Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The role of intuitions in conspiracy theorizing

In developing a conspiracy theory, a common method is to find apparent inconsistencies between the “official story” and how the world works. Take the Kennedy Assassination. A wide range of evidence (e.g. autopsy photos, forensic recreations, expert testimony) indicates that a single bullet, passing through the bodies of both JFK and Governor Connally, caused seven wounds (Bugliosi, 2007; McAdams 2011). During the process of reviewing the evidence, conspiracy theorists conclude that the events involving this “magic bullet” couldn’t have happened. While there are typically arguments and “evidence” offered (e.g. the long-debunked misrepresentations of the bullet’s trajectory), the origins of their skepticism likely come from their initial beliefs or intuitions about ballistics and human anatomy. Intuitively, it may seem unlikely that one bullet could cause so much damage. Likewise, the head movement of Kennedy after the third shot (back and to the left) seems to be inconsistent with a shot from behind, where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed. But JFK conspiracy theorists take their intuitions a few steps further by concluding that the facts about the gun wounds undermine the single shooter theory and strongly support the multiple gunmen theory. In the face of contradictory physical evidence and expert testimony, conspiracy theorists tend to stick to their intuitions and infer that all of the evidence supporting the “official story” must be fabricated or mistaken. The conclusions of expert panels, forensic recreations, sophisticated computer simulations, and peer-reviewed scientific articles are often discounted out of hand. Intuitions about how they think the world works are often given more weight than the science. 

Experiments by Anatomical Surrogates Technology provide support for the single bullet theory. (Watch video to hear analysis from the ballistics experts consulted (1)

To use a recent example, consider the recent Vegas mass shooting. Is it possible that the mass murderer, Stephen Paddock, broke through the windows using a small sledgehammer, as reported by the police? Conspiracy theorists say “No”. Once again, the reasoning goes something like this: It seems unlikely or impossible that a hammer could break out the windows of the hotel room, therefore, Paddock couldn’t have done so.

In the case of the Vegas mass shooting, there is much more speculation than science. What kind of windows does the Mandalay Bay have? Can a small sledgehammer, by itself, smash through the windows that were installed? Online, there are lots of assertions made in answering these questions, with little to no evidence offered. But by looking at the photographic evidence and considering the eyewitness testimony of glass shattering, it is reasonable to infer, as the LVPD did, that the glass was shattered by Paddock using the hammer found in the room and/or rifle fire. Additionally, the photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony appear to undermine the internet rumors that hurricane resistant or shatterproof windows were installed (2).

Image source: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

What the JFK conspiracy theorist and the Vegas shooting conspiracy theorist have in common is that they rely upon an argument from intuition. Their beliefs about how bullets or hammers work determine the conclusions they draw and the hypotheses they take seriously. The argument is not just unique to JFK or the Vegas shooting; it is used as a basis for most conspiracy theories. The argument can be stated much more generally.

The general argument from intuition
It seems as if E is unlikely or impossible
Therefore E probably didn’t happen
Application 1: JFK multiple gunmen theories
It seems unlikely that one bullet can cause seven wounds
Therefore, the single bullet theory is probably false
Application 2: Vegas shooting conspiracy theories
It seems unlikely that Paddock broke out the windows with a hammer
Therefore, Paddock probably didn’t carry out the shootings (alone)
Application 3: 9/11 controlled demolition theories
It seems unlikely that a building can collapse from fire
Therefore, WTC 7 probably didn’t collapse from fire
Application 4: Moon landing hoax conspiracy theories
It seems unlikely that we had the technological capabilities to go to the moon
Therefore, we didn’t go to the moon

Given how often the argument is used to support belief in conspiracy theories, a lot hangs on whether this form of argument is any good. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, the argument is demonstrably unsound. As it turns out, the argument is a variation of a textbook logical fallacy, the argument from personal incredulity. Just because you cannot imagine how something happened, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.  

Why is the argument unsound? First, one can be mistaken about the likelihood or possibility of a given event, especially when it comes to the domain of physics. The intuitions of experts carry much more weight, as they possess the relevant background knowledge to judge whether an event is likely or possible. Laypeople often do not have the relevant background knowledge, relying mostly upon internet rumors and their own relatively uninformed speculation. When it comes to assessing the likelihood of an event, the right questions to would be:

-What do most of the relevant experts think?
-Is there any experimental data or quantitative analyses that inform us about the event’s likelihood?
-Have similar events happened in the past?

Second, the unlikeliness of an event is not, in itself, a good reason to doubt that the event occurred. After all, unlikely events happen all of the time. To form reliable judgments about the likelihood of an event, one would also have to consider the totality of the evidence and the plausibility of the alternative hypotheses. One ought to prefer the explanation that accounts for all of the facts, rather just some of the them. If the totality of evidence suggests an unlikely event occurred, then an unlikely event probably occurred. In forming likelihood judgments, conspiracy theorists often fail to realize that their alternative explanations for what happened rely on a number of highly questionable (if not demonstrably false) assumptions, and that their hypotheses (which typically require hundreds of people to be lie and fabricate evidence) are much less likely than the widely accepted view. 

The main problem with relying upon the argument from intuition is that you might begin theorizing with false assumptions. Instead of revising their hypotheses in light of new evidence, conspiracy theorists will likely cling to their original intuitions and the factoids (3) that they have found to support them. For example, in response to up-close photos of the broken windows in Paddock’s hotel room, some conspiracy theorists now claim that the photos of the window have been altered or fabricated (part of the coverup). Likewise, in response to the newly released footage of Paddock transporting his luggage to his hotel room, some conspiracy theorists--who previously claimed that it was impossible to transport so many guns into the hotel room--assert that the Mandalay Bay security footage provided to the New York Times and other media outlets is all fake. 

Conspiracy theorists have an easy way to dismiss criticism and evidence that contradicts their strongly held beliefs. Assert, without evidence or argument, that it’s all rubbish. The psychological appeal to this tactic is easy to understand. To engage in conspiracy theorizing, you don’t need to have any qualifications, or do much research (outside of watching youtube videos). In responding to critics, conspiracy theorists can always say that the evidence for their theory has been successfully covered up (an unfalsifiable claim), that all the evidence that conflicts with their theory is fake, or that everyone is lying. You can be “in the know” by simply relying upon your own intuitive judgments, following others who are likeminded, without the need to reflect upon whether those judgments are correct. 

Like with hardcore religious believers, there have a set of core beliefs that they treat as immune to refutation. Their core beliefs consist of intuitions about what is and isn't physically possible and those who do not share their intuitions are labeled morons or shills. Of course, not all conspiracy theorists engage in this kind of rhetoric, but I've encountered quite a lot of it in my conversations over the years. More objective researchers will present expert testimony (though usually irrelevant and/or biased) and evidence that they believe supports their theory, but much of what is presented is just to support their initial judgments. So, even the more sophisticated theorists still treat certain claims as gospel. 

Understanding how the world works requires much more than relying upon intuitions. The truth revealed by the scientific method can be, and often is, counterintuitive. Proper skepticism and good scientific reasoning requires that we carefully reflect not only upon the assumptions made by others, but on the assumptions that we ourselves make, especially if our assumptions are supported by little more than our gut. Sometimes, crazy shit just happens. And if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find something surprising or hard to believe about virtually any event. Instead of falling down an endless rabbit hole, one should be open to considering alternative hypotheses, read and engage with criticisms of your favored hypotheses, look at the totality of the evidence, and evaluate the strength of one's arguments.

(1) Their experiment recreated six of the seven wounds and demonstrated that the trajectory of the bullet is consistent with that of a bullet fired from the sixth floor of the book depository (where Oswald's rifle was found). While some conspiracy theorists interpret the result as undermining the single bullet theory, Alexander R. Krstic, a ballistics expert who was involved with the experiment, strongly believes that they would have replicated the event if the bullet hadn't struck a second rib bone, which slowed down the bullet considerably, and caused deformation (the "magic bullet" only struck one bone and was relatively undamaged).

(2) Close-up pictures reveal that the breakage does not appear to be consistent with that of a tempered glass breakage pattern or hurricane-resistant windows. The glass appears to have shattered, like in other instances of high-rise hotel windows that have been broken. Several eyewitnesses have provided testimony regarding the sound of glass shattering, and glass raining down from the window during the shooting. Given that Paddock's room contained the means to shatter the windows (and Paddock), the best explanation is that Paddock broke the windows from the inside before firing into the crowds. 

(3) By factoid, I mean an erroneous claim that is presented as a fact. While the vast majority of claims and assertions made by conspiracy theorists have been thoroughly debunked, the myths continue to spread, and are presented as factual information on conspiracy websites and youtube. To a naive observer, a long list of factoids can appear to be compelling evidence. To a more skeptical observer, a long list of claims, especially if the conclusions aren't widely accepted or controversial, calls for fact checking and careful analysis. 

Works cited

Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. WW Norton & Company.

McAdams, J. (2011). JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy. Potomac Books, Inc..

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