by David Kordahl
Note: This piece is an accidental addendum to my column of March 2021, “The Limits of Conspiracy Debunking,” though it can be read separately.
Sometimes, we’re surprised. Though everyday surprises can be comedic, the surprises that we register collectively are more often tragic. My parents both remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy as one of the most shocking events of their childhoods. I suppose the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, constitute the most shocking of mine. Both the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks have attracted conspiracy speculation ever since they occurred. And there are good reasons for this, I contend, even if no conspiracies were involved.
Collective feelings of surprise, of widespread shock, reflect a vague feeling that such events were unlikely, though their very unlikeliness makes their odds hard to calculate. In such cases, alternative explanations—“conspiracy theories,” if you’re feeling ungenerous—seem attractive because they change our estimated likelihoods for surprising events. After these events, it’s natural enough to ask, Why didn’t I see that coming? We might consider, with some shame, whether our expectations should have included wider possibilities, so we might have been less surprised.
After such shocks, the prophets who forewarned disaster gain legitimacy. People retrospectively consider alternatives that accommodate their prior surprise. This rethinking serves to change their subjective odds for the likelihood of the original event. But that’s a problem, if we’re interested in any sort of self-consistency, since this retrospective modulation of odds is only reasonable if we actually should not have been surprised.
This may all sound circular, but there’s a solution at hand. If unique events can be reclassified as non-unique, we can move away from seeing events as being unprecedented, and statistics will once again apply. Returning to shocking events, JFK might be rolled into the category of “political assassinations,” and 9/11 into the category of “political terrorism,” and we might then think through the odds by examining trends in those categories.
Though it doesn’t rule out conspiracies, this trick—the bundling of disparate events into a common category—pays dividends. It allows us to avoid miracles, to incorporate those events we once deemed impossible back into the context of our prior experience. Whether they describe political terrorism or heat engines, our mental models should plausibly account for what we see. Too many miracles, and we should shift models.
Of course, every category will contain its extrema as far outliers, so this attitude toward mental models doesn’t rule out unlikely events. It just orients us toward a more inclusive way of thinking about them, where these surprises are not miracles, but extreme instances of common trends.
But here I should admit my weakness. This essay was originally about three times longer than the post you’re now reading. But I know readers of 3QuarksDaily are busy, so I have cut out the level-headed scientific exposition, and will try to reach my irrational point quickly.
I initially intended to deploy the example of how the JFK assassination and 9/11 attacks fit into broader categories just as a prelude to how this explanatory technique has found another scientific use. In his book Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things, the physicist Jeremy England discusses how “life” might be considered more broadly in terms of systems that harvest and release energy, which would make its appearance immensely more likely than it once seemed to those who wished for biomolecules to form randomly in some primordial soup.
But these questions about thermodynamics led me down the rabbit hole of entropy and cosmic beginnings, and of how “increasing entropy,” in statistical physics, denotes the evolution of systems toward ever more probable arrangements of mass and energy. If you watch a system for long enough, it should eventually reach equilibrium, its most probable state. But from the hot big bang onward, our universe has been extraordinarily far from equilibrium. (“Gravity, entropy, and cosmology: in search of clarity,” by the philosopher David Wallace, lucidly explores these issues.)
Should the origin of life be explained by thermodynamics, then, it would rely on another mystery—i.e., that of why the universe began with such low entropy in the first place. My earlier draft called this the “dissolution of a false conspiracy by a real conspiracy of truly comic scope.”
These are fascinating topics, but as I reread my draft I realized that they were sidelines to this essay’s main concerns. Furthermore, in my opening reconsideration of conspiracy-adjacent topics (i.e., of JFK’s killing as just another political assassination, and of 9/11 as just another day of political terrorism), I realized I had very directly stolen this idea from Conspiracy Theory in America, a book by the political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith.
In the post to which this essay now acts as an odd postscript, I discussed the work of deHaven-Smith, who is a highly paranoid thinker, and not the sort of man I would trust to perform an evenhanded statistical analysis. But now, with his Russia Today video appearance greyed out in that earlier post (YouTube has banned all Russian-affiliated state media after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), I find myself rethinking the mindset of conspiracy.
The past half-decade has been filled with unexpected events, from the election of Donald Trump to the emergence of COVID-19. It all feels…very unlikely. I don’t consider myself paranoid (you’d expect a paranoid man to say that), but I now find it easy to sympathize with those who are.
Ours is an extremely generative time for alternative explanations. Some of these are pushed in bad faith, and some are demonstrably incorrect. But I can’t get myself to endorse the “rise of disinformation” as a primary problem, even when I agree with the various specific critiques. Widespread acceptance of “disinformation” is a symptom of psychic discomfort, a sign that the official explanations don’t make sense. Americans are not of one mind about much of anything, but many of us have seen too many negative miracles to hold on to the old models much longer.