In my youth I was an enthusiastic shortwave radio listener. I’d scan the dial listening to faint signals through the static, looking for the elusive and rare. I was thrilled by hearing Radio Gulf in Papua New Guinea from half a world away and identifying a weak station like HRPC from Honduras. Noise was a problem. On the tropical bands not only did the radio signals from Central and South America propagate to the US, but so did the electrical noise from summer thunderstorms. “Esta es Radio [CRACKLE!]” The tape recorder was always running and I’d play it over and over and over trying to interpret the signal in the noise.
Life is full of noise, and picking out the signal isn’t always easy. We figure out who is innocent and who is guilty in a jury system where some people lie. Psychiatrists try to figure out who is crazy and who is sane when people try to hide their symptoms. We try to understand a politician’s underlying motivations from their actions in complex political situations. We try to find Waldo in a picture where everything looks a little like Waldo. Sometimes we see poodles in the clouds1 or hear messages when a song is played backwards — signals where there really aren’t any. Some people are better at finding patterns than others – we revere them for their discoveries and their inventions and we reward with prizes. Some find patterns everywhere and cannot tell what is real and what is not – we tend to call such people crazy and medicate them.
Those people more prone than others to accepting patterns we call believers and those less, skeptics. I don’t know which way I tend, but my life experience and education have turned me towards skepticism, and it is skepticism more than political ideology that brings me to the Obama conspiracy table.2
1I can’t think if anything that models the issues birthers raise about Obama’s long form birth certificate than seeing poodles in the clouds.
2While the byline of this blog is “Fishing for gold coins in a bucket of mud,“ an activity that suggests looking for messages in a noisy signal, I have long known that there are no coins in the bucket.