Monday, May 07, 2007

Bill Whittle takes on conspiracy thinking


It’s called Occam’s Razor, and not Occam’s Hypothesis, or Occam’s Theorem, or Occam’s Bit of Useful Advice, because it is a razor it cuts cleanly and with great efficiency.

And though it pains me to say so, this culture is in desperate need of a shave
It deserves to be read in full.

I think that he nails the personality of the average Grassy Knoller

I’ll tell you something. These conspiracy theorists that ignore that miserable, pathetic, self-aggrandizing egomaniac named Lee Harvey Oswald, or glorify him as a patsy and a hero, do so because deep down inside they realize something unpleasant about Lee Harvey Oswald and themselves.

They are Oswald
Whittle knows his conspiracy theories and he understands the importance of critical thinking.

Heinlein said something important on the latter point:

The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning while those other subjects merely require scholarship.
Loony literature can look very scholarly with hundreds of footnotes and long appendices. It is the logic and critical thinking that is missing. Sometimes, basic honesty in handling the sources is a little scarce as well.

The sad thing is that the same weakness shows up in many respectable academic departments. How many trees have died so that historians could argue that Stalin was not a mass murderer or that Alger Hiss was a victim of anti-Communist paranoia?

It happens right before our eyes in the blogosphere. There are plenty of blogs that refuse to believe the NC Attorney General in the Duke lacrosse case. They ignore the evidence and write of dark, formless conspiracies. Or, they ignore most of the evidence and twist a few points to create the shadow of a hint of a doubt that maybe something illegal happened. They sound like Birchers and are too far gone to realize it.

Whittle is right that such thinking usually grows out of the limited mind and stunted personality of the conspiracist. The possession of dangerous, secret knowledge is intoxicating and gives meaning to those whose achievements fall short of their self-esteem.

The late Michael Kelly touched on another part of the appeal. Knowingness is an attribute that is easy to acquire. Knowledge requires hard study and hard thinking. Knowingness is the lazy way out.

Photon Courier discusses this as it applies to academia.
This is especially apt:

Why is theory (which would often more accurately be called meta-theory) so attractive to so many denizens of university humanities departments? To some extent, the explanation lies in simple intellectual fad-following. But I think there is a deeper reason. Becoming an alcolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships--all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics--you don't need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying "that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors" (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan's unusual novel True Crime.)
To go back to Heinlein and the academy, i've come to believe that the really fuzzy fields like sociology use scholarship and theory to avoid both logic and data.

Ideological commitment plays a role, too. Oswald was inconvenient for the Left. If JFK was murdered by a right-winger in a right-wing city, it confirms the Left's view of the world. But if he died at the hands of a communist revolutionary wannabe, then things get messy. It is no wonder that so manny tried to remove Oswald from the picture. (It is worth noting that the first attempts to paint Oswald as a patsy came from Communist propagandist here and in Western Europe.)

Lastly, we the problem that Howard Gardner identified: it is hard to change our minds one we have taken a position in public. Many find it easier to invent conspiracies than to admit that they were wrong.

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