Saturday, June 05, 2021

Why do we see things that aren't there?

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below.]

A few weeks ago, we talked about false discoveries, scientists who claimed they’d found evidence for alien life. But why is it that we get so easily fooled and jump to conclusions. How bad is it and what can we do about it? That’s what we will talk about today.

My younger daughter had spaghetti for the first time when she was about two years old. When I put the plate in front of her she said “hair”.

The remarkable thing about this is not so much that she said this, but that all of you immediately understood why she said it. Spaghetti are kind of like hair. And as we get older and learn more about the world we find other things that also look kind of like hair. Willows, for example. Or mops. Even my hair sometimes looks like hair.

Our brains are pattern detectors. If you’ve seen one thing, it’ll tell you if you come across similar things. Psychologists call this apophenia, we see connections between unrelated things. These connections are not wrong, but they’re not particularly meaningful. That we see these connections, therefore, tells us more about the brain than about the things that our brain connects.

The famous Rorschach inkblot test, for example, uses apophenia in the attempt to find out what connections the patient readily draws. Of course these tests are difficult to interpret because if you start thinking about it, you’ll come up with all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. Seeing patterns in clouds is also an example of apophenia.

And there are some patterns which we are particularly good at spotting, the ones that are most important for our survival, ahead of all: Faces. We see faces everywhere and in anything. Psychologists call this pareidolia.

The most famous example may be Jesus on a toast. But there’s also a Jesus on the butt of that dog. There’s a face on Mars, a face in this box, a face in this pepper, and this washing machine has had enough.

The face on Mars is worth a closer look to see what’s going on. In 1976, the Viking mission sent back images from its orbit around Mars. When one of them looked like a face, a guy by name y Richard C. Hoagland went on TV to declare it was evidence of lost Martian civilization. But higher resolution images of the same spot from later missions don’t look like faces to us anymore. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that, when we lack information, our brain fills in details with whatever it thinks is the best matching pattern. That’s also what happened, if you remember my earlier video, with the canals on Mars. There never were any canals on Mars. They were imaging artifacts, supported by vivid imagination.

Michael Shermer, the American science writer and founder of The Skeptics Society, explains this phenomenon in his book “The believing brain”. He writes: “It is in this intersection of non-existing theory and nebulous data that the power of belief is at its zenith and the mind fills in the blanks”.

He uses as example what happened when Galileo first observed Saturn, in 1620. Galileo’s telescope at the time had a poor resolution, so Galileo couldn’t actually see the rings. But he could see there was something strange about Saturn, it didn’t seem to be round. Here is a photo that Jordi Busque took a few months ago with a resolution similar to what Galileo must have seen. What does it look like to you? Galileo claimed that Saturn was a triple planet.

Again, what’s happening is that the human brain isn’t just a passive data analysis machine. The brain doesn’t just look at an image and says: I don’t have enough data, maybe it’s noise or maybe it isn’t. No, it’ll come up with something that matches the noise, whether or not it has enough data to actually draw that conclusion reliably.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. It’s better to see a mountain lion when there isn’t one than to not see a mountain lion when there is one. Can you spot the mountain lion? Pause the video before I spoil your fun. It’s here.

A remarkable experiment to show how we find patterns in noise was done in 2003 by researchers from Quebec and Scotland. They showed images of random white noise to their study participants. But the participants were told that half of those images contained the letter “S” covered under noise. And sure enough, people saw letters where there weren’t any.

Here’s the fun part. The researchers then took the images which the participants had identified as containing the letter “S” and overlaid them. And this overlay clearly showed an “S”.

What is going on? Well, if you randomly scatter points on a screen, then every once in a while they will coincidentally look somewhat like an “S”. If you then selectively pick random distributions that look a particular way, and discard the others, you indeed find what you were looking for. This experiment shows that the brain is really good at finding patterns. But it’s extremely bad at calculating the probability that this pattern could have come about coincidentally.

A final cognitive bias that I want to mention which is built into our brain is anthropomorphism, that means we assign agency to inanimate objects. That’s why we, for example, get angry at our phones or cars though that makes absolutely no sense.

Anthropomorphism was first studied in 1944 by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. They showed people a video in which squares and triangles were moving around. And they found the participants described the video as if the squares and triangles had intentions. We naturally make up such stories. This is also why we have absolutely no problem with animation movies whose “main characters” are cars, sponges, or potatoes.

What does this mean? It means that our brains have a built-in tendency to jump to conclusions and to see meaningful connections when there aren’t any. That’s why we have astrophysicists who yell “aliens” each time they have unexplained data, and why we have particle physicists who get excited about each little “anomaly” even though they should full well know that they are almost certainly wasting their time. And it’s why, if I hear Beatles songs playing on two different radio stations at the same time, I’m afraid Paul McCartney died.

Kidding aside, it’s also why so many people fall for conspiracy theories. If someone they know gets ill, they can’t put it down as an unfortunate coincidence. They will look for an explanation, and if they look, they will find one. Maybe that’s some kind of radiation, or chemicals, or the evil government. Doesn’t really matter, the brain wants an explanation.

So, this is something to keep in mind: Our brains come up with a lot of false positives. We see patterns that aren’t there, we see intention where there isn’t any, and sometimes we see Jesus on the butt of a dog.


  1. When something goes wrong, it is brain's fault.

  2. When your brain makes a connection based on something that is tentative, it does not mean it is biased or most likely wrong. And this goes for conspiration theories as well: I always thought it was a strange coincidence that Wuhan outbreak originated supposedly on a market place that traded wild live pangolins as exotic food, just few kilometers from the virology institute where they were collecting live bats for coronavirus research. But proponents of the lab leak theory were consistently ridiculed and smeared by US public health officials as raving crackpots and conspiracy theorists. And now it looks like the coronavirus pandemic actually did come out of that lab, and the researchers in Wuhan did gain-of function genetic modification of coronavirus to make it more infectious to human cells, and that research was funded by NIH, with CDC involved, as US did not want to do these risky experiments in US (it is expensive and inconvenient to work in a bioweapon-style facility), so they let research teams in Wuhan to try this instead. And both the Chinese and US government from the beginning worked hard to make it look like natural event because there is obviously a huge liability. In China, people were arrested and "disappeared" for reporting on the problem. in US, they were just smeared as crackpots in the media

    1. Hi milkshake,
      From what I can gather, there's no truly credible evidence of COVID-19 and the current beat-up is more of the same rubbish based on racist sentiment and sensationalism.
      China had to ultimately deal with COVID-19 the same as the rest of the world, imprisoning people didn't make it go away.
      There have been many articles explaining the make-up of the virions and that they show no signs of being artificially altered.

    2. As yet it is a hypothesis, and it could be the case. Yet, without any evidence, say lab notes leaked out or memos about some program, we cannot say whether this is true or false.

    3. milkshake,

      There is still no credible evidence it was designed in a laboratory, you are jumping to conclusions based on what you want to believe. Scientists have repeated the same thing over and over again: The simplest explanation, and hence the most scientific one, is that it's a natural virus. Of course that assessment can change if the evidence changes.

      Maybe ask yourself for a moment why a lab for studying coronaviruses is in Wuhan to begin with.

    4. @Lawrence Crowell
      Hi Lawrence,
      It's not even worth calling a hypothesis. I'm confident in saying that it's all manipulation and heresay promulgated by various unreliable sources to stir up attention and conflict to feed political agendas, as were such claims the first time round and as such there will be no lab notes or memos etc. in the first place.
      If I'm wrong I'll recant my statements.

    5. Clearly what is the most probable is that the virus is a natural entity as you say. As far as is known (to the public) no artificial virus of any kind has been synthesized. So there seems little if any use in debating but the debate itself (usually politized) is in fact the most salient issue or so it appears. Not surprising given human nature. What is surprising to me is that smart people so not see the harm they do to their own credibility by strong assertions (whichever side) implying strong motivation. Is this a feature of our nature or just a current fad?

    6. I would put "Jimmy the Greek" odds on the virus being natural and not augmented by mol-bio work. As for an oopsie in the lab? Who knows?

    7. C Thompson1:58 PM, June 05, 2021

      "If I'm wrong I'll recant my statements."

      Does this apply in general to all your comments?

    8. Yes, but if it's important to current discussions.

    9. C Thompson10:19 AM, June 09, 2021

      Well, we can define "current" as the past year, so do you now accept:
      There is zero evidence dreams can predict the future.
      Gods and demi-gods are fictional, so it is literally a mental delusion to think they are real.
      Universal fine-tuning is not even a scientific question currently.
      It is not transphobic not to allow transgender women to be inmates in a women's prison, because transgender women are men and men can represent a physical threat to women. Nor is it transphobic to ban transgender women from women's sports because as men it is against the rules for them to take part. In both cases the decision is based on attributes that the trans women may have as biological men, so it is not discriminating against their self-declared gender, and of course self-declaration of gender is open to abuse.
      There are only 2 human sexes biologically, therefore there are only 2 genders, by the definition of the word "gender".

    10. See my comment below and find something else that isn't me to fixate on.

  3. Flip side of the labels, is people who can't see a pattern that is really there. Lot of people for example with go out of their way to justify an addiction even if the problems are plan as day to an outside observer. Its just not addictions, bias holds strong onto the human mind, and that blinding bias can overlook patterns that do exist.

    1. I agree with your point and raise you one. Refusing to see actual patterns/conditions is more prevalent than imagining a pattern. I suspect that this a corollary of the 'me too' or 'truth is what everybody says'state of mind which is impressively powerful.
      I know people who are accomplished and claim to be mindful who strongly deny the possibility of something without being able or maybe willing to provide reasons.They only look/think in very narrow way and claim absolute confidence that they are right.

  4. I saw the same picture of the dog’s butt last year. I have a lab retriever that looks like that, but her butt does not have the same pattern.

    On a pack packing trip early one morning I was at this little stream to get water and crouched down. I looked to the side and realized a mountain lion was considering me. It was fortunately about 100 meters away. That had this rush of blood to the head sensation.

    I think there are reasons why we anthropomorphize things. This is a conjecture on my part, which might be false. However, I suspect in the evolution of language much of it was done to tell narratives and stories. This connects with our ability to project; we project into other people, fictional characters, even Einstein mentally projected himself on a moving reference frame comoving with light. The evolution of language may have facilitated the ability to communicate things about the world according to anthrotypes, which we think of as spirits, totems and gods. This allowed elder generation members of a group to communicate information about the environment. It was done with stories, which tend to capture people’s attention far better than lectures.

    Consider the gambling addict, such as the person who relentlessly pull the lever on the slot machine. They are grasping at some pattern that they think will let them win. Of course that is impossible.

    This pattern recognition is seen best in constellations. From these and the motion of the sun, moon and planets cosmogonies were built up that for thousands of years held sway and were largely wrong. It has only in the last 400 years we began to get things right. It appears that our ability to build patterns can in some cases be an obstruction.

    There have been of late AI systems that have found mathematical proofs and one last year that given sky data constructed Kepler’s laws without falling into the error pits humans did. Human mathematicians and theoretical physicists may have their days numbered here. We may simply have these developments handed to us by AI systems. Though by that time unemployment may be so extensive nobody can afford these AI systems anymore.

    I had a conversation the other day with someone with respect to Gödel’s theorem. I have this hypothesis that states of the universe have a self-referential nature that may secure observable states as those which obey the Church-Turing thesis. The conversation lead to the prospect that with Gödel’s 1st theorem we have consistency and completeness as dualities. Human brains work for completeness, which is why humans can easily see there are an infinite number of natural numbers by induction, but then make arithmetic mistakes. Humans can be a bundle of contradictions, consider the last president of the USA, and at the same people can often project themselves as being infallible.

  5. Sabine,

    I was especially fascinated by your description of a study in which overlaying “bogus” finds of the letter S in white noise produced a sum that provably contains the letter S.

    From an information-theory perspective, white noise is simply an enormous number of signals jumbled together. For this reason, signals with maximum information content look like white noise. White noise and maximum information content are two sides of the same information coin, with the only real difference being whether or not the receiver knows how to disentangle the signals.

    Thus, human cognition can find an S in visual white noise because the S is there. Sure, the S arose by accident, but it’s not some figment of the receiver’s imagination. The S is just hard to see because there is an enormous amount of noise surrounding it.

    Now, for those of us who interpret continual nano-scale “wave collapse” not only as a natural and testable phenomenon but the fundamental operation by which classical physics, including spacetime itself, emerges from the quantum realm, that simple observation raises an interesting question. Does the rare case of a quantum wave function that has been preened and coddled and babied enough to avoid any micro-collapses actually contain every letter of the “alphabet” of possible collapse states? Or is it too just an example of a white noise wave that only looks smooth on average, but in reality, only sometimes contains a particular state such as the letter S?


    In last week’s May 29, 2021, Backreaction blog, “What does the universe expand into? Do we expand with it?” Sabine gave her usual great explanation of how the universe expands and why most mathematicians and physicists view embedding spaces as redundant. Some work I did years ago kept nagging at my memory until I recalled it just today. If Sabine allows it, I’ll now go back to last week’s blog and post my explanation of why embedding spaces do matter, very much in fact, and why not using them is at best unforgivably sloppy math.

  6. The vaccine-autism conspiracy theory would be another good example. The onset of noticeable autism behavior happens to roughly coincide with the first childhood vaccinations, for similar developmental reasons.

    I guess the question to ask yourself is whether there is a good, non-causational reason for an observed correlation, e.g., the laboratory in Wuhan.

    Another point is that if you are looking for some evidence of the paranormal (signs from god, psychic predictions, alien visitations) hard enough, you are bound to find some (which can be interpreted as such).

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. That explains laboratory fusion physics (controlled thermonuclear) perfectly. Thank you Bee.

  9. It seems to me that there is a difference between seeing something that is not there and misinterpreting something that is there. The visual system correctly sees the face on Mars and the Jesus on the butt of the dog. But further interpretation shows the face to be a chance arrangement of rocks and the Jesus a chance arrangement of markings. These are different from illusions such as the Kanizsa triangle where the visual system sees a triangle where no triangle exists. And even after the brain understands that there is no triangle present, the illusion is so strong that the visual system continues to see the triangle.

  10. Do you agree neither you nor Shermer nor anyone else of you favorites is immune?

    Take your "evolutionary perspective" comment. You must agree "it’s better to see a mountain lion..." regardless of "evolution" being true or not (hint: it isn't). Your qualifier is the very false positive you warn against.

    Also, we know for a fact some conspiracies happened. So where exactly would you draw the objective line? Hint: you can't.

    So worry about your favorites' biases too. In fact, worry more about those than about others'.

    1. Immune to what? To biases? Of course not. I have no idea what you think I "must agree to".

      As to conspiracies. You clearly missed the point. Of course conspiracies can happen. No one ever said that they can't. You can also tunnel through a wall. That something "can" happen is totally irrelevant. The question is what's the probability that it did happen. Conspiracy theorists vastly overestimate the probability that their explanations are correct.

    2. History shows that, since forever, governments have been practically synonymous with conspiracies. Maybe a bit less in your country and culture. We're not talking about "tunnel through a wall" but about 1 - P("tunnel through a wall")

      My points are:
      1. Many master bias theory, but they don't practice what they preach.
      2. Often there's no objective standard to even establish what is or isn't a bias.


    Crazy Luke: Gee, humming birds are amazing!

    Dr. H.; Universal fine-tuning is not a scientific question.

    Very cool, Dr. H. You kicked his superstitious a*s!
    They kept calling you "Sabina". Religious halfwits can't even remember a name.

    1. "They kept calling you "Sabina"."

      The pronunciation is nearly correct; most native English speakers drop the final "e", thinking it's silent. Of course the unstressed German "e" is not pronounced "a". But I have tried to explain this so many times unsuccessfully, that I assume English native speakers just don't hear the difference, the same way I can't tell "man" from "men", even though I know they're different sounds. In other words, I think they did very well, esp seeing that my English is still miserable after 30 years use.


      Sabine / German Pronunciation

    3. Steven, the way you keep harping on about religion and people who have religious faith makes me wonder wtf is going on with you that you'd carry on about it so much. Maybe you need to do something about that.
      If an atheist instrumentalist non-realist scientist can handle religious faith with respect, maybe it's not Christians et. al. who have mental issues, it could be the unreasonably intolerant of religion like yourself who can't think straight.
      For all the times you've had a go at me and others: You're the one who's acted like a freaking lunatic.

    4. While I only watched a few snippets, it was enough to see that Sabine did very well. Here's my favorite example:

      Justin: "When you look at the night sky... does it ever inspire anything like religious awe in you...?"

      Sabine: "I would say I don't really know what you are talking about."

    5. There are many assumption that underpin science that cannot be verified by experiment. These assumptions come from our everyday common sense experiences in living our lives. One assumption that I am especially interested in exploring is an investigation into the opinion that energy cannot be produced from nothing. This is crackpot stuff. But I see a way to prove that this proposition holds merit.

      Sen and Witten string theory tells us that the end stage of a tachyon condensates life cycle is the annihilation of the space time that the condensate has been inhabiting. There is an instability between the D-brane and the anti D-brane that contain the condensate. Ashoke Sen wasn't scared of such an instability. We might think of this phenomena as an opportunity to derive energy from nothing since the D-brane applied to our universe is simply space-time.

      The potential energy curve for the complex tachyon condensate is nothing else than the Mexican hat potential of a sort. The minima correspond to a complete destruction of the D-brane and the anti-D-brane. The D-brane is comprised of the Higgs field and all the virtual particles that interact with the Higgs field.

      The D-brane and anti-D-brane carry the opposite charges. They're antimatter to each other. So they may annihilate with each other and the tachyon condensate is just a sign of this looming annihilation. When they annihilate, however, the potential energy for the tachyon rolls down lower. How much lower? Well, the decrease of the potential energy is exactly what you would expect from the complete destruction of the latent energy E=mc2 carried by the brane and the anti-brane. Because this energy is uniform and its density is given by the tension, Sen realized that it had to be the case that the energy densities obeyed... twice the tension.

      The way I look at this proposition, when the tachyon condensate becomes unstable, it releases the maximum energy content of the de Sitter space and the anti de sitter space that the condensate is sitting in. This amount of energy can be determined by measuring the sum of all the energies of the electrons that explosively exit the region where the annihilation of the space time has occured.

      I beleive that I have seen an experiment that shows a weak Bosenova reaction of a tachyon condensate at the very lowest level of the expected maximum vacuum energy potential or about 500GeVs.

      It is valuable for science to be able to test the assumptions about the vacuum that have been made. All it might take is a small amount of mental tolerance for a crackpot viewpoint.

      Both the work of Sen and Witten need to be justified by a simple experimental demonstration that their theories are dead on physical.

      By the way, this experimental vacuum energy measurement method might also address the confusion around the Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment which would benefit from a more exacts profile of the contents of the vacuum.

    6. Sabine Hossenfelder9:53 AM, June 07, 2021

      "The pronunciation is nearly correct;"

      I see. So they get a B+ for German Oral and an F for Science.

      The 2 of them didn't seem to understand that space-time may "just be", and asking "why it exists?" is not known to make any sense as a question. Just like "are electrons happy?" doesn't make any sense. Space-time could have a closed, finite topology and therefore no "beginning", correct?

    7. C Thompson1:04 PM, June 07, 2021

      But I don't respect "religious faith". That's the point.

      "You're the one who's acted like a freaking lunatic."

      But you think that dreams can predict the future and that men who simply declare themselves to be women are women. These are nonsensical ideas.

    8. And you think you're smart.
      Science and decent society has left you behind.
      Knowing physics isn't so great if you can't grasp biology and gender as they actually work.
      But you've been a douche-canoe long before I came along, of course you're a transphobe.

    9. C Thompson3:35 AM, June 08, 2021

      I don't remember claiming I was smart. Only points of argument are relevant. I wrote that religious people are mentally deluded because they cannot distinguish between obviously fictional primitive stories and reality; and I wrote that you are mentally deluded because you think that dreams can predict the future. Maybe the wording was a tad harsh but in both cases it's true by definition, and in both cases you need to be made aware of how ridiculous the delusions are.

      In what sense have science and decent society left me behind? I don't object to the freedom of individuals in thoughts and actions. Biologically humans divide clearly into 2 sexes, male and female (with a small number of people born inter-sex), and this is the basis of sexual reproduction of the species. Gender refers to the average traits of these 2 sexes. So it makes no sense scientifically to talk about more than 2 genders. Obviously, an individual could differ greatly from the average traits. A biological man may through certain genes not being expressed have many traits more commonly found in females. There are still only 2 sexes and genders though biologically speaking. This should also be the case legally, as you are going to run into trouble if you base laws on fictional ideology rather than science.

      A transgender woman then is a man who feels he has female traits and wants to live as a woman. Fine. But biologically he is still a man. And legally he should still be a man, because the law needs to be based on scientific fact. Of course, socially it is usual to refer to such a person as "she". Clearly, a person with a penis and testicles, or "man", should not be put in a women's prison.

      I am not a transphobe because I don't hate transgender men and women. I don't recognise genders other than male and female because there is no scientific basis for them. If you want to talk about more detailed human attributes then use a word other than "gender" because there are only 2 sexes therefore only 2 average traits, or "genders", of those sexes.

      There are going to be a mountain of law suits in the future in the US and the UK as people realise they were encouraged to undergo surgery because they were a sensitive boy or tom-boyish girl by people with a political agenda.

    10. Nope.
      I do know of one case of someone who was convinced to surgically transition but was still a man, but people know who and how they are.
      Encouraging people to live as true selves isn't a political agenda, and I even said surgery or any medical treatment isn't necessary to be transgender.
      You just confirmed your ignorance.
      Again, your conviction about religion is unreasonable, but it's the best you can do to deal with people who don't think like you. It's kinda painful to watch you stick to the same scripts, like you actually do anything except parrot the same lines over and again. Same as you were, ad infinitum.
      Did you notice Dr. Barnes stated that a belief in God doesn't negate science, sounds like he does grasp reality. Your bias is showing.

    11. Re Looking at the sky with religious awe ...

      Well the night sky on a dark, rural summer night or in the Arizona desert is an awesome sight, especially when one is young and hasn't seen it a thousand times. There is also a sensation of "who am I--where did I come from--why am I here" which I think is common in young people with some imagination. Anyway, it happened to me a couple times around 11 years old, and Rudyard Kipling described it happening to a young Indian boy in his novel "Kim".

      However it seems to me the awe should come with a sense of being small and insignificant and probably not capable of completely understanding something, whereas the religious association implies that one is somehow the cause or purpose of that awe-inspiring sight. So rather than impelling me toward religion it has the opposite effect.

      I wouldn't exist without the physics of this universe, but neither would any of the rocks I used to pick up and toss into rivers, and there are a lot more of them. I would be more inclined to think rocks were the reason, if there had to be one. (I used to find rocks with flecks of quartz and mica somewhat awe-inspiring also at a young age.)

    12. C Thompson7:34 AM, June 08, 2021

      "Nope" what?
      Do you disagree with biology that there are 2 clearly defined human sexes and therefore it only makes sense to talk about 2 genders? Or are there other human sexes and corresponding genders that you would like to tell us all about?
      I didn't write that transgender people have to have undergone surgery to be considered transgender. Do you agree with biology that a transgender woman is a man, legally has to be considered a man, and that there are even some social situations where their biological maleness means they cannot participate as a woman e.g. in weight-lifting competitions or in prisons where their biological maleness clearly presents an issue?

      A transgender woman is biologically a man and therefore legally should be considered a man, while socially we can be as sympathetic as possible. Do you agree?

      A teenager does not know their "true selves" (meaningless phrase), as they are yet to undergo another decade of significant biological, mental and social development. So carrying out transitioning surgery on children is completely unacceptable and should be outlawed.

      I don't think you are clear on the above facts and as usual you fail to address them.

      Luke Barnes claims that the gods and demi-gods of primitive Iron Age fairy tales are real. This is a mental delusion by definition and an extreme one. Motivated by this delusion, he has disingenuously used his credentials as a scientist to try to present universal fine-tuning as a fact in the media, in a published book, in statements to the press, in "philosophical" journals, but never in a peer-reviewed physics journal.

      Dr. H. absolutely destroyed him in the debate, as she pointed out that not only is there no evidence of fine-tuning, but that she had *** absolutely no idea how it could be formulated as a scientific question ***. Brilliant! And true. Luke Barnes was humiliated, his dodgy claims in tatters. A victory for the truth.

      Nothing I write is unreasonable, because I have provided reasons. Biology tells us there are 2 human sexes and therefore 2 human genders, and science tells us we don't know the universe had a beginning so don't know it had a "creation", and empirically "demi-gods" didn't exist in Iron Age Palestine. From the point of view of human civilizational knowledge, we know books like the Bible and the Koran are full of made-up stories and beings. Just like we know it for the Iliad. Zeus is fictional, God is fictional, Allah is fictional, Gandalf the Wizard is fictional. Winnie the Pooh is fictional, human genders other than male and female are fictional.

      You don't provide any counter-arguments, because you have none, and are reduced instead to trying to smear people as transphobes with absolutely zero justification. Like Luke Barnes, you have been put in your place by the facts of the matter.

    13. C Thompson7:34 AM, June 08, 2021

      "Dr. Barnes stated that a belief in God doesn't negate science, sounds like he does grasp reality."

      Mmm, the problem is that science has shown religion to be nonsense, which we already knew anyway. Scientifically, "belief in God" is a mental delusion, an extreme one. People suffering from such extreme mental delusions should visit a psychiatrist.

      "Your bias is showing."
      My bias for evidence and reason over delusional nonsense?

    14. The range of biological forms which do not well classify as average male or female (though relatively rare) is enormous, and so are its underlying genetic or other causes. One could state the same for identity and self perceptions, but it is not understood how these derive from a brain or underlying genetic traits. Forget about definitions by religion, these are made based on lack of understanding and social characteristics and priorities of an area long gone, and as such less or not relevant. Regarding law: I belief the basic principle is that ever person deserves equal respect.

    15. Martien2:45 AM, June 09, 2021

      Right. Gender is difficult to determine in plenty of individual cases so it should never have entered the law.

      People should have their sex registered and gender should just be dealt with informally. Now we are in the ludicrous position where men can just declare themselves to be women and take part in women's sports events, enter women's prisons, etc.

      We have jumped the Fonz jumping the shark. Even the religious look sane in comparison to the Woke.

    16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    17. C Thompson,

      You came here to criticize me for retweeting an article about a law. I approved this comment even though it's off topic because I don't want to leave anyone with the impression I am not open to criticism, but I see that this clearly wasn't a good idea as now this thread has degraded into an entirely off-topic discussion.

      First let me note that I have clearly stated in my twitter profile that shares aren't endorsements.

      Second, as everybody else I have personal values and political opinions. I don't discuss these in public.

      Third, the only thing this article does is point out that a recently passed law has unintended consequences that may put some people's health at risk. If you think I am "transphobic" for retweeting an article that discusses a legal problem, then you are using the word in an entirely meaningless way, but I see this happening on twitter all the time, so I guess that's the new normal.

    18. Dr. Hossenfelder, I was not intending to say you're transphobic, I apologise if I seemed to imply that in my original comment. Having had my say, I was going to leave it at that. Thank you for reading my comment. I see what you're saying.
      I won't have anyone bringing that up as a way of having a go at me as Steven Evans did - that's low. I wanted to respond to him and anyone else who thought like that. I'm happy to leave the topic alone from here on.
      I'll refrain from instigating such arguments, I apologise for doing that.

    19. C Thompson1:31 AM, June 10, 2021

      The facts for you:
      Dreams can't predict the future.
      Gods and demi-gods are fictional.
      In mammals, females are XX, males are XY ( a small percentage of humans have a divergent sexual development, known as intersex).

    20. C Thompson1:31 AM, June 10, 2021

      "I wanted to respond to him"

      "Her", please. From now on I am a woman. If you refer to me as he/him in future you are transphobic.

    21. I have over a decade of knowledge on sex and gender etc., I'm pretty good on the facts.
      I said I'd drop this derail, so should you.

    22. I'll not approve further replies from Steven to this thread. I am sure she will understand.

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  13. I keep trying to find something intelligent to say here, but all that I can come up with is that I once saw a cloud with an erection, “smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras,” and that Pareidolia and Dog Butts don’t go well together.

    1. I think that '...sometimes we see Jesus on the butt of a dog.' is the pinnacle of this blog (arguably).

  14. My brother and I had taken the tramway to the 1800 foot level above Juneau, Alaska, and proceeded to hike the trail leading to the summit of Mt. Roberts, another 2000 feet of vertical ascent. We paused at a spot with a clear view of a meadow some 500 feet below us. In the middle of this meadow was a dark object that we were quite sure was a grizzly bear. But taking out 10X binoculars we quickly discovered that it was a tree stump. It’s amazing how the eye/brain combo can translate a low resolution object into something it isn’t.

    1. I keep thinking I see human figures at night but I'm looking at stuff like discarded housewares and garbage. It can get a bit unnerving.

    2. Several years ago, in Washington State, USA, a lady received a fir coat as a Christmas present. She lived in a heavily wooded area and went for a walk while wearing it.
      A couple boys were hunting in the same woods that day and mistook her for a bear. Sadly, they shot and killed her.

  15. We immediately recognize a game (e.g. basketball or chess). But what is the pattern?

  16. I can only say that a few of these posts are fraught with irony.

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  18. As an old friend of mine used to say, intelligence is the ability to see patterns where none exist.

  19. When an art student studies animation, one exercise is to portray an emotion e.g. jealousy, excitement, sadness, using only a handful of dots moving about on the screen. It relies on people's abilities to anthropomorphize and teaches valuable lessons on the use of motion in story telling.

    On the other hand, don't anthropomorphize computers. They hate that.

  20. The "naturalness problem" illustrates that the common sense thinking approach in physics, and particle physics in particular does not work. The way that the universe works does not makes sense. One such example of the nonsensical way that the universe works is why the existence of the universe is so sensitive to the current value of the energy density of the Higgs field. It seems that the Higgs field is the fundamental linchpin that the universe hangs on. If the energy density of the Higgs field is changed by just a little bit, then the universe and all its laws fall to pieces maybe into one big black hole at one extreme or into pure energy at the other. To most people who concern themselves with this sort of thing, this situation does not make any sense. This situation shows how the universe does not comply with our predispositions, perceptions, and wishes. I hope that someday Dr. H can write a post that explains the reasons behind why the universe does what it wants.

  21. I find this topic so similar with what happens in quantum mechanics with particles. When you don't have all the information about a particle, it can be in more than one place with some probability. So there will be observers saying that you can find it in A and others saying it can be found in B. Once you get the whole information the particle is localized exactly and all see the same picture (or do they?). Until the collapse we can only fill in the missing information.

  22. Last year I found this article describing how QAnon conspiracies are like a game that uses apophenia to draw people in and manipulate them:

    (I deleted my comment responding to Steven Evans as it's not useful to leave it up.)

  23. This stuff is way over my head, but it's fun to play with...
    Another side of this coin is, Why do we [look] for things that aren't there? It's like panning for gold. You've got to sift through a lot of dirt before you find what you're looking for.
    A golden nugget that I've been panning for is a connection between Quantum Superposition and Einstein's Observer Dependent Simultaneity.

    1. & why do we give toys to our children?*
      One could think: "If it is inevitable that they play, I would at least like to influence the way they play", and thus transfer some of their own ideas to them...
      also the thought of the message: "I want to be part of your game ...", is obvious...
      Because basically we all don't know which patterns will become clearer to us in the course of the next game that we get involved in ... and basically we all love the moment we think we're seeing a pattern.

      Greetings, you great babes. (8)

  24. "Why we see things that are not there?" Because money is involved. A new book explains:

    Review of The Fairy Tale of Nuclear Fusion by L. J. Reinders
    Excerpt: "There is no other endeavor or project undertaken by mankind on which energy and money have been spent for close to a hundred years without any tangible results, only a dim prospect of success in another fifty years or so. The reason must be that there is a lot at stake, or perceived to be.

  25. Sabine I like this article. However in the comments you used the word "credible". I would say "convincing" is a better word. There is credible circumstantial evidence for a lab leak including a striking propinquity of a virus lab to the wet market and that lab moved premises in the relevant timeframe. The WHO report mentioned this fact so it is credible. There is circumstantial evidence for a Wuhan lab leak origin (a different thing to saying the virus was designed in a lab), but though some of it is credible the totality of evidence is very far from being conclusive.

    1. This is the first time I've come across that assertion but one of several such claims, I'm calling bullshit on this one too, including the WHO mention.
      Correlation does not prove causation.

    2. "This is the first time I've come across that assertion" Well you've never come across anyone like me before (someone who read the WHO report). Have you read the article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, no not the Nicolas Wade one, the 2012 one called “The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic”, which talked about coronaviruses and assessed the probability of a virus escape as 80%. In 2014 one of the world's most eminent virologists Simon Wain-Hobson authored papers criticizing “gain-of-function” research as having unknown risks and an unpredictable trajectory if there was an escape from the lab. SARS in 2002 was natural so the default assumption is Covid was too. But Wuhan is hundreds of miles from where the bats with the closest relations of the Covid 19 virus live. That doesn't mean the Covid pandemic came from a lab accident, it probably didn't, but the issue is far from being as clear cut as you seem to think.

    3. Covid-19 has been shown to show no signs or markers of being made in a laboratory, it was examined to determine that last year.


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