Because he hates me and will go to any length to distract me from my Very Important Work here at the Palace, my Loyal Subject™ SJ sent me this image, noting that it’s a jpeg, not an animated gif:
[IMAGE: A grayscale image of a square made of small cross-hatch marks surrounded by a square frame of the same cross-hatch marks. The square in the center appears to float above the image and move; the effect is more pronounced when scrolling.]
I was forced—forced, I tell you!—to copy/paste it from SJ’s email, print it to pdf and then view it just to assure myself that this is indeed a still image. (I have uploaded it here as a .png to avoid image degradation from .jpg compression.)
This is not the first time I’ve been amused by an optical illusion, of course. But it got me thinking about the ways in which our perceptual systems are wildly imperfect instruments. Our brains evolved for survival and successful reproduction, not for perfectly capturing and accurately interpreting phenomena we encounter in the real world. The very notion that the world we experience in our minds is an accurate reflection of reality is itself an illusion, and a very powerful one at that.
Nor is that illusion restricted to sensory systems, either: our cognitive processes, memory recall and moral intuitions are all subject to dozens of known distortions, biases and logical fallacies, and probably some unknown ones, too. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the profoundly flawed and fallible human brain is even capable of knowing enough about itself to ever overcome these obstacles to the point where we can actually know anything at all about ourselves or the world.
But of course we do know some things, and that’s because we have powerful tools to work with: evidence, sound reasoning, science. I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, the subtitle of which is Science as a Candle in the Dark, and it very much speaks to this. See also: lesswrong.com, where one can learn to apply the scientific understandings we have about our biases to improve our thinking and decision-making.
But unfortunately, there is something else frequently found plaguing the human mind, something that has so far proven nearly impossible to overcome: I speak, of course, of Conservative Personality Disorder. As the planet’s foremost expert on this subject, I can say with some authority that those who suffer from its ravages (meaning: everyone else in the world) have a particular cognitive skill that the CPD case does not: the ability to change one’s mind when evidence disconfirms one’s belief, instead of—as lesswrong.com puts it—”being able to explain anything.”
It is no accident that conservatives want to destroy science education. You see, they “know,” despite mountains of evidence from multiple disciplines proving the opposite, that the fact of biological evolution is not true, and so they want 100% evidence-free creationism taught to the nation’s schoolchildren in science classes instead. These are the same kinds of people who wanted Galileo Galilei’s head on a spike for the capital crime of believing that, despite how it may look from our vantage point, the Earth in fact orbits the sun and not vice versa. Right-wing conservatives are all Flat Earthers of one stripe or another: the only difference is which phrase of scripture they point to when what they think they “know” is contradicted by actual knowledge about reality. Needless to say, this is not exactly sound reasoning, and it necessarily follows that all evidence that runs counter to their delusion(s) is summarily dismissed, no matter how compelling it is. You cannot reason with the unreasonable. Well okay, technically you can, but it will not get you anywhere, and may in fact have the opposite effect from what you intended.
In a recent piece for Alternet, Amanda Marcotte put it this way:
The Christian right has become the primary vehicle in American politics for minimizing the problems of the real world while inventing imaginary problems as distractions. Witness, for instance, the way that fundamentalist Christianity has been harnessed to promote the notion that climate change isn’t a real problem. Average global temperatures are creeping up, but the majority of Christian conservatives are too worried about the supposed existential threats of abortion and gay rights to care.
I mean, what can you say to someone who “reasons” like this:
Climate change is not really happening and even if it is happening it’s not humans’ fault and even if it is our fault it’s god’s will.
Nothing. That’s what. This is precisely why we here at the Palace recommend pointing and laughing. Because if there is one thing conservatives absolutely cannot stand for, even more than changing their minds based on reality, it is ridicule and mockery aimed in their direction. But lest we get too high on our horses, it is well worth reminding ourselves that while we may have tools to help us overcome the failings of human nature, we are all wrong about many, many things. For instance, that square up there sure as hell seems to be moving. But recall what I did to confirm whether or not this was truly the case: copy/pasted it from SJ’s email, printed it to a pdf file and viewed the result. This is how I can say, with virtual certainty, that it is indeed a still image. Similarly, it is how you can say, if I still cling to the belief that the square is moving, that I am wrong.
Here are a few more helpful and humbling reminders that we’re all wrong. I would be interested to know whether conservatives are less likely than others to believe that these are in fact illusions, rather than that their misperceptions are correct.
Ebbinghaus illusion: The two orange circles are exactly the same size.
Revolving circles: Look at the black dot in the center of the two circles, and move your head closer and farther away. The two circles seem to rotate.
Kanizsa triangle: there is no white triangle. Your brain put one there.
Jastrow illusion: Which is larger, A or B?
With their left sides aligned, the lower figure appears larger. A & B are exactly the same size.
Checker shadow illusion: which square is darker, A or B?
The colors of A and B are exactly the same.
Go forth, my beloved Loyal Readers™, and try to be less wrong.