Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mars: yes, it's all in your head

Officials at NASA have finally reached critical mass over the claims of strange things seen on Mars.

And it's about time, I say. You know the claims I speak of. There was a near endless stream of them over the past year it seems. Here's but a soupcon of things "researchers" claim to have seen on Mars:

-A casket.
-A crab.
-An iguana.
-A "facehugger" from Alien.
-Spaceships of various kinds, like the Star Destroyer from Star Wars.

This is all in addition to the original claims of "faces" on Mars and the pyramids of the Cydonia region. While I'm sure the people who pore over photographs from Mars are having a good time, they're not doing much more than making shapes out of clouds. We've all done it. You look up at the clouds and say "that one looks like a duck" or "that one looks like a Buick" or "that looks just like a profile portrait of Truman Capote."

Okay, maybe I'm the only one who's offered that latter observation but you get the idea.

It all has to do with neurology. Our brains look for familiar patterns and shapes. Sometimes our brains will recognize similarities to those patterns, even if the objects aren't even there to begin with. This is called pareidolia and it's the same reason people see Jesus in their sandwiches or the Virgin Mary in a tree. While this mechanism of the brain has helped us to survive and to perform functions such as recognizing faces in crowds, it can fool us as well. In this case, people are just doing the same thing they would on Earth with rocks on Mars.

No, there's nothing inherently wrong with anybody voicing what they "see" in rocks on Mars. In truth, it's kinda fun. My issue is with how these outrageous claims distract from the real objective of searching for life elsewhere. The pool of public opinion is now in many ways tainted. If evidence of life is found, the easy temptation would be to say "you're seeing things in rocks just like everyone else." That is unless its a find backed up by crackerjack research and firm evidence, something found by one of the rovers, let's say. But it pretty much closes the door on anything an intrepid user of Google Mars might come across and not without good reason.

If you need additional help sorting the wheat from the chaff in Mars claims, Corey Powell posted a BS detector guide for implausible claims at Discover. It's quite similar to what I tell students in terms of how to vet a source.

Nah, I take it all back. I might just be crotchety but I think passing off rocks as proof of alien life is pretty dumb and I'm tired of hearing about it. Do us a favor, armchair Mars researchers. Next time you think you "see" a waffle iron or something equally stupid on Mars, keep it to yourself.

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