An apparition in the cliffs?

Posted on January 18, 2012


Image: Wikipedia

Dateline: 12 November 2011 // Posted by: James Galvin

Source: Irish Central, Daily Mail, Drogheda Independent

Story: “Christ on a cliff! American tourist pictures Jesus on holiday in Ireland”

Summary: An American tourist on holiday in Ireland claimed to see the face of Jesus Christ on the side of the famous tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher. The woman was so certain it was the face of the lord that she captured the apparition on camera.

Sandra Clifford, a pilot by profession, was quoted as saying, “To me it was Jesus Christ straight away. I am a pilot, so I am always sceptical of what I see, that is why I started grabbing people and asking them what they saw.”

The practicing Catholic was not alone in believing that it was in fact the face of Jesus Christ in the rocks. A group of German tourists said they could identify the image when asked and proceeded to take pictures of it. Ms. Clifford even brought her camera into a local pub that night to show locals, and once again there were no shortage of believers. Teresa O’Flaherty, who owns the pub said, “I was like wow, I actually thought it was a picture of a picture, I was shocked. It’s very definitely an image of Christ.”

Why is this PseudoNews? Sightings such as this one are quite common, but this does not mean something paranormal is occurring. Despite people seeing everyone from Jesus Christ to Elvis, in everything from tortilla wraps to tree stumps, these occurrences can be easily explained. This particular sighting is clearly a case of pareidolia. Pareidolia can be explained as a misperception where people see a vague stimulus as something it’s not. In other words, we apply meaning to things that are essentially meaningless, or we see objects that are not there.

Due to evolution, humans have developed an over-active pattern detection system, because it is beneficial for us to perceive what is happening around us from partial or ambiguous information. This helps us to make decisions at a quicker rate. It can important for survival, but can lead us to make erroneous conclusions, as is the case here.

Finally, I believe that the Gestalt law of closure, where our visual system provides us with missing information from a vague stimulus, and closes the outline of an incomplete figure, is evident here. The lady from this report may in fact be “filling in the gaps” to perceive the face of Jesus Christ.

Also, the fact that Ms. Clifford is a practicing Catholic is important, as research has shown that what we perceive is influenced by our beliefs and expectations. A devout Catholic may perceive the face of Jesus, but a person who does not share similar beliefs may see something completely different.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? First of all, a lack of parsimonycan be seen here. Ms. Clifford’s conclusion that it is in fact the face of Jesus Christ imprinted on the side of the Cliffs of Moher relies on some assumptions for which there is no plausible evidence. If we are to accept her theory as fact we must assume that through some divine force, unknown to man, Christ has reappeared in the form of a face in a cliff. The more parsimonious conclusion, or the one that relies on fewer unproven assumptions, is that the woman’s fallible perceptual system resulted in her perceiving what she did. Research has shown that our perceptions are prone to error, whereas there is no empirical evidence to show Jesus Christ does in fact reappear in everyday objects.

Also, Ms. Clifford tries to strengthen her argument by pointing out how many people said they saw what she saw. This is known as appealing to the masses. This type of logic is fallacious because something does not have to be true, or real, just because a lot of people believe it to be so. For example, millions of people worldwide claim that homeopathy is an effective form of medicine, but this does not make it so. Popularity does not indicate truth or credibility.

Finally, the claim that the face on the side of the cliff is a result of some divine process lacks falsifiability. Pseudoscientists often claim that their theories are true because nobody can prove they are false. Just because something can’t be proven wrong does not make it true. For example, we cannot disprove that a medium communicates with the dead through an invisible spirit, but this does not mean they do indeed use invisible spirits to contact the dead. In this case it is impossible carry out an experiment to see if a divine energy was the cause of the face on the side of the Cliffs of Moher, because its proponents claim this energy can’t be detected.

The moral of the story: The central point of the critique is you cannot always believe what you see. Our perceptions are not formed as a result of some perfect process, but instead our perceptions are distorted by many factors and can lead us to erroneous conclusions.