: The Pareidolia Plot

Originally published on January 23, 2014.

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:

Virgin Vader

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.
Pareidolia Plot,med

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

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.)

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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