In 2004, a woman in Florida sold for US$28,000 a grilled cheese sandwich on which she claimed to see the image of Jesus Christ. The toast Jesus phenomenon tells us something interesting about knowledge.
Our brains are programmed to seek and find patterns in things. Not all the patterns we see are real. Random events can create an illusion of structure where none really exists. We think we’ve seen a signal in the noise but all we’ve seen is random noise.
Michael Blastland delivered a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts on this theme. One of his examples comes from the announcement in January 2018 by the Office for National Statistics that unemployment in the UK had fallen by 3,000 people to 1.44 million. So far so certain. But in the methodology section of the report they acknowledge that statistically this figure has a 95% chance of being true, plus or minus 77,000. In other words, unemployment might have fallen by as much as 80,000, but it might just as easily have risen by 74,000.
Blastland argues that the great threat to progress is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge.
So how do we get from the toast Jesus problem to Brexit? Andrew Neil on 12 July 2019 interviewed the two candidates for leadership of the UK Conservative Party and hence for the Prime Ministership of the country. He took Jeremy Hunt to task for not being willing to promise that the UK would have left the European Union by the 31 October deadline.
Hunt explained, not unreasonably, that nobody could know what would happen if no deal was agreed with the EU. He noted that Parliament might block a no-deal exit and that this might lead to an election. Hunt said he was simply being honest, but Neil accused him of being slippery and untrustworthy.
We human beings prefer certainty to uncertainty. At least for some things. It’s true that we prefer not to be told how a novel turns out before we read it. And we can cope with uncertainty in weather reports. But we don’t care for it much in our politicians. Perhaps we’ll only get the politicians we really deserve when we’re less insistent on easy certainty.