The Monuments of Mars: A Study in Scientific Delusion

by Joe Orman

A review of The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever by Richard C. Hoagland

[Originally published in condensed form in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, August 2000]


Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Book Reviewer

I must admit I was dismayed to find this book in an astronomy club library, and I am somewhat ashamed to be reviewing it. After all, astronomers should promote science, not superstition! My first impulse was to request that this book be removed from the library. But I believe that the only way for the truth to be revealed is for all evidence to be presented and reasonably weighed; an idea will persist or perish based on its own merits. Further, astronomers must be aware of the human tendency of self-deception, to avoid falling into the trap themselves. And anyone interested in promoting the true science of astronomy must also be able to distinguish it from the pseudoscience that is so prevalent in our society. In these respects, this book provides an important object lesson.

A "Face" is Discovered on Mars

This particular controversy's inauspicious beginning came in 1976, when the Viking Orbiter imaging team noticed something curious. Among the images of the surface of Mars was a shadowed mountain which seemed to resemble a human face.


Viking Image of the "Face"

The image was presented at a NASA press conference and explained as "a trick of lighting and shadow." One member of the press who was present was Richard Hoagland, who had covered the Apollo and Mariner programs for CBS News and Walter Cronkite. Hoagland is also noted for proposing (with Eric Burgess) the idea to Carl Sagan to include an engraved plaque aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft.

Seven years later, it was brought to Hoagland's attention that digitally enhanced images of the mile-long "Face" showed a remarkable symmetry. Indeed, the drawings in this book present a thorough and persuasive analysis of the facial features. It is only when one realizes that since half of the "Face" in the original photo was in deep shadow, and much of this symmetry had to be inferred, that a serious flaw in the logic -- circular reasoning -- becomes obvious. But the "Face" was only the beginning.

The "City" ... A Mirage in the Desert?

Turning his attention to the area surrounding the "Face," Hoagland noticed several other odd structures on the Martian surface. Scrutinizing the images (which would seem to show merely scattered hills rising from the edge of a cratered plain), Hoagland began to see an enormous "City" including gigantic "pyramids" and a "fortress."


The "City"

One structure that attracted much of Hoagland's attention is a massive mountain in the rough shape of a five-sided pyramid. Again, since half the pyramid is in shadow, much of the supposed symmetry must be extrapolated. And even then, the fact that it is not exactly pyramid-shaped is explained away as "apparent damage" due to "explosive penetration." In other words, the fact that it's not completely artificial-looking is evidence that it was artificially modified!


The "Pyramid"

The author also points out that the symmetrical pattern of the pyramid "approximates" the proportions of the human body as demonstrated in Leonardo da Vinci's famous "Vitruvian Man" drawing. But even this stretch of the imagination fails, since, as Hoagland admits, some processed versions of the images show the human figure considerably "squatter" than the pyramid.


Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"

Among these supposed structures, Hoagland found many with orientations parallel to, or at right angles to, the main axis of the "Face." This is not surprising if one only considers those features that fit the desired pattern. But this is only the beginning of Hoagland's improper use of statistics to prove artificiality. For instance, he proposes that certain features between the "City" and the "Face" are spaced in the ratio 1:2:4:8. But the reference points he picks are so inexact and arbitrary, almost any ratio could be made to fit. Similarly, we are supposed to consider it significant that the latitude of the "City" equals the tangent of "e" divided by pi. Again, given enough universal mathematical constants and trigonometric functions to arbitrarily rearrange, one can always find a match.

The method by which Hoagland dates the ruins is equally suspect. He calculates when the solstice sunrise -- as viewed from the (somewhat arbitrary) center of "the City" -- appeared in the notch that forms the mouth of the "Face" at the same time as the heliacal rising of earth. Due to the shifting of Mars' polar axis, this has not occurred since a half-million years ago, so he takes that as the age of the "City." To statistically "prove" that this -- and all the other connections he has drawn -- could not be due to chance, he multiplies together the odds of any one of them happening. This is as valid as saying "Look, there's a cloud that looks like a bunny rabbit! One in a million odds! And the one next to it looks like a horse! Also one in a million! The odds of both of these things happening are a trillion (a million times a million) to one, so they must be artificial!" Hoagland also claims the odds are against nature producing anything that resembles a human ("It had NEVER come close to doing so here on Earth") despite the plethora of face-shaped mountains that have long been noted as curiosities on our own planet.

For those not convinced by these statistics, Hoagland recognized that his most convincing evidence of artificiality was a tiny honeycomb pattern visible when he closely scrutinized the photos. He flatly states "Repeated five-sided shapes in nature -- unless they're biological -- are nonexistent." One example common here on Earth -- the mud cracks that form when a desert lakebed dries -- disproves this assertion. When it was pointed out to him that this pattern was aligned with the camera's scan lines and was undoubtedly an artifact of the image processing, Hoagland proposed a new theory: the scan lines are interacting with an existing artificial pattern on the Martian surface to produce a moire' pattern. This is one of many times Hoagland disregards evidence that disagrees with his theories.

Now We Need A Theory To Explain It All

But why would all these apparently artificial structures be on the Martian surface to begin with? Hoagland proposes that they were constructed by an alien race that had migrated to Mars from beyond our solar system. They were built on such a massive scale to act as artificial environments to sustain the aliens' life -- a theory with striking similarity to Percival Lowell's theory that the "canals" he saw were a planet-wide irrigation project to prolong life on a dying planet. From this point, the book spins into wild speculation that connects these Martian immigrants with Earth via ancient Egypt. Since some have pointed out that the face is more simian than human, Hoagland also suggests that the face is "a visual metaphor" for evolution on Earth! We have entered the realm of Erik Von Daniken's thoroughly discredited "Ancient Astronaut" speculations.

Of Course It's Absurd ... But Is It Science?

These theories are clearly ridiculous. They are based on such wild assumptions and faulty reasoning, it is hard to believe anyone would take them seriously. However, on the surface, this book appears to be very scientific (the text is full of scientific-sounding statements, and is thoroughly footnoted and indexed). Indeed, the material presented on the geological history of Mars is quite good (although Flagstaff residents will be puzzled by the statement that the Lowell observatory was constructed "in an arid desert."). So it may be hard for the casual reader to discern from science.

Hoagland admits his dilemma: "I realized that I was looking at something that was either a complete waste of time, or the most important discovery of the twentieth century if not of our entire existence on Earth." The quickest answer is found by applying the principle of Occam's Razor: All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. By this test, any reasonable person would quickly conclude that these features on the Martian surface are natural. But Hoagland subverts even this simple logical test by convincing himself that, since he can't believe natural processes could create so many suspicious-looking features, artificial construction by an intelligent race is the simpler explanation! Okay, if Occam's Razor doesn't quickly convince us, how can we really tell if this is science, or psuedoscience? There are two more rigorous (but still simple) tests: Is it subject to the process of peer review, and is it disprovable?

Peer Review: A Necessary Evil

Peer review, in which scientific work is judged -- sometimes harshly -- by independent, knowledgeable people, is critically necessary to keep well-meaning individuals from deluding themselves. Hoagland acknowledges this danger himself with statements like "Am I extrapolating from too little information?", "There was no denying that I had WANTED such a city to exist" and "Because (my internal watchdog prompted) it FEELS like a place where 'Martians' should have gathered."

As Percival Lowell's Martian "canals" taught us, if we want to believe something bad enough, our minds will manufacture the evidence. Lowell even explained away the inability of other to see the canals "because their eyes were simply not accustomed to the richness of the details on the planet."

But Hoagland seeks no valid peer review to confirm his work. His "Independent Mars Investigation" was made up of anyone he could find who was sympathetic to his cause -- and Hoagland named himself Principal Investigator! This investigation was independent from NASA, perhaps, but not truly independent. Participation in the "Case for Mars II" conference in 1984 was limited to a poster presentation; a paper was submitted, but not deemed worthy of presentation and was not included in the published conference proceedings. Carl Sagan even personally offered to peer review Hoagland's material, but was never taken up on the offer.

Forget Proving It ... Is It Disprovable?

One might think the second test of scientific validity would be, is this hypothesis provable? Actually, the more meaningful test is, is it disprovable? As philospher Karl Popper has pointed out, if you cannot devise an experiment -- even a "thought experiment" -- whose results would disprove a theory, then that theory is unfalsifiable and has no scientific meaning. For example, the main propositions of disciplines such as theology are not disprovable, therefore they lie outside the realm of science. (Since one can never disprove that there is intelligent life somewhere in the Universe, the SETI program might seem to fall into this category ... but that is another article). In the case of the Martian "artifacts," we could prove them false if we took higher-resolution photos of them, and saw if their artificial appearance disappeared. Hoagland himself writes " ... in the event that (new images) prove we've all been excited by a mere 'pile of Martian rocks,' I hope that I will be as graceful in admitting my own errors ..." This is exactly what has happened since this book was written: the images (but not the apology) have been provided.

The Real Test: New Images

For the past 2 years, the Mars Global Surveyor has been imaging the surface of Mars with resolution far beyond any achieved previously. Because of the controversy, the region of Cydonia containing the "City" was targeted to be one of the first areas imaged. As many expected, the new image of the "Face" (taken at a high sun angle) revealed a somewhat-symmetrical but otherwise unremarkable mesa, with only the vaguest resemblance to a human face.


Mars Global Surveyor image of the "Face"

Recently, more than 25,000 images from the Mars Global Surveyor were made available on the Internet at At least from orbit, Mars appears a vast dustblown desert with no signs of intelligent life.

His two best pieces of evidence (the honeycomb pattern and the face) proven totally spurious, one would expect Hoagland to live up to his word and admit his error. One would also hope that these high-resolution images would put the wild theories to rest. But conspiracists know no bounds, and more data is seen as more doubt instead of more reassurance. Every inconsistency in NASA's behavior or in the data is presented as evidence of a vast conspiracy. Indeed, in Hoagland's twisted logic, the release of these images is evidence that NASA recognizes something artificial in them (the argument being that the public will see the evidence for themselves, and demand increased NASA funding for a investigative manned mission to Mars).

Waking Up Is Hard To Do

But even if Hoagland sincerely saw his error, how could he admit it? He has made a cottage industry out of "The Face on Mars," profiting from admission to his lectures and the sale of books, CD's, and posters. Hoagland also has a website (, where he presents many more images that have been scrutinized and manipulated -- even enlarged beyond the limit of their resolution -- until patterns appear.


For example, the caption for this image, which looks like a perfectly natural volcano, reads: "Even cursory examination of this image reveals an astonishing reality: an apparently metallic, warped and twisted artificial relic of some enormous conflict on the Martian surface. Note the rimmed 'holes' penetrating the polished surface, revealing hints of geomtric (sic) structures inside." We also learn that "Data from the Extremely Low Frequency Research And Development (ELFRAD) group indicates that the bizarre weather in the Phoenix area yesterday (12/7/98) may have actually been induced as part of a 'Hyperdimensional Physics' experiment." (emphasis Hoagland's).

To my mind, this is a prime example of the brain's tendency to impose patterns that may not actually exist, similar to seeing patterns in the noise on a television screen after the station has gone off the air. And, as the author of the best-selling book "The Bible Code" demonstrated, if you take any large data set and manipulate it enough in arbitrary ways, you can get patterns to appear ... and you can sell a lot of books.

Draw Your Own Conclusions

All of this would be laughable if so many did not take it seriously. But many people do, and this points out the sad lack of skepticism in our society. Not skepticism in the common misconception of the word, to automatically and cynically distrust everything. But skepticism in the best sense: to hold all evidence in judgement until it can be scientifically and reasonably weighed, as the dictionary says "to habitually question the truth of all knowledge."

In the words of Hoagland himself, "Either these features on Mars are natural and this investigation is a complete waste of time, or they are artificial and this is one of the most important discoveries of our entire existence on Earth." Which is more likely? For most of us, the answer is so obvious, the question might seem not even worth asking. But to keep ourselves and others from being deluded in the future, it is important to think about why the answer is so obvious.

Revised: July 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Joe Orman
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