Saturday, 11 September 2010

Conspiracy Theories, Dana Scully, and AJP Taylor

There can be no doubt that conspiracies exist.

Sometimes things happen which can only be explained by co-operation by those with an improper motive.

Sometimes such co-ordination can occur in the public sphere: ministers, officials, and state agents, together can be engaged in conduct injurious to the interests of those whom they are supposedly serving.

And sometimes such activity - or inactivity - is done in silence, on the basis of silent intuitions or shared assumptions, rather than by any express agreement.

I enjoy a good conspiracy story.

For me, one of the great merits of the X-Files show was the unfolding of the "mythology" - the story of a conspiracy between terrestrial and extra-terrestrial agencies behind a tactic of plausible deniability.

The show had other merits.

So conspiracies do happen, and they make good drama, but when should one believe that they occur in our non-fictional world?

My view is relatively simple.

There are conspiracies and there are cock-ups, and conspiracies tend to occur so as to hide the cock-ups.

It is only when there is something to hide that groups of people will have sufficient presence of mind and mutual interest to work in such a concerted way.

Such anxious and strict co-ordination seems rare for human beings unless there is some evasive and selfish purpose.

However, it must be said that "coincidences" do seem to happen.

And sometimes these coincidences do seem to be convenient.

For example, we have recently seen the investigation of the founder of WikiLeaks.

Many jumped quickly to the view that there must be a conspiracy, even though there was no evidence, but because the timing seemed such a coincidence.

But disconnected events do happen.

The political genius is usually not someone who can contrive such useful events, but someone who can exploit the opportunity presented by an unexpected event.

In his works of diplomatic history, my favourite historian AJP Taylor repeatedly showed how politicians and diplomats invariably reacted to unexpected events; sometimes to their advantage, but sometimes rather badly.

All because a politician can exploit an unexpected event does not mean that the event was unexpected.

After all, being able to manipulate opportunities is often how such people become powerful in the first place.

The most sensible position is to have a presumption against a conspiracy theory being correct, especially when the available information is limited.

This is not to deny that that the conspiracy theory can be correct; but the first step should not be to theorise but to seek further information and to work out how the situation should be investigated.

That is why this blog has urged that:

- the investigation against Julian Assange proceed under Due Process;

- there be a formal inquest in to the death of Dr David Kelly; and

- the allegation in the New York Times that there is collusion between News International and the Metropolitan Police be the subject of a fair and open inquiry.

When faced with the possibility of a conspiracy, the lazy mind may assume that there "must" be one.

This is rarely correct.

However, the better response is not to simply deny the conspiracy but, if it is sufficiently serious an allegation to warrant examination, to look at the evidence and to apply the appropriate methodology to the evidence.

In politically-charged matters, this may include a formal criminal investigation, or a coroner's inquest, or a parliamentary or judicial inquiry.

And that is an evidence-based approach upon which both Agent Scully and AJP Taylor (who otherwise would seem to have little in common other than my idolisation) would agree.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Wigarse said...

While the one sentence = one paragraph style of writing is bearable, or even charming, for small posts, for long ones such as this it is such a distraction as to make the thing unreadable: I gave up about halfway down. We're none of us perfect and we all make mistakes in our writing, constant sniping over punctuation errors and typos is tiresome (although I'm sure this comment will attract some), but please PLEASE will you listen to the comments from your readers criticising this practice and stop hitting return after every full stop? I really enjoy reading what you write and I would really like to be able to do it uninterrupted.

Steve Jones said...

I have a problem with the name "conspiracy theory" when it is used to described situations where an outlandish and contrived theory perpetuates far beyond the point where any rational analysis would dismiss it. I prefer to think of these as "conspiracy cults" as they are usually beyond any rational debate.

I think "conspiracy theories" come from a combination of those that have preconceived (and often very simplistic notions) of the evil motivations of those perceived to be powerful, and an inability, or disinclination, to analyse issues in a rational manner. This is reinforced, or very possibly, initiated by some sense of purpose, grievance or other motivation which provides for no other explanation.

Demetrius said...

The problem is human beings. Notably those who go blundering about mouthing off about things they know little and poking their noses into things they should stay away from. Sadly a huge proportion of politicians are persons of this kind. It is little surprising that thinkers and analysts become suspicious.

Chris McCray said...

One of these re-statements of Hanlon's Razor should fit each of the three cases outlined.

I particularly like the brevity of Bernhard Ingham's Cock-Up Theory - "cock-up before conspiracy".

chris said...

The well-designed conspiracy will look like a cock-up if uncovered.

Alexander said...

Probably the biggest current conspiracy is the 'climate science' presented in the 4th Assessment Report of the IPCC! Here's how it has worked:

In 1988 the modellers decided to assume high positive feedback for AGW. By the mid-'90s the results were so much more than reality, they assumed 'global dimming' by man-made aerosols had to be cooling the Earth. Come 2003, the major part of this, by clouds, could not be proved experimentally.

So, the man whose theory had predicted the effect but which in fact is only a partial analysis, was given a prize. NASA now publishes a similar but totally bogus explanation apparently widely believed in the discipline. The IPCC report went ahead with predicted AGW nearly twice as large as can be justified by the data. When the models are revamped, as they must, predicted AGW will be much lower: a third, even a quarter.

Because cloud optical physics was mistaken 40 years' ago [and yes, I do know why but it'll be very difficult to publish], the report is based the biggest bait and switch in History!

BenSix said...

"cock-up before conspiracy"

Perhaps, but that's not true of, say, the Mosaddeq coup, MKULTRA, Operation Gladio, the CIA's part in drug smuggling, the lies that preceded Iraq (not to mention more contentious examples like Lockerbie or the Gulf of Tonkin).

English Pensioner said...

We all love conspiracy theories, whether it is the belief that the moon landing never happened and was all filmed in the Nevada desert, or my own private one that Cherie Blair was responsible for the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to further the interests of the Roman Catholic Church.
They are great fun, but I can't remember any of note which actually turned out to be true.

An afterthought:- What about man-made climate change? Surely this is a conspiracy to provide work for the believers!

Thomas Atcheson said...

While the post was an interesting point of view, I have to two contray points.

First, there are people who beleive that everything is a conspiracy. For example the 9/11 conspiracists who think the US governement fabricated the war on terror by creating this tragic event.

Far beyond the question of 'why', is the investigation into fact. Most of the 'evidence' is selective and plucked from thousands of rushed updates trying to create some sense of understanding about the events which were fast changing and incomprehensible.

Like the people who try and convince me that God predicted World War 1 because it is "written in the bible", there are people who select information and use it to manipulate others even if the information doesn't stack up.

My other point is over the use of an inquiry, particularly one that may need evidence to be given in camera.

Sometimes creating a focus for these conspirasists only fans the flames. The truth, the evidence based findings again are picked over, distorted and labelled as " they would say that wouldn't they".

I'm not advocating the avoidance of such inquiries, but it is important to ensure they aren't set up purely to quash speculation by those with an agenda.

The MacPuddock. said...

I suppose my natural disposition is to cock-up rather than conspiracy.
But just recently I followed a Guardian article about conspiracy theorising:

As might be expected, there were all the usual protagonists and counter theorists, and some links to the conspiracy theorising over 9/11. Included were links to the David Chandler youtube video, where he argues that there is evidence of 'freefall' of the WTC7 tower.
In one video he shows the government investigators clearly caught flat-footed by a question, with all the usual signs of blustering and blather that accompanies a schoolchild caught out in not doing their homework.
The point here is that the thesis presented by David Chandler is perfectly susceptible to analysis. He has asked a perfectly reasonable question, made a 'reasonable' inference from his observation of freefall, (that freefall is highly unlikely in a naturally collapsing building).
He demonstrates his logic and methods.
The point I suppose I want to make is that his "conspiracy" position is perfectly open to debate and a relatively straightforward refutation by an investigation by a conventional process of enquiry.
I am pretty sure I could do it myself, if I had time and resources.

I am sure there are organisations with ample resources, but I could not find a convincing, point-by-point refutation of the "conspirators" position, despite the fact that the 'opposing' view is supported by a highly resourced agency.
Yes,there were alternative suggestions, but no straightforward confrontations/challenge/rebuttal of his methods and theory. e.g. he falsified/misread/ miscalculated the speed of the camera shots; he measured the height incorrectly; his inference that the event was not natural is wrong because there is evidence that.......... etc. etc.

Most people are not able to make any kind of judgement on these matters and are left with a void of understanding.
If conspiracy theorising is so absurd, why is there such an apparent difficulty in countering such ideas, when they are not even complex problems.
But that's another conspiracy. Oops.

bensix said...


"The most sensible position is to have a presumption against a conspiracy theory being correct, especially when the available information is limited."

Why not just be undecided? Prof Brian Keeley writes that...

There is no “mark of the incredible,” as it were (as Hume argues there is for reports of miracles). As a result, contrary to being able to reject conspiracy theories out of hand, prior to any investigation, we ought to adopt an agnostic attitude with respect to conspiratorial claims.


"They are great fun, but I can't remember any of note which actually turned out to be true."

Here's a few!


"First, there are people who beleive that everything is a conspiracy. For example the 9/11 conspiracists who think the US governement fabricated the war on terror by creating this tragic event."

Well, that's true of some but I suspect - heck, know - it's not of others.

Sometimes creating a focus for these conspirasists only fans the flames.

Inquiries are needed when data is missing/unconfirmed. If you've got a situation when that's true eccentric theorists aren't important. Without all the necessary data you can't shape a better one.

Mark Bailey said...

I strongly suspect that at least two posts above are from supporters of a particular conspiracy theory... I think I could even name one without clicking on his link!

However, that aside, I just wanted to state my appreciation of the marvellous bit of between-the-lines implied in the sentence/paragraph "The show had other merits." (Long, appreciative pause implied...)

Also, I agree with the point - that most "conspiracies" are actually the result either of cock-ups or are inferred from an imposition on the series of events, an apparently plausible and logical set of explanations.

We grow up able to recognise patterns. Some people see patterns where none genuinely exist. When the non-existence of the pattern is suggested, the person who suggested such is accused of being "part of the conspiracy". And events such as the UEA emails hack, revealing what can only be described as a cock-up in the communications combined with a cherry-picking of the most significant cock-ups, simply reinforce the faith of those who firmly believe the conspiracy.

All the rest of us can do, is sit back, sigh in a world-weary way, and contemplate... Dana Scully...

Pacal said...

Well I don't take most far out Conspiracy theories seriously at all. They seriously underestimate the human ability to F*** up! I note that one of the above commenters takes seriously the "Climate Conspiracy" distortion. Well it is very well documented that climate warming denilists distort with great and consistant regularity. see the Deltoid website for many, many examples.

As for A.J.P. Taylor, he is not my favorite historian by a long shot. He wrote some truly excellent history books but then horribly damaged his reputation as an historian by writing The Origins of the Second World War, the book has been since it was published torn to pieces by other historians. His portrayal of Hitler in the book is so wrong headed as to be almost a joke. A.J.P. Taylor further contends against massive evidence that Danzig was what Hitler wanted in 1939 and that he did not want to invade and destroy Poland. That Hitler was a rational politician, if more than ussually ruthless, is an axiom with Taylor and all evidence is bent and or ignored to fit this preconcieved thesis. That Hitler was a racist and geo-political fantasist is wished away by Taylor in a fog of wishful thinking. Taylor again and again reads Hitler's mind with his awesome psychic powers so that he "knows" that Hitler was just an opportunistic politician.

Taylor for example claims that Hitler said things he Taylor "knew" to be not Hitler's real views that Hitler was only talking for effect. Taylor is in my opinion in this book a shocking slipshod historian.

gyg3s said...

"Perhaps, but that's not true of, say, ..., MKULTRA"

following on from the comment from where I've got the quotation above.

There's something very distasteful about the snide, supercillious dismal of those advocating conspiracy theories.

Imagine, it's the mid 1970s; someone knocks at a lawyer's door. He explains that he's an orphan from Canada and that he believes the CIA have used him for their experiments, dosing him with LSD when he was a child in the orphanage. Further, he explains that this has had a severe effect on his mental faculties such that he is suffering from mental illness.

A lot of people who dismiss conspiracy theories would dismiss this client.