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Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars

The ‘canals’ of Mars don’t exist, and they never did; yet they were repeatedly reported and defended as scientific realities by many great astronomers. Why?

The planet Mars has always fascinated humanity. In fact, it seems to interest us considerably more than most things in the night sky.

This makes sense; Mars is often not only clearly visible but conspicuously red like blood. So many ancient societies associated Mars with war, always of considerable interest to the human species. Mars appeals to us both as a physical object for observation and as a lure for mythological speculation.

There is a duality here. On the one hand, there is the visible planet; the red coloration reflects its geology. On the other hand, there is the Mars of interpretation, whose red color reflects its attributional warlike nature; this says a lot more about human psychology than it does about the planet Mars itself.

The red planet causes us to observe and to speculate.

Speculation. That’s where the problems come in. There is physical reality, and there is interpretation; and it is frequently the interpretation, rather than the reality, that seizes the attention of human beings. Our brains are remarkably predisposed to the interpretation of objective physical reality in psychological, self-referential terms. Unfortunately, these terms are frequently just plain wrong.

Examples of this are legion. In previous articles in SI, my coauthors and I have discussed ordinary objects that have metamorphosed, in the minds of their observers, into nonexistent phenomena ranging from UFOs to Bigfoot, and we have found specific patterns of mental processing that contribute directly to these misinterpretations (e.g., Sharps et al. 2016). In the more prosaic but more sinister worlds of eyewitness memory and officer-involved shootings, we have frequently found innocuous things such as power tools being transformed, psychologically, into far less innocuous firearms (e.g., Sharps 2017). It is very clear that our brains can lead us to see meaningful patterns where none actually exist and that we may extrapolate what we believe about a given perception to the perception itself. We tend to interpret what we see in terms of what we believe; this brings us back to the planet Mars.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Progressophobia: Why Things Are Better Than You Think They Are STEVEN PIKER Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars The Curious Question of Ghost Taxonomy and much more!