Sunday, May 07, 2006

Conspiracy Bridge

In my book “Disinfect Your Mind” I wrote that there is no sense to build long bridges, as it takes too much effort and time. However, there are no rules without exceptions, and I’d like to talk about one such exception today. Let me remind first, what a bridge is. We all have a number of anchors embedded into our minds. Anchors normally have preprogrammed reactions, like food and sex are good, while death and sickness are bad. Not that they cannot be overridden or slanted in some way, but normally they are there. Once you can link something to an anchor, you get the reaction for the anchor. Say, slogan “Pepsi is cool” links a mix of sugar, water, and a bunch of questionable chemicals with an anchor “cool”, already linked to a preprogrammed anchor of social acceptance, hence pushing the sales up. In contrast, message “High fructose syrup in sodas leads to diabetes and death” induces an opposite reaction. No magic, everything is quite straightforward. The reactions are in the anchors, choose the anchor you chose to link to, get the reaction you want. However, it is often very hard to link to any primary anchors without a significant leap of faith on the side of your victim. Which is usually not granted by any reasonable person. In this case, you need a bridge. A bridge is another anchor, not a preprogrammed biological one, but rather built by the society; an element of the current culture or subculture, which is linked to one or more preprogrammed anchors. For example, norms of behavior in a society are usually linked to social acceptance, with extreme cases supported through social control and survival. One such artificial anchor, which works as a nullifying bridge, is a “conspiracy theory”. Did you ever thought that it’s enough to claim that your opponent’s statement is a “conspiracy theory” to almost completely nullify it without any other reasoning? Amazingly, that’s the case. “Conspiracy theory” is a commonly encountered bridge to falsehood carefully installed in the brains of most Americans, and not only Americans for that matter. In contrast to usual bridges, it’s not really evolved on its own, but clearly had a help of several groups of people having vested interest in having such a bridge around. It’s almost like… well… you know… conspiracy theory. Is it? Actually, real conspiracy theory does not hold here. Classic definition of a conspiracy theory is “an explanation through the actions of a group of people who secretly push their agenda out of private interest, and who become the main sole reason for some change, event or phenomena.” This definition assumes existence of a single group, organized enough to consistently push through their agenda, and long living enough to implement their plans, not to mention consistent leadership over that time and ability to control the silence of the members. Fortunately, the modern world is too pragmatic and egoistic to resort to such kind of schemes in a real life. However, this does not annihilate private interests, temporary alliances that may last for decades, and self-interest of the people involved to keep their mouths shut. Who is interested in DMCA (Digital Millennia Copyright Act)? Video and records industry. Who is interested in high oil prices? Oil companies. Who is interested in wars? Military-industrial complex. Think for a moment. Say, you have 30 millions in oil stock. You have an opportunity to destabilize Middle East, get oil prices bumped up, and make your stock worth 100 millions. What would you do? Just don’t think politics, think money. How many people would be able to resist that? But say “conspiracy theory” and BOOM, the thought is eliminated from your mind and put to a far shelf along with UFO stories and urban legends. Sometimes, it’s amazing how it works. Let me give you an example, which made me think about it. My daughter had a project in the school to research the reasons of World War II. As one of the reasons, she mentioned that some world leaders at the time believed that the war will be good for their countries, including British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill. Her teacher insisted that this bullet point is removed because “it’s a conspiracy theory.” I ask you, how does it fit into the original definition of a conspiracy theory? Well, it does not. The only item left is the private interest, even more, private opinion. But for a senior high school teacher it was enough to rubber stamp it as a conspiracy theory and hence, nullify it altogether. Amazing, isn’t it? How does it happen? Let’s remember: our brains are memetic, associative, not logical. It does not need full information to make the conclusion. In fact, it does not bother with full information to make a conclusion. That was a great benefit in an African savannah, when once you hear a lion’s roar, you had to run for your life instead of investigating details like is the lion hunting or just resting and is it really a lion or a big frog in a nearby swamp. If you have ten signs of the same danger, all of them got linked to the danger, that is every one of them, not all together. That is, one is enough; no need to wait for all of them to surface. To have a conspiracy theory you need a long living group of people that can act collectively and share the same common goals, ideals or private interests. That a way too much for an average person to remember and track. So, once they hear just one of the items that form this list, they jump directly to the conclusion: conspiracy theory! It’s not a moving animal + yellow skin + mane + lion’s roar. It’s just “lion’s roar” -> need to run. Similarly, it’s not group of people + long existence + common interest/goals + ability to act collectively + private interests +…, it’s just “private interest” -> “conspiracy theory” -> null. So, while true conspiracy theories don’t hold well, they taint trustworthiness of much wider range of theories, explanations, and ideas. “Conspiracy theory” becomes a bridge that you can use to defuse almost any explanation based on private interest. Wonderful, isn’t it? Rob a bank, and when you get caught, make a straight face and say, “Why? You say that I rob the bank to get money? That I was pursuing my private interest? And that the guy in the bank helped me to get his share? That’s a conspiracy theory!” Well, it probably would not work, but – amazingly enough – if you rob a whole country the same way, it does! You see it each time you fill the tank of your car at nearby gas station. So, how does it relates to building long bridges that I started this article from? Quite directly. The amazing thing about conspiracy theories is that many of them happen to be true in the end. Yes, there is probably no green men of Mars in Pentagon laboratories, but Winston Churchill did allowed German to occupy Czechoslovakia in 1939, and video industry had pushed through a highly questionable DMCA legislation to protect their profits, and defense industry got a lot of contracts since our current president got elected by the Supreme Court. You cannot just build a bridge and use it to the contrary to reality indefinitely. Human mind adapts, and if too often reasoning will be at fault, the bridge will get disassembled in public mind and stop to function. You need to feed it with positive signals to continue to use it. Consider it an equivalent of maintenance work on real bridges, and connecting private interest to falsehood – hey, you have to admit it, it’s an equivalent of a memetic Golden Gate and it should require a lot of maintenance. So, how it happens? Fortunately for those who exploit it, there are volunteers who do that quite economically. These are real conspiracy theories supporters. What puzzles me, is that their books are usually written in a way inconsistent with the way modern people think. It’s almost like their purpose was not to make people believe, but to make people disbelieve. Do I suggest that these people are hired to make ridiculous stories? No. I even don’t suggest that people interested in “conspiracy theory” bridge pay for such books and select those authors, who cannot convince readers. That’s too complicated for the modern world. However, I’ll try to devise a model how it could happen without any conspiracy, but still out of private interest of those who benefit from it. Imagine two authors who write in a conspiracy theory style. Say, Noam Chomsky (well known opponent of the U.S. foreign policies) and Zecharia Sitchin (author of “The 12th planet” series speaking of an alien origin of the human race.) Both publish their books either on their own funds or by convincing some publisher. The first one write in a modern logical and convincing style with a lot of data and facts that are possible to verify, references to sources etc. Clearly, he is not a very good candidate for “conspiracy theory” bridge maintenance. He is rather one of those, whose theories are tunneled to nowhere using this bridge. As to “The 12th Planet”, it’s a completely different story. You feel like you were brought to the ancient world where prophets roamed the Earth and were the main source of truth, directly from their divine sources. He does not really bother with proofs or facts, he just tells. I am not telling that there is no twelve planet, or green men of Mars, or whatever, I am just telling that once you read him a disbelief grow in you as his way of presenting the facts is counterintuitive to a modern person thinking. Now, imagine that you just put a hefty sum of money paid for a restoration project of, say, a bridge in Iraq, expecting that Iraqi guerillas will blast the bridge made out of cartoon anyway next week. And then, you are accused of that. What do you do? You, probably, say something like “Oh, not that conspiracy theory! Don’t tell me that you believe that. It’s as ridiculous as…” What would you compare the accusations here, Noam Chomsky or Zecharia Sitchin? Probably, the least believable one, right? And then you’ll go on like, “How, you don’t know about ‘The 12th planet’? Oh! That’s another ridiculous conspiracy theory. It’s really funny, try it, you’d laugh a lot!” So, what happened? You got away from the question and distracted attention to something else. What does it mean for that book? Free publicity from someone who just pocketed a lot of money. Should I explain that publicity from people with a lot of money means a lot more than publicity from the people with no money? Here we are. There is no direct financing of “conspiracy theory” bridge maintainers, but there is post factum support coming out quite naturally. And next time the publisher who made money on that book will be willing to publish another one. Makes sense? So, in the end, it’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s an ecological niche where some authors can live. Once their number grows too much, the amount of free publicity per author falls, and some of them have to move to other niches. But the less of them stay, the more odious they become, the more free publicity they get, resulting in more profits and newcomers. This is a natural market niche lifecycle – just like the cycle of soda or fast food market – partially fed by those interested in maintaining that bridge. What this boils down to, is that long bridges are possible to build. It’s just require alignment of interests of large groups of people. In most cases you cannot simply talk to another guy and tell, “Hey, let’s fool American public.” But if you are interested in that, and another guy, and another guy, then your collective actions may easily result in just that. Think about it the next time you fill the tank of your car.