The Face on Mars: Nope. Still Not a Face.

The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 3 2014 9:45 AM

Refacing the Face on Mars

I got a good chuckle out of a video Slate just posted over on the video section of the site*: a deconstruction of the “Face” on Mars.

Heh. I hadn’t thought about the Face in some time; it’s been a while since anyone’s really talked about it. Despite being one of the silliest examples of pseudoscience in history, a few years ago it was Big News; I even had a popular public talk I gave lambasting it. Mostly the idea was promoted by Richard Hoagland, about whom I’ve pretty much said everything there needs to be said.

angry slippers
You'd be yelling too if someone stuck their stinky feet into you every day.

Photo by Phil Plait

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As the video lays out, the picture of the Face was first taken by the Viking 1 spacecraft in the 1970s, and it really does look like a face … just like low-resolution images of just about anything resemble faces. Even some hi-res ones.

But then better space probes were sent to the Red Planet, better images were taken at higher magnification and different lighting angles, and the Face disappeared in a puff of logic.

For a while you’d still get a glimpse of it in magazines and newspapers, and I’d get the odd invite to give my public talk. Eventually, though, that went away.

It’s the fate of most pseudoscience, actually, to fade away as tastes change (or if the promulgators dumbly put an expiration date on their nonsense [cough cough 2012 Maya apocalypse cough]). You’d think that might mean eventually debunkers go out of business as well.

Mars face
Nope.

Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Oh, you naive thing, you. A debunker’s work will never end, because there will never be an end of bunk to debunk! Ignoring big mainstream stuff like creationism, global warming denial, and anti-vaxxers, there will still always be nonsense like UFOs, astrology, ghost hunters, life in meteorites, and so on. A lot of the time it’s just silly, but sometimes—far too often—people die because of belief in nonsense. They really do.

It’s OK to chuckle over stuff like the Face on Mars. But remember, it’s not always so benign. And even believing in minor silliness means you’re giving up a precious bit of reality. There’s a vast, amazing, real Universe around you in every direction. Take a look at it! You’ll have enough wonder to last a thousand lifetimes.

*You did know Slate has a video section, right? Lots of really good stuff there.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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