Archive for February, 2009

The subject of conspiracy theory keeps nagging at me. The more I think about the kinds of situations that give rise to conspiracy theories, the less they seem like matters that we might hope to resolve by establishing clear-cut facts of history or politics. Instead, they present a kind of philosophical black hole.

A year ago, I suggested — at least half seriously — that conspiracy theories may challenge our assumption that there is a real reality out there which we can discover by applying the proper methods. I still suspect that might be true, but at the moment I’m more inclined to see the problem not as one of ontology — the nature of reality itself — but of epistemology — the sources of human knowledge.

We human beings are, on the whole, very good at starting with an inadequate set of clues and squeezing useful information out of them. The more complex and fragmentary the data we have to work with, however, the more likely we are to run up against the limitations of our methodology.

One of our most tried-and-true approaches is to patiently sift through whatever facts are available, looking for similarities and meaningful connections, until we arrive at some sort of conclusion. This method works best in the physical sciences, where the facts are solid and unambiguous and follow simple patterns of cause and effect.

It becomes less reliable when we try to apply it to living creatures, unless we have enough data to look for statistically meaningful patterns. And if our sample includes many rare or unique events — as is frequently the case with human history — the “noise” of individual goals and idiosyncrasies is likely to drown out the “signal” of any coherent pattern.

That is why our history books tend to be strongest on stirring accounts of kings and wars and revolutions and weak on plausible generalizations about how empires rise and fall or why civilizations appear in some places and not in others. With rare exceptions, we just don’t know enough to distinguish the unique from the universal.

This is the same problem that afflicts conspiracy theories. Because events like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 are unique in modern American history, there is nothing to which they can usefully be compared. No amount of fact-gathering will ever lead to definitive conclusions, and adding new and possibly irrelevant bits of data to the mix tends to blur the picture instead of clarifying it.

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