Friday, September 01, 2006

On Conspiracy Theories

Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.
Napoleon Bonaparte

There are three members in the chimpanzee family; the common chimpanzee (familiar from Tarzan movies), the bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) and the human. In common with the others, we humans are social apes; we live together in large groups. We outgun our chimp cousins because we are better language-users and tool-makers. Our social organisation is our evolutionary advantage. A single human wandering naked on the African savannah will soon end up as lion-food, but a band of a hundred humans armed with spears is a different matter. Even the lions stay away.

In order to survive in a troupe of chimps, you need to constantly navigate your way through a minefield of elaborate social ritual and hierarchy. Those who could not do so didn’t survive in the long-term; we are all the offspring of the socially adept. Over the course of evolutionary time, our brains have become hard-wired to understand other people’s intentions. So much so, that we cannot help but see intention even where there is none. We do this all the time, even with our machines. When I’m playing chess against the computer, I think ‘It wants to take my Queen’, or ‘It’s trying to force check-mate’. It doesn’t ‘want’ anything, and it is not ‘trying’ anything, because it is a plastic box. But we humans cannot help but think about situations in terms of human mentality, what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘adopting the intentional stance’.

Therein, however, lie the roots of religion.

Our distant ancestors struggled to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes things went well; rain fell, crops grew, healthy children were born and grew up strong, enemies were vanquished. At other times, things went badly. Women failed to conceive, or died in childbirth, or gave birth to sick or dead children. Even healthy children would grow sick and die for no apparent reason. Rain failed to materialise, crops died, floods inundated them. They were beset by thunderstorms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hunger, plague and pestilence, starvation, accidental death and military defeat. The world could be a very hostile place.

In their attempt to make sense of things, their first resort was their brain-wiring: the intentional stance. These things happen because someone wants them to happen. Our ancestors posited the existence of unseen human-like intelligence to explain the events of their lives that could not be explained by the actions of their peers. God was born. Things happen because of the actions of Spirits. Bad things happen because of the actions of Evil Spirits.

If there is someone around who has the power of life and death over you, it would be well to keep them sweet. They can be both a useful ally and a powerful enemy. Gods empower people, give them control over the natural world. With a God, there is nothing one cannot control. Earthquakes can be stopped, rain summoned, disease cured, simply by performing the correct ceremonies, making the appropriate offerings to the appropriate gods at the appropriate times. Just as a child can plead to its parents for more food, an adult can plead to a God for favour. Freud commented that religious belief was a form of infantilism.

People conceived of their gods as human-like consciousnesses, persons who could be appealed to or pleaded with, who essentially occupied a parental role relative to mere mortals, and who may dispense ‘wrath’ or ‘mercy’ as the mood takes them. Due to the fact that random, unpredictable events happen in the natural world, people were forced to conclude that their gods were petulant and fickle, and didn’t always do what they were asked.

We have learned through our own experience that we massively over-employ the intentional stance. Once we started looking into it properly, we found that climate and disease are best explained as blind natural processes – the ‘physical stance’, as Dennett calls it. Often, no-body wants anything. A lot of things happen in the world just by chance.

Species which are not social would probably not have this tendency to think in the intentional stance. If leopards were ever to develop language, I suspect they would all be atheists. Atheists who enjoy horse-racing.

Modern paranoid conspiracy theories have something in common with religions, in that they attempt to explain large-scale phenomena in terms of the intentions of unseen human-like personalities. People’s first port of call in trying to explain a negative social phenomenon is often the intentional stance; to try to attribute it to malevolent intention on the part of some powerful agency; to blame it on someone (other than themselves).

In modern paranoid conspiracy theories, the unseen forces tend typically to be governments (in particular government secret intelligence organisations such as the CIA), multinational corporations, or sinister quasi-religious secret societies, such as the Freemasons, Rosicrucians or Illuminati. Conspiracy theorists generally cite the alleged covert activities of such groups to explain negative social or cultural phenomena - wars, poverty, famine, ill-health and so on.

However, unlike Gods, the conspirators are always malevolent. Conspirators are the Evil Spirits of the contemporary West. Governments never conspire to improve public health; they may act in such a way as to improve public health, but this is never characterised as a conspiracy. A conspiracy entails secrecy and malevolent intent. An important difference between religions and modern conspiracy theories is that the malevolent forces in modern conspiracy theories tend to be absolutely implacable. Gods can be prayed to or appeased, but multinational corporations and government intelligence agencies, although ultimately composed of individual humans, cannot. They are characterised as remorselessly self-seeking.

The idea that actions have unintended consequences is implicitly accepted by radicals when they advocate commercial boycotts. Throughout my early adulthood it was considered socially unacceptable to buy South African fruit. This commercial boycott by the political Left was lifted once the Mandela government took power. One’s intention when buying fruit is to own fruit (or arguably, to eat fruit), not to give financial support to a fascist regime. Giving financial support to a fascist regime may be an unintended consequence of buying fruit. That’s why the Left encourages us to think about where the fruit comes from before we buy it. By doing so, they implicitly accept the idea that we act from imperfect knowledge and that actions have unintended consequences. At the same time they often rely heavily on conspiracy theories to explain the things they don’t approve of.

It is important to distinguish between conspiracies and paranoid conspiracy theories. Conspiracies happen all the time. Someone obviously conspired to destroy the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001. People may argue over who precisely it was, but everyone agrees that someone did. Of course there have been conspiracies throughout history, but these actual conspiracies take place for a limited period, in a particular place, with a limited scope, and the actual conspirators are not possessed of any special knowledge - they are ordinary humans like the rest of us, and their sinister plots often come unstuck. Nadine Milroy-Sloan was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice after she made false allegations of rape against Neil and Christine Hamilton and sold her story to a tabloid. Conspiracy happens every day. That’s why we have laws against it.

Paranoid Conspiracy Theories, on the other hand, tend to propose conspiracies on a superhuman scale. It is not unusual to find an entire theory of history which is founded on the premise that a single group of conspirators have determined the entire course of human history. As a good example, the Illuminati conspiracy is a favourite. It was first popularised in a series of books by Robert Anton Wilson in the 1970s, and most recently revived by Dan Brown. It states that the entire course of human history, at least in the West, has been determined at the whim of a group of super-rich, super-intelligent individuals, including Western intellectual icons such as Newton and Mozart.

Another example might be any kind of post-von Daniken claim that human life was created on Earth by intelligent aliens, who continue to monitor us; that we are, in effect, an exhibit in an alien zoo, or a giant experiment.

Feminism is another good example of a Paranoid Conspiracy Theory. Men, as a class, have systematically suppressed and controlled women for their own ends, across the entire world, ever since the agricultural revolution, which was about ten thousand years ago (e.g. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy).

The problem with any theory such as this is that it gives the conspirators God-like powers; to determine the course of human history they would need to stand outside of it themselves. They would need perfect information, which no one has. They would need virtually unlimited powers of agency, tantamount to omnipotence.

The satanic ritual abuse cases I mentioned before are evidence that governments, far from being the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother of the conspiracy theorists, often engage in acts of wanton stupidity. Reagan used to plan his meetings with the Soviets after consulting an astrologer. As for dubya, need I say more? The people at the top of the political elite are frequently idiots. They simply do not deserve the grandiose claims made for them by paranoid conspiracy theorists.

The source of the paranoid conspiracy theory – what makes it paranoid in fact - is the belief that everything in human affairs has a profound meaning, that nothing happens by chance: over-use of the intentional stance.

In particular, we can use paranoid conspiracy theories to explain things we do not like. Anything that happens which I disapprove of, happens as a result of the deliberate policy of some sinister and powerful vested interest. The conspiracy theorist is not just religious; she is also pessimistic. She does not stop to question why good things happen, or where the things that she approves of came from.

The impulse towards conspiracy theory is a lot like the impulse towards religion; in many ways conspiracy theories are contemporary forms of religion.

A principal feature of such conspiracy theories is that they are insufficiently supported by evidence, and in many cases, the lack of evidence is interpreted as evidence in itself. In the satanic ritual abuse witch-hunt, the investigators interpret the lack of evidence as an indication of how deep the conspiracy goes. This is bordering on the psychotic.

Conspiracy theories have two significant features which make them attractive. They're simple and they're interesting. They portray the world as a very simple place which is easy to understand. They also portray it as a place full of drama and conflict. This in turn suggests to us a course of action. I have a role in the drama, I have a conflict to pursue, and my life therefore has purpose and meaning. The real world is often a good deal less simple, and a lot more mundane.

The paranoid conspiracy theorist permits no mundane explanations (at least not of things she doesn’t like). She hears that men earn more than women (and let’s not forget that the figures are very often biased or deliberately doctored), and immediately that language starts to come out; ‘It must be the result of a conspiracy’ ‘It can only be because men hate women’. In fact, there may be any number of perfectly innocent explanations to hand. However, these are not favoured, because they are not interesting enough.

“Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced” (Carl Sagan, The Demon-haunted world, p25).

The internet is a valuable and entertaining source of conspiracy theories. I came across a theory that the Vatican is deliberately spreading HIV/AIDS around the world. An increase in the spread of AIDS is an unintended consequence of the Vatican’s policy on contraception. To say that the Vatican is deliberately spreading AIDS is simply wrong; at least, there is no evidence for it, and the large-scale death of Catholics would seem not to be in the Vatican’s best interests.

Paranoid Conspiracy theorists have a bad press, which is largely justified. When people talk about 'conspiracy theories' now, they usually mean 'paranoid conspiracy theories', like the Roswell alien landings, or the faked moon landings. These are characterised by :-

(1) The plot is on a very grandiose scale; alien landings would be the most important historical event ever.
(2) The conspirators themselves are grandiose; the conspiracy is always attributed to all-powerful and shadowy ruling elites, generally the CIA, rather than ordinary humans. In terms of strength and power the conspirators are more than human, but morally they are less than human, thus making them demonic (Nathanson and Young)
(3) Most importantly, having no evidence to support them. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the SAS killed Princess Diana, but that doesn't stop people believing it.

Because of paranoid conspiracy theories, people tend to dismiss any allegation of conspiracy out of hand, using the principle of ‘guilt by association’ ("You think there is something suspicious about 9/11? I suppose you think aliens crashed at Roswell as well, do you? I suppose you think the moon landings were faked by Hollywood"). This is a false move. Each case has to be assessed separately on its own merits by examining the evidence, or lack of evidence. (Idea for a meta-conspiracy theory: the CIA deliberately plant a few obviously fake conspiracy theories, like Roswell, in order to put people off the idea that there are any conspiracies, so that they can get on with their real conspiracies unhindered - there must be a novel in there somewhere!)

Whenever you come across a conspiracy theory, what should you make of it? The answer is to treat each one on its own merits, and to look at the evidence. On balance, there is just no evidence to support the claim that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that its wreckage has been stored ever since in a secret US government installation called Area 51. On balance, it seems that the USA actually did land men on the moon in 1969. On balance, it seems that Princess Diana was not assassinated by the British state. On balance, it seems that Guy Fawkes and his friends really were conspiring to blow up the English parliament and assassinate King James I in 1605. The common sense view is usually the correct one. The key is to look at the evidence.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The devil on South Ronaldsay

Another excellent article about the South Ronaldsay witch-hunt can be found at Liberal England