Apophenia — Filling the Blanks
Readers’ comments on What Does [Sic] Mean? point up the curious feature of the human mind that infuses meaning into the meaningless.
I always thought it was an abbreviation for “Spelling Is Correct.”
I think I read on this site that someone believed “sic” to stand for “said in context”.
I had previously thought it was an acronym for “Spelled InCorrectly”.
This type of fill-in-the-blanks reasoning is at work in elaborate conspiracy theories and when someone sees the face of Jesus in a tortilla.
The tendency to find meaning in the partially-known is called apophenia: finding meaning or patterns where none exist.
Unfamiliar with the source of the notation [sic], readers make use of the letters and the context to create something that makes sense to them.
We all fall into this kind of fallacious reasoning at some time or another. Uncomfortable in a new situation, we hear laughter and are certain that the people are laughing at us. The narrative of the movie A Beautiful Mind revolves around the protagonist’s apophenic beliefs.
For those of us who write fiction, some aspect of apophenia must be at work when we spin whole narratives out of a chance remark or the glimpse of an oddly-dressed person on a train.
The human mind craves meaning. We look at our lives and see a meaningful narrative. We find evidence for beliefs that other people find preposterous.
If you browse the Wikipedia articles that stem from the one on apophenia, you’ll find several types of this kind of thinking.
One type is called Morton’s Demon, named by Glenn R. Morton to explain what was at work in his mind when he believed in a widely-held theory he no longer believes in.
Morton entered the study of physics believing firmly in creationist theory. His study of geology changed his belief. He then gave a name to the type of reasoning that had enabled him to believe in a theory with insufficient physical evidence:
Morton’s demon stands at the gateway of a person’s senses and lets in facts that agree with that person’s beliefs while deflecting those that do not.
With a national election only days away, we’re being hammered with all kinds of assertions about the candidates. It’s probably a good time for voters to watch out for apophenia in their thinking.
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