Seeing the extinct Tasmanian Tiger

This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female. It was taken in 1902 at The National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

There is a great article in the New York Times that is worth highlighting. It concerns the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger.

First a brief bit of context and then we will dip into the article.

The Tasmanian Tiger – The Thylacine

The Tasmanian Tiger, also known as a Thylacine, is a Marsupial that was native to the Australian mainland and the islands of Tasmania and New Guinea. The very last known one died in 1930, and since then none.

Well nothing official, but more on that in a moment.

Why did it go extinct?

Its extinction is popularly attributed to the relentless efforts by farmers and bounty hunters, but the demise of this species is perhaps a bit more complicated. Factors that played a role includes competition with wild dogs introduced by European settlers, the destruction of its habitat, and a distemper-like disease.

The very last one was shot in 1930 by Wilf Batty, a farmer from Mawbanna. In fact here he is with the gun and the last Thylacine.

Now here is where things get interesting.

Since then there have been reported sightings. So is it extinct or is this very shy nocturnal marsupial simply being very evasive?

No actual evidence has ever been produced.

Up until the 1980s it was officially an endangered species. Once 50 years had passed with no solid evidence of any, it was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1982 and by the Tasmanian government in 1986…

… and yet unconfirmed reports of sightings do still trickle in.

That’s my Cue for the New York Times Article.

NYT (Mar 10, 2021): Tasmanian Tigers Are Extinct. Why Do People Keep Seeing Them?

Its an interesting read and is also quite long.

It gives an example of a camera trap sighting from Feb. 23 2021 that stirred up a lot of excitement. They even link to the YouTube clip. Spoiler Alert: analysis by thylacine specialists rapidly debunked the photos.

The article is not a “Do they still exist?” article, but instead is asking the question “Why do we keep going around these regular cycles of supposed sightings that then get debunked?”.

In other words, what is really going on?

This is the key to it …

The answer, psychologists say, may lie in quirks of the human mind and how we process information that is at once familiar and difficult to perceive.

This is not Bigfoot or Nessie. The fact that a few just might be out there is wholly credible. They really did once exist in living memory.

The article carefully expands upon the observation that sitting between our ears is a truly amazing pattern matching engine. Feed it a fuzzy blurry image and it will fill in the gaps to identify it as something it is not …

Susan Wardle, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, says that cycles of expectant belief undone by deeper analysis may in part be explained by human psychological quirks.

Processing every individual sensory detail is impossible, she says, so our brain actively reconstructs our visual world based on the complex but ambiguous input received by our eyes. Research has shown that unclear sensory data — such as a blurry picture — causes the brain to rely more heavily on preconceived patterns to make sense of it.

“This means that there is an interesting interaction between perception and cognition — our beliefs and prior experience can influence what we see. Or more accurately, what we think we see,” Dr. Wardle said.

This tendency can lead people astray when studying photographic evidence of long unseen animals, sometimes called cryptids, especially if they already have an idea of what they’re looking for. Many people who go looking for such enigmatic creatures have an emotional investment in identifying them, “and are already convinced the creatures are already out there,” said Christopher French, who founded the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, and recently retired.

That pre-existing belief makes it easier to begin seeing quarry in every shadow and rustle of brush, Dr. French adds, or in photographs that don’t offer a clear look at the animal in question. It can also cause people to genuinely miss details that might contradict their preferred hypothesis.

While the article goes on to churn over this in lots of detail, the above extract is the essence of it all.

It is still well-worth reading the full article. No I don’t get $$ for pointing you at it, I simply think it is a rather important insight into how those who are deeply invested in finding something, will often sincerely find it, and yet all they really did is to fool themselves.

The Meta Pattern

This is of course not specific to just the Tasmanian Tiger. It applies to many different fringe things including Aliens, Gods, Ghosts, Demons, and let’s not forget Bigfoot and Nessie.

Nor does it apply to just the mythological or supernatural. A deep emotional desire to find, for example, evidence of a stolen election, often leads to a eureka moment. Yet independently examine this evidence and it quickly evaporates.

Yes some claims are deliberate fraud. As illustrated by this article, that is not the entire story.

A better understanding of human psychology leads us to the insight that when you devote all your time and resources to finding something mythological, you may indeed find it. Not because it actually is there, but because our brain fills in the gaps and fools us into thinking that we have actually found evidence.

This is not just about a few dumb people

It is the way our brains work. It can easily fool you into seeing things that are not really there at all.

Here are a couple of fun examples. You see something, and yet in these examples you also know that what you see is not actually there – your brain has simply fooled you.

Further Reading

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