Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


By way of Andrew Sullivan, there’s this report from Scientific American about the psychology of conspiracy theorists. Key lines:

while it has been known for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton found in a recent study. Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England, found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time

Contradiction is in the mind of the beholder. They are ignoring the possibility that President Obama, dissatisfied with the poor progress of the minions he had been able to hire to destroy America (he’s a stickler for benchmarks) sent a Kenyan voodoo strike team into Pakistan to resurrect Osama bin Laden, who had already been garroted personally by George W. Bush (in one of the many top secret missions he carried out while his body double cleared brush on the ranch).

The next president will not only have a $20 trillion debt to cope with, he’ll also have to take out an undead al Qaeda leader.

There’s nothing really new here. It has often been noted that Kennedy assassination conspiracy enthusiasts simultaneously hold the opinion that, for example, Lee Harvey Oswald was framed to look like the assassin, and yet that the mastermind who set him up gave him a gun that couldn’t possibly have hit the target at that range. (Doesn’t the CIA know anything about rifles?) It’s common to have conspiracy theories turn on “clues” that can only have been intentionally laid by someone inside. It’s a common film plot, the master criminal toying with the investigators by giving out clues, or a conscience-striken conspiracist leaving a clandestine trail, in the hopes that someone will rescue him (and the world). Taken to its absurdist limit you get Paul is Dead.

I generally suppose that conspiracy is a feeling rather than a theory. It’s the feeling that even a  malign intelligence ordering our fates is preferable to no order at all. Mixed with that is the thrill of gnosis, the pleasure of penetrating the veil of appearances that ordinary mortals mistake for reality. Conspiracy is built from scraps of fact in the same way that wasps may build a nest from scraps of a physics textbook. It takes the form of a logical argument purely for the emotional kick that logic provides.

There’s a useful analogy to other world views that seem to be based on beliefs, like ethnic nationalism, or fundamentalist religion. It seems strange that German and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists can get together to drink beer and celebrate the Führer’s birthday together, when there appears to be a contradiction between the central claims that Germans (resp. Ukrainians) are superior to all others (and that among Hitler’s great accomplishments was murdering many Ukrainians). But they share the essential feeling of nationalism, so they can party together, and leave the dominance hierarchy in Europe for the future. And fundamentalist Muslims and Christians — and on a good day Jews and Hindus — can come together to support blasphemy laws, even though each religious community actually does think the beliefs of the other are risible, if not positively evil.

The Sci Am article goes on to suggest

Since a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control, a likely purpose of this bias is to help people “make sense of the world” by providing simple explanations for complex societal events — restoring a sense of control and predictability

It then goes on to cite the hoax theory of global warming, which doesn’t seem apropos. The idea that thousands of scientists are conspiring to mislead the public about climate change isn’t simpler. What makes it attractive is that it’s a complex human story, rather than a complex physical story. And it has the added advantage of counseling inaction, which is always attractive.

Some earlier comments on the interaction between the conspiratorial style and science policy here.

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