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Seduction of The Scheme[Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to what almost was an on-time Trenchant Edges episode.
I’ve finally decided to call these episodes. Fuck it, transmedia all the way down.
Because I like the ambiguity of the word. Is it a 30-minute block of television that’s actually 22 minutes so you can squeeze all the ads in the world in the other 8 minutes? One in an ongoing series? Or a period of intense mental illness? Hell, maybe it’s a section between two choric songs in a Greek tragedy.
The only way to know, dear readers, is to read further.
Last week we discussed a mostly harmless and fun conspiracy theory, Paul is Dead. I mainly got into it because I thought it’d be funny if Fake Paul (the one who replaced him after Revolver but before Sgt Pepper or the white album) was the better musician.
Then I got obsessed about proving it.
But that turned out easy.
Anyway, in the world of conspiracies we talk about this is pretty harmless unless you’re a Beatle (and statistically, one-fifth of you are) or Paul McCartney.
The odds of that turning into a pogrom seem low at this point. Not zero, history teaches us the world is often silly in the worst possible ways, but close.
Today I want to talk a bit about why we’re drawn to conspiracies even when the evidence for them is lacking.
A ton has been written on the subject and we can more or less group them into three camps: Basic facts, Sociology, and Neurology. We’re only going through the first third here.
I really tried to think of a different title for this section other than basic facts
I couldn’t come up with one though.
These are just some true things that lead to people believing in Conspiracy Theories.
Before we start I want to make a clear distinction here, because some people don’t like the phrase Conspiracy Theory. After all, it’s pejorative. Well, tough shit. It certainly describes a real enough pattern of behaviors that are uh deserving of both criticism and often even contempt.
There’s a difference between believing unanchored paranoid ideation, the free association of a mind looking to buy into its waste products, and a mind following evidence where it leads.
Two big ones.
The first is certainty. Conspiracy Theorists are believers before anything else. They *KNOW*.
This is a problem for lots of reasons but mainly ambiguity. If you have a conclusion you’re already bought into, all the evidence will appear to fit it.
This is a universal bug of human cognition and if we’ve learned anything from generative AI over the last year, probably all cognition. Yes, I know Large Language Models don’t think, but I think the issue here stands anyway: Perceptual errors accumulate and magnify each other.
Reasoning is contingent: You build a chain of arguments and a weakness anywhere in the chain is weakness everywhere.
It’s easy to think yourself into heaven or hell with the right stimulation.
CTs tend to overstate their cases in ways that don’t hold water logically. And resent anyone who points this out.
Yes, this is a stereotype. But it’s one worth having because it demonstrates what not to do. It’s a cautionary tale for several reasons. First, CTs can’t organize with non-CTs who don’t share their views. This makes them personally alienated and politically impotent.
They’ve got their special issue and don’t give a fuck about anything else. Having repeatedly had 9/11 Truthers around activist work I’ve done I’m more or less convinced that if they didn’t exist the feds would need to invent them. And I'm not saying they didn't.
The other issue is they’re frequently just completely fucking wrong. Baseless, clueless, shadowboxing helps nobody.
So that’s the strawman I’m pointing against. A nexus of overlapping cognitive errors built on a mix of fact and bullshit that pushes people towards behaving the same way.
Much of this is widely known so why are people drawn to conspiracy theories anyway?
I’m making up a dichotomy here so the edges are easier to see. On one hand, we have Conspiracy Theorists who’ve cognitively dead-ended themselves by committing to a range of hard-to-prove positions. And on the other hand, we have speculation about scheming.
Let’s get to the list I was supposed to write hundreds of words of disclaimer ago.
Schemes happen all the time and occasionally Conspiracy Theories are right
Low trust situations
Information asymmetry between self and others and between ingroup and outgroup
So, the thing is that Scheming is pretty much constant human behavior. I could put it in more neutral terms like “Goal Setting” but it’s just outcome-seeking behavior.
It’s normal and natural and the expectation people will do so is obvious and near universal. That gets us in trouble sometimes because many activities are better without goal-direction. But we’re going to resist the pull of that tantalizing digression.
At this point, it’s worth bringing up the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.
“also known as Brandolini's Law, states that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.”
For our purposes here what matters isn’t anything to do with refutation but the simple fact that the number of claims one might make far exceeds the number one can investigate.
Let’s use George W. Bush Did 9/11 as our example here.
Did Bush do 9/11 to instate martial law? to cover up crimes recorded at the offices in the WTC? For insurance fraud? Etc.
It’s easy to speculate. It’s hard to investigate.
So sometimes conspiracy theorists are right. I remember after 9/11, some fringe folks were saying the attacks were a pretext for going to war with Iraq.
Separate Bush did 9/11, though, and that gives us a verified fact: Bush was thinking about going to war in Iraq according to Bob Woodward’s books on his administration. And then he lied about Sadaam Hussein’s WMDs and connection with Bin Laden as part of doing it.
Whether Bush did 9/11 or not, he did scheme to invent a pretext to invade Iraq.
So were conspiracy theorists right?
Well, if you take their claims strictly, no. Not unless he actively ordered and organized 9/11.
But if you’re willing to move some goalposts around or weren’t interested in the 9/11 bit, they were right.
Which one counts? Both and neither, IMO.
If the point is fuck W, I’m in.
This brings us to our next point: Conspiracies are the practical reality of low-trust social situations.
I don’t trust George W. Bush, so I assume the guy’s up to no good. It’s as true for QAnon Digital Soldiers. Hell, most of them also hate W, even if they’re for basically the same people.
Trust is weird a lot of the time.
And speculating about people you don’t trust is a big part of having to engage with them at all. What are they going to do? How can you prepare to deal with it?
These are more or less normal questions to ask about someone you think is going to be a problem. I believe that what we call general intelligence more or less evolved out of a kind of gossip arms race: Better capacity to skillfully talk about what other people were up to was (and remains) a huge social advantage among primates.
So if you take that interpersonal pattern and then filter it through mass media, you get these messy, conflicting cultic milieu-type social situations where everyone points weapons at each other all the time.
It’s a bad sign. A warning of bonds already broken and worse things to come.
It’s common to complain about polarization in politics for as long as I’ve been alive and this is part of how it works: In the US, both the Democrats and Republicans have done enough shit that it’s easy to assume they’re up to worse shit.
And again, sometimes it’s true.
It’s both a symptom of decaying trust and an agent of further fraying.
It used to be common to call people who didn’t buy into a particular conspiracy claim Sheeple, as if any particular claim was more likely to be true than anything on the news.
In practice, it’s all gossip until proven otherwise. And nobody has time to prove otherwise for more than a small fraction of gossip.
So we’re all working with bad estimates of what’s going on.
Usually, this is because the price for being wrong in most things is small. Get some band or movie trivia wrong and you might be embarrassed for a couple minutes. Get something a bit wrong at work and you might get yelled at.
Small potatoes more often than not.
Which brings us to Belief-Risk Arbitrage. If you’re a normal person and say believe in a flat earth, it mostly doesn’t matter if you’re wrong unless you’re doing some kind of work where the curvature of the Earth matters.
So the risk is minimal. You’re not going to get anyone killed for it. But what if you’re right? Sure, maybe that’s a near-zero chance, but since the downside risk is also pretty low unless you’re around people tired of dealing with flat earthers, it’s a pretty good deal,
And you can act like you’re right immediately. So you feel good about yourself, you’ve proven you’re a smart person who can see through the veil.
The fact that it’s wrong doesn’t really matter.
And this holds pretty true of lots of conspiracy theories until it doesn’t.
Like, it’s one thing to believe something crazy or silly. But it’s easy to start collecting that stuff because it’s crazy or silly. I did. If you’re reading this you probably did too.
But you also have to recognize when it stops being a game. It probably doesn't matter too much if a lot of people believe wrong things about the shape of the earth. But if you take The “Great” Replacement conspiracy, which accuses The Jews of trying to import “easily controlled” nonwhite people into “white” countries to genocide white people, suddenly you’ve got a different story.
Not many people believe the full version of that and it’s already killed at least hundreds of people.
It’s easy to lose sight of the risk side of things if you’re just playing a game but that’s how these things hook people.
Arbitrage is a process of trying to get the most out of shifting between different zones of culture. And some beliefs are dangerous to have in some places and harmless in others.
It’s contextual and tricky.
And if what you’ve got is the internet, time, and your own mental processes to reflect on, you’ve got a ton of options to mess with yourself. If you’re optimizing for entertainment or how far against the mainstream you can go you’re going to twist yourself into some weird pretzels.
We’re almost done here, just two more things to go.
The next to last is information asymmetry, particularly between groups. We all kind of fundamentally deal with this issue because we know much more about our own internal experience and process than we do about others.
The why is obvious: We spend almost 100% of the time we’re alive and awake with ourselves. There are a lot of ways that can blind us to ourselves, sure, but compare that with someone you’ve met for 5 minutes and had an argument with.
If they’re an asshole, who are you going to sympathize with? Even if you were an asshole first it’s probably going to be you. Why? You have pretty easy access to what a shitty day you’ve had and how little you’ve needed this crap.
Maybe they had the same day. Or a way worse one. Maybe they’re just an asshole. You can’t really know unless you learn things that this hypothetical makes unlikely.
There’s no way to know but to work to find out and it’s easy to be misled.
This same thing works on a group level.
I see a lot of naive resistance to “The Mainstream Media” by people who don’t interact with it at all. Often, I’ll be told that they’re hiding some shit that I read about earlier that day in like, the New York Times.
Now, maybe I’m the one out of touch there: I only read print. I couldn’t care less what’s on cable.
I’m certainly in a minority there these days.
But as I’ve been arguing for years: “The Media” is really a lot of different things and it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s doing if you’re trying to. It’s easy to just assume they’re hiding this or that because you didn’t look.
Now apply that to larger groups like races or ethnicities, and the trouble is obvious. If you think about “them” as a monolithic and malicious other, yeah, you’re going to interpret anything they do as bad. You fixed the conclusion by how you went about looking at it.
This applies almost everywhere and if you don’t account for it, it’s easy to write in fantasies about what “They’re” like and doing and how they’re out to get you when they probably don’t think about you at all.
Alright, we’re over here so let’s make this last one fast.
Insight is a great high
Ever had a moment where you suddenly transformed your understanding of the world, redefining everything you know? Did you feel the thrill of recognition? Of seeing the world anew.
Like a lot of people that’s how I got into this fringe stuff. “What if!?” and then I get curious.
I’m always on the hunt for a new hint of epiphany.
Little or big, whatever. The bigger the better, but there don’t seem to be as many of those anymore.
Of course, like trying to find the perfect opium high it hits diminishing returns. There are only so many times a fact can blow your mind before your mind gets used to having the rug pulled from under it.
Sometimes you ask, “OK yeah what’s the next level?” but there isn’t a coherent one next and you have to switch paradigms.
It’s all tricky.
This is the rush, btw, that fuels the alt-right pipeline. “Redpills” like breadcrumbs telling you the alleged secrets of the world to lead all the way into an ecosystem of fascists.
And that’s the rub in the whole thing.
All of Conspiracism, this whole cultic milieu, is as much of a psychic parasite as any other culture is. With hooks leading to almost all of the same places.
The system we live under is very good at using people who think they oppose it. Old Philip K Dick phrased it like this: The Empire Never Ended.
And building a world worth living in for everyone requires that to change.
I’ve been playing around a bit with the style and structure of this one, I hope it worked out.
Want to limit my ranting to 10ish minutes at a time ;-)
In true Me fashion this entire episode has been kind of disclaimers I wanted to write before getting into the more academic-y stuff. Sadly, I don’t always control what I write. Best I can do is aim at a subject and wave my fingers in the right direction.
We’ll get into that crap next week.
For now, I’m curious about your experience with conspiracy theories. What was the first one you heard that made you think… maybe? How’d you react? Do you still believe it?
Alright, that’s enough for today.
See you slightly more on time next week.
Instead of trying to write something cute or unhinged I just want to thank everyone who’s subscribed past or currently. Y’all have saved me from so many bank fees it’s ridiculous.