A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Friday, June 29, 2012

3 Important things about conspiracy theories

I love me a good conspiracy theory.  I probably spend more time than I should watching You Tube videos about the illuminati, the Masons, JFK, UFO's and 911.  One could easily mistake me for a nut job from not too far off.  (It's a common mistake, but I'm actually a legume.)

But before you jump ship and move on to some lovely scrap booking blog, please give me a moment to explain.

Conspiracy theories are important.  They are especially important if you're interested (as I am) in how we think about the world around us and how we organize the tiny set of experiences and data we have as individuals into a (usually coherent) concept of reality.

So there are three things we need to accept about conspiracy theories right off the bat:

1) They offer an explanation of something.  Usually that something is a dreadful event (the assassination of JFK or 9/11) or an unknown, potentially unknowable, concept (like the existence of life elsewhere in the universe or how our global society functions as it does).

You don't often hear a conspiracy theorist utter the phrase "I don't think we can know that" or "That's impossible to tell."  The reason is that the purpose of a conspiracy theory is to provide answers.  Our minds are pre-disposed to seek meaning.  Blaming someone for believing a conspiracy theory is a little like blaming a dog for humping your leg.  They may not have all the facts straight, but they are acting on natural impulse.  Seeking to order the world around us (forming context), is the most basic function of thought, and successful conspiracy theorists tend to have very orderly views of the world.   So in some sense they are to be envied, not frowned upon.

2) They could be true.  Now this one is hard for a lot of folks to swallow or may I even say comprehend, but it is crucial for a critical thinker to accept this.  And since I will probably get around to arguing sooner or later that critical thinking is the only fully functioning or effective thinking there is, I may as well come out and say that if you can not accept that a given conspiracy theory may be true, you are not capable of effective thought.  Don't be ashamed.  There's a lot of that going around.  And there is a cure.  But more on that later.  For now we will assume you do not suffer from the disease of a closed mind.

Now a critical thinker is an animal that has grown pretty comfortable with the idea that some things are either unknowable or not yet knowable, or for extra credit the notion that we can not even know some of what we don't know -- Donald Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns".  So it can be hard at first for a critical thinker to accept a neat package of answers to some very difficult questions.  But my greatest frustration with otherwise powerful minds is when they think that they "know" something.  Men like Douglas Hofstadter,  the godfather of thinking about thinking have performed very embarrassing stunts of closed mindedness (as for example when he explains his falling out with other "skeptical inquirers" over his refusal to debunk certain claims of paranormal on the grounds that they violated common sense).

I will certainly be revisiting Mr. H many times in the future, thinker of thinking that he is, so I don't need to litigate this case right now.  Suffice it to say that an honest intellect will never stop accepting that what he may view as common sense may in fact make no sense at all.  Scientific history is full of reasonably intelligent folks making perfectly excusable mistakes about the nature of reality because they could only see the world through the frame they had built around it.  The Godfather should know this more than anyone, though, and as a result, his failure to accept anything as at least "possible" (or at least possible enough to be disproven scientifically) stings a bit.   When a mind as flexible as his shows the outer edge of its range, it fills me with the same sadness I feel for the aging basketball player who runs down the court on a fast break and gets his dunk stopped by the rim when he fails to jump high enough.  (That is what basketball players call, "getting blocked by Father Time.")  We hate to see our heroes confront their limits and fail.

So what does all this open-mindedness have to do with a system that by definition is a tight little package of answers?  Well it is the double negative problem.  If we are unwilling to accept a system of tightly wrapped solutions on the face of it, we are merely accepting our own tightly wrapped notion that we can tell what is true and what is false without exploring the underlying facts.  If you're going to allow your own preconceptions to rule how you think, you may as well make it easy on yourself and stock up on the microwavable answer packs that the conspiracy theorists sell.  They are in aisle seven of the Concept Mini-mart, under "Ready Made Answers"  (the freezer aisle).

No, as thinkers, we need to do a bit better than that.  I don't recommend over indulging on conspiracy theories, but enjoying a quick one every now and then won't hurt anything.  Some of them are pretty delicious.  The internet has changed everything.  This is not your father's JFK conspiracy.

2b.) Part of every conspiracy theory is almost always true.  I honestly don't know if the qualifier "almost always" is even necessary, but what the heck.  We are not trying to be evangelical about what is true, after all, and there may well be a conspiracy theory in the wild that has not one iota of truth in it.  (But that concept would leave me to believe the theory itself would be unintelligible, because it would not even be obvious what true events it was seeking to explain.)

And as open minded people really into this whole thinking thing, we need to recognize that partial truth is sometimes as good as we can get when we're dealing with perception.  So I for one do not mind sifting through a long list of 911 links looking for a few kernels of objective fact that spawned the rest of the explanation.  And lest I make it sound like I don't really take these theories seriously, I have to admit that on more than one occasion I have accepted that I can not explain why what the theory posits must be false.  In many cases it is obvious that at least something in the "official explanation" is false.  Even if that doesn't have to mean the conspiracy theory is true, it does mean that it is no more false than the "official" version.

Now, the logical conclusions drawn by some of these theories (and yes sometimes these conclusions are perfectly logical if you accept the underlying premises involved) can be worlds apart from my daily reality.  But that is part of the point.  If I can't entertain what life would be like if these theories were true or if I were someone who believed them to be true, then I am not doing a very good job thinking about how perception shapes reality am I?

3) Conspiracy theories are perfect petri dishes of perception.  If a doctor wants to find out if you have strep throat, she will do a culture.  In the olden days that involved sticking a swab in the back of your mouth, rubbing the material onto a bright pink culture dish, and waiting 24 hours to see what grew.

The petri dish is the reality TV of the germ world.  It is not a natural environment but some sort of idealized natural environment where we can see what would happen if these crazy germs were left in a house together.  Well conspiracy theories provide, for our own observation, the intellectual equivalent of a petri dish.  Confusing complexities are washed clean from our environment.  All we are left with is an idealized world that runs on clear intent with predictable consequences.  As such we get to see what happens when we lock various ideas together and see how they get along.

To a conspiracy theorist, every thing that has happened (pertaining to the subject of the theory) is the result of intent.  If Princess Diana died it was because someone wanted her dead.  If Lee Harvey Oswald died, it was obviously to cover up the answers he could have given us as to what "really" happened.  There are no unfortunate circumstances leading to unforeseen consequences.  No hole in the blocking line was the result of a missed assignment to the conspiracy theorist -- it was because the quarterback must be tackled on that play in order for the greater plan to unfold.

If that is not a model of perception shaping reality, I don't know what is.  And that is why I will spend a great deal of time --- quite possibly some of it on this blog -- staring at the patterns in these petri dishes.  If in the process I start sounding like a nut, remember that a peanut is legume.  If you want to call it a nut just because it sure seems like one, that's fine.  But you're still technically wrong and I'd appreciate it if you remembered that.


  1. I linked here from SA...good read DM....I spend a few too many precious moments trying to figure out puzzles myself my latest thoughts are there is not a demo or repub candidate ...the gov't only wants to give the impression of choice....ther future is pre destined....Scott Trader

    1. Thanks for reading, Scott. My question about conspiracies is always what happens as a natural result of a system in motion and what happens as a result of conspiracy. You'll usually lose when you go to the casino, for example, but we don't need to say that the dealer is "conspiring" with the waitress to get you drunk and have you lose all your money. It's just that the system is set up in a way that makes that outcome more likely.