Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Collapsing Conspiracy Contradictions

People love conspiracy theories.  I have seen many beautiful and completely plausible theories on who killed President John F. Kennedy.  The only problem is not only are the theories mutually exclusive, they also often disprove each other.

Well researches have studies the conspiracy phenomena know, and find that not only can people believe in multiple conspiracy theories, they can also believe in theories that are not compatible with each other.  In the primary example, noted below, they address the idea that people believe that Lady Diana both staged her own death AND was murdered, and that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when the Navy Seals attacked, and that he is still alive.

Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton, Social Psychological and
Personality Science, 8 February 2012 (Hat tip: MR)

Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In [the first study] the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2, the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

At the very conclusion of their report:

In any case, the evidence we have gathered in the present study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs such as the conviction that authorities and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals. Connectivity with this central idea lends support to any individual conspiracy theory, even to the point that mutually contradictory theories fail to show a negative correlation in belief. Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.

My problem with conspiracies is that they generally require competence within a very large grouping of people. Particularly if only a couple of actors are involved, botched cover ups are much more plausible  Something I have never encountered.  It is one of the reasons that I have been attracted to Libertarianism (at least the theory) in the past.

Collapse theories, while not conspiracy theories, share some similarities, and some differences.  The primary difference to my mind is that they are forward looking.  But collapse theories, even those without an adversarial element, do have some commonalities with conspiratorial mind-think.

Back to our authors, but I am going to change the wording to reflect collapse theories:

For instance, imagine that someone is heavily invested in [the concept of sociatal collapse] and strongly believes in a wide variety of different [collapse] theories. A view societal imperminanse is coherent with all of these theories, and as such draws activation from them until it becomes a strongly held belief in itself....

Thus, we predict that for someone with a [collapse-ist] worldview, nearly any theory that assumes sociatal collapse in its explanation for a world event and stands in opposition to the ‘‘mainstream’’ account will garner some agreement. This relationship may hold even to the point that people who believe in [world ready to collapse are] likely to endorse contradictory [collapse] theories about the same topic.
So it is very possible for people to have a set of theories that have both a catastrophic global economic caused by a global new world order that includes an entangling economic web, and invasion/occupation that involves these same entangled world powers whose economies are supposed to have collapsed.  So authorMr. Rawles can have his hero trying to bycle through a collapsing Europe on his way home to the U.S. and at the same time these Europeans (in the parallel earlier novel) will be occupying the United States and interested in occupying North Dakota.

So does this make collapse theorists foolish?
To my mind it makes them normal.  Our society, political parties, religious views are full of conflicting compromises that we have make our belief systems simple enough that we can act on them in somewhat useful manner.   Most people are not going to be bothered to think through all of the options as a total package synthesis. 
If you buy into the idea of an economic collapse that allows some sort of plausible, individualistic retreat scenario, you are probably also going to like Crawford's EMP scenarios, even if the most obvious EMP scenarios would normally include enough regular style nukes to melt the planet.
If you are city folk who believe in global warming, you are going to tend to subscribe to all the ecological scenarios of doom.  You will believe in global warming, even at the same time that peak oil implies that we are running out of stuff to heat the world up with.  You are more likely to believe in a future dystopia (versus complete collapse) and are not going to be as interested in scenarios that require bugout bags. 
My point is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns, or conspiracies, but that energy brought to these beliefs is going to tend to skew what you find plausible.  In fiction the single most overlooked problem is that while there is an enormous history of societal collapse, the people living within that society never really know when, where, or exactly how it is going to occur.  There are an awful lot of survivalists folks ready for the big one back in the cold war who have since dead of old age.  The problem is not only surviving a collapse of 'X' type, but surviving up to that point in our current circumstances.
Post Script Note:  The big fictional exception to my point in the last paragraph is Steven Amsterdam's Things We didn't See Coming.  In the first chapter, almost a prequel, the main protagonist is hiding out in the rural areas Australia waiting for the Y2K collapse: many years before it occurs in the novel.


Suburban Survivalist said...


The thing that gets me about conspiracy theories is the “…authorities and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals” part. Like you, I see that as a case of three can keep a secret if two are dead.

Obviously I believe a number of collapse scenarios are plausible, but most of those aren’t mutually exclusive and one could often trigger another; e.g. a financial collapse triggers a war with Iran and/or North Korea and we get either nuked or EMPed. Or a plague caused collapse triggers multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns as no one is there to maintain them. And so on.

I think a factor for those that dismiss all collapse scenarios is normalcy bias. It has never occurred (in modern times), it will not occur. Things will remain our normal. Something pointed out in The Last Pilgrims that I failed to mention in the review is that Bunker discusses just that issue.

What I believe will be different about an American vs. a Roman collapse is our dependence on a massive network of interdependent systems. And in general “we” don’t know how to do with out them anymore.

I better be going, think I saw a black helicopter out there…


russell1200 said...

SS: Yes, the overlap of possible collapses is worrisome.

Look at Rome, you have a severe political collapse (civil war), economic collapse, the economic collapse lead to civic collapse, it is possible there was a population collapse (happens in extended poor economic times), which lead to settling barbarians ont he wrong side of the Rhine, you had a variety of nasty plagues, and then of course you have those pesky Barbarians, and Huns. There is also the possiblity of an end of period volcanic eruption to make sure the Eastern Empire did not reconquer the West, and brought on another wave of barbarians (The Avars).

What worries me most in todays setting is that so many of the scenarios could lead to a large nuclear war. It is the most severe existential threat we face.

Normalcy bias is an interesting idea. I think it has some merits. In addition, I think Americans have a very strong bias towards exceptionalism. After about 200 years of very successful Empire building, a little bit of exceptionalims is understandable. Its just that the long term track record of previous empires is not very encouraging.