On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

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I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On Lisa Randall’s ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.’

On Lisa Randall’s ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.’

When you aim a telescope at the night sky, you can see a lot of stars.  You have to look harder than if Edison hadn’t been such a persistent tinkerer, but they’re all still out there.

From the colors of light emitted by each star, you can estimate its size.  And there are big whorls of gas, too.  These clouds also interact with light in a predictable way.  By looking up at the sky through a telescope, you can make a guess as to the total amount of stuff is out there.

But your guess would be wrong.

Milky WayThere’s another way you could guess: our solar system is spinning around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, held within its orbit by gravity.  Since we know how fast we’re moving, we know how much gravity there must be.  If there were more, we’d spiral inward to our doom, if there were less, we’d careen into space.

We’re held in place by more gravity than you’d expect if the only matter in our galaxy were stuff you could see.  Unseen stuff must be tugging us, too!  “Dark matter” refers to whatever is creating all the excess gravity we feel that can’t be accounted for by what we see.

“Dark matter” was discovered using logic very similar to Gabriel Zucman’s in The Hidden Wealth of Nations.  Dark matter is invisible when we look through a telescope, but we can identify where it must be when we look at clusters of stars that could only have their current shape if held together by a lot of extra gravity.  Similarly, money in illegal tax havens is invisible when we look at each nation’s tax records, but we can identify when it must exist when we look at all nations collectively and see strange absences of money.  In Zucman’s words (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan):

GabrielZucman2015238x363.jpgThe following example shows it in a simple way: let’s imagine a British person who holds in her Swiss bank account a portfolio of American securities — for example, stock in Google.  What information is recorded in each country’s balance sheet?  In the United States, a liability: American statisticians see that foreigners hold US equities.  In Switzerland, nothing at all, and for a reason: the Swiss statisticians see some Google stock deposited in a Swiss bank, but they see that the stock belongs to a UK resident — and so they are neither assets nor liabilities for Switzerland.  In the United Kingdom, nothing is registered, either, but wrongly this time: the Office for National Statistics should record an asset for the United Kingdom, but it can’t, because it has no way of knowing that the British person has Google stock in her Geneva account.

As we can see, an anomaly arises — more liabilities than assets will tend to be recorded on a global level.  And, in fact, for as far back as statistics go, there is a “hole”: if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial securities are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars.  It is this imbalance that serves as the point of departure for my estimate of the amount of wealth held in tax havens globally.

Of course, in the case of tax havens, we know what the invisible stuff is.  Money is money.  I mean, sure, it’s more likely to be stocks or stakes in hedge funds or the like than big bundles of dollar bills, but you get the idea.

Whereas, dark matter?  No one knows for certain what it is.

In Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, she describes several of the prevailing theories for what this unseen stuff might be.

Before I say more, I should include a disclaimer: I’ve studied a lot of physics, but only for objects atom-sized or larger, planet-sized or smaller.  Which might sound like a wide range, but it isn’t wide enough.  Randall’s book builds toward a hypothesis involving extremely small particles agglomerated into clouds more massive than stars.

RandallRandall says that her primary motivation in writing the book was not to advocate for a link between the arrangement of dark matter in our galaxy and the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs.  She described her aims in a letter to the New York Review of Books, but it’s a strange letter — it puzzles me that she’d be so ardent about a distinction between the words “invisible” and “transparent” when several proposals for dark matter described in her book would indeed be astronomically invisible but not transparent, and when she herself uses the words interchangeably in chapter titles and the text through the latter half of her book.

But that dino tie-in was why I wanted to read the book.  I assume it’s why you’re reading this review.

So I think it’s worth describing why I thought it was so bizarre that she wrote a book about this hypothesis, even though I did learn some interesting facts from the first half.

Large_Underground_Xenon_detector_inside_watertankOne of the favored explanations for the nature of dark matter is that it’s made of “weakly-interacting massive particles,” or “WIMPs.”  Giant detectors are being built to test this.  Big vats of xenon buried deep underground.  WIMPs are postulated to interact through a short-range nuclear force, but not through electromagnetism.

It doesn’t feel good to type a sentence like the one above and know that it’s both essential to an explanation and likely to sound like gobbledygook.

So, electromagnetism?  This underlies the physics of our world.  “Electromagnetism” means, roughly, interacting with electricity and light.  It’s why we tend not to fall through floors or walk through walls.  Electrons repel each other, similar to the way two negative-ended magnets will squirm when you try to push them close to one another.  All the atoms of your body, and all the atoms of the floor, are slathered in electrons.  And so with every step you take, the electrons in the floor push against the electrons in your feet, keeping you afloat in a sea of mostly empty space.

But if dark matter doesn’t interact with electromagnetic forces, it could pass right through you.

Which might sound goofy or ghostly, but this much seemed reasonable to me.  After all, seemingly solid matter has been shown to be permeable repeatedly in the past.  I don’t just mean the loppered sea, the unnavigably thick waste thought to surround the known world during the Middle Ages.  Do you know about the gold foil experiment?

Ernest_Rutherford_1905The gold foil experiment was designed to test: are solids solid?  Particles were blasted at a sheet of gold foil.  If the sheet was solid, the particles should bounce off or get stuck.  Maybe rip holes in the foil.  But if the foil is mostly empty space, most particles should zip right through.

Helium nuclei were launched at the foil.  Most passed right through.  Only a rare few struck something solid and ricocheted.  The sheet of metal — which would seem solid if you touched it with your finger, because electron density in your skin gets pushed away by electrons in the metal foil — was permeable to “naked” nuclei, tiny balls of protons & neutrons not slathered in electron density.

Randall explains this with the analogy of parallel social networks.  Alternatively, you could think about the behavior of animals.  If a foreign squirrel comes into my yard, the squirrel who lives in our big tree will chase it away.  But rabbits can hop through without being harassed by that squirrel.

Because rabbits and squirrels don’t compete for food or mates, they can pass right through each others’ territories.

squirrel
Image by Nicole Nicky on Flickr.

(I hadn’t realized until recently that rabbits are also very territorial.  It took a lot of yelling before I was able to convince our pet rabbit Kichirou, who fancies himself something of a warrior, that he didn’t need to urinate on the bed & belongings of a dear friend when she came to visit.  He thought she was usurping our home.  She wasn’t!  She just wanted to nap, eat ice cream, & work on her art!  Silly rabbit.)

A squirrel, running toward another squirrel’s territory, might appear to ricochet.  The resident squirrel will launch into action, intercept & chase away the intruder.  But a rabbit can travel in a straight-ish leaf-nibbling line.

In the gold foil experiment, alpha particles (another name for those naked helium nuclei) pass right through electrons’ territory.  But they ricochet off other nuclei’s territory.  Dark matter could pass even closer.  It might share zero interactions with ordinary matter other than gravity, in which case it could travel anywhere unmolested, or it might have only the “weak nuclear force” in common with ordinary matter, in which case it would still have to pass very close to another nucleus before it bounced or swerved.

Electromagnetic forces kick in earlier than the weak nuclear force.  You can compare this to human senses.  If you’re out for a stroll at the same time I’m jogging with our pitbull Uncle Max, you can see us from farther away than you can smell us.  Even though Uncle Max still smells very pungently bad from the several times he’s been skunked this year.  Dude needs to learn that skunks don’t want to play.

IMG_5319.JPG
Yes, I’m smiling, but let’s be clear: he smells bad.

I think that’s enough background to give you a sense of Randall’s hypothesis, which begins with the following:

  • Maybe our planet has been periodically bombarded with asteroids — as in, most of the time few asteroids hit, and every so often there are a bunch of collisions.
  • Maybe the time interval between these collisions is approximately 30 million years long.
  • Maybe our solar system wobbles up and down across the central plane of the Milky Way as we orbit.
  • Maybe the time interval for these wobbles is the same 30 million years.
  • Maybe traversing the central plane of the Milky Way is what increases the chance of stray asteroids hitting us (if the likelihood does periodically increase).
  • Maybe not all dark matter is made of the same stuff.
  • Maybe some of the dark matter (not that we know what any of it is), in addition to interacting through gravity, has a self-attractive force that it uses to cluster together.
  • Maybe dark matter, if the right fraction of it had this property, would form a big disc across the central plane of our galaxy.
  • Maybe the up & down wobble of our solar system (if it occurs) causes it to cross that disc (if it exists) every 30 million years or so, which is why asteroid bombardment increases at those times (if it does).

This long string of conjectures is the main reason I thought a book-length treatment of this hypothesis was premature.  To my mind, it is a disservice to the general public to cloak hypothetical storytelling in the trappings of academic science.  I think this passage Randall wrote about Occam’s Razor really demonstrates why I have qualms:

Both casual observers of science and scientists themselves frequently employ Occam’s Razor for guidance when evaluating scientific proposals.  This oft-cited principle says that the simplest theory that explains a phenomenon is most likely to be the best one.

Yet two factors undermine the authority of Occam’s Razor, or at least suggest caution when using it as a crutch. … Theories that conform to the dictates of Occam’s Razor sometimes similarly address one outstanding problem while creating issues elsewhere — usually in some other aspect of the theory that embraces it.

My second concern about Occam’s Razor is just a matter of fact.  The world is more complicated than any of us would have been likely to conceive.  Some particles and properties don’t seem necessary to any physical processes that matter — at least according to what we’ve deduced so far.

I disagree with this sentiment… especially in a book targeted toward a popular audience.  It’s true that the world is sometimes very complex.  But we need Occam’s Razor because elaborate explanations can always fit data better than simple explanations.  This is why conspiracy theorists are able to account for every single detail — look at that man shaking an umbrella!  It’s a signal! — whereas a simpler explanation — it was a lone crazy with a gun — leaves much unaccounted for.

In science, the problem is called “overfitting data.”  If you have ten dots on a chart, you might be able to draw a straight line that passes kinda close to all of them… but a squiggly line could be drawn right through every single point!

Occam’s Razor suggests: stick with the line.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to believe a more complicated explanation is correct, you shouldn’t try to account for every single detail.

Similarly, if Randall thought there was compelling astronomical data that showed our solar system wobbling up and down at the same times that asteroid strikes increase in frequency, she ought to propose that these phenomena are linked.  But, given that these data are already nebulous, why complicate the proposal by saying that a dark matter disc underlies the link?  Why say that a particular fraction of dark matter needs to have a certain type of force in order to form a disc of that shape?

Yes, storytelling is important.  These wild explanations have a vital role in science — they inspire experiments to test the ideas.  If some of the experiments yield positive results, then it’s worth telling the story to the public.  But the initial speculation?  That part isn’t science.  It seems unhelpful for a Harvard professor to promote it as such.

I was also thrown off by some of the pop culture references that pepper the text.  Most seemed unnecessary but innocuous, like “WIMPs [weakly-interacting massive particles], unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, are not our only hope, though as far as these detection methods are concerned, they are in many ways our best one.  Direct detection works only when there is some interaction between Standard Model and dark matter particles, and WIMP models guarantee that possibility.”  Mentioning Star Wars didn’t seem to accomplish anything other than an are you paying attention? nudge in the ribs, but the allusion didn’t impede my understanding.

Worse was a metaphor that misrepresents the history of economic injustice in the United States without elucidating the physics Randall is describing:

Camden_NJ_povertyAnother proposed explanation for the paucity of observed satellite galaxies and sparser-than-expected inner galaxy cores is that supernova explosions expel material out of the inner portions of their host galaxies, leaving behind a far less dense inner core.  The resulting dark matter distribution might be compared to that of an urban population in its densest inner city regions, where — in the aftermath of unrest — explosions of violence have stemmed the growth to leave a depleted core.  The inner galaxy that has seen too much supernova outflow doesn’t grow in density toward the center any more than would a sparsely occupied inner city.

Analogies often are the best way to explain science to a general audience.  Take something unfamiliar, show how it’s similar to something people know.  And no analogy is perfect, obviously.  There will always be differences between the unfamiliar scientific concept and the everyday experience you’re relating it to.

But it can hurt understanding when an analogy is used incorrectly.  Perhaps there are climates where rabbits and squirrels do compete for food, in which case my earlier analogy for the behavior of non-interacting particles might confuse someone.  If such a climate exists, a person living there might think, What’s he talking about?  I watch squirrels chase rabbits all the time!

Regarding galaxies that have low density near the center, I think the comparison to urban unrest doesn’t work.  In cities, violence usually follows a drop in population; violence doesn’t cause the drop.  Here’s Matthew Desmond’s description from Evicted:

desmondMilwaukee used to be flush with good jobs.  But throughout the second half of the twentieth century, bosses in search of cheap labor moved plants overseas or to Sunbelt communities, where unions were weaker or didn’t exist.  Between 1979 and 1983, Milwaukee’s manufacturing sector lost more jobs than during the Great Depression — about 56,000 of them.  The city where virtually everyone had a job in the postwar years saw its unemployment rate climb into the double digits.  Those who found new work in the emerging service sector took a pay cut.  As one historian observed, “Machinists in the old Allis-Chalmers plant earned at least $11.60 an hour; clears in the shopping center that replaced much of that plant in 1987 earned $5.23.

These economic transformations — which were happening in cities across America — devastated Milwaukee’s black workers, half of whom held manufacturing jobs.  When plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, where black Milwaukeeans lived.  The black poverty rate rose to 28 percent in 1980.  By 1990, it had climbed to 42 percent.

After poverty came squalor.  After squalor, violence.

To me, it sounds disquietingly like blaming the victims to claim that violence drove people away, when in reality the violence only began after the middle class & most of the decent jobs had left.

Not that I know of a better analogy for the low-density interiors of galaxies.  The best I can think of are the ring-like structures of bacterial colonies — they end up that way because early generations deplete all the nutrients from the center and fill it with toxic waste — but that isn’t a good analogy because many people are equally unfamiliar with bacterial growth patterns.

Nobody’s gonna suddenly understand if you compare an unfamiliar concept to something else that’s equally unfamiliar.

All told — and despite the fact that I learned a fair bit from the first half of the book — I can’t think of anyone whom I’d recommend Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs to.  The idea is interesting, sure.  If you’re an astronomer, maybe you should think about experiments to test it.  But working astronomers wouldn’t need all the background information presented in the book — they would want to read Randall & Reece’s article in Physical Review Letters instead.  You get the hypothesis and some supporting data in just five pages, as opposed to 300+ pages for the hypothesis alone.

That leaves general audiences.  But, this isn’t science yet!  This is storytelling.  Toward the end of the book, Randall even mentions that there’s enough speculation underlying the hypothesis for the whole thing to be illusory:

What astrophysicists were really saying was that there was no need for a dark disk.  Given the uncertainties in densities in all the known gas and star components, the measured potential could be accounted for by known matter alone.

I think it’s situations like this that really demonstrate the value of Occam’s Razor.  Our knowledge of the world is imperfect.  One way to acknowledge our ignorance is to prefer simple explanations: instead of accounting for every single detail, we accept that some details about what we think we know might be incorrect.  The man was shaking an umbrella because of an inside joke?  You mean, he had no idea the president would die?  That’s an awfully big coincidence, don’t you think?

Why write an entire book — with such an attention-grabbing title! — when all the data you’re accounting for might be measurement uncertainties?

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

gravitys rainbow at whitney

Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?

Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.

I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.

But I did resolve to read the book.

Alexandre_Cabanel_Phèdre
I’m not sure what image best illustrates the opera performance of a fictional character, so here’s Alexandre Cabanel’s Phedre. This is the role Marcel first saw La Berma perform, at which point he felt disappointed by her apparent lack of artifice. Good acting means acting naturally??

At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.

5628951142_cc4759b4dc_oLet me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.

Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.

The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.

The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.

The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:

The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.

. . .

So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.

paranoiac_by_adricarra-d6val00
Paranoiac by adricarra on deviantart.

This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.

The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.

In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.

Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.

3-dimensional-model-of-influenza-virus
Hemagglutinin molecules — blue pegs on the outside of this model — need to be severed by a host endoprotease before the flu virus can dock & conquer.

Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.

The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?

There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …

These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories.  Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …

The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.

suspicious mindsA few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.

Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.

When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.

The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.

santa and his cauldronIn the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!

It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?

Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.

Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.

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Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.

Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:

Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —

“One lemming, kid?”

“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”

“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”

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Lemmings by Tao Lin on Flickr.

And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.

In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.

Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.

The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!

Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources.  When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.

Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_41-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Humans are very similar to most other predators this way.  A bit foolish, we are.  We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.

So it goes.

The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?

In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.