This post is by Jesse Galef
We humans are so intent on finding meaning in things that we have a tendency to find it even where none was intended. It’s what we call a false positive and it happens all the time. We often hear about people seeing the Jesus or the virgin Mary in a particular piece of toast, water stain, or IKEA bathroom woodwork. But we usually associate it with images, not words, making this story about Governor Schwarzenegger particularly valuable.
It turns out that Schwarzenegger sent a veto letter to the state legislature. This is nothing out of the ordinary and wouldn’t be worth my mentioning, so you must know that there’s more of the story to come. No, it’s the “secret message” that got attention – see if you can find it (image from the San Francisco Bay Guardian):
Did you see it? Here’s the answer from the SFBG:
But wait — there’s a real message, an actual missive from the Gov to Tom, embedded in this text. And it’s not hard to find — in fact, it’s hard to believe it could have been a coincidence.
Read down the letters on the left side of the message
If you read along the left-most column and take the first letter of each line, you get “I fuck you”. This was seen as a dastardly and immature prank. But I’m betting that the odds of a ‘coincidence’ like this are higher than intuition suggests.
To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in whether of not the message was intended, but the story does raise an interesting question: how likely are we to find a “hidden message” where none was intended?
It’s absolutely possible that the message was deliberate – I certainly used to do that sort of thing in my English papers (I hated the classes and needed some creative way to keep the projects interesting). There are also other important factors – there was a feud between the governor and the politician in question, the wording is stilted, etc. But as it stands, I’m not willing to rule out the null hypothesis (a hilarious coincidence) quite yet.
It looks like Brad Johnson at the Wonk Room tried the kind of analysis I was envisioning. He says the odds of that particular phrase are about 1 in a trillion, taking into account the likelihood of different letters being the start of each word.
Now, the likelihood that some phrase would be spelled out? Ignoring letter distribution, there’s about a 0.3% chance any four letter string is a common English word, and a 3% chance any three letter string is a common English word. The specific likelihood of the words “soap” and “poet” appearing, for example, given the Schwarzenegger speeches, is one in 100,000 — much greater than the one in 10 million shot of “fuck” appearing.
As letter distribution would make the appearance of common words more likely (e.g. “teas”), the probability of some two-word combination appearing is on the order of two percent. The likelihood of it making any sense, of course, is smaller. A more accurate estimation is left to the reader.
Good to see there are fellow nerds in the world interested in spending time on the question! But what’s missing from Brad’s analysis is the possibility of messages hidden other ways – we would be similarly remarking had the message been at the end of each line instead of the beginning. Or had the message been in the first letter of consecutive words. Or the last letter of consecutive words. Or in another language. Or backwards. This would surely increase the potential for “hidden” messages dramatically.
I should see how often “hidden messages” appear in the Bible.
This is a job for Python! Quick – to the bat-computer lab!