Two Views on Complexity and Conspiracy

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the subject of conspiracy theories arises. The usual suspects are taking the usual stances, of course, but there are some interesting things to say for those who have ears to hear. I'm not going to focus on any conspiracies in particular; I'm rather interested in how they are treated and developed in society.

An article in Time magazine (the media of record for the monolithic, homogeneous American pop consciousness, such as it is) hit on some key points about the context of conspiracy within an admittedly complex environment. The conclusion at which they arrive is not surprising, but it nevertheless stands as an excellent observation:

But there's a big problem with Loose Change and with most other conspiracy theories. The more you think about them, the more you realize how much they depend on circumstantial evidence, facts without analysis or documentation, quotes taken out of context and the scattered testimony of traumatized eyewitnesses. (For what it's worth, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has published a fact sheet responding to some of the conspiracy theorists' ideas on its website, The theories prompt small, reasonable questions that demand answers that are just too large and unreasonable to swallow. Granted, the Pentagon crash site looks odd in photographs. But if the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile, then what happened to American Airlines Flight 77? Where did all the real, documented people on it go? Assassinated? Relocated? What about eyewitnesses who saw a plane, not a missile? And what are the chances that an operation of such size--it would surely have involved hundreds of military and civilian personnel--could be carried out without a single leak? Without leaving behind a single piece of evidence hard enough to stand up to scrutiny in a court? People, the feds just aren't that slick. Nobody is. There are psychological explanations for why conspiracy theories are so seductive. Academics who study them argue that they meet a basic human need: to have the magnitude of any given effect be balanced by the magnitude of the cause behind it. A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind it. "We tend to associate major events--a President or princess dying--with major causes," says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. "If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us." In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting.

I read the Time article last night and found it intersting, even though I thought the author arrived at the totally wrong conclusion. Yes, people need a comprehensible narrative to associate with a grand event like 9/11... perhaps along the lines of a story about a secret gang of lunatic bad guys living in caves? Why is a hole in the official story overlookable, but not a hole in an alternative explanation?

But there's a larger takeaway from the article: the idea of conspiracy theories as mass psychological coping mechanisms. The author is implying that these occur not just on an individual level, but as a spontaneously coordinated response to a shared experience. The question, ultimately, is whether this response is authentic - whether the suspicion of conspiracy is really warranted or simply a distraction.

Dave Pollard tackles the same subject from a slightly different angle in his latest article. He acknowledges the complexity of the situation but doesn't make any assumptions about the implications of the complexity. Rather, he asserts that conspiracies themselves could be enabled by that very same complexity, turning Time's argument on its head. The central point is to analyze society as a complex, adaptive system, and identify where the power lies and where the opportunities coalesce.

Reader Holly Hartman suggested to me that this 'unanalyzable, unsolvable' feature of complex system 'failures' might actually encourage exploitation by opportunists for personal advantage, that one possible 'emergent behaviour' in complex adaptive systems is conspiracy, because the conspiracy is impossible to prove with any degree of certainty. If we appreciate that, in today's world, no one is really in control, then if someone can conspire effectively to do something really diabolical, there will be a natural inclination among the public to believe they didn't do it, that they couldn't have done it, that 'no one could have pulled that off' -- because it's just too complex. Could Bush really have conspired with Bin Laden without anyone blowing the whistle? Could two US elections be stolen without anyone behind the scenes, and without anyone in the media, coming up with and revealing the smoking gun evidence of the conspiracy? Our skepticism causes us to believe the answer is no. But this very human reluctance to believe that such monumental conspiracies are possible paradoxically increases both the likelihood of them succeeding, and the likelihood that extremists will try to orchestrate them.

So is complexity an argument in favor of the possibility of conspiracy, or against it? I guess it depends on how closely you identify with the particular system in which you're participating. But it also depends on your confidence in your understanding of the nature of that system. Could secrets be kept? Could people engineer complex scenarios? Could alliances between seemingly distant and opposed parties be possible? Part of dealing with complexity means acknowledging the gaps in our information, and trust in government is not a substitute for that - whether or not you accept the government's version of things.

If we truly seek to understand, and not simply dismiss, conspiracies, we need to understand the systems in which the theories arise. Once we start to gain a better comprehension of the forces at play, however, we should also brace ourselves for the possibility that the good guys and bad guys occur in patterns that are completely assymmetrical to the lines in the sand we've drawn in our minds. This is surely why Chomsky has always claimed that critics mistake institutional analysis for conspiracy theory mongering.

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Written on Wednesday, September 06, 2006