Nothing to see here.

The image below is currently a smash hit on reddit.  Look, there’s uncanny similarity between two different things. Let’s publish this meaningful find in the “paper of record”.

neuron-galaxy

Click to Enlarge

I despise these kinds of “science” observations. There is nothing scientifically interesting about the above comparison. Use a myelin-specific tag and suddenly your nerve cell won’t look anything like the picture on the right.  Pseudo-color your “universe” image differently and you lose the resemblance. This look-alike trickery plays on a weak human tendency to impose meaning where there is none.  Such tomfoolery even has it’s own fancy word. It doesn’t even have to involve a comparison:

The term pareidolia describes a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. (From Wikipedia)

Even respected scientists have gone overboard with the “things that look alike” observations. Seemingly every field has a set of papers where the authors find “fractals” or “self-similarity” in some phenomena.  There aren’t enough mathematicians and hardcore dynamical scientists around to keep these unfounded assertions in check.  A sea shell looks like a fractal.  So what? If I may paraphrase a reddit commentor, a sharpie marker also looks like a torpedo. If I may paraphrase a different commentor, Pew Pew Pew.

So things look alike. Things don’t have to have the same underlying cause to look alike.  Things which don’t look alike can be made to look alike by fortuitous choice of camera angle or aspect ratio or axes scaling.  Somebody on the web thought they’d be clever and superimpose the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the Great Depression on top of the recent market:

dow-then-nowIf you expand that baby, you’ll notice the two charts not only have different axes scaling, but have different logarithmic axes scaling.  You couldn’t hammer a square peg into a round hole any better than this.  But hey, they look the same!  Must be science. Must be Timesworthy.

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~ by wcuk on November 12, 2008.

2 Responses to “Nothing to see here.”

  1. Pattern recognition helped humans to reproduce at some point in the past. Thus, it is not a weak human tendency, but a tool for survival. Pattern recognition and extrapolation is less vestigial than the appendix, in my opinion.

    That said, you can immediately toss the opinion of anyone quoting Dow Jones Industrial Average numbers into the dustbin. Not only is it not an accurate portrayal of equities (only 30 components, price-weighted rather than market cap-weighted, etc), it’s not even the same 30 companies it was 5 years ago, let alone 80.

    P.S. PWNED!!

  2. For once, I agree w/ Jenks. One of the ways we make knowledge is through simile. X looks like Y… Sometimes the simile bears a relationship to actual phenomenon, sometimes not.

    Interpretation – wrong or not – is not imposing meaning where there is none. Meaning is not inherent in the object or phenomenon itself. We aren’t dealing with Platonic forms here. Meaning comes from an act of interpretation. This is what you, as a scientist, do daily.

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