Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 9 May 2011

It was the lizard on the grassy knoll

The almost instantaneous corollary of any high-profile event – from the horror of 9/11 to the raid of 1 May 2011 – is the explosion of conspiracy theories. Okay, so some surprising factoids come to light after such events, but that doesn’t mean every wild idea merits more than a wry grin. Unless you actually work with the Men In Black and have one of those flashy memory things...

There is no doubt conspiracies exist. Richard Nixon, for example, seems certain to have attempted to cover up his involvement in the Watergate burglary. But the fact that genuine conspiracies exist is no warrant to believe they are widespread or to suspend reason in favour of making the implausible appear plausible.

As Sipho Hlongwane pointed out last week, the death of Osama bin Laden has resulted in all sorts of theorising regarding potential conspiracies. The common threads linking these conspiracies are doubts as to when, how and if Osama bin Laden was killed, and that most of those claiming conspiracy have as much information about the events as your average newspaper reader does. In other words, very little.

Because conspiracies have existed, and will no doubt do so in the future, we should be wary of considering all conspiracy theories as obviously insane, deluded or simply the result of a poor analysis of known facts. We’d be committing the fallacy of guilt by association if we were to treat all proponents of such theories as if they were in the same camp as David Icke, who famously believes that a group of reptilian humanoids (including Dubya and Kris Kristofferson) called the Babylonian Brotherhood rule the world.

Instead, we should treat conspiracy theories just as we treat any other theory, by considering whether they are plausible. Christopher Hitchens is said to have described conspiracy theories as “the exhaust fumes of democracy”, which neatly summarises the first problem we encounter in ascertaining plausibility. Thanks largely to the Internet, vast amounts of information currently circulate between equally vast numbers of people, all of whom feel entitled to an opinion on anything.

While these feelings of entitlement have no bearing on the quality of the opinions held, they do tend to exacerbate a problem presented by the widespread availability of information, whereby if you look hard enough, you can find “evidence” to support whatever claim you’re trying to make. Fringe views can appear as robust as mainstream ones, thanks to the democratisation of knowledge and the attention economy.

But the first problem with conspiracy theories, and what separates them from more sober accounts of events, is that they are almost always unfalsifiable. Evidence that contradicts the conspiracy can be explained away through assertions that it’s been fabricated or planted, while evidence for the conspiracy can be treated as reliable, leaving sceptics powerless to debunk the theory in question.

A related problem is confirmation bias, which leads proponents to weigh this evidence in a subjective manner, favouring that which supports their hypotheses. In other words, the alleged facts of the matter make it impossible to refute conspiracy theories, while at the same time the psychological dispositions of conspiracy theorists lead them to give undue credence to one side of the story. To put it simply, a conspiracy theorist often sifts clumsily through the data while  importing pre-existing prejudices into their analysis.

Confirmation bias is not the only heuristic at play. Consider also the fundamental attribution error, which is frequently observed in our attempts to explain the behaviour of others. We tend to give excessive weight to explanations involving dispositions or motivations, while discounting the explanatory role of situational factors. As Micheal Meadon succinctly observed in a comment to the Hlongwane column linked above, “Cock-up before conspiracy”.

More broadly, the point is there are often quite pragmatic – and prosaic – reasons or explanations for what might appear to be a conspiracy. In the Osama bin Laden case, these could include the “fog of war”, and they almost certainly include over-enthusiastic attempts to trumpet a perceived success, before making sure the various spokespersons have the same facts.

And the facts are vital when assessing whether a conspiracy is likely or not. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories seldom stop to think about just how difficult it would be to persuade people of a lie. Again, because we all have access to so much information, your chances of being caught out are very high – and that’s even before considering those who are motivated to uncover your darkest secrets, like Julian Assange.

The number of people who would need to be involved in a large-scale conspiracy should also make us sceptical. There is the possibility of an errant word by a conspirator, and where your conspirators would have to include soldiers, or contractors planting explosives in the World Trade Centre, the risks of exposure seem rather high.

It is also in the interests of each conspirator to defect if there is any chance of a conspiracy being uncovered. Not only because she might fear legal punishment, but also because she can become a tabloid millionaire and an instant hero. Game theory would also imply that the more conspirators there are, the larger each individual conspirator’s incentive is to defect, because somebody is likely to defect and the rewards for doing so would decrease the further down the line you were.

In the Bin Laden case, it is difficult to think of any combination of circumstances that would make a conspiracy a worthwhile gamble for Obama’s administration. If Bin Laden were alive, we would have heard from him the day after he was “killed”, and the chances of Obama being a one-term president would have skyrocketed. And if Obama did want to fake the assassination of Bin Laden, surely he would choose to do so closer to an election, instead of squandering the earned currency at a time of no extraordinary political significance to him?

Occam’s Razor reminds us to make the fewest new or superfluous assumptions when trying to explain events. In this case, explanations involving conspiracy require not only assuming a grand conspiracy, but also an assumption that Obama and his team are unable to compute a quite simple cost/benefit equation. Under the circumstances, there seems very little reason to suppose events didn’t transpire in roughly the way we are told they did.

No matter how unlikely, it remains possible that we are being lied to. But David Hume’s words on miracles might well apply to conspiracy theories also, where he pointed out that the “passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.”

So yes, conspiracy theories are cool. And yes, perhaps we’re all gullible fools, and some of you have access to information we don’t, or are simply smarter. But probably not. And as David Mitchell pointed out in his column for The Observer over the weekend, “If the lizards can get their shit together to that extent, they probably deserve to be in charge of everything”. DM