Hanlon’s Razor and Hyperskepticism

This week we’re talking about conspiracy theories! I have two points to make, from opposite sides of this argument.

The first of these is a handy little rule that I feel should be applied whenever you feel like there might be something sinister afoot. Hanlon’s razor states:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

It’s been attributed to various people, but I like the “cock up before conspiracy” version attributed to Sir Bernard Ingham;

Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.

To be sure, conspiracies are something that occur. The one that sprang immediately to mind for me is the Gunpowder Plot that resulted in failure and, ultimately, an excuse to throw a party and have gigantic bonfires. However, that might just be because there are rhymes associated. I can quote the one from V for Vendetta from memory. But real conspiracies occur in small, tightly knit groups with small, focused aims. Larger conspiracies – “climate change is a hoax!” – just aren’t feasible because all it takes is one honest (or, if you’re cynical, careless) person to expose it.

The other, contrasting point has to do with hyperskepticism – the position of needing absolute proof of every claim before being willing to entertain it. I myself am fond of the maxim that “anecdote is not data”, but we need to remember that in the murky Real World data is not always easy to gather. Hyperskepticism is an often used tool to dismiss challenges of comfortable world views, and it’s something every skeptically minded person needs to guard against doing.

In some cases, the question being asked has been examined over, and over, and over again, and we have good data, and we can feel pretty good about dismissing truth claims. For example, I actually had a great-aunt who was part of the original Flat Earth Society. Despite having flown from Canada to England to visit her the conversation about the shape of the earth was like running over and over into a large brick wall – but the part I remember best is her characterizing the dismissal of her views as “close-minded”. She was a sweet, gentle person, so I still feel a bit bad about how much grief she got over it, but in some cases, well, it’s not a bad thing to be close-minded, if only because it allows you to direct your attention elsewhere. But a lot of the time, especially when claims have to do with messy, squishy, human societies, it’s best to keep an open mind. And anecdote, while not enough, can sometimes be a warning flag telling you: pay attention, here, this could be important.

And sometimes they’re just because squishy humans glitch a lot.


2 thoughts on “Hanlon’s Razor and Hyperskepticism

  1. Reading this over, this is longer and more rambling than I expected. Still, anyway, some links I found kind of interesting on the subject:
    Conspiracy Theories as Agency Fictions — this one is a bit long and jargon-y, so I’ll excerpt the key bit:

    “First off we have a hard time understanding that coordination is hard. Seeing a large pay off available and thinking it easily in reach if “we could just get along” seems like a classical failing. Our pro-social sentiments lead us to downplay such barriers in our future plans. Motivated cognition on behalf of assessing the threat potential of perceived enemies or strangers likely shares this problem. Even if we avoid this, we may still be lost since the second big relevant thing is our tendency for anthropomorphizing things that better not be. Ours is a paranoid brain seeing agency in every shadow or strange sound. The cost of false positives was once reasonably low, while the cost of a false negative very high.
    Our minds are also just plain lazy. We are pretty good at modelling other human minds and considering just how hard the task really is, we do a pretty remarkable job of it. If you are stuck in relative ignorance on a subject, say the weather, dancing to appease the sky spirits makes sense. After all the weather is pretty capricious and angry sky spirits is a model that makes as much or more sense as any other model you know. Unlike some other models this one is at least cheap to run on your brain! The modern world is remarkably complex. Do we see ghosts in it?
    Our Dunbarian minds probably just plain can’t get how a society can be that complex and unpredictable without it being “planned” by a cabal of Satan or Heterosexual White Males or the Illuminati (but I repeat myself twice) scheming to make weird things happen in our oblivious small stone age tribe. Learning about useful models helps people escape anthropomorphizing human society or the economy or government. The latter is particularly salient. I think most people slip up occasionally in assuming that say something like the United States government can be successfully modelled as a single agent to explain most of its “actions”. To make matters worse it is a common literary device used by pundits.”

    Here is a slightly pro-conspiracy take, but one that I think does not descent into outright quackery.

    And then, to connect it back up with religion, this is from someone discussing the works of Thomas Pynchon:
    “God is the original conspiracy theory: behind floods, deaths in the family, the sprouting seeds or splatter of rain, behind every heartbeat and thought of man himself, monotheists discerned the single guiding will of a deity,”
    which suggests a shared impulse (pattern-seeking, anthropomorphizing) to discern agency where it ain’t really there.

    And then, since Pynchon means we’re talking about fiction, here is a great quote from Pynchon’s Mason&Dixon on the social value of conspiracy theories:
    “Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,—who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government…. ”

    And, lastly, has anyone reading this ever read Foucault’s Pendulum or the Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco? Two of the best books about conspiracies ever written.

  2. I also wanted to say it is ten kinds of awesome that you actually know a flat-Earther! That is just the sort of harmless conspiracy I can totally get behind.

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