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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Think it Through, People.

I just got a book I am very excited about called "Debunking 9/11 Myths".  It is part of my reading for my interest in the 9/11 conspiracies.  I am, I realized the other day, not so much a conspiracy theorist as a conspiracy theory-ologist.  I am more interested in the conspiracy theories themselves than the specific assertions of any given theory.

But to my chagrin, one of the little blurbs printed at the front of the book under the heading "Praise for Debunking 9/11 Myths" was from Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic Magazine and author of the book "Why People Believe Weird Things".

He states:
Even though I study weird beliefs for a living, I never imagined that the 9/11 conspiracy theories that cropped up shortly after that tragic event would ever get cultural traction in America...

Really?  That should be an embarrassing thing for Mr. Shermer to admit.  For someone who claims to study "weird beliefs" it is a wonder he has no understanding of where these beliefs come from.  But maybe I am being unfair.  It's not like he ever wrote a book entitled, "Why People Believe Weird Things"...  Except, of course he did.

His comment is ridiculous.  It's as if I told you, "Even though I consider myself an expert in what scares children, I am surprised that these eight year olds are having nightmares after sitting up watching the movie 'Night of the Killer Zombie Clowns'."

Seriously?  You write a book on why people believe weird things and you can't see conspiracies associated with the most transformation event in 40 years gaining any traction?  The "skeptic" community is very fond of preaching about knowledge through logic and observation.   It's funny when a ground ball like this rolls through the publisher of Skeptic Magazine's legs, and all he can say is, "Wow, that was a tough one to field.  Never saw that one coming."

Now of course I am not saying that Shermer is wrong and that the evidence in the book does not dispute certain claims made in some of the most common 9/11 conspiracies.   The facts do disprove some assertions of the conspiracy theorists, but so what?  This would be like my claiming that the children are perfectly safe in their beds.  "So what the hell are they whining about?  I honestly don't understand how they can still be scared after I have explained to them that monsters are not real."  This misses the point.  It shows I don't really understand why the children are scared to begin with.  So rather than simply boast that I have looked under the bed and found no monsters there, so they must be a bunch of cry babies, it would be more fruitful to use my logic, and my grounding in reality, to comprehend what conspiracy theories are actually saying about the world.  Addressing the facts without addressing the fear is pointless.  It may make you feel smarter than someone else, because you are so clever not to believe in zombie clowns or false flag terrorist attacks.  But it doesn't actually promote anyone's understanding of reality -- yours or the conspiracy theorists'.  Because guess what, conspiracy theories are part of the reality you claim to have such a handle on.  Monsters may not be real, but the nightmares they cause certainly are.

The reason this is so upsetting to me is that this is not some oversight.  This is a kind of intellectual corruption.  This is the mental equivalent of a police officer who busts people all day for selling drugs and then comes home to fire up his bong.   The "deep thinking logic" community more than any other has an obligation to think things through.

Being a skeptic isn't about wielding facts like clubs to bludgeon stupid people into submission.  (He says later in the same blurb, "...the book length treatment of this codswallop will stop the conspiracy theorists in their fantasy prone tracks.") Being a real skeptic, an authentic deep thinker, is about (or should be about) using the power of thought and observation to understand the process of thought and observation.

Stephen Hawking once suggested that parapsychology was for those who could not grasp physics.  Besides being a clumsy and self congratulatory comment, it revealed the limits of his own intellect.  His inability to appreciate the depth of the human mind and its capacity to theorize and invent in its quest to understand the world around it was laid bare by his assertion that anyone who could not do what he could do was a simpleton.  They could not handle the truth so they made shit up.  That is exactly the common riff of most skeptics who claim to understand why people "believe weird things".

Physicians once bled their patients and treated fever with leeches.  Today's doctors prefer aspirin, and many of them look back on these primitive practitioners with a special smugness unique to modern scientific man.   But how many scientists appreciate how similarly crude their methods will appear to thinkers of the 22nd century?  Stephen Hawking is no doubt a brilliant physicist, but it is a major error in reasoning for him to assume that his chosen field of study can explain all there is to know.  Or that in 300 years, what he calls science will not look very much like the pseudo science he is so quick to denigrate.

If Stephen Hawking could explain how dreams function or where empathy comes from I would be happy to accept his dismissal of the rubes of the world who can't do non-linear algebra.  But surely there are some folks who can handle the math just fine thank you very much who may still believe that there are forces at work which we can't yet explain or comprehend.  So I would simply challenge him to prove his assertion.   Stephen Hawking says parapsychology is for those who can't handle physics.  Fine.  He should prove it.  Using physics.  He should show how physics can explain why people hold the beliefs they that do.  Then I will believe him.

To reiterate, the problem with many smart guys like Hawking, or skeptics like Shermer, or even deep thinkers like Douglas Hoftstadter (who I took to task in my first pass at conspiracy theories), is that they get lazy.  They are used to reaping such benefits with their logical process that they fail to consider what they do not know.

This is the ultimate sin for any mathematician or skilled logician, and here's why: Godel's Incompleteness Theorem proves that for any sufficiently powerful formal system there will be statements which are true which can nevertheless not be proven.   Hoftstatder spends at least half of his book "Godel Escher Bach" explaining what this concept means and how it was discovered. Yet he somehow fails to take it to heart.

This inability to logic your way out of every puzzle goes way beyond conspiracy theories or "weird beliefs" and speaks to the nature of reality itself.  For those who hang their hat on logic and math, maybe you didn't get the memo.  One of your own already proved that there are true things which escape any formal system of logic.  The proof is rather obtuse to a non mathematician, but Hofstatder does a briliant job of parsing it out in his book.  But the point is that Godel proved this -- using math.

Suppose you're a stubborn logician and you want to claim that Godel is wrong.  Well, that's just fine, because Godel proved his Theorem mathematically.  So if you want to assert that Godel's Theorem is wrong, then you have to contend with the fact that Godel was able to prove something that was wrong. That suggests there are things which can be logically proven that are nevertheless wrong.  That is at least as dangerous as Godel's real medicine.  So, okay, maybe you want to back up and say if he proved it using logic it must be true (that's what all logicians want to think after all, isn't it?)  Well, the off course it's check-mate because then you are accepting the proof of his theorem.  And that means he is right.  And his theorem states that not all True statements can be logically proven.

It is often said then when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  This is the problem with the logical approach taken by Shermer and Hawking and even the Godfather of thinking about thinking Douglas Hosftatder himself.  They enjoy using logic, so they approach every issue convinced that there is no other way to view the world.  But in relying on logic so heavily, they ultimately get sloppy with how they start to swing it around.

Interestingly Hoftstadter went off the logical rails when talking about skeptical thinking, just as Mr. Shermer did.  Specifically where he went astray was when he was on the board of the Skeptical Inquirer and he parted ways with some of the others because he thought they wasted too much time dealing with nonsense.  He contended that some ideas are so ridiculous on the face of it that they weren't even worthy of scientific rebuttal.  He said they violated common sense!  That sounds an awful lot like someone saying that parapsychology is for folks who can't handle physics, doesn't it?  And it sounds a lot like all of the ridiculous prognostications that people who enjoy the history of science are fond of trotting out at cocktail parties.  Wasn't the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun taken as an obviously ridiculous notion at one time?  It violated what was plain for all to see -- that the Sun circled the Earth.

What thinking person intentionally wants to repeat that silly mistake by claiming that he knows what must be false even without taking the time to examine it scientifically?  Wouldn't a claim that appears to violate common sense be the most interesting claim to examine scientifically?  If we used common sense as the arbiter of truth, how many things that were true in the 1600's could we have actually proved?  There is no reason to believe that the common sense of the 20th century (When Hofstadter made his ruling) is any more prescient than the common sense of any other era.  So why use it as a measuring stick at all?

Will healing crystals and ESP be explained and accepted someday just as the Earth's orbit around the Sun is today?  Maybe not.  But dismiss an idea -- any idea -- out of hand because it does not match what you believe and you're not behaving like a scientist.  In fact you're behaving like the zealots you enjoy belittling.  The sad fact is that many people who preach logic and call others fantasy prone fanatics are themselves engaged in the laziest mental exercise of all -- dogma.

The Roll of Paranoia in Conspiracy Theories


I wanted to be much further along by now with a consideration of signal theory and perception, and if I were, a discussion of paranoia would overlay nicely onto the concepts already presented.  But rather than wait to get caught up on all that, I thought I might jump ahead.  The consideration of paranoia may in fact lay the groundwork for some of that perception discussion later and it will certainly assist us in discussing conspiracy theories now.

So before I set out to talk about paranoia specifically, let me simply speed through some framework concepts that will help put this into context.

One way of viewing human thinking is to consider that we are each little information handling signal nodes in a complicated interconnected environment we call civilization (or “the human race”).  Our reaction to any given piece of data can be seen as a result of the context into which we place this data (this is where we are going with “information—context—action” model).  The data we react to can be an external event we witness, an external piece of information brought to our attention, or an internal thought we produce.  (This includes the thoughts we produce when we dream.  More than one person has been inclined to act differently after having a dream.  This suggests our own thoughts, including our own subconscious thoughts, can transform how we behave toward the outside world.) 

The founder of social psychology Kurt Lewin explained what we’re discussing with the formula:
        B = f(P,E) 
which translates into “Behavior is a function of the Person and the Environment”.   It’s a nice start, but we’ll go beyond that a bit to inspect how “Person” means that information processing unit we call the brain and “Environment” is really just a bunch of facts which are put into context by the mind.

So for now, let’s take it as wrote that one way we can view human thought and activity is as if we are all simply little information processing modules, taking information in, and processing it in such as way to as to produce action. 

On the most basic level, our response to threats can be seen in this context.  A mother bear will fight aggressively if she perceives the safety of her offspring is in jeopardy.  This is a very obvious example of external events giving rise to perception and that perception giving rise to a response.  It is, on some level, the primary function of a brain in the same way the primary function of a heart is to pump blood through the body.  Perceive, Comprehend, and React.  Or as I have put it, (receive) Information, (place it into) Context, (translate it into) Action.

So that’s the three cent course.  Now on to paranoia.

Paranoia is a processing mistake.  External events are seen as threatening more often for a paranoid person than for a non-paranoid person.  It is no coincidence that this condition is associated with anxiety and fear, because it is a close cousin to those concepts.  If we are anxious, we react more suspiciously to events around us, and likewise if we are in danger, we are more anxious.  So it may be hard to establish which chicken predates which egg.  Are we paranoid because we are anxious, or are we anxious because our paranoia makes us believe we are under constant threat?  There may be no way to tell.

For our purposes right now, it is sufficient to say the two forces are related and leave it at that.

For now we should simply view paranoia as a processing defect in the information module.  This is separate from a perceptual defect.  A defect in perception would involve seeing or hearing things which are not there (or failing to see or hear things which are real).  A paranoid person can usually take in the facts of the world around them perfectly well.  It is what they do with this information that is at issue.

Paranoia is by definition based on delusion.  The general belief is that others are “out to get you”.  External events are seen as related to hidden agendas.  And importantly the impact of external events on the paranoid individual is blown out of scale.  If there is a traffic jam, the paranoid individual is unable to see how this presents a major inconvenience for all the drivers on the road and instead focuses on how he is impacted.  Believing himself to play an outsized role in reality, he can easily convince himself that the cause of (or reason for) the traffic jam is specifically related to his life.  “The police created this traffic jam in order to stop me from getting to the library before it closes so that I will have to pay a late fine for my library book.”  When asked why the police would do such a thing, the paranoid person has a perfectly logical explanation which is an extension of the tracks already laid for his current train of thought.  “Maybe it’s because they know I have been doing more reading lately.  They want to make it harder for me to continue to get books from the library because they know if I continue my research I will discover what they are really up to…”

This may seem like an exaggerated example.  As someone who has had repeated contact with several clinically paranoid people, I can assure you it is not.  It is not my desire to make fun of this condition nor to rely on a stereotype of what it means to be paranoid.   In my mind this example is an honest sketch of the logical process in the mind of a paranoid person.  It may make us uncomfortable to the point of a nervous chuckle, but it is really the way some minds function.  If we are thinking about thinking as a process in the real world and not just an abstract ideal, we need to consider all engines, even ones that backfire, ping, or burn a mixture which is too thin.  It is not my intent to ridicule these defects, merely to consider how they fit into the big picture.

Now, paranoia must involve delusion, as was said above. We can only observe paranoia when we can see that the interpretation of events is out of step with reality. As the old joke goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”   But reality is very tricky business.  It is quite possible that there is no such thing as one objective reality external to all of us.  More probably we help create reality by perceiving it.  In essence, we till the soil of information like some kind of signal processing ants.  How we interpret the outside world shapes the very world we are observing.  This is why minds are “quantum computers” and how Werner Heisenberg (and Schrödinger’s Cat) will enter the discussion before too long.  In short, when we want to say something is based on falseness, that it is “delusional”, we need to tread carefully.  Objective Truth may not exist, and even if it does, it is very hard to determine whether we have ascertained it.

But along the spectrum of reality, the wide grey band that separates black from white, there is usually a point at which we can say we are no longer in the realm of generally agreed upon truth.  I may not quibble about whether Lebron James or Kobe Bryant could have beaten Michael Jordan in his prime.  The truth about such things is hard to determine.   But if someone were to assert that his three year old son was so good on the court that he could beat Michael Jordan and Kobe and Lebron all playing against him in a three-on-one game, it is safe to say that is simply not true.  Just because true and false are separated by a thick grey line does not mean there is no such thing as true and false.  I am even willing to concede that there is one chance in some astonishingly high number that a three year old with such skills could someday exist.   But that number could be so great that we could play out the history of the human race a billion billion times and never see such an individual born into the world.  My belief that “impossible” is very dangerous medicine does not preclude me from feeling that some things are so nearly impossible as to call them impossible if only for the sake of convenience.

So the point is that even though reality itself is a greased pig we could chase around the yard all day, there are some things that are so far outside of generally accepted fact as to be rightly proclaimed false, at least until convincing evidence to the contrary is provided.

Some things are simply false.
And therein lies the root of what we can call delusion.  For delusion is the belief that something false is in fact true.  Paranoia is rooted in such an error.

But here’s a fascinating little feature of paranoia that ties in with conspiracy theories.  The explanations of a paranoid person, the minor conspiracies that they spin to explain the daily events of their lives, have at their root the same source as conspiracy theories that deal with Big Events.  They seek to create order from randomness.  Or to be more fair to all involved, they seek to reveal the hidden order behind the apparent randomness.

Remember how paranoia is linked to anxiety?  External events are perceived as more threatening because the observer is anxious, and/or the observer is anxious because of the perceived threats.  Well interestingly, the most fertile breeding ground for conspiracy arises from events which shock the community.   When JFK was assassinated, it tore the fabric of society.  It created a wound that left a permanent scar.  If personal anxiety increases the paranoia that gives rise to personal conspiracy theories, it should be no surprise that events which are wrenching to the community could give rise to the same process.  In short, the event makes people feel so unsafe that they seek an explanation that can maintain some kind of stability and meaning in their lives.  People don’t create or buy in to incredible conspiracy theories because they are stupid or gullible.  They do it because they are scared.  The scarier the event, the more appealing the tidy explanation of a conspiracy theory becomes.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Conspiracies Afoot

If you are a conspiracy theorist, you may have some ideas about why I have promised to look at them in more depth but so far have not done so.  It could be that I have some convoluted plan for promising to take a closer look and repeatedly failing to do so….

Well, take off your tin foil hat and sit a spell because it’s time to talk conspiracies.

While I have established that all conspiracy theories have a few things in common, there is a lot I haven’t explored that is relevant to information and what we make of it.

It is true that all conspiracy theories explain something.  But we should think for a second why this is important.  It is important because we seem to be curious by nature.  We are curious about how and why things work (remember our persistent three year old always asking “why?”).  Conspiracy theories are nothing if not a precise explanation for how and more importantly why something happened.  Usually this means explaining what forces were behind the unfolding of important events.

Important events that seem inexplicable in their magnitude or those whose narrative is full of conflicting reports are fertile ground for conspiracy theories.  This is because the theory steps in to provide the essential ingredient of meaning.  When things happen which cause us to question the world as we thought we knew it, conspiracy theories sometimes help repair the rift.

Conspiracy theories require several components, but the most important is obviously some conspiracy.  This means a group of people acting in concert with a secret agenda toward some common goal.  There are some key requirements here, including INTENT and SECRET COORDINATION.

We’ll start first with looking at INTENT.  Conspiracy theories require that whatever happens, it happened because some group INTENDED for it to happen.  Without intent, you have no conspiracy.  You just have a chain of events.  These events could be a causal chain or a coincidence, but without their occurrence being the result of a plan (intent), you have no conspiracy.

This causes a few problems.  Think back to the problem of determining why anything happens – including why our brains decide to do any given thing at any given moment – and it is clear that intent is a nebulous beast.  Technically it is hard to prove that any of us really has enough control over our own lives to intend something with any certainty.

Still, if we are willing to accept a pretty general view of “intent”, we can assume that people with free will can perform actions intended to bring about consequences.  But these intentions can get fuzzier as the chain of events expands. 

For example, look at a case of criminal intent, say first degree murder.  By definition, 1st degree murder is killing with premeditation.  If you are guilty of 1st degree murder you intended to kill someone and made a plan (and were ultimately successful).

But carry this thought a bit further.  If you murder someone the odds are good that you are going to jail.  While official crime statistics reveal that the rate of solved murder cases has dropped in the US in the last 50 years, it still remains true that you are likely to get caught and sentenced to jail if you kill someone, especially if it is premeditated murder.

So what happens if someone murders someone else and then ends up following the most likely path and gets sent to jail?  Can we say that the murderer intended to go to jail?  After all it was a likely outcome of his behavior and he knew that risk when he decided to kill his victim.  No, establishing intent is actually a very tricky thing to do.  It may very well be that the victim was seeking the punishment, confinement, security, or whatever, of a jail cell when he settled on the illegal act of killing someone else.  Perhaps this was due to some deep seated psychological factor in his life that motivated him to behave in such a way that would lead to his imprisonment.  Or perhaps it was not.  Intent is foggy where human psychology is involved.  When we are trying to establish whether someone intended for something to happen, it is very difficult to separate the intentional outcome from all the associated side effects.  The side effects may be events which are just as real as the intended outcome, but they may have little or no association with the original intent.  Yes, the killer went to jail.  That is an event that happened because he chose to kill someone, but we can not easily describe that as the intent of the initial activity.  Determining intent across a chain of events is increasingly tricky as the chain gets longer.

Consider all of the other predictable and unavoidable consequences of the murderer's actions as well.  For example, the victim’s family we be very sad to learn of the death of the victim.  Now it is possible, depending on the circumstances, that this is also part of the intent of the murderer.  Or it could be something he realizes and regrets but which is outweighed by the impulse to kill the victim.  Or it could be something he realizes but which does not concern him one way or the other.  Or, of course, it could be something that the murderer does not realize at all because he never stops to consider the impact his actions will have on the victim’s family.  Each of these is possible.  And when we get further into examining conspiracy theories, we will revisit this concept. 

But the basic point is that even if we can argue that the consequences could have been easily foreseen by the actor, we can not necessarily ascribe intent to the outcome.   If a student stays out all night partying instead of studying and then later fails an exam, did she intend to fail the exam?  It is an open question.  The answer may be yes or it may be no  It may depend on the individual, but in most cases any ulterior motive of any activity – that is, intent for an outcome beyond the obvious and immediate one – is hard to ferret out with any certainty.

So the same is true with groups.  Beyond the most obvious and immediate results of a coordinated action, it can be hard to decipher real intent.

To really start at the beginning, we need to consider that while we may be able to discern basic intent of individuals, we have not yet established that the same is true of groups.  Can a group act with “intention”?

Just as with the individual, the answer here is yes and no.  When the action is simple and easily measurable (what a scientist may call a discreet variable), intent may be fairly easy to assign.  Take the example of an election.  If 60% of voters choose one candidate over another, it is pretty easy to conclude that these voters, taken as a group, INTENDED for that person to be President, or Mayor or the person who goes and gets lunch today.

Voting is a discreet act.  It is easily measurable as the result of having done something that is very specific and very certain.  In fact casting a vote is the quintessential form of expressing your intent.  I vote for Bob.  It is pretty clear that I intend for my vote to help Bob win whatever post he is running for.  If 1000 people vote for Bob, it is pretty simple to say “1000 people intended for Bob to win the election.”  If 1000 votes comprises a clear majority of the group, it is even acceptable to conclude that, on the whole, the group intended for Bob to win the election.

So groups of people can intend to do something collectively.  Note in this case though that no conspiracy is required.  It is entirely possible for each of the 1000 voters to decide who to vote for and elect a given candidate without any discussion or coordination amongst themselves.  No conspiracy is required in order for a group to act in consort.  Sometimes the coordinated action is simply the result of individual participation.  We’ll call this, “collective action without coordination.”  There is intent, but it is a sort of intent by addition.  The intent of the group is established by adding up the intent of all the individuals.  Still, it is an example of group intent.  So to answer the question, yes, we can at least in some cases establish intent where groups of people are involved.

Now lets look at the other important element of a conspiracy – “secret coordination”.  It is not enough for a group of people to all want the same outcome.  That is just collective agreement (like an election), that is not a “conspiracy”.  Conspiracies rely on both INTENT and SECRET COORDINATION. 

The above example of an election was without any coordination.  Well what if we have coordination among the members of the group, but it is done openly and not in secret?  In this case, what you have is a “campaign”.

There are all kinds of campaigns – political campaigns, environmental campaigns, campaigns to cure disease or end hunger, etc. – but none of these can be described as conspiracies, because the intent (agenda) is all out in the open.  A conspiracy requires a hidden agenda, or what I am calling SECRET COORDINATION.

But how can we know about something if it is secret?  How can we determine if coordination has been taking place if no one is admitting that it is happening?  Therein lies the challenge and excitement of a good conspiracy theory.  Determining the hidden agenda of a private group which denies its own existence is challenging stuff indeed.  But before we go making fun of the concept, we should first establish that in fact just because something is a secret does not make it unknowable.  A secret is nothing more than something that is not widely known (and in most cases is being treated in such a way as to prevent it from becoming widely known).

But to the extent we can learn about anything, we can learn about secrets.  When we talk about “unlocking the secrets of the universe” we are talking about learning the inner workings of our surroundings – things that we have not previously known – things that seem almost intentionally hidden from our understanding.  We learn about them not by examining them directly, but by examining the impact that these forces have on other things.  You can not, for example, see gravity.  But you can see the impact it has on everything we see and touch.  We learn about gravity by observing its behavior.  The secret force of gravity is laid bare by looking not at gravity but at the impact of gravity on our lives.

So a secret thing is potentially knowable.  Even if we may not be able to know exactly what the secret is, we can learn about it by examining the things impacted by its existence.  Scientists call this “evidence”.  The root of the word evidence is the latin verb “videre” meaning “to see” (it is also where we get the word “video”).  “Ex-videns”, out of seeing, is where we get “evidence”.  So seeing the impact of a secret and invisible thing, like gravity, is a perfectly good source of “evidence”.

Let’s take another very simple example.  Let’s say we are watching a basketball game.  Each team has a “game plan” and this in many ways fits the definition of a conspiracy.  It is a secret plan whose details are known only to a small group.  There is INTENT (the desire to ensure a certain outcome – in this case winning the game) and it relies on COORDINATION (the members of the group all supporting or participating in the execution of the plan).   The only reason we may have for calling it a game plan instead of a conspiracy is that neither team will deny its existence.  The willingness of a coach to admit he has a private strategy for facing the other team is enough to turn what would be a conspiracy into simply a private plan.

Now is a great time to touch upon the difference between PRIVACY and SECRECY.

PRIVACY is where you are willing to acknowledge that you are keeping facts or behavior concealed from the outside world (such as what happens in the privacy of our own homes) and SECRECY is when you are unwilling to share even the existence of the activity with the outside world (such as a secret liaison).  It is no secret what newlyweds do on their wedding night.  It is, nonetheless, very private.
So a game plan is really not actually a matter of secrecy but one of privacy.  But to an outsider, except for the fact that no one is denying its existence, a game plan shares a lot in common with a conspiracy.  And this is why it makes a useful example at least to start.

How can we, as fans, tell what the game plan is if we have not been told?  Out of seeing, we can gather evidence.  In other words, we can watch the play of the team.   We can observe the impact the plan has on the behavior of its participants.  Even before the post game analysis and the interview with both coaches, we can learn a lot about what a team is trying to do simply by watching them play.

For example, if every time the opposing superstar touches the ball, he is met with two guys defending him (a “double-team”), we can theorize that the team’s plans involved double-teaming the other guys’ best player. 

This can in turn, tell us something about the coach’s mindset.  The purpose of a double team is to get the ball out of a certain player’s hands. But double-teaming has some downsides.  The most important one is that in a 5 on 5 game of basketball, if you are double-teaming one player you are leaving another player undefended somewhere.  What coaches usually say is something like this, “We may lose the game, but we are not going to let Kobe Bryant beat us.  Let him throw the ball to the open man and see if he can make the shot, but we are not going to let Kobe shoot the ball on us all night”.   Thus, if you know the game of basketball pretty well, simply seeing one guy double-teamed a lot can unlock some of the secret plan (or more accurately “private plan”) the team had for the game.

So when the game begins, we are entirely unaware of the game plan of the team we are rooting for, but we can learn something about their plan simply by watching what they do.  So there you have an example of how you can learn something that is not shared with you (whether secret or private) simply by observation.

There are any number of factors that influence our ability to learn the private game plan of the team.  The most important is knowledge of the game of basketball.  If we aren’t a serious viewer of the game, we may not even recognize a double-team when we see one.  And if we don’t recognize it, we certainly won’t know that it is part of the team’s game plan.  As it turns out, all secrets work like this.  If you want to learn about secrets by watching behavior, you need to know how to interpret the behavior you are seeing.  It is in the interpretation of behavior that conspiracy theories tend to become most colorful, but more on that later.

By now we have established that we shouldn’t reject the idea of learning something just because it is a secret.  If we watch carefully and we know what to look for, we can learn a lot about what is happening without being officially told (as with the game plan) or without being able to see the hidden force directly (as with gravity).

But there is one last element of a conspiracy that needs to be present.  All the COORDINATED activity designed with some INTENT in mind must also be planned in SECRET.  If everyone knows you have a secret plan it is not a secret it is merely private, and that is a competition not a conspiracy.  So just to summarize:

Collective action with no coordination                       ELECTION
Collective action with open coordination                   CAMPAIGN
Collective action with private plan                             COMPETITION
Collective action with SECRET plan                         CONSPIRACY

These concepts can obviously overlap in the day to day world.  Nearly every election involves a campaign (okay, perhaps the office election to see who gets lunch doesn’t have a campaign, but more significant elections do), and most campaigns are forms of competition with those in the other political party or on the other side of an issue.  When a campaign starts to employ private strategies, it is engaged in competition.  And within campaigns and competitions, history tells us that we sometimes see conspiracies.

Conspiracies Exist

It would be comforting if we could debunk all conspiracy theories on the basis that conspiracies are simply paranoid fantasies.  If conspiracies never existed, then all theories about assassinations and alien technologies could be dismissed out of hand.  But history has shown us that sometimes folks really do conspire together.  And the goals of conspiracies are rarely modest.  By the time a group engages in secret planning to affect an outcome, the desired outcome is usually grand enough to justify some of the risk and effort of the conspiracy in the first place.  So the notion of a “grand conspiracy” may be met with initial skepticism just on that basis alone, however, logic dictates that such skepticism is not in and of itself sufficient to dismiss any conspiracy theory.

In fact, as I have alluded to earlier, anyone who approaches conspiracy theories without an open mind is guilty of the same lack of critical thinking that they often accuse the conspiracy theorists of.

But before we get sidetracked with how to debunk or prove a conspiracy theory, let’s look at some actual conspiracies which do occur with some frequency in our modern world.

Racketeering (the operation of an illegal business by a group) is a very real and concrete example of conspiracy.  In order to run an illegal business you need coordinated activity and denial.  That is the very definition of conspiracy.

Covert Operations (missions planned and executed so as conceal the identity and/or permit plausible deniability of the sponsor) are another form of conspiracy.  This is coordinated action towards a defined goal whose existence is officially denied.  That is, once again, a picture perfect definition of conspiracy.

These two examples bring up one of the problems of talking about conspiracies.  In each case there are a number of people for whom the conspiracy is not a secret at all.  In fact, it is their job.  So when we talk about a secret plan, we must always be aware that we need to define “secret from whom?”   If the Director of the CIA is aware of a covert operation, is it a conspiracy?  Not to him.  But if within the CIA there were a private group of agents seeking to undermine the authority of the Director of the CIA, this would be a conspiracy even to him.

In point of practice, we usually informally accept that in the matters of national security, there is a defined group of folks who should be aware of what is going on.  If the CIA is involved in a covert operation which is authorized by the duly elected President of the United States and the designated members of congress have been kept informed at least to some degree of the existence of the operation, we generally say that is not a conspiracy.  It is a “secret operation coordinated by a small group who will deny its existence” and so is technically a conspiracy, but it is directed at a goal which is generally accepted (as symbolized by the involvement of our elected officials), so we don’t usually say that action rises to the level of conspiracy.  It is more of a “ruse” because knowledge of the details, while hidden from the general public, are provided to the representatives of the public.  In this sense, these hidden and deniable plans are closer to private plans than secret conspiracies.  And in fact we have defined a middle ground that sort of encompasses both of these concepts, and we call it a “state secret” – which is to say, something very private whose mere discussion can reveal too much information.  This is why we get into situations where officials will “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of XYZ.  It is something private, but so private that even acknowledging it is not private enough.  Yet denying it is not appropriate either.  It is, in the end, simply “off limits” as a topic of discussion.  Thus, covert operations are not conspiracies, but merely “State secrets”.

 But these secret operations skirt so close to the definition of conspiracy that sometimes a minor change in how they are executed or what results they are intended to achieve can result in a full blown conspiracy.  If for example, the intended outcome is something that the congress has explicitly made illegal, this fact needs to be concealed.  This makes it a conspiracy.  Or if the scope of the operation expands beyond the limits of Presidential authorization and the President is not informed specifically because he would halt the operation if he knew the details, then this becomes a conspiracy.

Throughout the history of our government there are any number of conspiracies which have been uncovered and an unknown number of conspiracies which may have eluded detection.  From the Teapot Dome Scandal, to the Watergate conspiracy, to the Iran Contra affair, we have seen that there is no reason to believe that conspiracies can not take place even at the highest levels of government.  Many other acts of political parties paying bribes to rig elections, secret police actions withheld from those who would not approve, and more garden variety political conspiracies seeking to bring ruin or glory to a prominent figure have all been documented throughout the 19th and 20th century in the US.  It is not my purpose to revisit those findings here.  I am not, for the moment, interested in the details of any particular conspiracy.  What is essential at this time is accepting that the Red Billed Conspiracy is a real animal that can be found in the forest.  It is not a unicorn.  As such, we can not dismiss any conspiracy sightings out of hand on the grounds that conspiracies don’t exist.  If we want to refute a given conspiracy theory, we need to refute it on the basis of the evidence and not on the basis of how preposterous, incredible, or alarming it may seem.

Dissecting Conspiracy Theories in the Lab

If we are going to actually learn enough about a conspiracy theory to debunk it (or perhaps accept it), we need to first examine its inner workings.  We need to take a specimen and dissect it.  Interestingly, no two conspiracy theories are exactly the same, and even between two nearly identical theories, there can be the subtle differences that make them belong to different species.  This is one of the complications we run into when we look at conspiracy theories.  Disproving one on the basis of some fact or premise will not necessarily disprove another closely related theory which does not share that exact same element.  And we can not, scientifically speaking, disprove any given theory simply on the basis of how many closely related cousins have been disproved.  Each theory is unique, and unless it shares the same fatal flaw as another conspiracy theory, each theory must be measured on its own merits.

The Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

The Big Event -- What happened.
The Story -- What the public thinks happened
The Reveal -- What actually happened (the “Truth”)
The Puppet Masters -- Who made it happen
The Grand Plan -- Why they made it happen.

Every conspiracy theory has these elements in common and we’ll now look at them piece by piece under the microscope to get a better appreciation for all the body parts.

The Big Event – In order for a conspiracy theory to be born there has to be an event.  This event is usually of great significance at least to the inventor of the theory. The most popular conspiracy theories center around the truly big events in history.  Take the JFK assassination or the 9-11 attacks for example.  The bigger and more disruptive the event the more likely it will spawn conspiracy theories.  This is not just a coincidence.  Since the primary purpose of a conspiracy theory is to explain something and reveal hidden order from apparent chaos, the more inexplicable the event, the more necessary a conspiracy becomes for some people.   It is very unnerving to live in a world where transformative (and usually horrible) events can take place without warning and for no good reason.  So a conspiracy theory seeks to provide peace of mind by showing how the seemingly random event was not random at all but was in fact part of someone’s plan.  To the conspiracy theorist, it is more comfortable to accept (or imagine) that the world is in the control of others than it is to believe no one is in control.

So in order for a conspiracy theory to come into being, there needs to be some transformative event that requires a theory of order which explains how such a thing occurred.

The Story – Of course, since conspiracy theories explain how what actually happened is different from what a casual observer might think happened, there has to be an acknowledgement of the run of the mill explanation.  This is the “story”.  The story is the recap of what the public has “been lead to believe”.  It is the “official explanation” of how The Event came to pass.  This can include details about events leading up to the big event as well as details about how the event itself unfolded.   For example, any JFK conspiracy will touch upon the fact that we were told only three shots were fired.

Since the story is supposed to be a retelling of the inaccurate but widely accepted explanation of the event, every story contains the groundwork for the explanation of what actually happened (the “truth”).

The Reveal – This is the re-telling of the story with all the official lies and misperceptions stripped out.  This is the shocking drama of every conspiracy theory.  The true unknown tale of what actually happened is usually much more interesting the boring old widely accepted version of events.  A boring conspiracy theory is no one’s friend. If the Reveal is more mundane than the Story, a conspiracy theory will find few converts.  Only a powerful reveal will earn the time and attention of those who seek the Truth.

The Puppet Masters – Every Reveal immediately begs the question, “How could that happen?” and the answer lies with the principle actors involved in the conspiracy.  These are the string pullers who set into motion the chain of events that led to the Big Event.  These are the men behind the curtain, creating reality for others.  If Plato says all truth seekers are damned to watch shadows on the cave wall, these are the people who are conducting the shadow puppet theater.

The Grand Plan – Met with a shocking revelation about what actually happened and who was behind it, any thinking person would normally ask the question, “Why?”  As you recall, “why?” is the big existential puzzle we all face from the age of three.  It is the question that drives our lives forward.  It is also, as explained above, the question that drives the inception of the conspiracy theory.   A conspiracy theory that has no explanation for why things happened the way they did, for what the Grand Plan of the conspirators has been, is only half a conspiracy theory.   The Grand Plan is the explanatory bow that ties up the package into a neat orderly and self contained idea.

Importantly the plausibility of the Grand Plan has everything to do with how well received a conspiracy may be.  If the tale is one of actors who have engaged in a complicated conspiracy toward ends which seem both believable and substantial enough to compel men into all the risks associated with conspiracy, the entire theory takes on an air of plausibility.  But likewise if the Grand Plan seems abstract or untenable, even the most tightly wound conspiracy theory will unravel.  If the entire theory involving international intrigue and bribery and cloak and dagger wet works boils down to one King wanting to ensure his daughter could get a second cup of coffee at the local cafĂ©, the theory collapses under its own weight before anyone is even inspired to inspect its contents.  But if the motivation was purported to be his desire to keep his daughter safe from a false suitor who vowed to destroy the Kingdom, the entire theory makes some amount of sense.  If we can see the pay-off as sufficiently high, the convoluted steps involved in executing the plan become instantly more credible.

Some caution should be exercised here, however.  Just as there are some flimsy motivations for murder which have nevertheless proved to be true, actual conspiracies have been uncovered which involved dubious intentions.  The effort expended is sometimes out of proportion with the reward.  So just because the Grand Plan is unconvincing is not in and of itself enough to disprove a conspiracy theory.