When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

What are we doing when we conduct ‘thought experiments’?

Displaced Hours is an out-of-print novel by Ace Boggess (Gatto, 2004). In this tale of magic realism, a professor develops the belief that he can insert his consciousness into other people’s bodies, whereby he briefly controls their actions and enjoys their experiences before returning to his own body. The mechanism for this consciousness shift is a haunted clock. The device “gave me everything I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing I couldn’t find in time. Now I used that clock like a wiretap or a hidden camera.” He takes the journey many times.

Book cover of Displaced Hours by Ace Boggess.

Another character in the novel calls the concept “cross-consciousness.” Whatever such experiences may properly be called, they allow the professor to “go anywhere and do anything” and thus turn his life into a series of philosophical “thought experiments,” especially of the ethical sort. That is: By granting him a temporary lease on life that is measured in minutes and is devoid of consequences, these experiences allow him to make choices that are ethically questionable and that he would not otherwise make. The professor refers to the haunted clock as an “ethical device” and a “morality machine” because “it set up an infinite number of hypotheses I could test to their extremes.”

Cross-consciousness experiences become increasingly alluring for him. They also lead him to madness.

“…I locked myself away like the changing werewolf in an old horror film, except that I was more dangerous in my cage than out. I think I might have said a prayer of some sort, but I doubt anyone heard it. These were idle words without repentance and just a few hints of remorse. I pulled my chair over as usual and opened the dome of the clock.”

—Ace Boggess, Displaced Hours

The novel makes me wonder what philosophers are really doing when we engage in “thought experiments.” When we provisionally consider a course of action, are we mainly curious to establish what it would feel like to take that action? Do we also need to know what the consequences would be for ourselves or others? Is the assumption that, if the consequences were bad, we would immediately end the thought experiment rather than stick around and take responsibility?

It also reminds me that there are many real-life consequences we never face because our actions cannot be tied back to us in a straightforward manner with evidence a detective could use. This happens for nearly all collective actions (as when a million people use a scarce resource that is denied to another million people, for example), and also for personal actions that no one else happens to witness or follow up on. By some twist of fortune, we often escape others’ prying eyes and don’t have to take any more responsibility for our choices. But in another sense, the lingering consequences are tied to us in (shall we say?) a “spiritual” sense. That’s because, after all, we were the ones who did it. Not some experimental personae. It was we who made the choice. We remember (even if no one else does) that we used our conscious minds to make the choice. We know this is true, even if there is little evidence in the material world that traces the current state of affairs back to us. We live with the knowledge of what we did.

Sunday’s Sermon

world_religion2Though we can’t prove the existence of one (or many) god(s), we can provide evidence for the power of religion. For good or for evil, faith factors into our everyday lives in one way or another. We’ve evolved to believe. But it is also clear that extremist beliefs can have terrible consequences.

I won’t go through a list of the evils that religion can support or contribute to, for all you need to look at for a history of evil is most any “holy scripture” describing “holy” wars and destruction (the one I am most familiar with is “The Book of Judges” in the Hebrew Bible). Or, your daily newspaper or twitter feed.

Here are several articles: (Yes, there will be a quiz! Smile)

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Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jewish Sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time when I was teaching a course using the books of the Bible as the main reading assignment, a student asked me why I always used the phrase “Hebrew Bible” instead of “Old Testament” when talking about the earliest books.

“Simple.  Because “Old” has a certain connotation, as in”superseded”. But for many it’s not old at all.”

Here’s an old (as in been around a while now) response to Dr. Laura.


English: Radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger

English: Radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On her radio show, Dr. Laura said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Schlesinger, written by a US man, and posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as quite informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,

James M. Kauffman,

Ed.D. Professor Emeritus,

Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education University of Virginia

P.S. (It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian.)

And watch a dramatization here:

 

The Free Wheel

wheel
The Free Wheel

Once upon a path rolled a wheel. With nothing to speed it up, slow it down, or turn it around, it understood that it was free.

“Ah, it’s good to be free”, it spoke.

It imagined being a normal wheel, one of many parts of a larger, decision-making apparatus , and what a terrible fate it seemed. It was certain that if those wheels knew what it was like to be unattached, and were able, they would choose it. So, it must be good.

One day the wheel came across a two-wheeled contraption it recognized as a bike. On it was a strange mustacheoed man mumbling something about being “overwhelmed by the tribe.” The man had dismounted to take a whiz in the bushes, and thus spoke the bike.

“Good day.” It said to the wheel. “Where are you headed?”

“Wherever I want,” said the wheel.

“And where do you want?”

“I – hmm…” The wheel thought about this hard, and as it did, it felt some air leaving its tire from the pressure of it all.  “I guess I’ll see when I get there.”

“Get where?” asked the bike.

“To wherever I am.” It had no idea what it was talking about now, but obtained some air of self-satisfaction nonetheless.

“Well, good luck then!”

And on it rolled, glad to be out of that conversation


Some time later, the wheel came across a plank set atop two sets of small, sturdy wheels. A longboard. The person on it had stopped to chat with a friend, something about how “you can do what you decide to do but you can’t decide what you will decide to do”, one foot on the plank to keep it from rolling away.  A sad sight indeed.

“Hey there,” said the longboard.

“Hi,” said the wheel, keeping its pace.

“How do you roll?”

“I – fine?” It stopped to understand the question.

“No, I mean, how do you move all alone like that? What’s controlling you?”

“No one. I’m free.” And took in a little puff of air.

“That’s impossible.”

“Is it?” said the wheel. And on it rolled.


A while later down the path, at the bottom of a steep hill, the wheel came across a pair of boots with rows of four wheels attached. The wheel had always thought that if it were absolutely forced to become part of some contraption, it would be rollerblades. Just seemed fun. The wheels, faced outward because of the positioning of their mover, who was presently clutching her leg and moaning about how “she who has overcome her fears will truly be free”, were chattering to each other about how she ought to really invest in some kneepads

“Hi there,” said the wheel. “Everything OK?”

“Yeah, just a bit scratched up because of this dummy up here,” said one set of wheels.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Eh, we’re used to it by now. It’s a small price to pay.” Said the other set.

“For what?”

“Adventure!” said the two sets in unison.

“As long as it’s on concrete.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing!” said the wheel. And on it rolled.

It was a tough climb up that hill, but thanks to some conveniently directed gusts of wind it managed to make it to the top. With an inflated sense of premeditation, it approached a fork in the road. A sign post in front indicated arrows to the left and right but it couldn’t read the words.  The wheel remained there for a long time, frustration building.

“Well this is stupid.” The wheel muttered to itself. “Why is it even called a fork, anyhow? Should be called a wishbone.”

“What about a tuning fork?” said a voice from behind. Wheel turned around to see a heavy-duty tire that, judging from its metal webbing, looked like it was made for snow.

“Oh yeah. Or that.”

“Or a fondue fork”

“Yeah, I guess.” And turned back around.

Snow tire laughed; a booming laugh.

“So, you’re free too, huh?” said the wheel.

“And everywhere in chains, am I right?” It laughed again.

“…”

“Well, I guess I am now. I came from the mountains. A spare that came loose – how about that! It’s been downhill ever since!”

“It’s fun, right?”

“Is that what it’s called? I have no idea where I’m going! You neither, huh?”

The wheel suddenly felt insecure. “Well, I just can’t read the signs.”

“Ah, let me help.” The tire positioned himself between the prong. “The left one says ‘Trail of Nails’ and the right one says ‘Tire Fire’”

“Really?!”

Booming laughter. “I’m just shittin’ ya. But maybe. I can’t read.”

“I…can’t decide.” Wheel deflated a little.

“Well, you can always come back if you chose wrong. That’s why it’s not a wishbone.”

“I guess. But how will I know it’s wrong? Wrong means worse, worse implies basis for comparison!”

“You’re losin’ me now. Anyway, you’ve been at this longer than I have. I’m gonna go this way. Happy travels!” And the snow tire rolled on down path to the right.

The wheel remained for a long time looking down one path and then the other, deflating all the while. Things had been so easy for so long. It had to pick one before it became unable to move at all. Why was it so hard to decide? It realized it’s never had to before. There was only ever one path.

It simply couldn’t choose on its own. Wheels of all kinds came and went left or right with hardly a pause. Day and night cycled on, and option paralysis eventually transformed into actual paralysis as the wheel realized it couldn’t even move if it wanted to. It was now totally depleted, autonomous no more.

“Fuck,” said the wheel, and fell to its side in surrender to its cruel self-imposed fate.

Some time later, a crafty old lady whose hobby it was to re-purpose things for garden decoration naturally picked up wheel and leaned it against the sign post, planting flowers in front of it as one does. Flora and rust overtook wheel and it served the rest of its time as a poignant reminder to other ostensibly adventuresome free wheels that when the time comes to depart from the path that has been set, you better choose or die wondering.

THE END

Sunday’s Sermon – “The Stranger”

Review – Looking for The Stranger Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic

by Alice Kaplan University Of Chicago Press, 2016

Review by Bob Lane Mar 14th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 11)

We are in the midst of an ongoing Camus renaissance, one traced by Matthew Sharpe in his book Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings to four causes: The publication in 1994 of Camus’ Le Premier Homme, a true literary event; the fall of Stalinism; the war on terror; and the decline of the hegemony of post-modernism and post-structuralism with academia. We are blessed with many recent books on Camus [Sharpe produces an exhaustive survey of the recent secondary literature on Camus, heavily footnoted and annotated] and his works have continued to be a resource for philosophical inquiry even as his literary works have continued to be read and written about — or responded to as in the case of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation which considers the same killing on the beach but from the Arab victim’s point of view.

Read the review.

Our fascination with crime

The New York Times has finally caught up with us and reviewed River.

You can read their review here.

Our December 15th post is republished below.

 

RiverA recent Netflix offering, River, is a one season (lobby for a second season!) crime drama that I stumbled across and then became fascinated with. Result:  watched all six episodes over two nights! River stars Swedish acting legend Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor) as the eponymous  Detective Inspector John River, an experienced and brilliant cop with a mind that even he can’t trust.

Obviously, I had to alert my old pal and fellow contributor, the poet Ken Cathers, to the show. He liked it also! And he would like to start a conversation here. He opens with this:

The Guilty Attraction of Crime (Fiction)

After recently watching the new Netflix crime series River I began to question
what is it that makes crime shows and crime fiction so appealing. As a genre crime fiction is generally regarded as an inferior, popular form of art largely circumscribed by its conventions. It is still the most widely watched type of program on television. There is also more crime fiction published that any other genre with only the possible exception of cookbooks. Food for thought, indeed.

Typically the novel or crime show will begin with the actual depiction of a crime or, at the very least, the body of the victim of the crime. This is quickly followed by the arrival of the hero: the detective. Generally, he is a loner; a jaded idealist. Often he finds himself in some sort of disrepute with his peers over some recent scandal or compromising situation. These details are not immediately revealed adding to his personal mystery and complexity as a character. Regardless, it soon becomes apparent that the detective is obsessed with finding the truth, solving the crime and restoring order to the community. In short, he may be seen as a kind of modern white knight, albeit one with slightly stained and dented armour.

In many instances the detective has an assistant or cohort who possesses special deductive or investigative skills. He or she will also act as a confidante who manages to draw out the detective’s innermost hopes and fears thereby making him more fully rounded, more believable. These partners range in personality type from Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, through Jussi Adler-Olson’s Assad to River’s street-wise woman partner Stevie, who just
also happens to be dead.

Before the investigation can even begin the detective is often confronted by a foil or competitor. His role is to complicate and undermine his every move. This person is usually the detective’s social superior or commanding officer who feels somehow threatened or betrayed by the hero’s individuality. So it goes.

Once the investigation has actually begun the next relationship of importance to develop is between the detective and the criminal. Usually this begins indirectly through the unearthing of clues, interviewing of suspects, etc. Inevitably, it seems, the detective relentlessly closes the gape between the state of not knowing and the certainty of both the identity of the criminal and the motive for the crime.

In many, but not all, cases the criminal is eventually tried and punished or even killed in pursuit. This is, however, not essential to the genre and seems more prevalent in the North American crime shows.

So that, in short, is the framework of crime fiction. Tried and true. But that does not, in any way, explain its appeal. There have been numerous explanations offered. First, it may simply be our prurient fascination with violence; the raw material of scandal and gossip. We may, perhaps, identify with the victim: murdered, left unburied in a shroud of mystery. Some others may identify with the criminal. See the crimes committed as expressions of their own repressed desires. Or they may identify with the detective as an agent fighting for the common good in a kind of modern day morality play.

But no matter which of the characters we identify with a successful crime story draws us into its mysterious and threatening world. It is, in a sense a kind of literary crossword puzzle, a verbal Sudoku. It is a form of escape from our everyday life where complexity seldom gives rise to meaning and crimes and problems are seldom fully resolved. In the detective world there is only a finite number of clues, suspects. There is also a satisfying unveiling of mysteries where codes are broken, order restored. It is a world in miniature, a diorama finite in detail, comprehensible in its entirety.

To emphasize its inherent difference from our own mundane world it is often set in an exotic location: a remote resort, ancient foreign city or in the criminal underworld of some large metropolis. For most of us crime fiction places us in the position of travelers in a strange land. We are also tourists in a landscape of mental anguish and inconceivable deeds. How easily we step back into our own reality of comfort and safety. Relieved, we step away from lives gratefully not lived, crimes not witnessed.

Perhaps the strongest appeal of crime fiction is in its depiction of the process of how crimes are solved. The csi work, the lab work, fingerprint analysis, use of surveillance video, the interviewing of suspects create a mosaic of techniques that eventually reveal the identity of the criminal. We are participants in a successful hunt. In the end we are accomplices to the forces of good. Celebrants of some small imagined victory. At least until the next novel is opened, the next show begun.

Note: This article is not intended to be any kind of definite description of crime fiction. Rather, I hope others can use it as a spring board to stimulate some discussion and new ideas about the genre. I look forward to your comments. – Ken Cathers