I had two random thoughts that I decided I should spend some time on here. One relates to the stages we go through while developing a skill and a bit on conspiracy theories and how they take advantage of the brain’s desire to make unnecessary connections.
I was out at at my Aunt and Uncle’s house and watching my little cousin try and play badminton with her dad. He’d serve over the shuttlecock and she’d take wide, desperate swings at it. We’re talking like axe swings. I didn’t see a single rally — every time she did manage to make contact, the resulting trajectory was someplace wild. I eventually got involves to show her some her how to hit it better. Mostly just coordinating her strike and how to line up with the birdie and how to aim to knock it up. Before I left a few minutes later, we managed to get a pretty long rally going.
Our first instinct when we try something new seems to be to fail wildly and desperately to achieve the most basic goal. Hit the shuttlecock, bat the ball, shoot the opponent, kill the king. Whatever. You generally see a similar type of desperate flailing in all these things. It’s hilarious to an inexperienced players spazz out and randomly hit buttons when he gets nervous. This uncoordinated desperate reaction will eventually find results. While flailing we notice the things that somehow work and strive to recreate them. Someone can give you advice to get you on target sooner, but the mechanism seems pretty consistent.
From there we tend to move on to developing technique and applying it to anything without thinking about the results or the details. It doesn’t matter where the shuttlecock or ball goes, as long as it’s legal. It doesn’t matter where you fighting game combo puts the opponent afterward, nor does it matter what path we take to find the enemy in an FPS. Our goal is to do ‘the thing’ and get the mental reward for success. What “the thing” is generally then changes and gets more sophisticated. Maybe it’s a precise spike of the shuttcock. Maybe you want to hit a certain combo or maybe you have one really mean build in an RTS. You’re not paying much attention to your opponent, you just know this one thing is hard to deal with or makes you feel clever or whatever. Often we focus on “the thing” to our detriment, when more subtle or less risky tactics would be better.
It’s only until much later that we actually start considering the in depth consequences of our actions. Maybe we should hit the shuttlecock to where our opponent -isn’t-. Maybe I should use the combo that will put the opponent in the corner but does less damage. Maybe I should use a specialized build to counter what my opponent is doing now that I scouted him. Maybe I’ll consider where my enemies usually go in an FPS and predict their actions. Maybe I’ll restrict their access to weapons or armor. So why does it take so long to worry about what would be considered strategic things? Why can’t we calm our spastic reflexes, once we know they exist? Why do we keep doing “The thing” Mostly, I think, because our brain can only keep track of a few (7) things at one time. When we are wasting mental processes on things like coordination, we can’t think about strategy. As more and more aspects of a skill become rote memory and automatic, we free up more mental resources to look for more details. The entire process of skill improvement seems to be delegating things to rote memory as to free your mind up for more complex and sophisticated things. I’m not sure what this means to us or how this can benefit us, but it never hurts to have an idea about how your brain might be working.
Excessive Connections and Conspiracy Theories
In my experience, people value big connections over simplistic answers. We especially like them when they come to adding additional “Agency” to a situation — more people. You’re at work and you go into your jacket to get a drink. You realize your red bull isn’t there anymore! You think maybe it fell our of your coat pocket in the car, but then you see Bobert drinking a red bull. WAIT, THATS PROBABLY YOUR RED BULL! AND YOU THINK BOBERT HATES YOU! You go over and confront Bobert and he just happened to bring a red bull today! Your response? Well, if you’re overly emotional, often…
Well…. whats wrong with a convenient answer? It’s as it says on the tin — convenient. It makes sense. What’s more likely? That Bobert went into your coat pocket, snagged your drink and drank it where you could see him and then proceeded to lie to your face? Or that he just happened to purchase a popular beverage? The idea that Bobert is out to get you tends to be the more seductive idea. A PERSON did this, not luck or chance, and it lines up with possible assumptions you might have of him. This scenario is pretty contrived, but I trust you can think of other examples. We like making connections and we like doing this because, as far as I understand, we are wired this way.
It’s my (hopefully not mistaken) understanding that when the brain forms, it forms with premade connections. Nothing are at those connections, it just makes them. A huge tangled mess of wiring where one thing goes to another all willy-nilly. As we develop, we fill in the nodes and prune excess connections. We’re also wired to be pretty darn social so a lot of are links are dedicated to people and traits and interactions. We’re pretty much made to make big, complex, intermingled connections. A big bungling hypothesis that connects a ton of unrelated things often feels nice –it reinforces the complex connections in our brain.
Now reality tends not to require big a big mess of connections, nor a desire for agency. As such we tend not to be particularly good at making clear assessments of the world. So why would we be this way? Well, lets start with agency.
Imagine you’re in a dark cave, thousands of years ago,
and you hear a noise. Do you assume it’s just a rock falling — something is extremely likely — or that a cougar is in the cave? The rock is the most likely answer, but assuming the cougar is the response most likely to help you survive. Assuming agency in a sense is natural. Through out history we assumed the world was created by an agent. We assumed the sun was pulled by an agent across the sky. We assumed an agent took our lives and put them somewhere else. We assumed agents made storms and caused earthquakes. It’s a very natural thing to want to do.
As for the connections? I can’t say anything definitive on this. It could just be because thats the only way for the brain to ‘easily’ develop, but it also could be because that is the easiest way to gain data, insight and to see patterns. Simplier conclusions are actually harder to form and often don’t easily inform other parts of our brain. Like when I postulated that we approach new skills in a wild, uncoordinated fashion until we notice what sticks, that also seems to be the same way ideas work. We can make lots of connects — because they connections are more likely to help us than harm us in tribal man. Safer to be superstitious than to be brazen.
So now to get to the part about conspiracy theories with Osama’s death, I’ve been seeing a lot of these crop up again. Fair enough, it’s the skeptically responsible thing to not necessarily assume he’s dead (though anyone who flat out says he isn’t is being a great fool). I don’t see any sensible reason to doubt it yet (Sure we didn’t see the body, but lying about his death seems like it wouldn’t have much benefit in the long run), but it’s fine to be skeptical within reason. What actually has been getting me is that it also seems to have dredged up older, long debunked theories. From 9/11 stuff, to me (and this one baffles me the most) finding out that people my age sometimes still deny the moon landing. I generally don’t give much thought to these. They come from a bad place — constructed realities. They do the same thing fundamentalists do. They start with a premise and then look at holes in the official stories and inject the premise into those holes. Much like the “God of the Gaps” this is the “Conspiracy of the Gaps”. It’s a bad way to think that people seem very susceptible to. We all to some degree do it, just not anyways to such extremes.
I generally avoid factual arguments on the topic of conspiracies. It’s unrewarding work. Someone says something ridiculous, you spend an hour finding something credible on the topic, show them, they dismiss it and yack out some other unsubstantiated fact. Often I’m willing to do this for the bigger, more well documented theories, but thats another story. To me, it’s about how these theories are fundamentally flawed. They are fundamentally flawed because (among other reasons) they rely almost primarily on connections.
The CTist presents his long, detailed theory, connecting the former president to nazis and various involved companies and agencies to one another. Tons of people are brought in, each through a complex and ingenious theory, detailing motives and personal relationships. They go into plausible techniques on how various things could be faked and point out various oddities that prove the real story is fake.
“… Or maybe we just landed on this moon and the reason their are no stars in any of the photos is BECAUSE IT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING DAY”
“Oh isn’t that convenient”
Why yes it is convenient. Convenient and sensible. It’s problematic that all the connections made in the conspiracy theory is considered proof. By complicating the issue and implicating as many people or things as possible, we somehow lend an air of legitimacy to theories. That is pretty much the exact opposite of what we should look for in a good theory. It’s the concept of Occam’s Razor. Often the Razor is abused.
“Well if the simplest answer is likely true, then God and the fact we didn’t go the moon seem way more simple!”
Well… that’s not actually Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor (as modernized) goes…
Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity
And yet this is exactly how we’re wired to work. The more entities, the better! Necessity is a pretty funny thing — any tiny hole can be viewed as a need for a new entity. Perhaps a controlled demolition took place at the Twin Towers and we can see that in the sulfur residue on steel samples. Or maybe it was just the god damned gypsum walls. Again, it sounds convenient, but is it really less so than implicating thousands of people to do a task that is nearly impossible (wiring the building would have taken months) for practically no reason (.. you.. already hit a ton of shit with planes, what motivation do you have in blowing it up and risking blowing your conspiracy? What else does it gain you)? Or even better, if the whole explosive residue thing posted in a “peer reviewed journal” was a document, written by conspiracy theorists, put in an illegitimate journal that one nearly needs to pay a flat fee to get into? But it involves more entities — more agency — and we like that. Just look at our hollywood movies and TV shows. Complex webs of interactions and little details meant to stimulate our connection-oriented head… But reality rarely seems to be that. Underhanded politicing happens all the time, but generally in very direct ways and have simple explanations. Lets look at a real government secret! We have Area 51! Does it house aliens? Alien technology? The government was clearly up to some shady, secretive stuff over there! Well yeah, they were! How about a flying diamond — a flying wing if you will — thats invisible to radar? That’d sound pretty insane, but it’s just a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. That was secret government technology and information that they didn’t want falling into enemy hands. It was prototyped and tested in Area 51 and was responsible for a number of UFO sightings.
Another problem is that a lot of these theories goes about the issue of gaps the wrong way (again, like a fundementalist). Often things act in weird, unexplainable ways that defy expectation and these things are used as gaps for more theories. Compare this to say, something behaving in a way we’d expect before we realize that it shouldn’t have happened that way. The controlled demolition at least gets points because it fits into this — we’d assume the building fell, and it did, but they say it shouldn’t have. Granted, the assumption that it shouldn’t have is pretty wrong, but that’s another story. This is great when it comes to the moon landing conspiracies, which will illustrate the problem with this line of thinking.
Okay, no stars in the sky. This is easily debunked as I said above, but lets consider something else. If you were faking the moon landing, wouldn’t you have had someone poke holes in the black sheet? In a building filled with astro physicists, you’d think someone would go “Shit man, where are the stars!” … assuming there should have been stars, of course. Or issues with various light sources. All these things have explanations, but lets agian look deeper. What moron on set would have a second light source? You’d think a NASA scientist would be there, going “BITCH, WE ONLY GOT ONE LIGHT SOURCE UP THERE AND THATS THE FUCKING SUN”. Nah, lets risk blowing the whole conspiracy to look pretty. Or the footprints in the regolith? You’d think the thing to do would be for the astronauts NOT to make footprints, but the reality was unexpected. In fact if I recall, either Buzz or Armstrong noted how well their footprints stuck around while talking to NASA just because it was so weird. We didn’t understand that lunar soil would be so craggy, sharp and sticky and it behaved in an unexpected way. It’s more important to craft a narrative than it is to account for common sense. In fact, I think this is why the Moon Hoax is still around. Before they had the resources to debunk these people (the internet) they managed to craft a pretty huge narrative. It still makes a compelling story now, able to sucker in more people who want to be in the “in” crowd.
The stories and connections do not have to make sense in these theories. If you were to assume the 9/11 conspiracy theories to be true, you’d have a lot of weird things to work out. Why detonate a building you hit with a plane? Why not hit the pentagon with a plane you captured? Why use a cruise missile when you risk someone filming it? What possible purpose would that serve? In fact, why even bother hitting the pentagon at all? If your goal was to terrify the population, go to war and pass terrible legislation, why over complicate things? Why take unnecessary risk? Now if you were to say to me “Well, I believe they knew the attacks were coming and didn’t do anything so they had an excuse to do X X and X”, well… I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s reasonable. That’s not a terribly popular theory though, because it’s not nearly as sexy as it’s competition. These things are practically memetic and the most compelling theories survive, regardless of how easy they are to disprove. Only the appeal of the idea matters, as any defense can be written off as shilling for the government. In fact it’s easy to make that claim when your theory involves so many entities already! In fact the more people paid off, the more ‘evidence’ you have about the conspiracy! How silly.
David Wong over at Cracked wrote a great article years back about Loose Change. He takes a similar angle to mine (in fact he influenced mine), where it’s not about countering baseless claims with fact, but about addressing the psychology of the issue. The Loose Change business is old news, but the article is still a good read. David isn’t particularly pro government either (just look at some of his other articles), but knows a bad argument when he sees one.
Anyways that was way more writing than I thought I was going to do.