NASA suffering from pareidolia & apophenia? The watery science of Mars

NASA Martian_face_viking_cropped
Martian face in pic from Viking.

I worry that NASA is suffering from apophenia and pareidolia.

Both acute and chronic cases.

What the heck?

Let me explain.

Do you ever look up at the clouds and see fluffy animals?

Or maybe other things that clouds look like such as a train, plane, or a dragon?

Pareidolia is the tendency of people to perceive animate or non-random features in a scene of random and inanimate objects.

Cool word, huh?

A good example of pareidolia would be the tendency to see faces amongst a field of boulders or stones….or on the surface of planets.

Apophenia is a broader term referring to the experience of seeing and believing that random things are non-random. Pareidolia falls under the umbrella of Apophenia.

Both are fairly common phenomena of the human experience. It’s not surprising because the human brain has evolved to find patterns and meaning amongst a massive amount of visual data. Our brains are particularly attuned to looking for human faces, but can also “see” patterns or evidence of other things that we are particularly preoccupied about such as looking for water in a desert say.

These are perfectly natural human tendencies when they occur every now and then to all of us, but when it comes to science, they can be seriously problematic.

For example, I would say it is possible or even quite probably that NASA scientists are suffering from a severe case of pareidolia about liquid water on Mars.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that humans had pareidolia when it comes to Mars.

In fact, the planet Mars, which has frozen water, has a long history of stimulating pareidolia that ranges from cultural icons such as the “Martian Face” (see image at the top of the post from Wiki) to the more recent “rat of mars” (image below from Discover Magazine). The latter turned out to just be a rock, not a rat or gerbil. Some believed that NASA had secretly released rodents on Mars to study how living things would fare there.

Mars Rat

When humans look at Mars whether from Earth or up close and personal at the details of its surface in images, we are looking for meaning, but what we really need is hard data.

We keep hearing mainstream media “science” reports from rover images taken by the relatively old, but still functional Opportunity Rover and the newer Curiosity. For example some NASA scientists claim that the  images of certain rocks (see below left) are compelling evidence that there was liquid water on Mars.Martian pebbles

This supposed evidence includes images showing rocks that look like pebbles that supposedly must have been smoothed by running water, except there’s not evidence that the pebbles of the universe have to be made by water as opposed to say flowing abrasive sands or corrosive chemicals or winds (all very reasonable possibilities).

But NASA and the mainstream media have succumbed to squishy science when it comes to Mars. For instance, BBC Science correspondent Jonathan Amos penned a piece on this entitled “Mars pebbles prove water history“. The image in question is the one at left from the BBC.

Does that look like proof of liquid water to you?

Come on.

In science “prove” is a very strong word, a standard clearly not met here.

Another more recent example is a rock the size of a human arm that looks kind of clay-like. The New York Times article on this clayish looking rock says:

“This is powerful evidence that water interacted with this rock and changed its chemistry, changed its mineralogy in a dramatic way,” said Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator.

Powerful evidence?


I love space, astronomy, and science. I also wish NASA had a better budget, but frankly I get more than a bit worried when I hear definitive statements based on Mars images. It gets worse (emphasis mine).

This is water you could drink,” Dr. Squyres said. “This is water that was probably much more favorable in its chemistry, in its pH, in its level of acidity, for things like prebiotic chemistry, the kind of chemistry that could lead to the origin of life.”

This kind of statement is dangerous hype. Drinkable water on Mars? Water that could have sprung life?
This statement is extremely speculative and perhaps based on the human tendency to pareidolia and apophenia, but in a very specific form inspired by a desire to find evidence of liquid water and life on Mars.


Yes, I realize that studying a planet like Mars that is at its closest is still about 35 million miles from Earth is a challenge and yes, NASA needs to generate excitement and would benefit from a better budget (again a bigger budget for them is something I strongly favor), but scientifically shaky statements bordering on hype do not help anyone.

6 thoughts on “NASA suffering from pareidolia & apophenia? The watery science of Mars”

  1. Thanks for the feedback.
    Prove is a key word that’s a problem for NASA on the water issue.
    Also I think making statements that are way way out there on a limb such as “water you could drink” on Mars is just asking for big trouble.

    1. Brian Sanderson

      Absolutely yes, heck, I wouldn’t even drink most of the water on Earth (too salty, by far). I’m reminded of Feynman’s investigation of NASA following Challenger. He observed that the engineers had a pretty realistic notion of the probability of Shuttle failure but the managers vastly underestimated the risk.

      Your article is a good reminder. Hype is a corrupting influence, still.

  2. Brian Sanderson

    Very entertaining article. Might I add a couple of thoughts.

    Clouds and fields of rock might approximate a fractal object. So sometimes they really might look like animals. The problem is not visual perception. The mistake is to ignore contrary evidence and state that a rock is an animal (excepting the possibility of a petrified animal.)

    As for the evidence of water having once been on Mars. The evidence might be strong, I haven’t seen it. The mistake is to use the word “prove” — no matter how strong the evidence. If that’s your fundamental point, I’m with you, 100% (urgh, maybe 99.9999%)

  3. I thought this blog was gonna be about stem cells, not about bloody Mars. As riveting as Mars might be to Marsaphobics, sorry Marsaphillics it aint what I came here for and probably explains the almost zero comments on this here blog.

      1. Brian Sanderson

        This from a Martian geologist I know. “What’s up with Mount Rushmore, perhaps there is intelligent life on earth?”

        Seriously, there is no such thing as proof in science. Proof exists in mathematics. Science is more messy.

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