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Lacking Control Increases Magical Thinking
October 5, 2008 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Of Jock Straps and Conspiracy Theories. A new study looks at how lacking control increases the tendency for magical thinking and illusory pattern perception. [Via]
posted by homunculus (87 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.

Or, perhaps some people trash magical thinking for faith, where you give up control to a higher power. That takes a little more effort than magical thinking, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2008


It's hard to shake all that Golden Bough rites and practical magic and stuff. At least we don't put menstruating women in cages lest they kill the corn spirt. Right?
posted by The Whelk at 2:49 PM on October 5, 2008


Or, perhaps some people trash magical thinking for faith, where you give up control to a higher power. That takes a little more effort than magical thinking, though.
That's like 'trashing' (an odd word to use in the context) the making of sandwiches for making three-course meals instead.

At least we don't put menstruating women in cages lest they kill the corn spirt. Right?
Well, not as such, but there are a lot of things we do do, individually and collectively, that are prompted by the exact same kind of unreasoning. The major point of the articles is that correlation is found whether it exists or not. This is as true of you and I as it is of the superstitious corn-growers.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:57 PM on October 5, 2008


The major point of the articles is that correlation is found whether it exists or not.

i have faith that the correlation exists.
posted by CitizenD at 3:00 PM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


The major point of the articles is that correlation is found whether it exists or not. This is as true of you and I as it is of the superstitious corn-growers.

Exactly, Modern variant, it appears to be the drive behind most conspiracy theories.

I would like to file a big report
posted by The Whelk at 3:09 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


A big bug report?
posted by homunculus at 3:26 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, this explains in part why the poor-- who, logically speaking, given their position, would seem on the face of it to be likely to have the least faith, given their own experiences of unfairness and a lack of relationship between goodness and good outcomes-- tend to be more religious.

It probably has to do with how fear shuts down the cortex, too.
posted by Maias at 3:35 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other.

oh, good i'm glad all this complex human behavior fits onto a neat one dimensional line
posted by nangua at 3:36 PM on October 5, 2008 [10 favorites]


The studies are very interesting. (Psychology Today is a little annoying, although they did a good job summarizing the studies.)

I think that we may have this tendency when reading or talking about crimes or situations in which someone has no control. We think, oh, I wouldn't be in that situation because X, Y. Or, I would do A, B, C so that that wouldn't happen to me. Sometimes jurors vote against victims in court (e.g. sex harassment or sexual assault) because they think that a smarter/ saavier/ more street smart/ safer/ fill in the blank person (like themselves) would avoid the bad thing.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 3:36 PM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


NPR'S TotN did a segment on this.
posted by The Straightener at 3:47 PM on October 5, 2008


Consider two buttons equipped for shock and treat delivery. Lever A gives food 80% of the time but shocks 20% of the time. Lever B gives shocks 80% of the time, but food 20% of the time. A rat will quickly learn that only lever A is interesting. A human will perpetually experiment with lever B, trying to learn the patter, and doing much worse than the rat. And this is the source of all religion.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2008


From the PT article:

Future research will explore whether lacking control increases non-illusory pattern perception. Are powerless people better at spotting very subtle patterns that others miss?

powerlessness is the new spice.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:59 PM on October 5, 2008


Great post homunculus! Fascinating reading. Am enjoying learning about what an affordance and embodied cognitive science are.

Adding the Just-world phenomenon and the concept of Bicameralism to this thread.

Jaynes' case for bicameralism:
"At one time, human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was Consciously aware."

"Jaynes theorized that a shift from bicameralism marked the beginning of introspection and consciousness as we know it today. According to Jaynes, this bicameral mentality began malfunctioning or "breaking down" during the second millennium BC. He speculates that primitive ancient societies tended to collapse periodically (as in Egypt's Old Kingdom and the periodically vanishing cities of the Mayas) due to increased societal complexity that could not be sustained by this bicameral mindset. The mass migrations of the second millennium BC created a rash of unexpected situations and stresses that required ancient minds to become more flexible and creative. Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the culturally evolved solution to this problem. Thus cultural necessity (that of interacting with migrating tribes, or surviving as a member of such) forced humanity to become self-aware or perish. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity."

I've thought it odd when people who are mathematically gifted or otherwise mature appearing become magical thinkers.

It makes sense to me that feeling out of control triggers magical thinking. On rare occasions of intense anxiety or fear, I imagined that doing certain things, sitting in one seat rather than another, putting one foot first etc. would effect the outcome. That bothered me a state of emotional frailty or fear would provoke irrationality because it seems so counter-productive.
posted by nickyskye at 4:00 PM on October 5, 2008 [6 favorites]


I've been tending to think many, if not most, people on some level immensely fear control over their own lives, or freedom. To some degree this is necessary - I don't want people to have the freedom to stab me on a whim so I accept similar restrictions on my own freedom. (People's moral judgments represent their desire to control, and nothing more. - Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America. I will frankly admit my moral judgment against, say, torture, represents a desire to control people so they don't torture.)

But it seems to go farther. Freedom, control over your own life, means making decisions (working with or under the illusion of free will here - that's a whole 'nother discussion.) Making decisions is hard - I often have a hard time figuring out what to eat for dinner, never mind what to do with my life. Making decisions also means that you can make the wrong decisions and it's your fault. Scary! Far easier to abdicate much of the decision-making to various other agencies - lower-level impulses, like a lower animal, this magical thinking (if the magic doesn't work, the magic wasn't strong enough. Not your fault.), addictive/self-destructive behaviors, governments, churches, laws, advertising, societal pressures. If your life sucks then, not your fault.

Some degree of this is pretty much necessary to live - there's only so long I can control my low-level impulse to breathe so if I want to permanently stop breathing I have to do more than merely hold my breath until I die. In the summertime I put on much of my clothing before going outside not because it's useful or pleasant, but because the nudity taboo would get enforced on me if I didn't.

In the end, though, freedom generally can't truly be abdicated entirely. To illustrate - after some thought on this stuff, so it was on my mind, I stopped by a party to see a friend. Just being there for a short time, I was wondering if I ought to have a beer or not. I ended up playing with this concept by trying to really consciously give up my free will on that decision. I ask my friend "Should I have a beer? I mean this as in here's my free will and you get to make the decision for me." My friend, being awesome, says "I won't decide for you." Thusly defeated, I ended up having the beer as it afforded me the ability to jokingly say "You just owned the shit out of me. I need a beer."

All this just drives home the point that no matter what she had said, as long as she didn't physically restrain me and force beer down my throat, it was still my choice to comply with her or not even as I tried to let her make the decision. See this writ large when people adopt a morality based on legality - if it's legal, it's right, if it's illegal, it's wrong. This is easier than trying to arrive at something approaching a half-decent morality and it's another example of trying to give up control - but really they're not getting around having to construct their own morality, they're just doing a really shitty job of it. As Rush, also being awesome, said "if you chose not to decide, you still have made a choice." Wisdom.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 4:02 PM on October 5, 2008 [6 favorites]


I won't trust this study until I know who's really behind it!
posted by rokusan at 4:03 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


That Jaynes stuff reminds me just enough of the backstory in Snow Crash to make me suspicious of it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:13 PM on October 5, 2008


Control is an illusion.
posted by tkolar at 4:14 PM on October 5, 2008


Republicans are magical thinkers.

Just learned the word pareidolia reading about apophenia. So interesting.

"As narrative is one of our major cognitive instruments for structuring reality, there is some common ground between apophenia and narrative fallacies such as hindsight bias. Since pattern recognition may be related to plans, goals, and ideology, and may be a matter of group ideology rather than a matter of solitary delusion, the interpreter attempting to diagnose or identify apophenia may have to face a conflict of interpretations."

I can see some purpose of pareidolia in trying to figure out something which is puzzling. In a puzzle one looks for patterns, which offer up solutions. Intuiting patterns may be an attempt to arrive at a swifter solution, rather than plodding through a process of elimination or logical strategy.

Such wonderful Sunday evening contemplations. Thanks again homunculus.
posted by nickyskye at 4:18 PM on October 5, 2008


nickyskye, there's a whole pareidolia group on flickr.
posted by mandal at 4:32 PM on October 5, 2008


nickyskye, there's a whole pareidolia group on flickr.
posted by mandal at 4:32 PM on October 5, 2008


There is clearly some hidden meaning in mandal's double post.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:34 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


As people lose control, they start to believe in conspiracy theories...
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 4:53 PM on October 5, 2008


Somewhat of a semantic and pop-culture derail, but I have long had a problem with the phrase "conspiracy theory" used simply as a catch-all pejorative. The negativity around the phrase often acts in discussion like a magic bullet, or like a red herring for those who would rather not sift through the sometimes detailed complexities and contradictions of specific evidence on a given topic.

The phrase is too often used as a simple way to attempt to dismiss anyone and everyone who dares to question the consensus, status quo or facts surrounding a given historical event or series of events. Sometimes this kind of dismissal is indeed warranted, as there is no short supply of easily deflated conspiracy afloat, but often it is not. For instance, not everyone who has an interest in the JFK assassination is in fact a raving lunatic. A lot of very intelligent people have taken an interest in it over the years, just as a lot of intelligent people have an interest in reading Sherlock Holmes or watching Unsolved Mysteries.

The CT phrase and "tinfoil" stereotype is frequently applied in a broad-brush way simply to denigrate anyone who is asking questions. Again, I have no doubt that extreme paranoia is sometimes one indication of mental illness, and I have no doubt there are individuals who indulge in conspiracy simply to make a kind of desperate sense of the world, but I also believe the opposite extreme--i.e. extreme naivete or gullibility about the way the world works--is an equally disabling disease. Professional con artists have no shortage of marks in this world, and we are living through an era of intense governmental secrecy and deception. The entire Cold War clandestine complex, replete for almost 50 years with shadowy spook wars and defections, was a kind of institutionalized conspiracy: a great deal of which remains classified.

I have long felt that a little informed, intelligent paranoia about persons in positions of power acts as a healthy antidote to believing everything one reads or is told.

The term "conspiracy" is after all also a legal term: one reads of people being sentenced for it all the time. In the simplest sense anytime two or more people agree to act secretly and in concert to deceive others or commit a crime, whether that crime is insider trading, grand larceny, rig an election, smuggle drugs, dump a body, or even knowingly planting false information in news outlets in order to shape public opinion, then a conspiracy can be said to have taken place. For instance, we know that organized crime exists, and acknowledging this is acknowledging that groups of people are conspiring to commit crimes.

If we take the pejorative baggage away from the phrase CT, it might help us to understand that behind every crime involving more than one person lurks a conspiracy. If we further look through the history of human affairs we see ample evidence that wherever and whenever there has been unchecked power there has been intrigue, backstabbing, dirty dealing, plotting and counter-plotting, espionage, etc. In short, there has been conspiracy.

posted by ornate insect at 5:01 PM on October 5, 2008 [17 favorites]


So, my buddy is a running a restaurant on Seattle's eastside in fall of 1995. Seattle-ites know that this was the time of the great Seattle Mariners "refuse to lose" run toward the baseball playoffs.

One night, after a Mariners win, my buddy comes home and says, "You'll never guess who came into the restaurant after the game -- Lou Pinella. He was there with a bunch of his coaches."

"If they win again tomorrow, they'll come in again. Same group, same time, everything the same."

"Why?" he said.

"Because you don't mess with a streak. They won, they came in. If they win again, they'll come in again."

Sure enough, the next night, the Mariners win again. Thinking ahead, my buddy prepares their same table, with the same cute waitress, same drinks ready and everything.

Bingo. In walks Pinella and his coaches, right on cue.

I like to think that was my teeny-tiny role in the Mariners' success that year.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:09 PM on October 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


Re: conspiracy theories -- I have enough '90s damage to have read a few, but what I eventually came away with was the disturbing realization that, generally speaking, things are exactly the way they seem to be. A few weeks ago, MeFi had a long conversation about whether John McCain wasn't some tactical mastermind, outsmarting the democrats at every turn with his unpredictable chess moves. Now it's very clear that the reasons his moves appeared to be random was that he had no idea what in the fuck he was doing. When a person behaves erratically, that they have no idea what in the fuck they are doing is a very rational conclusion vis a vis their behavior. But it's also terrifying. I mean, it's good in this case for the Obama campaign, because whoooo wakka wakka crazy old fart. But in the grand scheme of things, people whose actions affect our daily lives seem most comforting to us when we imagine them to be brilliant masterminds, even evil ones. We like to imagine that the people who run the world have some deeper understanding of it than we do. What's scary is that often their understanding of it all is even murkier than our own.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:11 PM on October 5, 2008 [8 favorites]


Professional con artists have no shortage of marks in this world...

I agree that most of what you're saying is true, that there is a broad brush, and that there is such a thing as healthy skepticism.

I think you miss one point, in that much of what we call "conspiracy theory" IS a con, and it's aimed at those types of people who have the specific aspect of gullibility that dictates that there simply MUST be more than meets the eye, no matter how well-explained the subject is. This style of gullibility pushes the conversation into "prove a negative" land. As in, "how can you prove that UFOs do not exist? Huh, buddy? Huh, Mr. Smart Guy? What do you have to say now?"

I say that's a logical fallacy, of course.

The ones "hiding evidence" are not the only professional cons. There are plenty of cons "inventing evidence" or "stretching the truth to incomprehensibility" to find and sway gullible marks. Authors and publishers of JFK assassination books, for example, do it because they have identified a market in which they can earn a profit. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent consuming media that continues to underscore the myths surrounding the event.

THAT is the meaning of the real extreme naivete or gullibility.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


kittens for breakfast--this is exactly that kind of false dichotomy that drives me bonkers. We don't have to choose between believing in a total, all encompassing conspiracy and pure randomness.

For instance, McCain's friends in the Keating 5 scandal were conspiring to commit financial crimes. So too were those involved in the still intriguing BCCI banking scandal, or Neil Bush at the S&L Silverado. White collar crime like Enron is one instance where we know conspiracy has taken place.

It seems clear for example that Cheney and Enron attempted to manipulate the California energy market to enrich themselves, or that Cheney and Bush conspired, as the Downing Street Minutes revealed, to cook the Iraq WMD intelligence--and also, as the Scooter Libby trial showed, to out Valerie Plame as payback for her husband's NYT op-ed.

Similar examples of conspiracy linked to specific events, even events still fresh in the public mind, are not hard to come by.

The default mode of certain psychopathic people in positions of power is to lie, conspire, commit crimes, cover up.

The fact that a given politician runs a crappy campaign does not by logical extension tell us much of anything about the dubious "meta" issue of "conspiracy" as a whole. Indeed, it is a logical fallacy to make such an extension.

posted by ornate insect at 5:25 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


generally speaking, things are exactly the way they seem to be

Watergate.
Operation Gladio.
MKULTRA.
COINTELPRO.
Operation Northwoods.
CIA cocaine smuggling.

These are just off the top of my head from the 20th Centuray and mostly American. But I'm sure that today things are different and there are no conspiracies anymore.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:27 PM on October 5, 2008 [16 favorites]


Authors and publishers of JFK assassination books, for example, do it because they have identified a market

Believe it or not, some authors of some books about this particular topic were not motivated simply to make a fast buck. Some authors actually were interested in trying to sift through the information to figure out what happened. It's really, really misleading to say that all authors on that topic were merely spinning yarns.
posted by ornate insect at 5:30 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the link mandala mandal.

Without knowing the concept of pareidolia, I'd posted about it before,
Projecting human attributes, but I thought of it then as only anthropomorphizing, not so much about seeing patterns.

And thank you for your excellent comments ornate insect. Dang, I didn't think about conspiracy being a legal term. It was just used in the most recent OJ case.

Most of life seems to operate with a team of people working together to do something and they determine a plan of action, together, whether this is running a hospital, a school, a business, an administration, a corporation. Why is it accepted that a team of people can decide something for the better and that is not considered delusional? But when the motivation for an action is called into question or the action by that team is considered negative, it is then considered a conspiracy theory? It's not so much masterminding something, but setting out a goal as a team and accomplishing it. A planning strategy.

My experience with conspiracy is that around pathological narcissists there are usually groups of people who act as extensions of the narcissist's will. On the malignant level any dictator will do as an example eg Stalin and the group of people who helped him slaughter 40 million of his fellow citizens. On the lower level would be Enron or Lehman.

That said, it is possible for a person's distrust to go pareidolic, magical, paranoid, irrational and become inexact. The momentum of distrust, or trust for that matter, seems to have the power on occasion or with certain people, perhaps under certain circumstances, to push rational thinking into sloppy or magical thinking.
posted by nickyskye at 5:43 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


The fact that a given politician runs a crappy campaign does not by logical extension tell us much of anything about the dubious "meta" issue of "conspiracy" as a whole. Indeed, it is a logical fallacy to make such an extension.

Well, okay...actually, that part I do agree with. I guess I'm speaking more broadly about the tendency to read high cunning into actions that, on the surface, seem to be just stupid and/or insane, and speaking less so about actions that are largely hidden from view. In fact, I think it's the tendency to read too much subtext into "surface" issues that makes others inclined to dismiss the import of hidden actions that are brought to light.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:43 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


@Pope Guilty: That Jaynes stuff reminds me just enough of the backstory in Snow Crash to make me suspicious of it.

That's the tail wagging the dog - Stephenson acknowledges his debt to Jaynes inside the front cover of Snow Crash.
posted by kcds at 5:46 PM on October 5, 2008


The paper, by Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas at Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern, ties together leads from several areas of research into a tight argument: lacking control increases illusory pattern perception.

According to Whitson, "the main contribution of [the six new studies reported in the paper] is that they connect a lot of different things that were previously thought of as separate and reveal that underneath, the same visceral need for control is affecting all of them."

Is it just me or is this completely fucking ironic?
posted by symbioid at 5:47 PM on October 5, 2008 [7 favorites]


I have a person shrine. It is composed a pair of fixed dice, a Lucky Cat, A tiny statue of Ganesha, a Green Fish, and a quarter I found with my birth year and a hole through Washington's head. I have arranged these objects right near my door. If I touch them before I go out, I am assured victory and promise in the day.

It rarely happens that way, but I still do it. Cause, c'mon, who wants to piss off Ganesha? You'll only get more wrath.
posted by The Whelk at 5:56 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think I was meant to read this article.
posted by autodidact at 6:04 PM on October 5, 2008


it is possible for a person's distrust to go pareidolic, magical, paranoid

Agreed. And yet it's also possible for a person's inattentive gullibility to go naive, and for said person to be manipulated. Advertising, PR, politics: three kinds of perception-management that quite consciously walk the line between trust and mistrust.

It is sometimes quite difficult for the hyper-mediated American mind circa 2008 (and here I include my own) to discern where truth ends and lies begin. Ours is an era of "truthiness," of mass emotional persuasion, and of collective amnesia. A lot of what seemed paranoid a few years ago now seems, in wake of the news, quite believable. Likewise, what constitutes conspiracy and what constitutes coincidence is not always clear. This process of discernment is never finished.

Consider the tremendous cult of secrecy that envelops even the most banal and benign proceedings of our current political machinery: so many documents are so routinely classified for so little reason.

posted by ornate insect at 6:05 PM on October 5, 2008


Okay, now that we know why people cling to their religion, is there a Psychology Today article that explains why they cling to their guns?
posted by leftcoastbob at 6:40 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


ornate insect,
You and TheOnlyCoolTim are using a classic conspiracy theorist tactic: the existence of conspiracies in the past proves conspiracies now. No one has said that there has never been a conspiracy, or that conspiracies have ceased to happen in the present. There are many examples of voter manipulation, false flag operations, crimes, etc.

The problem with what you're saying is that each new claim of conspiracy must still be proven. Pointing to past conspiracies doesn't prove your current one, it just indicates that it's possible, which no one denies. In kittens for breakfast's example, perhaps McCain really is a brilliant and exquisitely subtle strategist, but you must prove that. You must show why your explanation is better than the obvious one, that he is just incompetent. You said: "We don't have to choose between believing in a total, all encompassing conspiracy and pure randomness," and this is true. I can accept that conspiracies happen; now prove it. But this is where conspiracy theories earn their reputation, people quickly slip from asking questions to absolute certainty that their theory is right no matter what.

These things often play into the belief that the theorist has some special knowledge or insight or courage that others lack, and that others are blind and stupid for not simply accepting without argument the theory (hence the infamous "Wake up sheeple", or your own characterization of theorists as "daring" to ask questions"). Just pointing out coincidences is not enough, and just putting together an explanation is not enough; the burden is on the theorist to show why his theory is the right theory. Often, because this can't actually be shown, they fall back on claiming that any counter-evidence is part of the conspiracy, and at this point it's basically become a religion because there's no way to disprove a conspiracy theory if every bit of counter-evidence can be dismissed as part of the plot. kittens for breakfast got it right: "I guess I'm speaking more broadly about the tendency to read high cunning into actions that, on the surface, seem to be just stupid and/or insane, and speaking less so about actions that are largely hidden from view. In fact, I think it's the tendency to read too much subtext into "surface" issues that makes others inclined to dismiss the import of hidden actions that are brought to light." This plays back into the FPP, that humans find patterns where there are no patterns, and become highly invested in them.

So yes, there can be conspiracies, but you have to prove them, not just argue that they are possible. It's not for us to tell you why you're crazy, it's for you to tell us that despite what things seem, there is more than meets the eye (in the Megatron way, not the good Optimus Prime way). So we should approach conspiracy theories with skepticism. One good test of the "craziness" of the theorist is to ask, "What evidence would you accept that your conspiracy theory is wrong? Is there any?"
posted by Sangermaine at 6:50 PM on October 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I find that the further I get from a residual childhood belief in the supernatural, the more I embrace words like "magic" as metaphors for multilevel physical and psychological phenomena that don't require deep science for us to understand, even when science can explain them in great detail. As a writer and a craftsman, I find all sorts of ways that I'm engaging in magical thinking, but it does not mean that I'm embracing non-science and supernatural action or rejecting science, but rather that we are, as a species, spectacularly gifted at interpreting visceral responses to physical stimuli without having to pass every concept through the language centers of the brain.

Consider wood, for example. There's this sensation to wooden objects and wooden surfaces that cultures with animist traditions would describe as the presence of an incorporated spirit or "soul." When I'm looking to work a piece of wood, I like to touch and feel, to sort of be with the wood, to let it speak to me, and to tell me what it wants to be. I don't actually believe the wood is talking, or that there's a wood god in there, dictating the form of the object I'd make with the wood, but still, there are all these parameters in play, whirling clouds of math and functional aspects to the raw material. I find the right forms and balances and placement for a given piece of wood by allowing the cognitive dissonance of believing something is simply what it is and still believing that there is a destined result (which is, again, not spiritual, but really more of an awareness that what I make will exist at some point in the future because circumstances, influences, and history come together in a kind of liquid moment).

I can fairly easily describe the scientific principles behind why people love wood, and how things like mass and texture and pores and fibers all come together in a way that rewards touch and the attention of the eye, and how age makes wood seem more lush and sensuous, and more sacred, but that's just language and statistics clumsily lumbering around something we already understand on a more physical level. Surrendering to the sensation of magic is not always a concession to groundless nonsense—it's really more of an awareness that some things are best understood by less concrete means.

The notion of lucky charms, sacred tools, and jinxed objects is also not so far out, even if you're someone who, like me, doesn't believe for a second that there's any force whatsoever in the universe that's out there making sure we're happy, safe, or loved. I have tools that I inherited from my father, and tools that were the first tools I bought on my own, and when I use them, I am usually more productive, more creative, and more contented than when I'm using brand new tools, even very nice ones.

My old Weller soldering station, which is rapidly falling apart, has no special physical characteristics, other than the places where I've repaired it over the years, and yet, when I sit down to build a theremin for a client, I have this long history with the thing. I've soldered thousands of connections with it, have burned my fingers on it countless times, and have had it crap out on me in the middle of a big project more than once, and it fits perfectly in my hand, and feels right, and works in a way that has the familiarity of a long history. I built my first instruments with the thing, worked on old radios, fixed a record player I found abandoned in a pile of trash at the end of my street when I was ten and my father said I'd never fix it in a million years. It is just a collection of blue plastic and steel and components, just a thing, no more or less special than any of the other identical models made on the same assembly line, but I keep that cognitive dissonance in suspension because it does no harm to think of it as charmed, and there's a very real synergistic psychological effect in allowing two completely contradictory things to be true.

Where all this seems to go wrong for people is when fear gets into the mix, and poisons that joyous chaos of combined, conflicting absurdity and reality. When we're out of control, it's easy to reach for charms and talismans and moral fantasies, and to blame the lack thereof for our failings and the perceived wrongs in the world. I don't get it, really, but it might just be where I am these days. I found that the less I believed in positive and negative forces in the world, the easier it became to just be where I am, doing what I'm doing, and rising and falling on the merits of my skills and my engagement with the world. It's hard to let go, though, and I'm always a little amused after a round of frustration, when I'm stomping around hollering "goddammit" as if I still believed that god would, in fact, damn anything.

It helps to just view one's life with precision, and to know when we've lost control and to know that it's natural to engage in magical thinking, as long as it's tempered by a grasp of the real and acted out in a way that's nourishing and comforting and not just a narcotic or an emotional palliative. I've been feeling out of control a lot lately, and I find myself fantasizing about building the perfect new outhouse for my place in the woods or stripping and rebuilding the engine in my wreck of an old Citroën, and these fantasies work to calm my anxieties because they are inherently joyous and filled with the potential calming touch of sacred objects (at least of the sort that I generally consider sacred).

If I thought I was changing the luck of the Orioles by fixing my old car, I'd pretty much be a real ninny, but if I think that doing so would change my attitude and my optimism for the next years, it's not so clear cut. So there's "magic," and then there's magic.
posted by sonascope at 6:55 PM on October 5, 2008 [13 favorites]


The Whelk writes "At least we don't put menstruating women in cages lest they kill the corn spirt. Right?"

Well, you may not. But how's your corn growing?
posted by orthogonality at 6:56 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I claimed to prove no specific conspiracyl, just provided historical evidence that governments (in these cases - I could have done up other types of agents) conspire against their citizens.

So we should approach conspiracy theories with skepticism.

And we should also approach dismissals of conspiracy theories with skepticism.

Often the best answer is "I don't know," or maybe "I don't know but this scenario and this other one seem plausible but that scenario and that far-out one seem implausible."
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:05 PM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sangermaine, show me where I said the existence of conspiracies in the past proves conspiracies now. I nowhere said this.

Obviously the existence of past conspiracies neither proves nor disproves anything about conspiracies in the present.

But if we unburden the term "conspiracy" from its usual negative connotations we begin to see how regular "conspiracy," in the simplest sense, is: in the simplest sense it refers to any two or more people agreeing in secret to commit a crime or effect an outcome by ethically dubious means.

My only goal here is to illustrate how the phrase "conspiracy theory" is often used in a knee-jerk, unthinking and pejorative way to quell intelligent discussion about a given topic.
posted by ornate insect at 7:12 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


And we should also approach dismissals of conspiracy theories with skepticism.

Well, no, that was my point. I don't have to prove that the theory isn't true, you have to prove that it is. You're trying to make a false equivalence between the status quo and the proposed theory. If you can present a strong argument for your theory, then at that point flat-out dismissal would be unwarranted. Until you do, responding to "The Jews did 9/11" with "Get away from me" is perfectly acceptable.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:14 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


that humans find patterns where there are no patterns

Humans also sometimes miss patterns where there are patterns.
posted by ornate insect at 7:14 PM on October 5, 2008


responding to "The Jews did 9/11" with "Get away from me" is perfectly acceptable.

Sangermaine--yes it is, and as usual in these discussions you pull out a stereotypical BS example as your foil.

How about this example instead: the proper response to the statement "while most Americans have heard of the Warren Commission, far fewer people have heard of the the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which determined that LHO may not have acted alone," might be "gee, that's interesting, tell me more."
posted by ornate insect at 7:21 PM on October 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


I didn't think anyone took Julian Jaynes's theory seriously.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:28 PM on October 5, 2008


You're trying to make a false equivalence between the status quo and the proposed theory.

Clarification: What do you refer to as "status quo"? Do you mean "status quo" as in the "official line" no-conspiracies "way things seem" or my demonstration that the status quo has been one where there are, in fact, conspiracies?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:30 PM on October 5, 2008


The Whelk, Ganesh isn't wrathful (he's intelligent, wise, intellectual, associated with prosperity and removing obstacles, ॐ) it's his dad, Shiva, you don't want to piss off of Parvati, Ganesh's mother, in her angry aspect, Kali.

three kinds of perception-management that quite consciously walk the line between trust and mistrust

An excellent point.

A lot of what seemed paranoid a few years ago now seems, in wake of the news, quite believable


Yes, you're right.

Likewise, what constitutes conspiracy and what constitutes coincidence is not always clear. This process of discernment is never finished.

hmm. I don't connect conspiracy and coincidence.

My only goal here is to illustrate how the phrase "conspiracy theory" is often used in a knee-jerk, unthinking and pejorative way to quell intelligent discussion about a given topic.

Well said.
posted by nickyskye at 7:40 PM on October 5, 2008


I've been tending to think many, if not most, people on some level immensely fear control over their own lives, or freedom.

You and Søren Kierkegaard agree!
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty.
posted by winna at 8:32 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's really, really misleading to say that all authors on that topic were merely spinning yarns.

I didn't say they were all spinning yarns. I said they were publishing books to make money. If they're so righteous about their causes, they could release the information for free. But they're not; they're making a profit. Which is all well and good, but you then can't divorce the profit motive from the equation.

Oliver Stone didn't direct the film JFK because he only really, really wanted the truth to get out because he's a nice guy. Dude got paid. Handsomely. Doesn't mean he was right or wrong about anything, but let's dispense with the idea that Oliver Stone is a warrior for truth and justice.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:37 PM on October 5, 2008


I said they were publishing books to make money. If they're so righteous about their causes, they could release the information for free. But they're not; they're making a profit. Which is all well and good, but you then can't divorce the profit motive from the equation.

This is a really, really weird, didactic, and totally nonsensical argument. You seem to be saying that every book, article or whatnot ever written in human history (regardless of topic, genre, author, context) in which money exchanged hands is somehow suspect for being tainted by the "profit motive."

Most people don't write books to get rich. They write books on topics that interest them, and because they feel they have something to say. If an academic historian publishes a monograph with a University Press on a given subject, or an investigative reporter publishes an expose or work of general nonfiction on a given topic, chances are that author makes not a whole hell of a lot of money. The motivating factor may have been to do research, to contribute scholarship, to add a point of view, to stroke his or her ego, etc.

But what you are now arguing would seem to apply to any and all kinds of books, and not just those called, vaguely and problematically, "conspiratorial" in nature.

Yes some "conspiratorial" potboilers get written. But there are also many well researched nonfiction books about controversial subjects (such as the JFK assassination, both pro and anti-conspiracy) that were clearly motivated by something other than just making a fast buck.
posted by ornate insect at 9:03 PM on October 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


On the other hand.
posted by sneebler at 9:10 PM on October 5, 2008


The truly funny thing is that I'm almost certain that everybody posting here thinks they're above this; that they are truly reasonable and logical; that their lives, beliefs, and behaviour aren't largely based on some sort of superstitiion or unfounded belief of one form or another; and that only those other people, the ones they like to make fun of, lead lives plagued by mysticism and woolly thinking.

Guess what? We're all subject to that. Only the degree varies. And thank God, I say, because truly logical and reasonable people aren't fun, like Star Trek's Spock - they're boring, like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
posted by Pinback at 9:44 PM on October 5, 2008


But what you are now arguing would seem to apply to any and all kinds of books, and not just those called, vaguely and problematically, "conspiratorial" in nature.

You're missing the point entirely, sorry. And while most people on MeFi don't know the correct meaning of the phrase "strawman," you managed to pull one off perfectly. Grats.

Look, you stated that "Professional con artists have no shortage of marks in this world, and we are living through an era of intense governmental secrecy and deception." I believe you are hinting that all the con artists are largely on the side of the people doing the bad-guy conspiring.

My point is that the problem isn't so much the very real bad guys out there, it's the far more numerous true con artists that make their bank from playing on people's fears -- inventing wide-ranging conspiracy where none exists, or stretching the truth to sell paperbacks.

You also said that there exists a "disabling disease" of extreme gullibility. I agree with you there, but feel the truly gullible are the ones that buy into this shit.

I'll paraphrase a great movie character -- "You're digging in the wrong place."

But there are also many well researched nonfiction books about controversial subjects (such as the JFK assassination, both pro and anti-conspiracy) that were clearly motivated by something other than just making a fast buck.

Well ... name one. Rather, show me some non-profit motives at work. Surely there are plenty of examples where someone, say, donated all of the proceeds of their work in blowing the lid off some sensational conspiracy to some worthy cause? I can't think of one.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:46 PM on October 5, 2008


ornate insect
Yes, tell me more. Specifically about how the sole piece of acoustic evidence used to make the Committee's determination, as mentioned in the linked article, has been discredited by the National Academy of Sciences (though apparently some researcher later disagreed).

But all that is irrelevant, as you have apparently gotten so worked up over the 9/11 comment that you missed the preceding sentence: "If you can present a strong argument for your theory, then at that point flat-out dismissal would be unwarranted." As I said, if you can offer solid proof of your theory, it's worth listening to. I'm not sure if this counts as solid proof, a committee recommendation resting largely on a single piece of what is at best questionable evidence. But yes, that is interesting.

Also:
My only goal here is to illustrate how the phrase "conspiracy theory" is often used in a knee-jerk, unthinking and pejorative way to quell intelligent discussion about a given topic.

Another conspiracy? Why would anyone want to automatically quell intelligent discussion about issues that often involve the course of the nation or the world? Are we all just sheep that Don't Get It (but you do, of course), or just dumb, or just can't handle it? Or could it be that we've learned this response because such "discussion" has so often not been intelligent, and that the phrase "conspiracy theorist" is rightly associated with loons. Yes, you fight an uphill battle if you're going down that road, but blame the other people who have associated the term with insanity or stupidity. The best way to counter this association is to put together thoughtful, powerful, logical arguments.

hmm. I don't connect conspiracy and coincidence.
nickyskye (By the way, up until a few days ago I had always read your SN as "nickseye". I have no idea why.)

Many others do. These theories often come in the form of "X and Y and Z were at the location when the thing happened, and the military was doing this, and this deal was being made on Wallstreet, and the leaders of these countries were having a summit! It all fits!"
posted by Sangermaine at 10:12 PM on October 5, 2008


My point is that the problem isn't so much the very real bad guys out there, it's the far more numerous true con artists that make their bank from playing on people's fears -- inventing wide-ranging conspiracy where none exists, or stretching the truth to sell paperbacks. [Emphasis added.]
Really, CPB? I'm relieved to hear it. I won't have to worry so much about what the real bad guys are up to now, because now I know the real threat is those evil bastards trying to sell paperbacks.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:13 PM on October 5, 2008


What evidence would you accept that your conspiracy theory is wrong?

A person should test all of their beliefs against this standard, as often as practicable.

On a couple of occasions in the past year, I've read reports from the conspirator's mouth, so to speak, about deceptions planned for some profit motive -- product placement, con jobs, etc. Each one was so elaborate, and so innocent on the surface, that my initial reaction each time was to not want to believe it. Because the answer to the above question was: any evidence. I would not believe the conspiracy; to do so would to be cautious to the point of paranoid. It's only in those moments that you realize how vulnerable you, and everyone else, is to concerted, planned deception of any kind.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:20 PM on October 5, 2008


TV-watchers have no doubt noted so often that they are no longer aware of how often the interchangeable TV hosts handle anyone who tries to explain why something happened. "Are you suggesting that there was a conspiracy?" A twinkle starts in a pair of bright contact lenses. No matter what the answer, there is a wriggling of the body, followed by a tiny snort and a significant glance into the camera to show that the guest has just been delivered to the studio by flying saucer. This is one way for the public never to understand what actual conspirators – whether in the F.B.I. or on the Supreme Court or toiling for Big Tobacco – are up to. It is also a sure way of keeping information from the public. The function, alas, of Corporate Media.
- Gore Vidal, The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh
posted by nasreddin at 10:51 PM on October 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


ooh, nice quote nasreddin.
posted by nickyskye at 2:38 AM on October 6, 2008


Conspiracies really get people excited, don't they? What is so appealing about them? I can't trust the idea, really: people suck at everything required for conspiracies: lying in a convincing, coordinated way, secrecy, teamwork, philosophical alignment, destroying evidence, and fakery.

This current government is even worse at these things than previous ones! I don't think they could conspire their way out of a wet paper bag.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:20 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


On a related tangent, I think it's worth noting the differences between concrete and abstract thinking. Not all adults are capable of abstract reasoning (est. 15% not at all, up to 60% fluctuating between concrete thinking and abstract reasoning). There is some evidence that abstract thinking increases one's sense of power [pdf], raising the possibility that the ability for abstract thinking may reinforce one's own feelings of superiority. Conversely, it also means that if you are very good at abstract reasoning, there's always going to be a goodly amount of people who just cannot join the dots together and see the things you are seeing. In other words, there are levels of reinforcement on abstract thinking and conspiracy theories are, essentially, just another way of joining the dots up.

[Personally – and possibly very unscientifically – I have a tendency to think of these things (pattern spotting, colour blindness, left-handedness, supertasters) as being evolutionarily useful traits that not everyone needs to have, i.e. it's useful to have a certain number of left-handed people in the population.]
posted by mandal at 4:28 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


(pattern spotting, colour blindness, left-handedness, supertasters)

I think of these things as sort of random recessive traits, like freckles or really bright red hair.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:44 AM on October 6, 2008


The whole "conspiracy theorists are just asking questions, what's wrong with that?!?!" line makes me think immediately of certain creationists who show up in every single Metafilter thread about evolution, throw out the same slop bucket of dishonest and debunked questions that they tossed out last time (and the time before that, etc.), and immediately get called on it. To which they reply "Why isn't asking questions about the accepted theory of evolution okay?"

It's the same dynamic.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:46 AM on October 6, 2008


Q: "Why isn't asking questions about the accepted theory of evolution okay?"

A: Because we already answered all of them. Do you have any new questions that aren't, like, completely fucking retarded?
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:52 AM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]


Or it could be its just a bunch of sociopaths and not an actual conspiracy.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:35 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just watched this video "The officer who led the army's Delta Force mission to kill Osama bin Laden after 9/11 reveals what really happened in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, when the al-Qaeda leader narrowly escaped." Don't know if what this guy is saying is for real or what.

people suck at everything required for conspiracies: lying in a convincing, coordinated way, secrecy, teamwork, philosophical alignment, destroying evidence, and fakery

huh. So you can totally distrust free guitar tabs but any conspiracy couldn't possibly be real?

What about the following historically proven, well documented conspiracies? Or does your highly developed bullshit detector tell you they do not exist either?

Al-Qaeda

Human trafficking, Slavery, Gulags, Concentration Camps, Dictators

cults

political plots and revolutions, attempts to overthrow empires,

Enron

Afghani-US heroin biz

the mafia and hit men

Worldcom, Shell Oil

gerrymandering

Hollywood Blacklist

Espionage and intelligence gathering

the Rockefellers pumping the market to save their money before the 1929 crash

to name a small handful or conspiracy in the legal sense as has been mentioned, which is a commonplace in court.

My point is that there are genuine conspiracies and have been throughout history. There is also paranoia or distrust that is unfounded, so it is important whether trusting or distrusting information to be reality based, thoughtful and thorough, not operating out of a knee jerk trust or distrust.
posted by nickyskye at 6:32 AM on October 6, 2008


So you can totally distrust free guitar tabs but any conspiracy couldn't possibly be real?

I didn't say that. I said -in a roundabout way - that conspiracies are lot less common than one would think based on talking to the average conspiracy nut... kind of like fatal shark attacks, lightning strikes or proper serial killers (like Zodiac). I don't think people are actually that good at keeping secrets. Many of the things you listed were conspiracies that were discovered, to be fair. The ones I get tired of are the nebulous:

The CIA killed Kennedy, maaaaan.

variety.
posted by chuckdarwin at 7:17 AM on October 6, 2008


Government is a conspiracy. A political party is a conspiracy to commit conspiracy.

People who talk, think and read about conspiracy theories are not all cut from the same cloth. Yes, I've seen the tin-foil-hat variety, and they aren't pretty. But christ on a pogo stick, when vast sums of money and power are involved, only the naive reject all conspiracy theories.

Anyone remember the bunch of folks gathered to hinder the recount of votes down in Florida, in 2000? How about the photo of one group, and the fact that most of them were paid political operatives of one stripe or another? Yet, appearing in that place as nothing but "concerned citizens". Coincidence, or conspiracy?

Whatever the historical merit might be of painting "conspiracy theories" with a broad brush in looneytunes color, I find that events in American politics, over the last 8 years, warrant careful scrutiny, and "conspiracy theories" become perfectly reasonable fodder for that consideration.

It is certainly the case that an atmosphere has been created in which it is far more comfortable to dismiss "conspiracy theories" and just go with the flow. Who wants to be considered a nut case? But all cases aren't nuts.
posted by Goofyy at 7:46 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Government is a conspiracy. A political party is a conspiracy to commit conspiracy.

Pass the bong, and make sure the towel under the door is secure, the Resident Advisor will kill us if he finds out!
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:56 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Or it could be its just a bunch of sociopaths and not an actual conspiracy.

If it's a bunch of sociopaths working together to commit a crime in secret (and most people don't go around committing crimes in public when they can help it), then that is by definition an actual conspiracy. Nothing ersatz about it.

To the extent that a 'conspiracy theory' is just a term for an allegation involving the possibility that a group of like-minded or otherwise similarly-interested people collaborated in carrying out a crime, then you'd have to be an idiot to call it magical thinking to entertain 'conspiracy theories.' Every prosecutor that ever leveled a charge of conspiracy, along with every jury that ever rendered a guilty verdict in such cases would be a case of magical thinking by this standard.

There needs to be another term for the kinds of things most people really mean when they talk about 'conspiracy theories,' something that doesn't at the same time have the negative connotations associated with more credulous and spectacular speculations.

Either way, the fact remains, critics of the US government who claimed the CIA played an active role in the plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Allende in Chile and install Pinochet in his place were dismissed for many years as nut-job conspiracy theorists. Then, after public attention had shifted elsewhere, formerly classified documents slowly started leaking out. And eventually the CIA officially acknowledged its role.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:47 AM on October 6, 2008 [4 favorites]


Modern society, which, up to 1968, went from success to success, and was persuaded that it was loved, has since then had to renounce these dreams; it prefers to be feared. It knows full well that "its innocent air will no longer return."

Thus, a thousand of conspiracies in favor of the established order tangle and clash almost everywhere, with the overlapping of networks and secret questions or actions always pushed harder; and the process of rapid integration is pushed into each branch of the economy, politics and culture. The degree of intermingling in surveillance, disinformation and special activities continually grows in all areas of social life. The general conspiracy has become so dense that it is almost out in the open, each of its branches starts to hinder or trouble the others, because all these professional conspirators are spying on each other without exactly knowing why, or encounter each other by chance, yet without recognizing each other with certainty. Who is observing whom? On whose behalf, apparently? And actually? The real influences remain hidden, and the ultimate intentions can only be suspected with great difficulty and almost never understood. So that while no one can say he is not deluded or manipulated, it is only in rare instances that the manipulator himself can know he has succeeded. And, besides, finding oneself on the winning side of manipulation does not mean that one has justly chosen the strategic perspective. It is thus that tactical successes can get great forces stuck on bad paths.

In the same network, apparently pursuing the same goal, those who only constitute a part of the network are obliged to be ignorant of the hypotheses and conclusions of the other parts, and especially of their ruling nucleus. The quite well known fact that all information on whatever subject under observation may well be entirely imaginary, or in large part false, or very inadequately interpreted, complicates and renders unsure to a great degree the calculations of the inquisitors; because what is sufficient to condemn someone is not sufficient when it comes to recognizing or using him. Since sources of information are in competition, so are falsifications.
- Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle
posted by nasreddin at 8:52 AM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Archer: A plot!

Scrub: Ay, sir, a plot, and a horrid plot! First, it must be a plot, because there's a woman in't: secondly, it must be a plot, because there's a priest in't: thirdly, it must be a plot, because there 's French gold in't: and fourthly, it must be a plot, because I don't know what to make on't.
- George Farquhar, The Beaux Stratagem
posted by nasreddin at 9:05 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


A few weeks ago, MeFi had a long conversation about whether John McCain wasn't some tactical mastermind, outsmarting the democrats at every turn with his unpredictable chess moves. Now it's very clear that the reasons his moves appeared to be random was that he had no idea what in the fuck he was doing.

Sorry, but I see very little evidence that McCain appointed Palin because he "had no idea what in the fuck he was doing". And there was quite a bit of evidence in that thread which suggests that he might have been doing what he did as a tactical move (for instance, the fact that his campaign manager is really into the particular tactics we were discussing, and the fact that McCain's behavior rather closely fit them -- note that there's nothing there about McCain being a "tactical mastermind", thank you). So, unless you've got some evidence for your "argh blargh somehow I'm an experienced senator and also running for President but I am actually stooooooopid and just bumble around randomly lol" theory, I'm afraid it's not all that credible. IMHO, it's the latter which is clearly "magical thinking", in that it requires one to ignore years of normal behavior on the part of McCain, including recent behavior, in favor of an alternate explanation which just happens to validate one's own beliefs.

I'm no fan of McCain, but the idea that he (and all his staffers) is stupid to the point of being unable to campaign seems unjustified, to say the least. Remember how disappointed and genuinely surprised many mefites were when the "stupid old man" held his own in the debate, and even scored quite a few points against Obama? Yeah. There's a fine example of self-defeating magical thinking. "But... but he's so dumb! How did he not entirely self-destruct and start drooling and ranting madly on camera!?!?" I'll bet you Obama doesn't buy that crap, and you shouldn't, either. Here's something else about the OODA loop: assuming your enemy's actions are random and/or stupid isn't part of it, for good reason.

McCain is losing right now because of the economic crash. You can talk all you like about how "it's very clear he had no idea what in the fuck he was doing", but at the time we were discussing this, that was not the case, and I'd argue that it still isn't, especially since his current problems have very little to do with this particular issue (if anything, Palin continues to be a pretty good circus distraction for McCain. While people are talking about her, they're not talking about the economy).

But hey, feel free to continue to suggest that every unrelated thing that's happened since then proves you right -- that'll surely convince everyone that people who don't agree are conspiracy theorists.
posted by vorfeed at 9:11 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pass the bong, and make sure the towel under the door is secure, the Resident Advisor will kill us if he finds out!

Conspiracy to commit marihuana-smoking in secret! (Protip: get the RA in on the conspiracy.)

And that's the thing. I myself have been involved in illegal (though not to me immoral) conspiracies, e.g. I have conspired to provide alcohol to hundreds of minors. To state more normally, I have thrown college keg parties with a group of friends, even sometimes getting said kegs under the table. I conspired with my friends, with the guys who would sell us kegs illegally (that wasn't required, but when they didn't bother doing keg registration paperwork I wasn't going to insist), and even with the neighbors in the apartment buildings when we OK'ed the parties with them to avoid noise complaints. Why would I expect that more powerful people such as government leaders, generally less morally-bound than myself and my acquaintances, if I'll be so bold as to say that, would for some reason shy away from conspiracies?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:15 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


“Conspiracies really get people excited, don't they? What is so appealing about them? I can't trust the idea, really: people suck at everything required for conspiracies: lying in a convincing, coordinated way, secrecy, teamwork, philosophical alignment, destroying evidence, and fakery.”

Well, this is entirely the problem some folks were talking about. Certainly the UFO tinfoil hat stuff is obvious on it’s face. And it’s hard to argue some of the larger conspiracies (9/11 - et.al.) simply because of the size of the topic and the obfuscation involved (which, alone is a big red flag, but I digress).

So let’s take a small scale conspiracy - one involving the “somebody would have talked” and other things so many of you folks find impossible.

There was this 20 year old went missing in Fox Lake out here in 2006. Well, obviously his parents were looking for him, etc. And the cold case folks were working it. As it turns out, he was at a party. With a bunch of people. Sitting at a table playing drinking games when someone walked up to him and blew his brains out with a .38.

The shooter and some other folks put him in the tub, took his clothes off and washed him. The shooter washed off the blood, brains, etc. Some other folks cleaned the walls.

Did I mention this was at a party?

They wrapped him in a blanket, put him in the trunk of a car and drove him to the weed out by the Calumet incinerator. Pretty good drive really.

Oh, the guy who helped the shooter drive out there? His dad.

Just recently cold cases found the remains. Skeleton with a bullet hole in the skull. No one - not one person - talked until the actual body was found. No one ‘came forward.’ No one had misgivings or a change of heart. Only when directly presented with concrete evidence did any cracks begin to show. Even then - s’like pulling teeth.

So it’s what, near the end of 2008 now? He was shot at a party. Bam. Blew his brains all over the beer and quarters. No one said a thing. In fact a bunch of them helped clean up. And when it was over they went home and no one knew where this kid was for more than two years. It was a lucky break that reopened the case.

This is just one missing person’s case. Of many many thousands.

So don’t tell me “people suck at everything required for conspiracies.” I know better. People lie in convincing ways all the time, simply by remaining silent.

They don’t need to coordinate or engage in active teamwork or fakery - especially after a shock. They don’t need to destroy evidence when they can convince themselves - beyond all objectivity - that what they saw didn’t happen - or happened another way - or it was someone else - or it was all a dream - or it’s just one of those things they never talk about - etc. etc.

It’s my experience that it is the truth that is a rare commodity.
People might be basically good. Hell, they might even be innocent. But bullshitters? Yeah. They’re great at that. People are natural experts at conspiracy.

So what happened to this guy if it wasn’t conspiracy? He had a good home, happy with everything, his whole life ahead of him - by all accounts, not the type to just split from home.
If I posted a year ago saying “Gee, I think this guy might have met with foul play” - do we keep investigating or do we break out the tinfoil hats “No, Smed, there’s no conspiracy - people disappear all the time. Maybe he met a girl. Maybe he went to another country...blah blah blah”

Because if I came and said he was killed at a party you’d never have believed me. Because “people aren’t like that.” Uh, huh.

And if people will STFU about something when there’s not much to gain and only a loose social pressure in place - how much tighter is something involving money, power and an implicit threat?
It took years to bring down the big criminal syndicates - and they were amatuers who *knew* they were criminals.
Who investigates when the conspirators control the funding or set the priorities for the investigators?
posted by Smedleyman at 1:14 PM on October 6, 2008 [7 favorites]


Q: "Why isn't asking questions about the accepted theory of evolution okay?"
A: Because we already answered all of them. Do you have any new questions that aren't, like, completely fucking retarded?
posted by chuckdarwin


I just love that response. Eponypitch-perfect.
posted by rokusan at 3:42 PM on October 6, 2008


And if people will STFU about something when there’s not much to gain and only a loose social pressure in place - how much tighter is something involving money, power and an implicit threat?

You make a good point, but it doesn't make listening to guys rant about a missile hitting the pentagon any more fun to hang out with.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:56 PM on October 6, 2008


The way that crazy anti-evolutionists have turned the word "theory" into something to be embarrassed about, and the word "liberal" is now officially a slander, the word "conspiracy" seems to be getting pretty radioactive.

There have been dozens of actual conspiracies in the last century of US history alone (and there are like 20 mentioned upthread) so it's pretty disingenuous to reject the very notion of conspiracies outright. They occur all through history, and often aren't uncovered for decades. So it seems at least somewhat statistically likely that there are indeed some Big Nasty Conspiracies happening right now at various levels of government power.

Personally, I think some are more likely (9/11 is a soup of crazy theories and curious-maybes) than others (someone has secret alien death rays sending radio signals into my head), and the odds are high that there are active conspiracies going on right now that we have no clue about, let alone a name for. But hell, whatever: let people dig around on their pet theories and get back to us if they find anything close to evidence. Let them have websites. Let them publish books and make movies. Whatever. If they're wrong, or their evidence is poor, someone should say so politely, and force followups. It's a healthy dialog that's good for democracy.

Don't let the wackos poison the well, because if you do that you're helping create some right-wing utopia where anyone questioning the Government is to be ridiculed into silence. ("You think Diebold steals elections? Ha-ha, you think the moon is made of cheese too, right?")

(And for that line I'll probably get called a lunatic again, when at worst I'm somewhere between contrarian and merely skeptical. I don't trust official government stories much, at least not reflexively or submissively... but I think that's from watching history roll by, not from being schizophrenic.)

Allegorical version: I saw a crazy person on a streetcorner once screaming "The sky is BLUE, motherfuckers!" He was crazy, but that doesn't mean he was wrong, or that everyone who thinks the sky is blue is a lunatic. It just doesn't intersect that way.
posted by rokusan at 4:02 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Tell you what, 2008 has been pretty miserable, lets put all our failed leaders in business and politics into a big wickerman and burn it, and see if next year is any better or not. If it is then Magical Thinking wins.
posted by Artw at 4:21 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


And if not, then at least we burned those fuckers alive.

I like your thinking.
posted by Grangousier at 4:24 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


How about we just test them for witchcraft?
posted by rokusan at 7:23 PM on October 6, 2008


Q: "Why isn't asking questions about the accepted theory of evolution okay?"
A: Because we already answered all of them. Do you have any new questions that aren't, like, completely fucking retarded?
posted by chuckdarwin


Well, often I feel that debates about evolution here on metafilter involve a bunch of well-intentioned people whose understanding of the theory comes from popular press and museums defending a theory they understand on only the most causal level.

Biologists ask questions about the theory of evolution all the time. While the fundamental mechanism that differences in reproductive fitness across a range of phenotypic variance result in changes in gene frequency within a population over time is incredibly robust, the details are still the subject of much debate. As far as I can tell, key questions center on how to integrate epigenetics into quantitative models, how do changes in chromosome structure and number become dominant within a sexually reproducing population, how much influence lateral gene transfer had on microbial evolution. There are probably many more questions out there.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:12 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


"but it doesn't make listening to guys rant about a missile hitting the pentagon any more fun to hang out with."

Yeah, screw those guys. They pretty much just up the noise to signal ratio. In my small scale conspiracy example they're the equivalent of the psychics who try to make a name for themselves by finding the body and other assy stuff
posted by Smedleyman at 10:01 AM on October 7, 2008


Here’s some links regarding the shooting (with thanks to PeterMcDermott )
posted by Smedleyman at 3:30 PM on October 7, 2008


KirkJobSluder, I love your answer but I think it resolves a different (non-rhetorical) question.

Yeah, screw those guys.


I find it disconcerting when I first hear one of my friends come out with some pet theory about whatever... but 9/11 seems to be a favourite.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:03 PM on October 7, 2008


In my small scale conspiracy example they're the equivalent of the psychics who try to make a name for themselves by finding the body and other assy stuff

As opposed to all the real psychics out there.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:29 PM on October 7, 2008


Real psychics make buttloads of money and laugh at you. Why give the game away?
posted by Artw at 7:47 PM on October 7, 2008


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