"Cosmos" Week 8: We Looked at the Stars and Found Plato's Cave
This time, Tyson begins again at a campfire, and tells us stories about the stars. Our ability to recognize patterns is what makes us different from animals. And the stars spinning in the sky were one of the first things we fixed our imaginations upon. We saw pictures in the noise, and spun tales to fit the pictures. Every culture spun different ones, the entire night sky an ancient cultural Rorschach test.
But the gorgeous part of that metastory, is that all human cultures did this. Across the world, we all looked at the same noise, and all found stories and hidden pictures buried within it. The thing with patterns is that they don’t exist in and of themselves, they are order laid down upon something that has no inherent order.
Every species with senses has some degree of pattern recognition. It’s how the input of the senses is turned into a picture of the world. But the danger is that bad input or input similar to other inputs, yields the recognition of patterns not actually reflective of the world. It’s toads running from their own shadows, dogs chasing their own tails, birds flying into windows.
We like to think that monumental ability to recognize patterns makes us to immune to such things, but all it really does is make our failures more nuanced. A couple kids have autism-like symptoms after their shots? Boom, a pattern, vaccines cause autism. And an entire spectrum of other small and niggling superstitions and assumptions about the world derived from noticing patterns that are not really patterns.
The repeated theme of the series has been how human beings take our biases, the ways that we want the world to work, and then force those beliefs down onto the evidence. We sand off the edges of the evidence, crack it in two, or just dismiss those who found it as cranks. The first few weeks of the series, this phenomenon was focused mostly on the church, but last week on corporate interests, and now finally on scientists themselves. Men who couldn’t see women as capable of science, therefore invalidating anything that they find.
These are based on patterns too, patterns we think that we have recognized as being laws unto the universe. When we think we know the truth, we start looking for evidence, for patterns, to support that truth. And we always invariably find it. Because our gift for pattern recognition means that we will always find the pattern that we’re looking for, whether buried in biblical codes, the movement of the stars, or just the demand that tradition is correct about women’s small brains.
And this is what science tries to do with its bedrock principle of following the evidence. It is a societal thought experiment, an acknowledgement that our ability to recognize patterns is the source of both our genius and our folly. It is our way of taking a deep breath, and channeling that pattern recognition so that it works against itself, winnowing out the patterns we think we see but don’t hold up.
Science is not based on knowledge, but on an acknowledgement of ignorance. At its core, it says everything we know is wrong. This is the most accurate, most true, pattern we have detected yet, but we acknowledge that the pattern itself has no reality. That it will someday be replaced by something better.
To paraphrase a quote from economics: all patterns are wrong. Some are useful.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.