Nicholas Amendolare is a high school and middle school science teacher from Plymouth, Massachusetts. He has a bachelor's degree in environmental science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in education from Harvard University. He has been a teacher for nine years, has written for TED-Ed, and is the founder of www.MrAscience.com.
What is a Pattern?
The word pattern has several definitions. Most generally, a pattern is defined as any regularly repeated arrangement. But visually, it refers to a design made from repeating shapes, lines, and colors on a surface. In sewing, the word pattern dates back centuries, referring to a form or model used for imitation. And indeed, this seems to hint at the word's origin. The word comes from the Latin prefix 'patr,' which means father, and the Middle English word 'patron.' In sewing and dressmaking, the original pattern fathers many copies.
In the modern-day, we look for pattern everywhere. Patterns of genes can explain many diseases. Patterns in the stock market, if predicted, can lead to windfalls for investors. And patterns in weather can explain yesterday's heat wave and tomorrow's thundershowers. In science and mathematics, patterns are the opposite of randomness. And proving that observations are due to patterns, due to some sort of cause and effect rather than random chance, is a major part of practicing science in the 21st century.
Patterns in Nature
If you've ever caught a snowflake in your hand, you've probably noticed that it isn't just a random collection of globs of ice. Snowflakes form in particular shapes depending upon the temperature and humidity they experience while they are growing. And although no two snowflakes are perfectly symmetrical, many have six distinct arms, a quality that arises due to the hexagonal crystalline structure of ice.
Many other patterns exist in nature too. Think of the five-fold symmetry in starfish and the spiraling shape of many seashells. Think of the arrangement of petals around a sunflower. Think of the small ripples left behind on a beach at low tide and the massive dunes, sometimes hundreds of feet high, that form in desert sands. All of these phenomena are far from random. In nature, patterns are everywhere.
Patterns in Mathematics
Mathematics has been called 'the science of pattern.' For example, think of the output of any mathematical function: it is predictable and perfectly repeatable and completely non-random. We often even graph these patterns on coordinate planes so that we can see them displayed visually.
Fractals are another example. A fractal is defined as a curve or geometric shape in which each has the same character as the whole. But fractals are not only found in the visual realm; they can also be used to describe processes in time. And fractal patterns have been observed and studied in physics, in sound, in architecture, law, and even in nature.
Patterns That Aren't Patterns
Human beings are particularly adept at recognizing patterns. Perhaps too adept. We use both pattern recognition and inductive thinking to, first, find patterns and, second, to use these patterns to predict what might happen next. One can imagine how this is an important evolutionary ability. Seeing patterns could mean following a stream to find fresh water, predicting where the next patch of berries might grow, or knowing to take shelter during a thunderstorm.
However, the human ability to recognize patterns can also lead us astray. Take, for example, confirmation bias, which psychologists define as the tendency to search for evidence that confirms a person's prior assumptions. This leads humans to reach all sorts of incorrect conclusions. One famous example is the apparent connection between a president's performance and gasoline prices. In reality, a president has very little control over the price of fuel. In fact, every United States president since the year 2000 had left office with gas prices higher than when they started. But confirmation bias, particularly in the spring following a new president's inauguration, leads many to blame the seasonal increase in spring and summer fuel prices on politics, mainly when the person in the office is someone they voted against.
Another case of confirmation bias is the disproven link between vaccines and autism. In this example, the bias stems from an individual, Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 linking the vaccination of children to higher rates of autism was retracted from the British Medical Journal in 2010. The journal found a plethora of evidence that Wakefield ignored and manipulated much of his own data, hoping to find a link, a connection that wasn't there. Wakefield's own confirmation bias led to a conclusion--albeit incorrect--that still affects the medical community to this day.
The two examples above both highlight the dangers of pattern recognition. A more honest analysis of gasoline prices would reveal that the price changes seasonally, regardless of who is president. And an unbiased look at vaccination and autism rates in children reveals that there is no connection whatsoever. But we are human. All sorts of bias--confirmation bias, recency bias, etc.--cloud our view. In a patterned world, a good scientist will always look twice.
A pattern is defined as any regularly repeated arrangement. In the modern day, we look for patterns everywhere. Patterns of genes can explain many diseases. Patterns in the stock market, if predicted, can lead to windfalls for investors. And patterns in weather can explain yesterday's heat wave and tomorrow's thundershowers.
Patterns exist in nature everywhere, with examples ranging from the symmetry in snowflakes to the spirals in seashells. Patterns exist in mathematics, too, with the outputs of functions and the appearance of fractals being two examples. But while humans are very adept at pattern recognition, sometimes our desire to see patterns can lead us astray. One example is confirmation bias, the human tendency to search for evidence confirming our prior assumptions. This leads humans to reach all sorts of incorrect conclusions, including the connection between politics and gasoline prices and the link between vaccines and autism. Both links are a myth.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack
Resources created by teachers for teachers
I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.