The Lure of the Conspiracy Theory

When I began the online journal I wanted to name it Occam’s Razor. This is the principle that in layman’s terms says that if you have two theories with the same evidence, the simpler is the one most likely to be true. Occam’s Razor is one of the must useful tools one has at one’s disposal. I think of it as the Swiss Army knife of logic that can be used to pry the Truth from fiction in most situations.

Occam’s Razor is particularly useful against conspiracy theories. In fact conspiracy theories are pretty much the opposite of Occam’s Razor. Where the razor cuts away the superfluous, conspiracy theories add it in order to protect the kernel of truth they rest upon. Once the razor exposes that truth, the conspiracy theory tends to fall apart under its own weight.

Unfortunately when I set this journal up in October 2001 all the domain names having the word “Occam” or “Ockham” were taken, so I had to make due with therazor.org.

Anyhow, here’s an interesting story from a recent issue of New Scientist which discusses why conspiracy theories tend to thrive in our culture.

Source: New Scientist: The lure of the conspiracy theory (subscription necessary)

Was Princess Diana the victim of drunk driving or a plot by the British royal family? Did Neil Armstrong really walk on the moon or just across a film set in Nevada? And who killed President John F. Kennedy – the Russians, the Cubans, the CIA, the mafia… aliens? Almost every big event has a conspiracy theory attached to it. The truth, they say, is out there – but where exactly? Perhaps psychology can help us find at least some of the answers.

Article removed at request of copyright owner. See New Scientist, “Lure of the Conspiracy Theory.”

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61 Comments

  1. Scott Kirwin:

    Marvin
    Uhm… No. Evidence isn’t that subjective. It exists outside of your – or my – imagination.

    As for the public, 80% of Americans believe in God but that doesn’t make him exist.

  2. ben:

    Who would enter into a conspiracy in which the simplest explanation of the crime pointed at them?

    The whole point of conspiring to do something is to make people think you could not have done it. An even better planned crime includes the caveat that someone else, some dumb patsy, takes the blame.

    You are correct about one thing, that Occams Razor is useful, but only to labodomize.

  3. Brian:

    Scott

    You have my full support in your assertions – it was a similar documentary on the JFK assassination that convinced me of the ludicrous nature of conspiracy theories (I was always a sceptic). Further reading has also helped me put to bed any lingering doubt – Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World.

    I fear though, Scott, you are trying to convince a devout Christian that there is no god!

    I probably won’t be back to this blog as I only stumbled upon it and I’m not particularly fanatical about such things (I’m happy with my belief system), but I wish you the very best and keep flying the flag for the sane amongst us.

    Brian

  4. Greg Burnham:

    Let’s be clear and honest:

    The reporting of documented evidence that offers PROOFS that a crime involved more than one individual does NOT constitute a “conspiracy theory” and one is not a “conspiracy theorist” simply because they report it.

    I don’t claim to know exactly what happened nor who “done it” in Dallas. If I did claim that I did know such a thing I would be offering a conspiracy theory…but that is NOT my claim.

    However, it is quite obvious that OSWALD did not act alone. It would be at least a move in the right direction for some of you to concede the point, as did FBI Special Agent James Hosty, who said: “There was a benign cover-up” [paraphrased]. At least he conceded that the truth was withheld—albeit, in his opinion, for all the right reasons. I disagree with him about the reasoning behind it. However, there is no denying the fact that the abundance of evidence is overwhelmingly opposed to Oswald as the so-called lone assassin.

  5. Greg Burnham:

    As for the discussion that we had above regarding JFK’s Vietnam withdrawal policy, I wrote an article for JFK LANCER on the subject of both NSAM 263 and the DRAFT of NSAM 273. They are rather brief articles. The important point is this: it is NOT in question that JFK was withdrawing from Vietnam. Check it out for yourself:

    You can find NSAM 263 introduction here: http://www.jfklancer.com/NSAM263.html

    You can find NSAM 273 introduction here: http://www.jfklancer.com/NSAM273.html

  6. Terry Hildebrand:

    You are deluded, Mr. Kirwin in believing that Occam’s Razor is a tool for finding “Absolute Truth.” The link you cite in your response to me back in January of this year does not really support your own views, if you are able to understand the on-line article. This particular paragraph from your citation seems to describe yourself: “There are, however, some … who wield the razor like a broadsword. To these people it proves one theory and disproves another. There are two problems with using Occam’s razor as a tool to prove or disprove an explanation. One, determining whether or not something is simple (say, empirical evidence) is subjective—meaning it’s up to the individual to interpret its simplicity. Two, there’s no evidence that supports the notion that simplicity equals truth…. The problem with all of these arguments is that what constitutes simplicity is subjective. What’s more, we cannot rationally show that the universe could be any simpler.”

    I find the article itself a bit pedestrian—simplistic and inaccurate any way in its exposition of Occam’s Razor. It is not an on-line source I would recommend to anyone wishing to better understand the principle. I cited far superior authorities and sources in my previous post.

    The principle of Occam’s Razor is only useful in theory building and exposition, it does not imply that the natural world around us is inherently “simple” rather than “complex” whatever those words might mean. Simplicity is subjective, as your favorite website correctly states. A good example where the principle of Occam’s Razor was usefully applied was in theoretical physics in regard to the existence or non-existence of aether as a medium for the propagation of light and electromagnetic radiation. The famous Michelson-Morley experiment which attempted to measure the speed of light based upon the assumption of the existence of aether ultimately led physicists, such as Albert Einstein and others, to discard the postulation of aether in their theories of the cosmos. As an assumption to the construction of their theories the existence of aether was unnecessary.

    There isn’t anything “simple” about anything in this universe, and your quest for Absolute Truth is quixotic for sure. When Crick and Watson were competing with Linus Pauling and others for untangling the genetic code of life, there were numerous models under consideration until experimental evidence eventually confirmed the double helix formulation by Crick and Watson. The principle of Occam’s Razor had no relevance to this important discovery, nor does it to any other scientific discoveries per se, as it is a principle relevant only to the exposition of theories—communicating that special insight about the natural world as succinctly as possible in the form of a mathematical formula or physical model. The insight itself is what it is, and “simplicity” or “complexity” have nothing to do with it; they are meaningless human concepts with respect to the structure of life and the universe.

    You are really being extremely naive and foolish when you start mindlessly employing the notion of Occam’s Razor to human affairs. When it comes to the natural world beyond us, it is reasonable to assume that it does not care whether we human beings probe and discover its workings. The sun and the planets and the stars and the rest of the cosmos are not trying to keep secret from human investigators an understanding of their motions and gravitational forces.

    The same cannot be said about the actions of humans, especially when criminal activities are involved where perpetrators, if held accountable, could spend years in prison, or give up their lives. Criminals are highly motivated to cover up their crime and throw investigators off in false directions, and very clever and well organized ones can succeed at covering up their crimes quite well. Criminals also frequently commit their crimes not only as lone individuals, but in conspiratorial groups of two or sometimes many more. Most of the inmates in our state and national prisons are in fact doing time for various kinds of conspiracy—to commit murder, larceny, etc.

    Your attempt to dismiss crimes of conspiracy, whether they be the assassination of prominent political figures like JFK, or whomever, on the basis of “Occam’s Razor” is absurd and logically unsupportable. I hope that you soon come to your senses and realize the foolishness and futility of your efforts.

  7. Matthew:

    Occam’s Razor cannot be applied to the affairs of intelligent beings for the simple reason that such a being has the intelligence to construct equivalent artificial evidence that points to some other theory. It’s fallible in science too. Applying O.R., if this was still Newtonian times, we’d all believe that the kinetic energy of an object is 0.5 * Mass * Velocity^2. Well, this is not quite true as Einstein said this breaks down as velocities approach relativistic speeds. So whilst Newtonian science was useful for non-relativistic calculations, it was never true.

    Furthermore today’s conspiracy theorist is yesterday’s heretic, except now it the Church of Government that issues the edicts. Whilst most heretics of the day were probably spouting all sorts of half baked beliefs, a few got it right; Galileo, Copernicus, etc. Nevertheless, they were heaped in with all the other conspiracy nuts (sorry, I mean heretics).

    Just some food for thought. If the intelligence services of the world are not engaged in conspiracies, what are they doing? Is that not their job?

  8. Pamela Crossley:

    Just happened across this website, the discussion (or one half of it) is so absurd that I can’t help commenting. If I’m understanding this, Scott Kirwin founded this site in honor of Occam’s Razor, and then informs us “When I began the online journal I wanted to name it Occam’s Razor. This is the principle that in layman’s terms says that if you have two theories with the same evidence, the simpler is the one most likely to be true.”

    That is not what Occam’s razor is. First of all, no need to put it into layman’s terms—Occam already did that, or anyway put it into layman’s Latin which translates very easily into English: “”entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem).” It has nothing to do with truth, it has to do with what can be proved and what cannot be proved in an experimental setting. It is the law of parsimony, and it is designed to be applied in empirical situations where a reaction can be repeated as many times as necessary, and then the explanations for these repeated results can be reduced to the simplest number of propositions that would explain it (and if many are needed, then many are used). It does not now, nor did Occam EVER expect, that it would be applied to history (or theology, or esthetics or anything not connected to the exploration of physical laws). Otherwise, he recognized, everybody would soon collapse their historical, theological, ethical and who knows what explanations to very simplest explanation: Everything happens because God wants it to.

    Amazingly, “Occam’s razor” has become the new intellectual crutch for people who cannot accept that historical causation is in fact very complex, and in some cases just cannot accept the implications of some interpretations.

    It’s good to see that reasonable and thoughtful people have dropped by here to offer civil, informed comment. It is very sad when the coincidence theorists resort to high-falutin’ legerdemain like “Occam’s razor” to attempt to occupy the high ground through nothing more than bogus association with this great medieval philosopher. Unfortunately Occam’s razor is one of the most confused and abused rhetorical weapons of the weak.

  9. Scott Kirwin:

    Pamela
    Congratulations on understanding “layman’s Latin”; it’s a language that I’ve always wanted to learn but unfortunately I am monolinguistic: in fact even English does not come easy to me (I guess the strain of the virus that infected me with language posited by William S. Burroughs was weak).

    But I think that you are attempting to “keep Occam’s Razor” in its sheath by wrapping it with limitations that aren’t there in order to prevent its use against you. Occam’s Razor is not limited to purely empirical situations.Also here. I see no such limitation myself, and neither did Carl Sagan who famously quipped that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof – another intellectual “rule of thumb” that is related to Occam’s Razor – but that doesn’t make for a pithy URL.

    As I have written here and elsewhere, Occam’s Razor is an intellectual tool used to judge competing theories having the same evidence. In most cases posited by posters above, their theories do not even attain the level where Occam’s Razor can even be used. Take the Kennedy Assassination beloved by Mr. Burnham; there is more evidence that Oswald acted alone than that he was part of a conspiracy. All the supposed evidence of a grassy knoll shooter has been disproved through analysis of the Zapruder tape, a reel-to-reel recording that supposedly captured a gunshot from that site, and the “magic bullet theory” – disproven by the fact that Connelly’s seat wasn’t wear theorists expected it to be. Not that it matters: believers will simply come up with another theory that ignores those facts – or explains them away in the same way that Ptolemy’s epicycles explained the motion of the planets prior to Copernicus. The evidence continues to support Oswald acted alone, but I allow the arguments to continue here because they are interesting and keep me intellectually honest (I am an ex-JFK Conspiracy believer myself).

    “Coincidence theorist” – cute but implies a relativism between conspiracy theorists and those who oppose them, denying the existence of a reality that exists outside of their perceptions. Sorry, but I stopped smoking pot a very long time ago. :)

  10. Greg Burnham:

    I gave a presentation on National Security Action Memorandums # 263 and 273 in Dallas. You can find them on Vimeo and at this link:

    http://justiceforkennedy.blogspot.com/2010/12/greg-burnham-copa-2010-presentation.html

  11. The Razor » Blog Archive » The Lure of the Conspiracy Theory Revisited:

    [...] years ago I wrote about how conspiracy theories were alluring, thereby attracting attention of some conspiracy theory believers in the comments section of the [...]

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