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Dispatches from the present


Pattern Recognition


“I’m posting this in speculation because there are too many coincidences to ignore, and just putting it out there from some research I’ve done stemming from my curiosity…”

So begins a 2018 Facebook post by congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, in which she “speculates” that the Rothschilds were behind the California summer wildfires. The evidence provided was a short list of coincidental distant relations between personnel at Rothschild Inc. and various other California-based corporations. Greene thought she had discovered a pattern.

In the past year, many of us have experienced the pain of watching friends and family join the millions of believers in conspiratorial cults like QAnon and its cousins. Each instance of these cults posits itself as insightful by, in part, drawing attention to a pattern that their theories promise to explain. Those in QAnon saw patterns in the typos and errant capitalizations in Donald Trump’s tweets, in the length of his videos and the times he posted them. In the blue light of these forums, anxious individuals are offered the assurance that the senseless violence and dangers of modern life—from mass shooters and pedophiles to the coronavirus—are not so senseless after all. Once you see the pattern you can protect yourself from the threat. And despite the dire nature of the narratives, the explanations come as a relief. The problem is, of course, that they aren’t true.

Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories are, no doubt, the victims of a news and media environment thirsty for views and clicks. This kind of manipulation is by now so common in America it’s left us bored of the complaint: our market economy relies on the manipulation of advertising to sell products efficiently. Like most of us, who feel vulnerable in the panopticon of our media-saturated age, I’m suspicious of these influences. I tend to regard with apprehension anything that could make my reasoning vulnerable to coercion, and find myself trying to distance myself from the atavistic impulse to see patterns. In The Phantom Pattern Problem, the economist Gary Smith and data scientist Jay Cordes write,

The survival and reproductive payoffs from pattern recognition gave humans an evolutionary advantage over other animals. … Indeed, it has been argued that the cognitive superiority of humans over all other animals is due mostly to our evolutionary development of superior pattern processing.

The authors list various ways that pattern recognition aided in the survival of early humans: zebra stampedes signal predators, dark clouds signal rain, and some foods are edible while others are poisonous. But not all apparent patterns are meaningful—many odd-seeming sequences of events are mere coincidences. The book itself is a critique of those who find such “phantom patterns” in spurious correlations. And we may wonder whether our eye for patterns has become a liability, or even a hindrance to finding truth.

But pattern recognition is not merely a human instinct; it is also a humane instinct. Entire schools of art—Cubism, for example, or Symbolism—rely on this capacity to communicate meaning and evoke emotion. Indeed, the “Golden Ratio,” thought to pick out universally aesthetically appealing objects, is itself a pattern: every number in the Fibonacci sequence, after the second, is the sum of the previous two. Literature often makes exquisite use of patterns to communicate indirectly. For Vladimir Nabokov, the writing process was a matter of puzzle making: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the crossword at any spot I happen to choose.” We shiver over the briefness of an hour whenever Big Ben chimes in Mrs. Dalloway. Our chests become hollow at the weightlessness of death with each iteration of Vonnegut’s “so it goes.”

For believers, religious life is animated by the faith that there is a higher reality beyond the world we know. In traditional Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as many other non-Western religions, signs and wonders sometimes offer glimpses behind the curtain. Ceremonial practice is often the conduit for these patterns of experience. A Catholic crosses himself to receive the Eucharist and experiences the real presence of Christ. In preparing the Seder, a Jewish family becomes connected with the liberation of the Exodus. When I meditate on T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” my “lost heart stiffens and rejoices” every time. My own experience tells me that sometimes the religious life consists solely in these patterns, patterns that we cling to for meaning, in hope, when all awareness of the transcendent has abandoned us.

Around 3000 B.C.E., in ancient Mesopotamia, someone wrote down on clay tablets the patterns they had found in the stars. Millennia later, these same constellations appear in the astrological studies of ancient Greece. Even later, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos utilizes some of the same constellations to communicate a cryptic message to the early Church about their divine destiny. Like the night sky itself, how dark and cold would our ideas of our ancestors be, were it not for these pinpricks of connection beaming down like extended arms of understanding? I see a bear, a crab—yes, of course, you see them too! There is little, I think, more deeply human than these humane uses of what may be called an “instinct” but could also be called a great gift.

Finding “phantom patterns” is to be expected given ordinary human fallibility and the difficulty of enduring unexplainable suffering. We long for the answers these patterns seem to hint at. But living in a society that incentivizes manipulating this instinct into its darkest possible form requires an incredibly discerning response. I am not quite sure I know what this response should be. Maybe it requires training our eye for patterns toward the understanding of human life and human good, preventing it from fixating on perceived dangers to ourselves or looking for who to blame. The challenge is to remain precisely and virtuously humane. Too little vigilance and we become “human, all too human”—irrational and impulse-driven to the point of delusion. But neither should we defensively make our thinking so sterile that, as we watch the stars, we miss Orion.

Image credit: Sachin Kaveesha Fernando (CC BY / Wikimedia)