One thing I have observed in life is that when two people look at the same set of data, they can sometimes reach very different conclusions. Some people see patterns that aren’t there and others don’t see patterns that are there. This is sometimes called patternicity or apophenia.
I will give you an example that occurred often in 2004. The church I went to then had time set aside to allow the different members to speak up front if they had something to say. Every week, several different people shared a verse, a song, a testimony, or a brief message. It was not known ahead of time who would speak or what they would say. After the service, I often heard from my friends that they saw a clear pattern in what was shared. Even though there was no collusion on the part of the members, the songs, verses, testimonies, and messages all covered the same subject to give an overall message for the day. They used the existence of this pattern as proof that God was involved.
Now, I am not suggesting that God never gets involved in arranging messages, but I just don’t see the same pattern that they do. First of all, since it is a “church gathering,” subjects such as love, God, Jesus, and prayer are bound to come up quite often. It is impossible not to find a pattern of those subjects being covered every week. Yet, they saw some significance to it.
It isn’t just the broad subjects that they claimed. Since every subject relates to many others (including those only barely touched upon) and every message of any significant length covers very many subjects, it is no wonder that some of these lesser subjects match. In fact, it is possible to claim in all truthfulness any subject in the universe as a secondary subject of any message. Suppose I gave a speech on crocodiles. I might briefly mention a study on genes giving insights into reptilian evolution, but only as a minor footnote. Another person might then give a speech on the invention of the pencil sharpener. They might mention the composition of pencils, but only as a minor footnote. If my friends were in the audience they would see a link: we both talk about chemistry. I would have covered indirectly the subject of DNA, and the second person would have mentioned the substances of lead and graphite. One can pull any pattern out of those two subjects! One could claim that they both cover safety around sharp objects or that they both cover the world of non-humans (if they are used to hearing only speeches on health and social sciences).
Although I disagree with them, I am not calling my friends stupid; these are intelligent, respectable people (mostly). These types of errors are easy to make. In fact, greater intelligence makes it easier to find patterns or infer patterns from incomplete data. I draw a parallel with optical illusions (no pun intended). The better one can see, the easier it is to see what isn’t there.
I see this same problem all the time. Looking at the same data, some people see clear evidence for global warming and others do not. Looking at the same evidence in a trial, some people see clear evidence of guilt and others do not. This is a source of a lot of conflict. I don’t always know the truth for sure myself, but sometimes I can be very sure that neither does anyone else. It still amazes me how confident people can be in things they know nothing about.
There is of course, another possibility. Since the probability of occurrence of each subject is very tricky to quantify and measure, it could be that I am the one who is mistaken. Perhaps the pattern is significant after all. I haven’t been able to check it out mathematically. All the statistical number crunching happens in our subconscious, so I couldn’t tell you where to begin looking for errors. I would be very interested to find out what causes this phenomenon so we can fix this problem that leads to conflict and poor decision-making.
Also, this phenomenon is hard to explain. I tried to use an example above about pencil sharpeners and crocodiles, but if one actually does see the chemistry connection I described, how can I then convince them that there is no connection and use that to then explain the problem at church? The example at church suffices for me, but not for my church friends, so why would the crocodile-sharpener example make things any clearer? I think that the more examples used, the chances that none of them will work gets smaller and smaller.
What do you think? What causes us to see patterns differently? What can we do about it?
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My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.