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.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.”
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.”
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)….