Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Conspiracy Theories

Since the subject of the Iraq war brought this up (albeit unintentionally), I thought it might be helpful to do a quick examination of the nature of conspiracy theories in general. However, since certain people have a habit of being unable to read anything but instead assume that each paragraph I write must somehow be about them, I’ll explicitly state right now that this entire blog post is not a response to anyone in particular. If you think it’s about you, it’s not.

Then again, I am the conspiracy.

Umberto Eco quotes Karl Popper: “The conspiracy theory of society … comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’” (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, London, Routlege, 1969, iv, p. 123; qtd in Eco, Umberto. Foucault’s Pendulum. 1988. Orlando : Harcourt, Inc. p. 601). And this often does seem to be the case. If we lack divine oversight, we have a void to fill; so we manufacture our conspiracies.

But it doesn’t have to be grand Illuminati-type conspiracies. Eco writes:

Take stock-market crashes. They happen because each individual makes a wrong move, and all the wrong moves put together create panic. Then whoever lacks steady nerves asks himself: Who’s behind this plot, who’s benefiting? He has to find an enemy, a plotter, or it will be, God forbid, his fault (ibid p. 603).
Foucault’s Pendulum is a great book if you want to see how it is possible to generate a conspiracy. It’s actually quite easy to develop a plausible-sounding conspiracy theory (by “plausible-sounding” I mean only that those who do not understand logic will easily fall for it) using simple connections that occur in life, even by accident. These connection are necessary because, at some level, everything actually is connected. In fact, I can offer a challenge of sorts for anyone who wishes to do so in the comments section: Offer up two random facts or two random objects and I guarantee I will be able to find some kind of link between them. It’s very easy to demonstrate this with a quick example of my own: Trees and concrete.

A tree is connected to concrete because a twig looks like a crack in the sidewalk. We can continue the thread. An apple is connected to New York through popular metaphor, but why should that be? Well, New York has concrete sidewalks, and thus it can be linked to a tree. For this reason, New York is also called the “Big Apple”; it is a reference to the original Garden of Eden via apple trees (the traditional fruit Adam ate) and concrete sidewalks.

Now the terrorists attacked New York City because they were representing Adam’s fall from Eden. Since the fall impacted the whole world, they chose the World Trade Center. Since Genesis also mentions such rivers as the Euphrates, which happens to be in Iraq (where the real Eden was located), the New York City Eden was really a faux Eden. Thus the terrorists were purging the world of a fake Eden. This is further documented by the fact that the terrorists also attacked the Pentagon. Why there? Because the Pentagon is a pentagram (an obvious Satanic symbol), and attacking it would demonstrate more fully the real reason for the attack: the metaphoric fall from grace of the Adamic line….

I could continue with the illustration, but need not. Naturally, my usage of the conspiracy terms is weighted toward the Cabalistic mystical version of conspiracies since (God knows I hope this next bit is actually accurate) no one reading this blog would take them seriously, and therefore it should be easier to see the flaws in the “logic.”

The logical problem with all this is the same problem we get when trying to match any specific trait to any specific causal event in biology (or any other science for that matter). I wrote about this earlier in this post where I quoted David Raup (who was speaking about extinction specifically):

Once we have the lists, we must search for common denominators: characteristics shared by most victims but not survivors, or vice versa. This is straightforward, and we have seen the results in the case of mammalian body size. The problem is that organisms have a virtually unlimited number of characteristics that might be important: anatomical, behavioral, physiological, geographical, ecological, and even genealogical. We can compare lists of victims and survivors with so many different traits as we have energy. If the lists are not long, it becomes virtually inevitable that we will find one or more traits that match the lists closely enough for us to make a case.

If we find an interesting correlation by this procedure, we can apply standard statistical tests to evaluate the possibility that the correlation is due to chance alone. Each such test asks, in one way or another, “What is the probability that the random sprinkling of a particular trait among species would, by chance, yield a correlation as good as the one we observe?” If that probability turns out to be very low—say, 5 percent or less—we feel comfortable in rejecting random sprinkling and concluding that the observed correlation is true cause and effect.

The fatal flaw in this logic is that testing cannot be adjusted for the fact that we tried many traits before finding a promising one. Remember that one out of every twenty completely random sprinklings will, on average, pass our test if odds of twenty to one are considered acceptable—as is common in scientific research. Because it is virtually impossible to keep track of the number of traits we have considered—many were discarded at a glance—we cannot evaluate the test results for any one trait.

This problem is not unique to paleontology, or to science either. If you have difficulty accepting my reasoning, try some experiments yourself. Take some baseball statistics or election results or anything that will provide a list of winners and losers. Fifty or a hundred results should be adequate. Then inspect the list to see what characteristics the winners or the losers have in common. The pattern does not have to be perfectly consistent—a statistical tendency is enough—and you are free to change the ground rules as you go along. You can even redefine winner and loser if this will help. Pay special attention to the smaller category of outcomes. For example, you may wish to compare characteristics of first-place baseball teams with those of all other teams. The shorter list (first-place teams) is more likely to have things in common than the longer list. If so, you may be able to venture conclusions like “Most managers (or all, if you are lucky) of first-place teams are firstborns, whereas managers of other teams follow the national average.”
This problem permeates conspiracy theories. We can find connections between a small list (the conspirators) and a big list (all the events in the world) and draw any sort of conclusions we want. “George Bush was in Skull & Bones; so was John Kerry; therefore the 2004 presidential election was rigged by the Skull & Bones Society.”

Yet when we take any two individuals, it’s easy to find characteristics that are common to them that are not common to the majority of people. For instance, the majority of people do not have bald heads; Vin Diesel and Paul Manata have bald heads; therefore, we have established some kind of correlation between the two of them even if that correlation is meaningless. Because we automatically reject all the non-compatible traits, we don’t even have to think about them: Vin Diesel is an actor; Paul Manata is a blogger. This doesn’t help us correlate the two individuals, therefore we don’t think about these two traits.

The problem is, unless we account for the traits that don’t match, we cannot determine the statistical likelihood that the traits that do match are actually meaningful traits. Suppose that there is a 1 in 20 chance that a trait between two people will match but will do so for completely random reasons, not implying any true correlation. Diesel and Manata have a trait in common. Is this part of the 1:20 chance of random correlation, or is this a significant trait commonality? Without knowing the totality of traits involved (which, as shown above, we largely ignore when they don’t match) it is impossible to determine if there is a meaningful correlation.

So consider: Cheney worked at Haliburton. Haliburton is offered a contract in Iraq. There’s a linkage there, but is it meaningful? Haliburton happens to be one of the only companies that can do what Haliburtan does. Is the contract due to Cheney or due to the company’s purpose for existing? Without knowing all the things that do NOT imply correlation, we cannot determine whether the Cheney-Haliburton link is statistically meaningful or just a random correlation.

Raup offered his own example, which I summarized in my previous blog post:

Raup gave a tongue-in-cheek example using the World Wide Atlas from Readers Digest’s 1984 edition to demonstrate that the most populous cities begin with letters in the last half of the alphabet, therefore people tend to flock towards cities that have this attribute. The data is simple. The seven most populous cities (in 1984) were: Tokyo-Yokohama, New York City, Mexico City, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Sao Paulo, Seoul, and Moscow. All of them start with letters in the M-Z range of the alphabet. The next seven cities, however, were: Calcutta, Buenos Aires, London, Bombay, Los Angeles, Cairo, and Rio de Janeiro. Of these, only Rio de Janeiro does not fit the pattern. Thus, Raup states (again, tongue-in-cheek): “The statistical likelihood that this was caused by chance alone is so small that rejection of a hypothesis of randomness is routine. Cause and effect is clearly indicated (p. 99).”
What does this tell us of conspiracy theories in general then? Mainly, conspiracies are built entirely on unsubstantiated linkages between people, events, dates, et al. and you cannot tell the difference between a legitimate link and a random link due to the fact that all things are inherently related (if, for no other reason, than the fact that all things exist and are perceived by the mind of the one inventing the conspiracy theory). Secondly, a good conspiracy must never reveal itself, for a conspiracy revealed is an impotent conspiracy. Thus, conspiracies must always be small and, as a result, completely impotent. This paradox—a conspiracy must be impotent if it is to refrain from being impotent—is part of the reason it’s so irrational to believe in conspiracies. If they were actually capable of doing something, the conspirators would stand out from the background noise of regular random events, and since the goal of any conspiracy is to remain undetected, conspirators must limit themselves to acting only when it is plausible that something other than the conspiracy acted. Which only begs the question: if the conspiracy could have piloted planes into the World Trade Center, but Islamic terrorists are more than willing to do the same thing, for what intellectual reason must we hold to the conspiracy?

Finally, conspiracies are almost always invoked as a way to put some agent in control of the chaos. Denying God’s sovereignty, random actions serve no purpose. If a tree falls on me in the forest, it’s so unlikely that it obviously must have been pushed by someone who cleverly remained hidden from view. Perhaps George Bush used an NSA satellite with a laser beam to cut the tree and make it fall on me. It’s better to be the victim of an agent than the victim of a random quantum flux. So if the tree falls on me, who benefits? Obviously the doctors do. So they must be in collusion with Bush (Bush is a given for any proper conspiracy theory). Perhaps my coworker who insulted me yesterday is in on it too. As is Greenpeace, because trees falling on me demonstrate Global Warming. Therefore, they caused it.

While this example is ridiculous, it’s no less sound than saying: If there is war in Iraq, who benefits? Obviously the oil companies benefit, because they can go to Iraq and steal the oil there. Obviously the terrorists (read: Marine Corps) benefit because they get a recruiting tool. Obviously Bush benefits because of the surge in patriotic behavior (although we were smart enough to neutralize this, and now it’s too late for him to alter his mistake). Obviously the military R&D folks benefit because they can go out and test weapons that they wanted to test. Obviously the ammo suppliers benefit, as do hospitals who care for the wounded, and morticians everywhere. But the state benefits the most because it can trample on everyone’s rights without anyone caring. Therefore, they caused it.

Anyone can correlate anything. But a twig on a branch is not a crack in the sidewalk no matter how similar they look. There is no great crack-inducing conspiracy (other than the Freemasons, of course…which includes the Skull & Bones Society, come to think of it)….

7 comments:

  1. Steve Jackson9/27/2007 7:07 AM

    Peter,

    True enough. But I bet Louis 16th would have laughed in 1788 that there was a conspiracy against him.

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  2. I would observe that there are conspiracies, which I can because I've been involved in little ones. However, conspirators are typically as good at covering their tracks as they are at conspiring. Your point is very good in that whether there are conspiracies or merely kooky theories (which is more often the case), God is yet sovereign.

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  3. I will take up the conspiracy challange. Here are two events: Heaven and Hell opened up their concert with the song (instramental) E5I50 last Saturday. And Andrew Jackson (the former president) believed the earth was flat. The first I know from experience and the last one my history teacher taught me.

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  4. Jim wrote:
    ---
    I would observe that there are conspiracies, which I can because I've been involved in little ones.
    ---

    Actually, this was part of my point. Little conspiracies are possible, but the big conspiracies people sensationalize aren't. A conspiracy can be vast only if it doesn't do anything vast; or it can be pinpointedly specific as long as it isn't continuous. A huge conspiracy is immediately obvious because it sticks out from the everyday random events that occur--if all fifty witnesses testifying against a mob boss suddenly die, it's fairly obvious this wasn't accidental. Likewise, if a small and localized conspiracy continues too long it's obvious too: if my TV reception goes out every time my neighbor points some kind of device at my house, but not when he doesn't, the correlation becomes obvious.

    The only way a conspiracy can work is if it remains small scale. If it has results that are large scale, it's immediately obvious that there was a conspiracy involved. And a disclosed conspiracy doesn't do the conspirators any good (else why would they need the conspiracy in the first place?).

    In any case, to answer Vytautas's challenge attempt, it should first be noted that part of the reason that a link can always be made is because a link could be anything that correlates. For fun, this time I'll provide a numerological correlation.

    For instance, we can number the English alphabet where A = 1, B = 2, ... Y = 25, Z = 26. Since E = 5, and the song title is E5I50; the E5 shows us that the numerological approach is warranted. Thus:

    HEAVEN AND HELL = 111
    ANDREW JACKSON = 138
    FLAT EARTH = 91

    Now HEAVEN AND HELL could also be arranged as HEAVEN + HELL; which = 92.

    This must be the prefered method, for everyone can see that HEAVEN + HELL is only 1 greater than FLAT EARTH (92 > 91 by 1). Since I50 is clearly not related to the alphabet (as I = 9, not 50) I more likely refers to the Roman numeral I, which gives us the difference between HEAVEN + HELL and FLAT EARTH.

    That we are on the right track is indicated by the fact that 91 + 92 = 183, which is an anagram of ANDREW JACKSON (138). In fact, we are simply reversing the last two digits, which we have reason to do because the 50 in E5I50 is obviously the ASCII equivalent to 2. (Note that the 50 is the last two digits of E5I50 too, providing verification for this.)

    Numerology is obviously the correct way to go on this. Jackson was the 7th president, and 7 is the number of perfection (or Heaven). When Jackson was 13 years old, a British soldier struck him with a sword because Jackson refused to polish the English soldier's shoes. 13 - 7 = 6, and 6 is the number of hell; it should also be noted that Jackson survived 13 duels, another omen.

    Therefore we have numerology verifying that Andrew Jackson's belief in a flat earth was the inspiration for Heaven and Hell's song E5I50. (Note that this is true even if the facts Vytautas gave us are completely wrong.)

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  5. I find it interesting that people on the far-right feel compelled to blunt or play down any realities that might be used to assign responsibility for serious blunders occuring in the Bush administration. Almost like it's their job.

    How could it be that these knights in shining armor who profess alone to holding all virtues of men in America ever be sullied by moderates or, God forbid, liberals who seek to prove that the knights were having us on all the time.

    What heretical thoughts. How dare these people doubt our leaders?

    There is a huge difference between conspiracy and fact.

    And, the important point here is that nobody in this country cares a flip about conspiracies. We are interested in what did and is taking place: we're after the facts.

    The fact is that Cheney has had the closest of ties to the American oil industry going back before Bush Senior. While Secretary of Defense under the current president's father he orchestrated the invasion of Iraq. Lest anybody be fooled, it wasn't for humanitarian reasons or for the hummus--it was for resources. He did it again, using 9/11 as a springboard, under this president. But don't take a moderates word for all this. Check the facts. Take time off from Bill O'Reilly and the Murdoch mind control machine to do some research on your own to uncover Cheney's history and the ties he has to the oil industry. I'll make it easy for you, just start with Google and you'll have 10,000 sites to choose from who have dug data.

    What's next? Will we hear of the denial of real corruption seeped within the Republican base as if it's impossible to think that they could be responsible for ill? That they don't actually walk the talk after all? The making of rules which they don't feel compelled to follow themselves? The removal of checks and balances so needed to keep corporations in line? The willingness to corrup the legislative and judicial systems to suit only their needs and not what is in the best interest of the country?

    What is laughable here is that irrespective of what hard evidence is given to ultra-cons of the ill that ultra-cons are responsible for they will rarely (if ever) own up.

    Why is it that you can spew venom about homosexuals in this country and yet strangely remain silent when it comes to prominent Republicans who are gay, like Cheney's daughter?

    Where's your placards and banners denouncing that?

    What people on the extreme right cannot grasp, particularly christians, is that the GOP could not possible have anything but the best interest of the people in this country as a motive for everything they do.

    Most Americans, finally, have picked up on the real ill that the Bush administration is responsible for, but there will always (and I mean always) be those for whom facts will not sway their steadfast trust in Republicans.

    This, to me, is amazing.

    Hillary, like Kerry before her, is a gigantic threat to this country (Sauve que peu!!!). Let's just never mind that the clown that's in there right now has spent more money and done more damage to this country than any five presidents put together.

    But, we'll try not to think or talk about that (certainly not in public), it's too painfull.

    Barry

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  6. Barry wrote:
    ---
    Take time off from Bill O'Reilly and the Murdoch mind control machine to do some research on your own to uncover Cheney's history and the ties he has to the oil industry (emphasis added).
    ---

    Yes, your denial of conspiracies is shining through.

    Barry said:
    ---
    I'll make it easy for you, just start with Google and you'll have 10,000 sites to choose from who have dug data.
    ---

    Yes, and if you Google "Jewish conspiracies" you get 2,130,000 matches. OMG IT MUST BE TRUE!!!!

    barry said:
    ---
    What is laughable here is that irrespective of what hard evidence is given to ultra-cons of the ill that ultra-cons are responsible for they will rarely (if ever) own up.
    ---

    A) The correct word to use is "irregardless" not irrespective (haven't you been paying attention???) :-P

    B) I find it ironic that you're criticizing people who label others on the political spectrum when all you've done is call me a neocon and, now, an ultra-con.

    C) I'd love to see "hard evidence." I'll I've sene is your tenuous linking of random events and pretending that those links are meaningful rather than DEMONSTRATING that they are meaningful. Re-read my post, Barry. You're looking like an idiot.

    BTW, I totally dig how you try to link Christians, the GOP, Cheney's gay daughter, Murdoch, Hillary, and Kerry all into your same argument. I'd give you an honorary PHD in Conspiriology (PHD = Piling it Higher and Deeper, of course).

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  7. Great post!

    It's of special interest to me as I grew up with a family steeped in such theories. They're issues I still wrestle with.

    CMA

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