Wednesday, January 25, 2012

conspiracy or science

Some people foreswear the genuine wonder of scientific discovery and evidence-based knowledge in favour of fantasies, rumours and conspiracy theories conjured up by charlatans who from time immemorial have always preferred the tall story to the telling fact.Those who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe others. The conspiratorial world-view is not helpful in promoting an understanding of modern society and is itself, in large part, a product of the times we live in. Are people wrong to distrust the scientific community, and therefore believe every maverick or eccentric with a theory that same community has loudly disowned? Generally yes, but when it is well known that science chases the money whereas the money never chases the science it doesn’t like, it is not hard to see how these conspiracy theories get started.

Major events cannot, in the popular mind, have trivial causes, because our world-view cannot allow it. Believing ourselves to be rational creatures in a supposedly ordered and rational universe, we shy away from the hideous tyranny of randomness, that force of Nature which defies our control and thus denies us our sense of meaning and ‘place’. Thus, JFK, who ninety percent of Americans believe could not possibly have been offed by one lone nut with a rifle and some personal issues but rather good eyesight. Princess Diana didn’t die because a driver got drunk, it was all a vast conspiracy involving the top echelons of power. Ditto John Lennon that the blame is again placed upon the "lone nutter" who had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia for his entire life since childhood but rather Chapman was being used as a "Manchuran Candidate" by Richard Nixon. Ditto 9/11, which clearly couldn’t have been simply the work of a few terrorists who got very, very lucky (but this is not to deny the possibility that Bush may have indeed connived at the attacks by refusing to act on intelligence warnings. But we await the evidence)

However, people don’t fall for conspiracy theories because of some sense of proportionality, but because they know , like the proverbial mushrooms, we are kept in the dark and fed on shit. Put any sentient, self-aware animal in an environment where they can’t trust their senses, and pretty soon they’ll stop functioning ‘rationally’. We do indeed live in strange times. Mass starvation when the world produces abundance. Wars constantly rage across the globe yet everyone says they want peace.

It is no wonder that people look for irrational explanations for seemingly irrational problems. Conspiracy theorists take the view that such a complex organism as modern world society must be controlled from the top – someone, somewhere must be pulling the strings. What is particularly unfortunate about conspiracy theories is not that they foster a view of the world as hopelessly in thrall to some shadowy elite with god-like power, because this is largely true and they are called the capitalist class. What it incorrectly encourages is the much more damaging idea that this elite is actually much cleverer than the rest of us. The central mistake of conspiracy theorists is the notion that anyone is really in control of anything. At the heart of Marxian economics is the concept the capitalist “anarchy of production” where commercial enterprises produce things with just only their own profit in mind oblivious to the needs of other firms or the limits for their particular market – all without an overall external controlling force. Competition is built-in to capitalism. Marx produced the evidence the economy being essentially beyond the control of politicians, bankers and economists. Yet we are presented ith myths of the inter-connectedness of some sections of the capitalists class (the Rothschilds and Rockefellers, perhaps) or the “mystical” power of the banks being able to create money out of thin air, that every event (even contradictory ones) is under political control to the last detail. Most conspiracy theories are really believed not by those who come into closest contact with the assumed conspirators but by those who are typically furthest away from them – the disenfranchised and dispossessed such as the US militiamen polishing their guns in the hills of Montana.

The feeling of helplessness in the face of uncontrollable forces sow the seeds for conspiracy theories to flourish. A socialist understands that we are in the grip of uncontrollable impersonal economic forces, the market, and knows that this grip can be broken only by establishing socialism but non-socialists seek an explanation in the mysterious hand of God, the Stars, Fate or Luck. Some non-socialists cannot accept the view that our lives are controlled by the impersonal forces of the market and find it easier to think that these forces are personal; in other words, they personalise the capitalism and you have some shadowy group – the financiers, the Jews or the Illuminati – controlling the world and manipulating events.

It is easier to grasp: that some group of people are deliberately causing these events rather than their being the result of impersonal forces acting as if they were forces of nature. In religion is called “anthropomorphism”, the attribution of human form to a natural force or thing – as, for instance, in the gods of Ancient Greece and Rome. On reflection, however, attributing economic and historical events to a conspiracy doesn't seem so simple or so reasonable. The conspiracy theory needs to explain how the conspiratorial group bring about these events and how they can keep their existence secret. To control the whole world – plot economic crises, wars and revolutions, let alone spreading AIDS and causing global warming – would require hundreds of thousands of operatives and some of these must be expected to spill the beans at some point. The fact that none ever have – and that therefore there is no verifiable or even unverifiable evidence that the conspiracy exists – is a powerful refutation of it.

David Aaronovitch argues that belief in conspiracy theories is harmful since it “distorts our view of history and therefore of the present” and can lead to disastrous decisions. He detects a pattern in which conspiracy theories are “formulated by the politically defeated and taken up by the socially defeated”. Conspiracies become an excuse to explain away a movement’s own inherent weaknesses or unpopularity by attributing blame to a ruthless enemy.

To be a truly effective liar, it is essential that you come to believe your own bullshit. Capitalism's continued existence does not require a conspiracy or a conspiracy theory. All it requires is the support, or more likely acquiescence, of the overwhelming majority in their own exploitation. Conspiracy theorists can’t offer an adequate explanation of what’s going on it the world. If we are going to change the world successfully we are going to need to understand it properly. And the only way we can do this is on the basis of verified evidence and logical thinking. This is what socialists try to do. Using this method, we can see no evidence of world events being organised by a conspiracy. In fact, we can see that the world is not organised at all. We can see everywhere the "anarchy" of capitalism. It is an impersonal mechanism not a conspiracy. And it is the cause of wars, revolutions and other conflicts in that these are by-products of capitalist competition, not the machinations of some secret conspiratorial group.

"Don't believe everything you read" but really, how was one to tell? Even supposing we read every word properly, how would we know whether it was right or not? Who are we to criticise? We need to be a scientist to criticise. Carl Sagan described it well: "Science is generated by and devoted to free enquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge." The "scientific" nature of the case for socialism is rooted in the real world of hard facts and reliable evidence, and so must people be if the world is to see any real progress.

The Ten Common Sense Rules
1. First of all, don't believe a complicated explanation if a simpler one will do.
2. Never believe anyone who will profit by lying.
3. Exceptions don't prove rules, despite the saying, they break them.( "prove" in this expression is related to the Italian "provare" which means "test" or "try out", which explains how this sensible maxim has acquired a modern, nonsensical meaning)
4. Even if the structure is logical, the basic assumptions may not be.
5. Beware of the sleight-of-hand known as special pleading, which is essentially a sales tactic
6. Don't be bamboozled or "blinded by science"
7. An idea is not a valid theory unless a way exists of disproving it (falsification).
8. A test result is not valid until and unless it can be recreated.
9. A theory which cannot predict anything is worthless.
10. The most obvious rule is that if the facts don't fit the theory, change the theory.

For a theory to be valid it should accord well with the facts, and offer one a way to disprove it. Thus religion and creationism are not valid scientific theories, whereas evolution and gravity are. If you think you can disprove all, or part, or a bit of the WSM case, go right ahead. We'll listen. If you find a flaw we'll have to change our ideas, and if, by the same token, we find a flaw in your thinking, you'll have to change yours. That is how the scientific method works. The world is as full of superstition and silly ideas as it was in the Middle Ages, but it is also now far richer in real knowledge. Whether the scientific method prevails in the future is open to question, for it has failed in the past to rescue societies from decline, and the ideology of capitalism is reinforced constantly by a battery of propaganda and mystification that are a perpetual obstacle to clear thinking. Socialists have every sympathy with scientists who find themselves under attack from unscientific prejudice and blatant opportunism, since this is not very dissimilar from our own experience.

No comments: