Saturday, February 23, 2008

Auditory illusions and the importance of skepticism

The foundation of the scientific method is skepticism: the notion that, as one of the inventors of the method Sir Francis Bacon put it, the mind is an “enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture” and thus always subjected to “idols” that incline it to error. In slightly more modern language, skepticism sees the human mind as inherently prone to error, inclined to wishful thinking, inevitably subject to biases and thus that subjective confidence does not correlate with truth. Consequently, if we want to find out what is in fact true, various mechanisms need to be put in place: first and foremost, controlled experimentation but also peer-review, the public examination of results, repetition replication, and so on.

Since the recognition of just how subject the mind is to bias is the foundation of skepticism and science, educating people about bias seems to be a good way to get them to appreciate the importance - nay, the necessity - of the scientific method. Although visual illusions are well known (putting in doubt the old saw that "seeing is believing"), it is less widely known that our auditory system is also subject to error and illusion. Now, as part of a special feature on music, New Scientist magazine has put together a useful list of their top 5 auditory illusions. If you don't know about this topic, I highly recommend you listen to all five illusions - and then come to terms with the fact that what you hear isn't always a good mirror on nature.

Maybe if the ease with which our ears can be fooled became more widely known people would be less likely to fall for such nonsense as electronic voice phenomena and other auditory pareidolia.

(Hat tip: Mind Hacks. See also: Michael Shermer's skeptical TEDTalk that features his analysis of purported Satanic lyrics in a Led Zepplin song.)


  1. The Led Zepp exampple really blew me away. first time I've seen that.

  2. Yeah, I love that TEDTalk. It's certainly the best example of auditory paradolia out there.