The Simplification Hypothesis

Question (non-rhetorical): Do you think that Conspiracy Theories, as explanations, simplify otherwise complex world events?I’m at a bit of a loss with this notion; on one level I can see why people would believe that positing a Conspiracy Theory reduces the complexity of historical and social processes down to an almost cheap formula, yet I also have the intuition that many Conspiracy Theories make the world events more, not less, complex.Whatever the case, a study at the New Mexico State University sometime in the late nineties (Beliefs in Conspiracies, Marina Abalakina-Paap, Walter G. Stephan, Traci Craig and W. Larry Gregory in ‘Political Psychology,’ Blackwell Publishers, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1999) dismissed the notion that people believe in Conspiracy Theories because they provide simplified explanations of complex events. Well, the study claims to dismiss the notion. On one page they boldly say:p. 637 – ‘This study used canonical correlation to examine the relationship of 11 individual difference variables to two measures of beliefs in conspiracies. … These findings support the idea that beliefs in conspiracies are related to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, hostility, and being disadvantaged. There was no support for the idea that people believe in conspiracies because they provide simplified explanations of complex events.’Along with the following claim:p. 644 – ‘The hypotheses that suggested that beliefs in conspiracy theories would be associated with distrust of authority,hostility,feeling powerless,and being unfairly disadvantaged all found support in the results. However, the idea that beliefs inconspiracies or attitudes toward the existence of conspiracies are related to a needto seek simple explanations for complex events was not supported in this study.’Yet in the conclusion the authors are more modest:p. 646 – ‘…we found little support for one of the commonly cited reasons that people subscribe to conspiracy theories (i.e., to provide simple explanations for complex events).’Now I might be over-reading the situation, but ‘no support,’ ‘not supported’ and ‘little support’ are not exactly the same thing. Unfortunately, whilst the report is quite detailed on what they do think to be the motivational factors for belief in Conspiracy Theories (alienation, authoritarianism, belonging to a minority, low trust levels and those who score highly on external locus of control (thinking that control of situations is above or beyond you)) it says nothing more than that which I have quoted on the notion of simplification.The report looks at two related notions of Conspiracy Theory belief; belief in specific Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theories in general. Whilst you need the latter to the have the former you don’t need the former to have the latter in that you can believe in the possibility of Conspiracy Theories and yet not be convinced by any of the theories on offer. It is useful to disambiguate that notion; many people dismiss Conspiracy Theories due to specific examples (such as ‘Elvis is still alive’) and forget that a generic belief in Conspiracies is most likely rational. Conspiracies do happen; the Trotsky Trials, the Northern Ireland situation (I’m thinking specifically of the British Government arming and training terrorists whilst denying that they were) and most of the Henry VIII debacle.I do wonder whether the Simplification Hypothesis applies to the general belief in Conspiracy Theories, though. If I take a specific conspiracy, such as the belief that the American Government conspired to kill JFK I think that this explanation of the event is much more complex than the theory that Oswald acted alone. Then again, it all rather depends on what you consider complexity to be. If complexity is accidents, unintended results and competing purposes then perhaps the Lonenut Theory is more complex; the shot was hard, the likelihood that Kennedy would take the route low (JFK wasn’t meant to take that road so Oswald would have had to have acted quickly to set himself up) and so forth. The conspiracy version may well simplify the event because JFK’s death becomes over-determined.The general belief in Conspiracy Theories, however, I can see leading to sometimes overly simple explanations. If you tend to posit Conspiracy Theories then you might be inclined to dismiss horrendously complex official explanations and suspect something smaller and simpler as being the real reason behind it. I’m not entirely convinced, but it’s a start to a thought that could become part of a chapter (or, more likely, end up as a footnote I later excise).That’s enough of me; what do you think?

4 Replies to “The Simplification Hypothesis”

  1. It could be a bit of both — conspiracy theories often sound simpler (“the Gummint did it and covered it up”), which can make them attractive, although if you were to sit down and think about what the conspiracy implies, you’d see that it actually involves a much greater degree of complexity (the sheer number of people who would have to be involved, the logistics, the fact that no-one’s leaked, etc). I would imagine, though, that many people don’t bother to do this.

  2. Which is why I think the notion needs disambiguating; people who hold specific conspiracy views often poo-poo the official line as being simplistic. They argue that the real story is complex. Now, admittedly, the notion of simplicity is vague; positing an underlying mechanism such as a conspiracy might well simplify an explanation because you render everything into intentional claims and thus you don’t have to admit the presence of accidents, unforeseen consequences and so forth. That latter kind of view that focuses on processes rather than intentions (often called, I kid ye not, the ‘Cock-up Theory of History’) feeds more generally into the other historical explanations we use (unless you believe all of History is a conspiracy) and thus is a stronger theory…

    Actually, in part I think the problem is that we often go for simpler explanations over complex ones because we think simpler explanations often are better, as long as they are strong. The question really becomes, then, ‘Are Conspiracy Theories strong explanations?’

  3. Could it be as simple as conspiracy theories make better, more vivid, more stimulating stories? All the better if those vivid, interesting stories happen to confirm our prejudices (we can’t trust the gummint – they killed Kennedy!! With space robots!!!, etc). Complexity then (in the sense of lots of interconnected parts rather than complexity meaning difficult to understand) just makes the conspiracy more attractive.

    “positing an underlying mechanism such as a conspiracy might well simplify an explanation because you render everything into intentional claims and thus you don’t have to admit the presence of accidents, unforeseen consequences and so forth”

    Disco. When it comes to major events no one believes in coincidences or luck. More’s the pity.

    On other subjects, how long before someone finally releases a candy called the “Gum-Mint” – which subsequently is removed from sale when it is found that the CIA is tainting the candy with LSD and testing it on an unsuspecting population. For the Russian Mafia. Who are being paid by teh Space Robots.

  4. Ah, stories.

    Yes, I think there is something to that. Conspiracy Theories have lots of human characters doing things. Take the ‘North Head’ example; if the planes were burnt on the beach then, well, the story of Mallard and Bluebill ends there. If the planes were hidden within North Head, however, then we have an exciting yarn. The crating, shipping and placing of the planes in the tunnels. The privates who closed the tunnel. The Major who excises all records of the tunnel’s existence. The DoC archaeologist who is told not to reveal the information. It could make for a gripping thriller, especially if they were just planes, but Planes… Of Robotic Assassinating Death! That are also Space Shuttles.

    We (as a species) do tend to posit intentional explanations to the events in History. It’s related to the reason why so many of the items archaeologists find are claimed to be ‘of religous significance.’ If it’s of human manufacture it must be important. There’s no way it could have been an off-cut, or the by-product of a manufacturing process.

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