Conspiratorial Thinking

Conspiracy theorists and ignoramuses.

I’m going to talk about conspiracy theorists, but first, I’m going to talk about organized behavior in organic systems such as flocks of birds, because it will serve an illustrative purpose. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about formal logic. Finally, I’ll bring both observations together.

First, the point about organic systems. Look at a flock of birds sometime. You’ll notice that the flock moves as a cohesive unit; the birds all seem to change direction at more-or-less the same time. The flock sticks together somehow, even though there’s no plan. If you’ve read any popular biology, you know what’s coming next: the birds all react to one another according to a very simple set of instinctive rules. They maintain a certain distance from one another, and if the distance gets too big or too small, they adjust their flight accordingly. Schools of fish work similarly. The flock of birds, or school of fish, functions as a cohesive unit despite there being no central planning. There’s no top-down processing involved, just a lot of birds reacting to one another. Ant colonies do something similar, and the ant colony as a whole can even “plan” things that individual ants could never do. People have invented a lot of fancy terminology around this: to philosophers, this is one example of “emergent behavior” and to computer scientists it’s “swarm intelligence.” The take-away is that big complicated systems can show very organized behavior even if there is no central planning. This can come from the interaction of simple individual parts, or from the environmental conditions.

Second, the point about formal logic. There is a rule in formal logic called “modus ponens” which is a very fancy name for a very simple thing. Modus ponens just means that, if A is true, and A implies B, then B is true. If I have two hands, and having two hands means that I have an even number of hands, then I have an even number of hands. If I’m a human, and if being a human means I must be a mammal, then I’m a mammal. If A is true, and A implies B, then B is true. There’s another rule called “modus tollens” which states that, if B is false and A implies B, then A is also false. If being a cat implies being an animal, but I’m not an animal, then I can’t be a cat. If being a god implies being immortal but I’m not immortal, then I must not be a god. Again, these are scary-sounding Latin terms, but they’re really very simple rules of inference that you already understand intuitively. The point is to make that understanding explicit.

Notice that, for any inference, you can take it in either direction. Let’s say that being a cat implies being a mammal. Now, let’s say that I am convinced that Rex is a cat, whereas you are convinced that Rex can’t possibly be a mammal. Since I’m convinced that Rex is a cat, and all cats are mammals, then I will naturally conclude that Rex is a mammal. Since you’re convinced that Rex can’t possibly be a mammal, you’ll conclude that Rex must not be a cat. Notice that we both agree on the fundamental inference here: we both agree that all cats are mammals. The difference is that I take that inference in its modus ponens direction and say that Rex must be a mammal since he’s a cat; you take the inference in its modus tollens direction and say that Rex can’t possibly be a cat since he’s not a mammal.

One place where humans run into trouble is when we assume that centralized planning is necessary for organized behavior. We assume this premise: “If anything shows organized behavior, then there must be someone controlling it.” Strangely enough, this can manifest in two diametrically opposed ways: it can make you a conspiracy theorist, or it can cause you to dismiss organized behavior as a “coincidence” because there’s no central planning. In both cases, the fundamental error is the assumption that any organized behavior on the systemic level must be due to central planning. For example, what if you assumed this: “Since the flock functions as a cohesive unit, there must be one bird planning it all.” This can led to conspiratorial thinking (“There must be one bird planning it all!”) or to dismissal (“The flock just stays together by accident”). You can call the first case the conspiracy theorist, and the second case the ignoramus. The conspiracy theorist takes the inference in its modus ponens direction to say that the system must be centrally controlled because it obviously shows signs of organized behavior. The ignoramus says that there can’t be any organized behavior, because there’s no central control. Both the conspiracy theorist and the ignoramus are really making the same fundamental mistake, which is assuming that organized behavior can only arise from central planning.

For example, look at how the amount of surveillance in society has slowly increased over the years. There are car insurance companies now that will let you put a device into your car that measures your mileage, and then they’ll adjust your rate based on your mileage; Facebook and Instagram will show you ads based on things your microphone picks up; Apple has recently begun using AI to scan private photos for images of child abuse. Why has this happened? Why is everyone’s private life increasingly under surveillance? The answer is that, as information technology becomes more advanced, it’s just convenient for companies to gather data on consumers, because this allows them to get better at turning a profit, ethical ramifications notwithstanding. It may appear that there is an organized attempt to bring everything under surveillance, but that’s not really true. It’s really an emergent phenomenon.

Notice, however, that there is no central planning here. And also notice what happens if you make the mistake of assuming central planning. A conspiracy theorist will claim that the companies are all secretly in cahoots and they’re trying to drag us into an Orwellian nightmare. An ignoramus will say that there hasn’t been any increase in the amount of surveillance and that I’m just imagining things. In both cases, the fundamental error is the same: both the conspiracy theorist and the ignoramus believe that any organized behavior must be rooted in central control. They just take that assumption in different directions. The conspiracy theorist says, “This system is exhibiting organized behavior, which means that the companies must all be secretly cooperating under some central control.” The ignoramus says, “There is no centralized control here, so any apparent organized behavior is really just a coincidence.”

If you deny the basic inference here and claim that organized behavior does not necessarily come from central planning, both the conspiracy theorists and the ignoramuses will attack you. The conspiracy theorists will hit you over the head with signs of organized behavior and scream “Wake up, sheepl!” while the ignoramuses will shove the lack of central planning in your face and call you a conspiracy theorist. In order to understand why both are wrong, a certain level of careful analysis is required, because the falsehood here is based on a subtle distinction that most people have not consciously thought of.