Perceiving phoney patterns: apophenia
|After a run of red lights, surely a green one is due, or is that a red flag?|
How to recognise this tactic
This happens when you convince yourself, or someone tries to convince you, that some data reveal a significant pattern when really the data are random or meaningless. Some examples: seeing religious symbols in toasted bread or believing you are on a winning streak when gambling.
Why do people use this tactic?
This is one of those tactics we use on ourselves – a cognitive bias which prevents us from thinking rationally. We have all evolved the ability to detect patterns and regularities in our environment. Our ancestors used patterns they found in the seasons, in animal behaviour, in the earth’s crust, in materials, to help them survive. It is the major task of science to uncover patterns. Unfortunately, we often succumb to wishful thinking and ‘discover’ patterns that we want to be there, but are not. That’s apophenia. And scammers are quite prepared to exploit it.
What’s wrong with this tactic
Apophenia leads you to believe, wrongly, that you have evidence to support a position when you don’t. You believe you can continue to gamble because you’re on a winning streak, or that Mars is inhabited because some observers see canal-like patterns on its surface. It can lead you to ignore evidence that falsifies your position, or that supports a contrary position.
What to do when confronted by this tactic
Since it’s usually wishful thinking that leads us to find non-existent patterns, we need to guard against it first. Look for the signs, and guard against the temptation to dismiss evidence that doesn’t support your wishes. Beware of those who try to exploit your tendency for wishful thinking and discipline yourself to accept only conclusion that are supported by real-world evidence.
Variations and related tactics
Michael Shermer calls this cognitive bias ‘patternicity‘. It comes in several forms:
- Pareidolia – finding shapes, such as faces, in things like clouds, geological features and slices of toast.
- The gambler’s fallacy – believing that past random events can influence the probability of future ones, for example, that a flipped coin is more likely to show heads after a run of tails.
- The clustering illusion – believing that the clusters that are always found in random data actually indicate something meaningful, for example, that a run of wins in a game of dice means you are on a winning streak.
In science, apophenia is related to what’s known as a Type I error, in which a test seems to show that two variables are related when, in fact, they are not. It can also contribute to confirmation bias, in which an investigator deliberately looks for evidence which supports a favoured model and avoids evidence which refutes it.
Apophenia is also related to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, in which a person zooms in on an apparent pattern in the midst of a sea of data, and claims that this is the key to a significant issue (as in the fable of the Texas sharpshooter who fires random shots at a wall, then draws the bullseye around the tightest cluster of bullet holes).
- On the political side of the debate over climate change, many fall into the trap of using current weather patterns to support their positions – a cold spell, for instance, is quoted as evidence that the earth is not warming. Climate scientists are reluctant to claim that any particular event is due to global warming because they are aware of the dangers of the clustering illusion. Before any such pattern can be held up as real evidence, a convincing argument must be presented. James Hansen and colleagues have recently published an analysis (here and here) which, they claim, shows that recent weather events are consequences of global warming.
- Here’s how difficult it is to decide whether the clustering illusion is at work or not. In the early 2000s, it became apparent that there was an unusually high occurrence of breast cancer among female employees at the ABC studios at Toowong in Queensland. In 2007, an expert panel found that the rate was six times higher than the rate of breast cancer in Queensland, and that there was only a 1 in 25 chance (estimated p value of 0.04) that this could have occurred by chance. It found a correlation between breast cancer occurrence and length of service at the studio, but could find no evidence that the cancer was due to any factor related to the site or to genetic or lifestyle factors of the employees. A 2009 study investigated breast cancer rates in ABC employees across Australia and found no increased rates in any other site. The ABC abandoned the Toowong studios and now operates from new facilities several kilometres away. Was the cancer cluster a statistical artefact or was there some yet unidentified cause?
- In the early 1900s, German meteorologist Alfred Wegener noticed a pattern in the earth’s continental shapes. The edges of the continents appeared to fit into each other, like pieces of a jigsaw. This led him to believe they had once been joined together and he proposed his model of continental drift. Although this model explained many observations, it was not accepted by earth scientists because Wegener was unable to come up with a mechanism that could account for continents moving. Discoveries in the 1950s and 1960s revealed a mechanism, and Wegener’s idea became incorporated into the Plate Tectonic model.