This week in “neither university press offices nor prestigious journals know what they’re doing”: a professor emeritus at Ohio University who claimed he had evidence of life on Mars, and whose institution’s media office crafted a press release without thinking twice to publicise his ‘findings’, and the paper that Nature Medicinepublished in 2002, cited 900+ times since, that has been found to contain multiple instances of image manipulation.
I’d thought the professor’s case would remain obscure because it’s evidently crackpot but this morning, articles from Space.com and Universe Today showed up on my Twitter setting the record straight: that the insects the OU entomologist had found in pictures of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover were just artefacts of his (insectile) pareidolia. Some people have called this science journalism in action but I’d say it’s somewhat offensive to check if science journalism still works by gauging its ability, and initiative, to countering conspiracy theories, the lowest of low-hanging fruit.
The juicier item on our plate is the Nature Medicine paper, the problems in which research integrity super-sleuth Elisabeth Bik publicised on November 21, and which has a science journalism connection as well.
Remember the anti-preprints articleNature News published in July 2018? Its author, Tom Sheldon, a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre, London, argued that preprints “promoted confusion” and that journalists who couldn’t bank on peer-reviewed work ended up “misleading millions”. In other words, it would be better if we got rid of preprints and journalists deferred only to the authority of peer-reviewed papers curated and published by journals, like Nature. Yet here we are today, with a peer-reviewed manuscript published in Nature Medicine whose checking process couldn’t pick up on repetitive imagery. Is this just another form of pareidolia, to see a sensational result – knowing prestigious journals’ fondness for such results – where there was actually none?
(And before you say this is just one paper, read this analysis: “… data from several lines of evidence suggest that the methodological quality of scientific experiments does not increase with increasing rank of the journal. On the contrary, an accumulating body of evidence suggests the inverse: methodological quality and, consequently, reliability of published research works in several fields may be decreasing with increasing journal rank.” Or this extended critique of peer-review on Vox.)
This isn’t an argument against the usefulness, or even need for, peer-review, which remains both useful and necessary. It’s an argument against ludicrous claims that peer-review is infallible, advanced in support of the even more ludicrous argument that preprints should be eliminated to enable good journalism.
On May 12, 2014, about half a week before the Lok Sabha election votes were to be counted, ahead of the result that would catapult the BJP to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament, H.R. Giger passed away. I didn’t hear about it until two days later, on May 14. I remember dropping whatever I was doing – which was quite a bit because Counting Day was almost upon us – rushing over to the Sunday Magazine desk and pitching an obituary for Giger to Baradwaj Rangan. I was commissioned 20 seconds later, and I was done two hours later.
As far as I was concerned, it was very, very bad news. With his death, Giger’s repertoire was finished, complete, finito; there wasn’t going to be any more new material. I could complete his obituary in such a short span of time not because I was familiar with his creative output – familiarity would imply I understood what was going on; I didn’t. If anything, I was just a kindred soul – with many fears and terrors, and little faith in solace or hope. It was a world, and worldview, that Giger the artist had helped validate.
Yesterday, I’d met a friend for coffee and – as our conversation about the future of science journalism meandered on – we happened to be talking about sci-fi Netflix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and, soon, Giger. I don’t remember how we got there except that one of us had mentioned Dune and the other had been very excited to meet a fellow Dune fan. We hugged. After exchanging a few notes about having had a childhood equal parts traumatised and enlivened by the Necronomicon, my friend mentioned that there was a documentary about Giger released sometime in 2014. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.
So yesterday, I completed all the tasks on my to-do list, grabbed some early dinner, and shut myself off in my room. I’d decided that for old times’ sake I was going to gift myself some masochistic mindfuck: I was going to watch the documentary, called Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.
[One hundred minutes later] I’m incredibly glad I did.
[Early next morning] No excuse is weak enough for me to revisit, rediscuss, reanalyse and reconsume the brilliance of Giger – as if being able to enjoy an old and favourite track for the first time. And Dark Star was a fecund, almost extortionate, excuse.
For example, fifteen minutes into it, a few lines – spoken by Hanz Kunz, a poster-maker, and Leslie Barany, Giger’s agent – confirmed what I’d suspected about him for long: despite the intricate methods and symmetries depicted in his images, Giger didn’t have an artistic process; he intuited his symbols and their placement on his canvas. Barany: “I thought he was channeling something and I don’t believe in those things.” Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist: “Giger was the medium through which Another World was introducing itself to us.”
That intuition was akin to a mysterious agent speaking guy through him, call it your subconscious or your true self or whatever. Giger really tapped into that, terrified himself with it, remained terrified with it as he worked; as he says, “When I put it on canvas, I have some sense of command over it. It’s healing for me.” Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, his wife, says, “Giger’s art has the same effect as nigredo, the blackness, an alchemical ritual that begins by looking at the dark night of the soul.”
Li Tobler, Giger’s first partner and who committed suicide in 1975, embodied the struggle that he had won as a little boy of six – the struggle to recognise and acknowledge what it is that we’re truly afraid of, the struggle to not self deny, the struggle to honestly explore reprehensions. She had had a Catholic and puritanical upbringing but her lover was an artist so gleeful when, on the sets of Alien, he explains to someone that though he had to change the opening of the xenomorph’s egg from a vaginal slit because the producers hoped to be able to air the film to Catholic audiences as well, he was pleased that he could give the opening four flaps to “doubly offend the church”. But when he says in Dark Star that his art could not do much to help her deal with her depression, it’s as if his art was all he had to give her. That is a silencing moment.
In fact, Giger had a rare set of privileges: to have been able to explore the darkest recesses of the human condition, to have confronted those demons through his art, and to have ultimately reconciled with the shape of those horrors. His paintings and sculptures extend us – the viewers – that privilege. Sometimes that makes me wonder if there is something to be said for the creative process Giger uses, if that takes away some of the edge since Giger has visualised his demons from scratch. Is he as terrified as one of his fans when he beholds one of his finished products? Or, to Giger, is the process of creating his demons more therapeutic than is the moment of beholding his demons frightening?
Nonetheless, his privileges prevail. As I wrote in his obituary, Giger’s extensive journeys through the wombs of horror revealed that rotting corpses and camisado surprises are not the stuff of fear. We are. Our terrors are of our own making – fevers about the peri-normal, about what we’ll find when we open new doors, break taboos, burst into life from tabula rasa unto the innate. Kunz/Barany: “His art has this quality, an element of reality combined with his own fantasies, and what makes it stronger is the reality, not the fantasy.”
The metal in his paintings and sculptures twisted and bent in ways that no metalsmith would attempt to achieve. Semblances of humans, human forms, caught up in the workings of otherworldly engines, monochrome lips and spring-loaded breasts grafted around solenoids, crania tubula labia shot through with tentacular electric cables, Tesla coils and Jacob’s ladders of homuncular bullets. It was easy to get lost in this frightening order of symbols, for each one of us to behold this visage and to take away a seedling of serial nightmares. Giger’s visualisations were all together pareidolia as public good – where except faces you saw something you didn’t want to see, something you’ve known all your life but hidden away…
And in Dark Star, Giger himself looks terrified, as if he knows something is coming. There is a remarkable scene where his assistant says Giger’s house is big enough for the ageing artist to disappear into, to become one with the house itself, that he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Right after that, the cinematographer goes looking for Giger in the house, slowly exploring passages, corridors, crawling with building apprehension through tubes crisscrossing the house in much the same way Giger contemplated perinatal misgivings.
It can be difficult to communicate the brand of horror that Giger stood for, a deep existential visceral soulful tension, an unassailable yet unspeakable awareness of a darkness, a knot of shame festering in our hearts and minds. But explore Giger’s house with the impending frightful sight of a terrified old man who’s seen the faces of hell and it will unseat you somehow. Whence that fear, that anxiety? What do we fill in the blanks of our reality with?
Featured image: H.R. Giger in a scene from Dark Star.
These images of gravitational lensing, especially the one on the left, are pretty famous because apart from demonstrating the angular magnification effects of strong lensing very well, they’ve also been used by NASA in their Halloween promotional material. The ring-like arc that forms the ‘face’ is a result of a galaxy cluster, SDSS J1038+4849, lying directly in front of the object (on our line of sight) the light from which it is bending around itself. Because of the alignment, the light is bent all around it, forming what’s known as an Einstein ring. This particular instance was discovered in early 2015 by astronomer Judy Schmidt.
Seeing this image again prompted me to recall a post I’d written long ago on a different blog (no longer active) about our brains’ tendency to spot patterns in images that actually don’t exist – such as looking at an example of strong gravitational lensing and spotting a face. The universe didn’t intend to form a face but all our brain needs to see one is an approximate configuration of two eyes, a nose, a smile and a contour if it’s lucky. This tendency is called pareidolia. In more ambiguous images or noises, what each individual chooses to see is the basis of the (now-outmoded) Rorschach inkblot test.
A 2009 paper in the journal NeuroReport reported evidence that human adults identify a face when there is none only 35 milliseconds slower than when there is really a face (165 ms v. 130 ms) – and both through a region of the brain called the fusiform face area, which may have evolved to process faces. The finding speaks to our evolutionary need to identify these and similar visual configurations, a crucial part of social threat perception and social navigation. The authors of the 2009 paper have suggested using their findings to investigate forms of autism in which a person has trouble looking at face.
My favourite practical instance of pareidolia is in Google’s DeepDream project, which is a neural network used to over-process, differentiate between or recognise images. When software engineers at Google fed a random image into the network’s input layer and asked DeepDream to transform it into an image containing some specific, well-defined objects, the network engaged in a process called algorithmic pareidolia: picking out patterns that aren’t really there. Each layer of a neural network, understood to go bottom-up, analyses specific parts of an image, with the lower layers going after strokes and nodes and the higher layers, after entire objects and their arrangement.
In many instances, algorithmic pareidolia yielded images that looked similar to the work of the human visual cortex under the influence of LSD. This has prompted scientists to investigate whether psychedelic compounds cause electrochemical changes in the brain that are similar to instructions supplied to convolutional neural networks (of which DeepDream is a kind). In other words, when DeepDream dreamt, it was an acid trip. In June 2015, three software engineers from Google explained how pareidolia took shape inside such networks:
If we choose higher-level layers, which identify more sophisticated features in images, complex features or even whole objects tend to emerge. Again, we just start with an existing image and give it to our neural net. We ask the network: “Whatever you see there, I want more of it!” This creates a feedback loop: if a cloud looks a little bit like a bird, the network will make it look more like a bird. This in turn will make the network recognize the bird even more strongly on the next pass and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears, seemingly out of nowhere.
Diving further into complex neural networks may eventually allow scientists to explore cognitive processes at a pace thousands of times slower than at which they happen in the brain.