Image of the Day: An Elephant on Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

No, you’re not hallucinating. That really does look like an elephant, and it really is on the surface of Mars, photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Before you begin speculating about the Martians who carved this enormous sculpture, however — and about how they got an elephant over to Mars to sit for the artist — you need to realize that humans have a powerful tendency to see patterns, even where none exist. It’s called Pareidolia, and it gave our ancestors a big evolutionary advantage (it’s better to think you see a leopard hidden in a tree where none exists than not to see it when it’s actually there).

Pariedolia is why some people see a Man in the Moon, or clouds that uncannily resemble dogs or sailing ships, or why an earlier photograph that seemed to show a human face on mars. It’s also why conspiracy theories are so appealing; if you look hard enough, you can find what appear to be patterns just about anywhere. 

This is why scientists need to be careful about claiming they see patterns. A year or two of warming temperatures might suggest that the planet is warming due to human greenhouse-gas emissions; a year or two of cooling might suggest the opposite. But the only way to be sure is to take all the available information into account. How long has the warming been going on? Are there any other explanations that make more sense? Does the warming, or the frequency of droughts, or whatever other kind of data you use, meet the statistical test of forming a true pattern? Climate scientists — like all scientists — ask these questions constantly, to keep from fooling themselves.

Without ruling out alternate explanations, you can fool yourself into believing almost anything, including the “fact” that ancient Martians worshiped elephants.