Monday, September 12, 2011

Conspiracies and Belief: Separating Wheat from Chaff

It appears the conspira-phobe press, in this case The Wall Street Journal ('Maybe We're All Conspiracy Theorists', Sept. 10-11) once again seeks to muddy the waters on what constitutes a valid conspiracy and what - for lack of better words- may be called stoking tin-foil hat crazes as a form of "belief" (in reference to Michael Shermer's recent book, The Believing Brain). In a previous blog:

I looked at Shermer's book and claims therein, specifically the yen to ferret out objective patterns where none existed. I then added the analogy to drug addicts, though Shermer didn't specifically go into the detailed basis for this - involving as it does the brain's OAA, or orientation association area. I observed this may be one reason that his treatise breaks down in other places, such as generalizing the belief basis to the matter of conspiracies or theories thereof (as beliefs similar to the religious ones).

Anyway, my blog analogy to the "crack" aspects of religious belief was based upon work done by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and his associate Eugene Daquill M.D.. Their main findings were published in their book, ‘Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief’.Most pertinent to me is the authors’ portrayal of how the brain’s OAA translates an image into a religious reality, described in detail on pages 121-22. This is in connection with a person given an image of Christ and asked to focus on it. Within minutes, neurological measurements show electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system, hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”.

We know the hypothalamus has both arousal and quiescent components. The authors’ test results and measurements actually showed that as the subject focused on the image of Christ BOTH were activated. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT -scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area. To make a long story short, the attention area of the OAA was seen to deprive the right orientation area of the OAA of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of Jesus. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on “Jesus”. As the authors put it (p. 121):

"It has no choice but to create a spatial matrix out of nothing but the attention area’s single-minded contemplation of Jesus

In much the same way, the regions of the brain most prone to drug or other addiction, are able to likewise deprive the right orientation area of the OAA of all neural input not facilitating or originating in the addictive centers. These regions also seem to be diffuse, as widely disparate stimuli can engineer an addictive effect. For example, people who view internet porn are found to have the same regions of the brain "light up" as a crack cocaine addict, or a unilaterally-focussed, OAA -driven Deity "believer". The difference is the latter's temporal lobes are also affected as well.

This fully explains why it's essentially impossible to wean believers away from their objects of worship or devotion based on logic and reason alone. If you've ever tried, and spotted a glimmer of success, you could see withdrawal symptoms erupting ....including wild-eyed panic, defensive argumentation to the point of obsession, as well as loss of balance (much like a drunk's) if they try to negotiate a short trip ...say to the rest room. The reason is that the OAA also controls balance for walking, etc. and when all its controls are diverted to the right side, not enough remains in the left for balance gauging, visual perceptions etc.

But does all this similarly translate to conspiracy pondering folks? That's the key question, and according to the WSJ author (Matt Ridley) Shermer thinks it does. Recall, as Ridley does in his piece, that Shermer sees the brain as a "belief engine". This naturally incorporates religious beliefs because it is predisposed to see patterns "where none exist". For example, all those people in Conyers, GA back in 1993 who insisted they saw a statue of the Virgin Mary "weeping" - when red paint leaching out of wood can cause a resembling effect under certain conditions of temperature and humidity. An extension of this tendency, according to Shermer, the brains of believers actively seek out any and all sources and information which confirm their pre-existing beliefs.

The claim is made, by Shermer and Ridley, that conspiracy theorists do this too, though their objective is not quite the same as the religious believers. While the latter do so in order to confabulate an over-arching world view to support a purpose in the cosmos, the former confect "conspiratorial patterns" by "unknown agents" where none really exist in order to make sense of particular events in the world. Thus do the 9-11 "Truthers" invoke planned detonations of the Two World Trade Towers to account for their collapse rather than accepting two piddling Jets could have done all that damage (despite the fact the analysis of the thermodynamics, melting points of materials, etc. shows it's quite feasible).

Ridley veers into trickier areas when he specifically mentions other well known conspiracies, but as most conspiracy-phobes do, he conflates the whacky and totally unsupported with those that are supported - at least to a degree. Thus he conflates the Holocaust deniers dismissal of the Auschwitz- Birkenau gas chambers (because of a lack of roof holes to admit the poison gas) while also pooh-poohing the "expectant faces on the grassy knoll for JFK plotters."

In fact no JFK researcher of any import has ever made a case for "faces" (plural) visible in any images, photos or film near or around the knoll. What one has, thanks to excellent photo analysis by Jack White (of one of the Mary Moorman photos), and close ups extracted from the (Orville) Nix film are a set of images which do show a definite blurred portion of one face with a rifle sight obscuring part of it, and smoke arising from other images. There is also a definite glint of steel toward the chest region extending over the edge of the knoll fence, which is why it has come to be called "the Badge man" photo. Is it indistinct? Yes! Is it adequate evidence to support a conspiracy? Probably not, which is why serious JFK researchers have a wealth of other supporting data, including acoustic, to make their case.

But I digress.

Ridley is on firmer ground when he generalizes some of Shermer's points to conclude that we all may be guilty (both educated and un-educated) of preferential or selective thinking noting "we all do it, in our political allegiances, and even in our championing of scientific theories". Well, maybe up to a point, in the latter, but in the end it is the weatlh of evidence upon which accepting a given theory pivots. This is why Ridley's using anthropogenic climate change as an example of "rejecting all disconfirming evidence" (a supposed hallmark of diehard conspiracy theorists) is balmy and patently preposterous. In fact, those who postulate man-made CO2 emissions as the primary source of climate change HAVE considered the Sun, but disqualified it because it doesn't meet the quantitative or physical thresholds, e.g. for solar irradiance vis-a vis man made climate forcing inputs! More apropos is Ridley's other point(ibid.):

"How do we know that our own rational rejections of conspiracy theories are not themselves infected with beliefs so strong that they are, in effect, conspiracy theories too?"

Indeed! But this is not generally the way conspiracies or conspiracy theories are thought of. (In the same way, if I refuse to accept UFOs are alien spacecraft I can't be called a 'UFO Believer' ) What we do know is there exists a basic definition of conspiracy, from my Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, viz.

A treacherous, surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons

Now, either something meets this definition or it doesn’t. The definition isn’t rejected because the conspiracy is proven ex-post-facto. If at any time the condition in the definition was met, however briefly, then it was a valid conspiracy! From this, Watergate is and was a conspiracy, so was Iran-Contra, the BCCI, "Operation Northwoods" and (in my opinion), the JFK assassination.
Now, evidently where Shermer moves into dangerous territory (attempting to designate the criteria for valid and invalid conspiracy thinking) is when he maintains that "Conspiracy theories are usually bunk when they are too complex, require too many people to be involved, ratchet up from small events to grand effects, assign portentous meanings to innocuous events, express strong suspicions of either governments or companies, or attribute too much power to individuals".

Of course, I could skewer all of these at length, but as I don't wish to make this blog too long, will look briefly at some of these "criteria".

Let's look at the "complexity" aspect first. Surely, if reason is a guide, complexity will plausibly be proportionate to the magnitude of the effects of the conspiracy. Thus, murdering a president (as in the case of JFK), or "executive action", would likely tally a number of complex aspects and certainly if success was paramount, exposure of the perps unacceptable. To carry it out effectively, and not do it half-assed, the architects would have to take the time to plan for any and all contingencies and have manpower at every phase to deal with them. This could surely be expedited if key personnel in one or more government agencies were also involved, for example, in eliminating key evidence. (Thus, Hoover dispatching 5-8 FBI agents to collect film from those nearest the JFK assassination site on Elm Street. Recall here that Hoover had a visceral hatred for the Kennedys.)

In the case of the BCCI banking conspiracy, since it entailed moving money to thousands of "dummy accounts" all over the world, the complexity was implicit. In fact, reams of evidence were culled from that criminal bank's operations in 73 countries and exposed. But whether anyone could comprehend all aspects of its workings - which were deliberately rendered complex- is another matter.

This brings up another mistaken assumption of Shermer's: that Ockham's Razor (The simplest explanation for something is almost always the correct one) applies equally to conspiracies as it does to explaining natural phenomena, like lightning or solar flares.

This assumes that the non-conspiracy model will always be correct because it is 'simpler'. This is almost invariably true in the realm of natural sciences, such as physics, but it is dubious that this can be applied to the realm of human affairs. For one thing, humans are enmeshed in complexes of emotions and ideological agendas that can't be quantified like Newton's laws of motion, or simplistically reduced to one cause-one effect relationships. In addition, humans - unlike natural laws -are capable of deceit and misdirection. So, from many points of view, it would be foolhardy to reduce the realm of human behavior - including conspiracy - to the model applicable to simple natural laws. It would require something basically approaching a general denial that humans would or could ever act with duplicity. Which is nonsense.

By contrast, it is clear that misdirection would have to be a fundamental part of any successful conspiracy.

This complexity false assumption also colors Shermer's other one of "too many people involved". But this is basically an absurd and artificial complaint or criterion if the number is exactly that needed to succeed! For example, if 55 individuals were needed to make the JFK assassination succeed, then who's to say that was "too many"? In relation to what, exactly? Yes, it sounds like a lot, but not if the objective was to change the course of U.S. history - which it did! Had JFK lived the Vietnam War would never have been fought since his National Security Action Memorandum 263 planned a pullout of all U.S. personnel by 1965. (As per Freedom of Information released dociments, ca. 1997)

If, 1,100 were needed for the BCCI banking conspiracy to succeed ( as it did for years!) then who is to say that was too many? I mean we're talking about a criminal bank with its paws in 73 countries, for god's sakes! By the same token, if 400 people were needed for the Iran-Contra conspiracy to succeed (e.g. double dealing with the U.S. backed Contras in Nicaragua and the Iranians at the same time to funnel arms from the latter to the Contras, in violation of the Boland Amendment) then who is to say it is "too many"?

In the end, Shermer's criteria comes off as uninformed (i.e. of most of the serious conspiracies proven so) and cartoonish. About what I'd expect of a third former physics student who thinks he's invented a "rocket ship" but only has a balsa wood model and it doesn't even operate properly.

Shermer's last is especially choice: "express strong suspicions of either governments or companies, or attribute too much power to individuals"

Huh? Are you serious?

So, by Shermer's cartoonish criteria, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ought to never have been suspicious of the Watergate break-in and the role of Nixon's government? Had that been the case, the Watergate conspiracy would never have been exposed, and Nixon would never have been forced from office! So much for that one!

What about companies? Is Shermer's memory THAT short? Can he not recall a certain Houston company called ENRON in 2001, which set up hundreds of dummy accounts in the Caribbean and used them to funnel money to, and at the same time kept other liabilities off its U.S. books to fool shareholders? More than 21,000 Enron employees who'd been duped into buying its shares- while Kenny Lay and his cohort profited- paid the price.

As for too much "power to individuals", give me a break! Nixon himself exercised so much power during his "dirty tricks" campaign of Watergate that he had hundreds of protestors investigated by the IRS. But even Nixon was terrified of the power wielded by one single man named J. Edgar Hoover, who kept dossiers on every President.

Meanwhile, Bush Jr. actually invented a whole perverse "doctrine" (The "Bush Doctrine") to justify a pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign state (Iraq) that had nothing to do with 9/11 and which cost over 600,000 Iraqi lives (by World Health Organization estimates) and this country over $3.3 trillion when all costs are added up. (See: The Three Trillion Dollar War).

What is the cautionary tale to take from all this? That even sober rationalists can run off the rails if their skepticism and generalizations are too excessive, their assumptions over-simplistic and faulty and they lack a basic knowledge of those real, proven conspiracies which have already been well-documented.

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