Conspiracy Theories

The World Is a Rorschach Test

Exploring pareidolia.


I have a piece about pareidolia in The Wall Street Journal today. Here's an excerpt:

On 9/11, a Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer named Mark Phillips climbed to his roof and snapped photos of the burning World Trade Center, which were then distributed by the Associated Press. Later he learned that people were seeing an unexpected image in one of the photographs. When he examined the picture he saw it, too. "The image I saw was distinct," he later wrote. "Eyes, nose, mouth, horns." There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan.

Search online and you'll see still more 9/11 pictures in which people have perceived the shapes of demons. There is no shortage of theories about what the faces mean, from the Christian conspiracist who said they were a glimpse of the devil boasting to the Muslim writer who declared they were a warning from God "that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam."

This is only a test.

Then there is the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to see a man in the moon, to hear a satanic incantation when "Stairway to Heaven" is played backward, or to conjure the image of your subconscious choice while taking a Rorschach test. Indeed, pareidolia makes the whole world a Rorschach test.

The article is adapted from my book The United States of Paranoia. And speaking of that:

The Globe and Mail has just reviewed the book, declaring that it has "so many tasty morsels of historical marginalia that it nearly bursts with weirdness." My kinda blurb.

• W. Joseph Campbell has cited the book while explaining how an upcoming PBS program might get the tale of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds wrong.

• If you're going to be in the D.C. area on September 11, you should come see Sam Tanenhaus, Gene Healy, and me discuss the book at the Cato Institute. Admission is free but RSVPs are a must; to let Cato know you're coming, click here.

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    1. My sweet Satan.

      Skip to 9:10 for the relevant bit.

  1. I think there is some sort of conspiracy to get me to buy this book.

  2. There is actually a scientific basis for the recognition of faces where none exist, its kind of coded into our thought processes. I forget the technical term though.

    1. The ability to find our own kind.

  3. I wish someone would write a book about this stuff.

  4. Okay, based on the Globe and Mail review I’m buying the book.

    Any book signings in NYC, Jesse? How can you not do one in NYC?

    1. We hope to have an event up there in about a month. Details to come. (And thanks!)

      1. Excellent.

  5. Congrats on all the media attention, Jesse. If you make it to San Francisco I promise to attend the book signing. There are plenty of independent bookstores around who would be happy to host you. Check out the NCIBA.

    1. Thanks. I’m not likely to make it to the west coast in the immediate future, but maybe later.

  6. Maybe this book is just a ploy to help the NSA identify all the conspiracy theorists. If you buy it, pay cash, and wear a hat.

    1. They take DNA samples from every purchaser, dust the cash for fingerprints, and apply facial-recognition software. So don’t lull yourself into a false sense of security.

      Oh, and they can detect tinfoil hats from space.

      1. They reflect real well in the space-based ground search radar.

  7. “With deep scholarship and relentless curiosity, Walker probes his country’s neurotic imagination…Why is America so crazy?”

    Not so fast, *Globe and Mail.* Guess who wrote this:

    “This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States)… this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing. It has been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the 19th century; and now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.””…..ures11.g21

    That’s right, Winston Churchill. But I guess that doesn’t count, since he was half-American.

    1. “Top ten conspiracy theories in the UK

      “An on-line poll carried out by 20th Century Fox prior to the release of an “X-Files” film in 2008[28] claimed that the following were the top ten conspiracy beliefs in the UK.[29]

      “Area 51 exists to investigate aliens (48%)

      “9/11 was orchestrated by the US government (38%)

      “Apollo landing was a hoax (35%)

      “Diana and Dodi were murdered (32%)

      “The Illuminati secret society and masons are trying to take over the world (25%)[etc.]”

      “It has been suggested that the results may have been influenced by Fox’s marketing campaign.” – of course “They” would suggest that!….._in_the_UK

      1. That’s only six!

        1. The link gives the full list.

          1. “8. Microsoft sends messages via Wingdings (6%)” WTF?

            1. There’s an urban myth that wingdings has anti-Semitic messages and also prophesied the attack on the World Trade Center. It relies on some pretty tenuous ‘coincidences’.


    2. I quote that Churchill article in the book, actually, even though he’s from the UK.

      1. Funny how the Globe and Mail doesn’t mention that part…it’s all about why *Americans* are so crazy.

        1. it’s all about why *Americans* are so crazy

          Well, it’s a book about American paranoia. But Nesta Webster, who was British, had an influence on a number of American writers, so I discuss her some; and at that point it’s hard to resist noting that Churchill was one of her fans.

          1. Didn’t Edmund Burke, PBUH, also go in for conspiracies at the end of his life?

            1. Yeah, he got into Illuminati theories and wrote Augustin Barruel a fan letter. I didn’t mention that in the book, but I did describe some of Burke’s theories about an English secret government.

    3. Even liberals will grudgingly concede that there is a connection between terrorism and Islam. But no one is allowed notice a connection between Communism and the Jews. Even the man who defeated Hitler.

      1. Not *the Jews.* It was certain persons who were of Jewish background, who rejected the God of the Jews and the Jewish scriptures. And there were plenty of Gentiles involved, too. Stalin was Georgian.

        1. And it wasn’t long before Stalin was shooting, ice-picking, etc., his former Jewish associates.

        2. Individuals of Jewish Background == Jews

          If you ask the Ultra Orthodox Jews they’ll tell you that anyone with a Jewish mother is Jewish no matter their religion. And of course, the secular Jews claim to be Jews. People always say Einstein was Jewish, was he religious? Most of the Zionist founding fathers were secular Jewish nationalists, some even ardent atheists. It’s a double standard.

          “And there were plenty of Gentiles involved, too.”

          Of course, but that’s not to deny the great over-representation of Jews in the movement, things like that don’t happen out of random chance. There is nothing wrong with what Churchill said in my mind. It’s just not politically correct in today’s environment to notice such things. People naturally notice patterns, for example people associate terrorism with Islam, Nazism with Germany, and Russia with communism.

          1. There’s a fine line between political incorrectness and loopiness, and you have erased that line.

            Maybe I’m particularly cranky because a good friend of mine just died. She’s Jewish and didn’t think she had a whole lot of influence in running the world – maybe she hid her hidden transmitter to Zionist Central Headquarters whenever I came around?

            1. ^This. Yes, Jews were over-represented among Communists. No, that doesn’t mean there’s a Jewish Conspiracy.

              1. It’s more that lots of “intellectuals” were communists, and Jews are over-represented amongst intellectuals.

                There are a lot of Jewish libertarian scholars, for the same reason.

          2. There’s a difference between Jews and ‘The Jews’.

  8. You know who else tried to sell a book…

  9. The word “conspiracy theory” has been redefined by liberals to be almost meaningless. Any mention of disproportionate Jewish control of power in America, any mention of liberal bias in academia or media, any speculation of people’s motives can be considered a conspiracy theory. Hopefully Walker doesn’t define it that way, and hopefully his book isn’t infected by the political correctness we are seeing more and more on the right. Because many of what the left calls the “conspiracy theories” are based in reality. War profiteers really did push America into World War One. There really was a communist conspiracy in America, Stalin knew about the Manhattan project before Truman did.

    1. JOOOS!

      1. You are jumbling some real conspiracies next to some fake ones. There was actually a Communist conspiracy. But as to your “Jewish control of power,” that is an idea promoted by the likes of you and by…certain organizations who claim to represent all Jews. In reality, Jews are quite divided, precluding a unified conspiracy. Some of them are even apolitical. I just lost a good Jewish friend who abstained from voting for years because she didn’t think her vote made any difference…maybe she didn’t get the memo from the Central Conspiracy Headquarters, eh, Paul Retard?

        1. Did I say there was a conspiracy among Jews? No. But look at disproportionate Jewish control of the media, of academia, of liberal political movements and ask yourself why. Why do the Jews achieve so much despite historically suffering from persecution? Why to they tend toward liberalism or movements like it? One would rationally conclude that there is something about Jews which makes them this way. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is a pattern.

          Of course most people in any case are going to have little power, this includes most Jews. That is true of any society, most Whites in Apartheid South Africa had little power, would it then be inaccurate to say “Whites controlled South Africa?” Look at the ruling class, those who have power,(media, academia, billionares, ect) in any case a majority will be gentile but the Jewish fraction is going always to be over ten times their portion of the population. This is not a conspiracy theory, this is a fact.

          1. Well, your theory already lost at least half of its sex appeal. If you see a Jewish person without influence, that just proves that they didn’t get the memo from Central Headquarters.

            Of course some Jewish people have influence. But when you’re comparing US Jews to “Whites in Apartheid South Africa,” you’ve really gone off the rails. You’re seriously comparing Gentiles in the US to the disenfranchised nonwhite population of Apartheid South Africa? (rotates finger around temple) coo-coo! coo-coo!

            1. You’re seriously comparing Gentiles in the US to the disenfranchised nonwhite population of Apartheid South Africa?

              Look at the ruling class, those who have power,(media, academia, billionares, ect) in any case a majority will be gentile

              So no.

              1. You posted in a thread about conspiracy theories to boast how you defied political correctness to discuss “disproportionate Jewish control of power in America.” If you wanted to make a sociological analysis of Jewish involvement in US politics, economics, culture, etc., you should probably have chosen another thread, or started with the magic letters “OT,” if you didn’t want to be pegged as a zany conspiracy theorist.

                1. Just read what he wrote.

          2. Maybe because of their intelligence? Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Jesus Christ were all Jewish. Is that some kind of conspiracy?

            I’d also deny that there is a ruling class that’s made up of “media, academia, billionaires” who somehow rule over everyone else.

            1. Maybe because of their intelligence?

              My point entirely. And they are prone to liberalism, for other reasons.

              I’d also deny that there is a ruling class that’s made up of “media, academia, billionaires” who somehow rule over everyone else.

              Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who believe that the people “rule themselves.” Look at the great disconnect between what the people want and what they get from their elected officials. Look at immigration policy, trade policy, tax policy, ect. Look at how people like Sheldon Adelson and George Soros can buy influence. Look at how the government bases so much of it’s decisions on the suggestions of academia. Look at how the media mislead and misinform the public. Look at how the political class runs the country and it is clear whose voice they listen to.

              1. “Sheldon Adelson and George Soros”

                Yeah, those two guys are promoting the same basic agenda. Sure, there are a few minor differences, what with Soros supporting liberal Democrats and Adelson calling Democrats socialist tyrants, but it all comes to the same thing in the end, right?

                There’s wheels within wheels, man!

                1. They are more alike than different:

                  “”Abortion shouldn’t be brought up as a political issue,” he said.”

                  “On immigration: “I’m pro-Dream Act, I’m pro the Dream Act. My parents were immigrants to this country,” he said. “What are we going to do ? Listen, I’m sure a lot of my parents generation ?..snuck onto the ship and they came into the country.”

                  “Finally, he said casually: “And by the way I’m in favor of a socialized-like health care.”

                  “I think that to take care of everybody is part of Tikkun Olam” the Hebrew motto meaning “repair the world,” he said. “And to deprive somebody for money of heath care or [medical] testing is bordering on criminal.”

                  Have you ever noticed that whichever party is in power not much changes? Same foreign policy, same immigration policy, same social polciy, ect? covers this constantly.

                  The fact that what they favor and what the American people favor is not the same tells you something.

          3. Why do the Jews achieve so much despite historically suffering from persecution? Why to they tend toward liberalism or movements like it? One would rationally conclude that there is something about Jews which makes them this way. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is a pattern.

            Jews have long emphasized education and intelligence, which probably had a positive effect over thousands of years. Being persecuted can also help by killing off the dumber ones, and by forbidding them from certain occupations (farming), it forced them into ones that required more brainpower (trade, money-lending, etc.).

            Add all that to the known propensity of the educated to be attracted to “progressive” ideologies (i.e. The Treason of the Clerks), and there you have the disproportion. No conspiracy theory needed.

            1. To those with an open mind(no left-libertarians), read The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.

    2. Stalin knew about the bomb before Truman because FDR was megalomaniaical enough not to trust his own VP and egotistical enough to believe he could control Stalin. FDR told Stalin about it face to face.

      1. FDR’s administration was riddled with Soviet spies. Stalin heard about it long before FDR told him.

    3. I think more Jews have won Nobel prizes than any other group.

      It’s not a conspiracy, it’s their culture that pushes them to be successful.

      There’s a joke – “Why are so many doctors Jewish?”

      “Because their mothers are”

      And that’s really true.

      1. “It’s not a conspiracy, it’s their culture that pushes them to be successful.”

        I think it is something deeper. I work in Silicon valley and I know a lot of Jews, and I can tell you that in silicon valley success requires something in addition to a desire to be successful. When I went to college the freshmen class was about twice the size of the graduating class, and the main difference between the graduates and the dropouts was not effort. Effort is only tangentially correlated to ability, and only at the individual level.

      2. Culture? Mean IQ for Ashkenazi is among the highest in the world. If not the highest.

        Not culture.

  10. OK, OK already, I bought it

  11. The way I usually put it is that humans are equipped with superb pattern recognition software–so good that it can even find patterns that are not there.

    That isn’t surprising. In the environment where we evolved, failing to see patterns that were there, such as a lurking predator, was much more costly than seeing patterns that were not there. We would expect evolution to have biased our software accordingly.

    1. And the amazing thing is how we’ve developed it to such a high level of abstraction.

  12. “The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data.”

    Kind of like projecting the face of mankind onto the cherry picked, and often outright purposely distorted, data presented by the faithful of the Anthropogenic Global Warming religion.

  13. Am I the only one who saw Dianne Feinstein’s face in the smoke?

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