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Something Vaguely Like a Blog

As a result of massive public pressure (aka my son Toby), I've got an actual blog now.  The entries below have all been re-posted over there, along with new stuff, but I'm leaving this page up for now in case anyone has linked to it.  The blog is also called Trogholm and can be found here.

Conspiracy Theories and the Motivation Game
February 24, 2009

The subject of conspiracy theory keeps nagging at me.  The more I think about the kinds of situations that give rise to conspiracy theories, the less they seem like matters that we might hope to resolve by establishing clear-cut facts of history or politics.  Instead, they present a kind of philosophical black hole.

A year ago, I suggested -- at least half seriously -- that conspiracy theores may challenge our assumption that there is a real reality out there which we can discover by applying the proper methods.  I still suspect that might be true, but at the moment I'm more inclined to see the problem not as one of ontology -- the nature of reality itself -- but of epistomology -- the sources of human knowledge.

We human beings are, on the whole, very good at starting with an inadequate set of clues and squeezing useful information out of them.  However, the more complex and fragmentary the data we have to work with, the more likely we are to run up against the limitations of our methodology.

One of our most effective approaches is to patiently sift through whatever facts are available, looking for similarities and meaningful connections, until we arrive at some sort of plausible conclusion.  This method works best in the physical sciences, where the facts are solid and unambiguous and follow simple patterns of cause and effect.  However, it becomes less reliable when we try to apply it to living creatures, unless we have a large enough collection of data to permit us to look for broadly pervasive trends.  And when we are forced to grapple with extremely rare or unique events -- as is frequently the case when dealing with human history -- the "noise" of individual goals and idiosyncracies is likely to become louder than the "signal" of any coherent pattern.

That is why our history books tend to be strong on stirring accounts of kings and wars and revolutions and weak on plausible generalizations about how empires rise and fall or why civilizations appear in some places and not in others.  With rare exceptions, we just don't know enough to distinguish the unique from the universal.

Taken to a somewhat closer level of focus, this is also the problem that afflicts conspiracy theories.  The ascendancy of the particular over the general is why no amount of fact-gathering about, say, the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 ever seems to lead to definitive conclusions.  Both of these occurrences are unique in modern American history.  There is nothing else to which they can usefully be compared.  And adding new and possibly irrelevant bits of data to the mix merely blurs the picture instead of clarifying it.

However, data-sifting is not our only tool.   We humans regularly resort to a second and very different approach when facts alone prove insufficient to explicate a complex situation involving human interactions.  That is to make certain tentative assumptions about the relationships and motivations behind the events and then use those assumptions as a template into which to fit the available information..

Humans in general are extremely good at intuiting the motivations and intentions of our fellows.  It is one of the primary skills that we have been developing and building on since our chimpanzee days, and it is a large part of what makes us human.  However, there is a considerable difference between merely assessing what others have in mind when we deal with them face to face and developing complex scenarios of what they may be up to when they are out of our sight.

Not that we don't engage in that sort of scenario-building -- we do it all the time -- but it comes far less easily to us and we are as likely to guess wrong as right.  In fact, a great deal of our literature involves the pitfalls of the motivation game. Tragedy and comedy alike -- from Othello to I Love Lucy -- draw much of their dynamic from protagonists making wrong guesses about the unseen actions of others.

More vulgar literary forms, however, are often based on the simpler pleasure of watching a protagonist figure out what is really going on behind the scenes, thanks to a superior capacity for playing the motivations game -- with the classic detective story being the most obvious example.

To develop our sense of how the motivation game is played, then, we might usefully imagine an old-fashioned detective story which begins with the murder of a wealthy gentleman.  To the police, it seems obvious that he was slain by a nondescript vagrant -- a would-be burglar who got in through a door left unlocked by a careless servant, was surprised by the owner of the house as he attempted to abscond with the family treasures, killed the old man and attempted to flee, but was himself shot and killed as he tried to make his escape. 

End of story, case closed -- or would be, except for the canny detective who who has been called to investigate and quickly starts to suspect that the ne'er-do-well nephew who stands to inherit the dead man's fortune is not as casual and aimless as he seems.  As the detective pursues his inquires, he turns up three crucial facts -- that the nephew had recently been threatened with being disinherited due to his reprobate ways, that the door lock had seemingly been tampered with so that it would not latch properly, and that the nephew had been seen on the day before the murder talking earnestly with the vagrant in a local pub. 

Suddenly, an apparently random killing starts to look like a carefully executed plot, and the detective conceives of a scenario in which the dissolute nephew convinced the vagrant that it would be easy to rob his rich uncle and share the loot, then alerted his uncle to the crime in progress so that the robbery would end in murder, and finally roused the servants and made sure they had weapons at hand and would shoot the fleeing burglar, thereby covering up his involvement in the crime. 

This is a somewhat unlikely scenario, requiring the villain to be a flawless manipulator of both people and timing -- which may be why stories of this sort typically end not with a trial but with a dinner party at which the perpetrator can be surprised into confessing his guilt.  But no matter.  We enjoy stories of this sort not for of their absolute plausibility but because they offer the vicarious pleasure of seeing the motivation game played successfully at a particularly high level.

What is most interesting about this well-worn plotline, however, is that it precisely matches the template of the best-known conspiracy theories, including both 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination.  In both cases, a shocking homicide is initially assumed to be the doing of a "vagrant," until a closer examination of the facts starts to suggest an alternative suspect with a far more plausible motivation.  It gradually becomes apparent that this other suspect had a great deal to gain by the crime, that normal security measures had been weakened in a way that gave the nominal killer access to the target, and that there was even some sort of prior relationship between the "patsy" and the real plotter.

It all shapes up in the conspiracy theories precisely as it does in the detective story.  The only difference is that with the real-life events there is no chance for a dinner-table confession to be surprised out of the suspect -- and so the elegant scenario which provides a coherent story-line for the scattered facts of the crime must remain in the realm of the unproven and only half-convincing.

This is not to say that all conspiracy theories are baseless fantasies simply because they follow the same plotlines as drawing-room mysteries.  Human beings, after all, have evolved to think along those lines precisely because it does often helps us arrive at correct conclusion.

In playing the motivation game, our general impulse is not to reject a particular scenario unless we are offered a more complete and convincing alternative.  For example, in the drawing-room murder mystery outlined above, the conclusion might be very different if it had been specified that the apparent vagrant was actually an umployed and destitute worker whose life had been ruined when he was fired by the wealthy victim.

Being able to identify a plausible motivation for the suspect counts for a lot, and this makes us reluctant to accept faceless killers with no apparent connection to the victim.  We become rightfully suspicious, for example, when an O.J. Simpson insists that his ex-wife must have been slain by unknown assailants -- especially when we have witnesses who can testify that Simpson was known to be both violent and jealous.

On the other hand, when it comes to conspiracy theory, history shows that that assassins and terrorists may be motivated by grievances against their targets even if they have never met them.  That makes us more willing to believe that a political killing might be undertaken by outsiders with a grudge.  At the very least, we are left with two possible scenarios, neither of which is completely satisfactory.

At that point -- when we cannot decide which explanation better explains the facts -- more subjective factors inevitably come into play.  For example, our choice may come down to whether we are inclined to believe that the maintenance of social order is constantly at risk from lawless and desperate vagrants -- or whether we suspect that wealthy and self-indulgent scions of privilege are a far greater threat.

All of us harbor prejudices of one kind and another.  These assumptions about the covert motivations of whole classes of people can even be worked into the motivation game itself -- as when O.J. Simpson's attorneys sought to arouse a suspicion among black jurors that their client had been framed by racist policemen.  But recognizing and acknowledging our biases does not open any clearer path to the truth.  It merely makes it harder for us to be certain about our conclusions.

Once we reach that point, instead of our scenarios serving as a window that provides an unobstructed view of the world, they have become a mirror-maze, where we wander endlessly in the multiplex reflections of our own personal beliefs and assumptions. 

And that is where conspiracy theories inevitably leave us stranded in the end.  They can, perhaps, tell us a great deal about ourselves -- but they reveal very little about what really happened.

The Doggerland Revelations
January 7, 2009

In the four years since I originally posted these speculations on the origins on the Indo-European languages,, two interesting pieces of information have come to my attention.

Earlier in this essay, I suggested that the original speakers of proto-Germanic could be identified with the Magdalenian reindeer hunters who spread northward from southern France into England, Germany, and Denmark -- as indicated by the blue arrows on the map below -- during the waning years of the last Ice Age.

I accepted, however, the conventional wisdom that the original Germanic language of the eastern part of England had been wiped out by a subsequent expension of Celtic speakers and that modern English is the descendent of continental Germanic languages from northern Germany or Denmark -- the area indicated by the pale blue circle on the map -- whose speakers invaded England in the fifth centuiry AD.

It appears now that this is not necessarily so.

(Read the full item here.)

How We Got So Pretty
March 30, 2008

People who specialize in digging up human fossils  tell us that until about 15-20 thousand years ago, we all looked very much alike.  Back then, everyone on the planet apparently resembled present-day Australian aborigines, with broad faces and strongly pronounced features.

But after that, we started changing rapidly -- at least on the surface.  So-called racial distinctions appeared, distinctions that are usually decried because they make us look different from one another and thus present barriers to global harmony.  What is far less often noted is that those changes also made us prettier.  All of us.  Though each group adapted according to its own unique standards of beauty, in every region our facial contours became smoother and more delicate, our hair more appealing in form or color, our bodies sleeker and sexier.

There's an easy explanation for that -- the old Darwinian standby of sexual selection.  In a simple tribal society, success at producing and raising offspring is largely determined by basic physical and mental fitness.  But once society becomes just a bit more complex and distinctions of wealth and power appear, the game changes radically.  The most dynamic and charismatic men take on leadership roles, which typically gives them the opportunity to children by multiple women.  The most attractive and charming women appeal to the top-ranked men, and that offers their own children a better chance to survive, become leaders in turn, and have first choice of mates.

As hereditary aristocracies emerged and formally adopted practices such as polygamy, this principal of survival of the prettiest became even more firmly engrained, until a certain delicacy and elegance of features came to be taken as a natural hallmark of aristocratic birth.  Somewhere along the line, the nature of the stories we tell changed as well, so that the heroes all became brave and handsome and the women all beautiful.  Romantic themes unvolving competition for the hand of a desirable mate became central to epics and fairy-tales alike.

There are disquieting aspects to this.  It can be disillusioning to our inner five-year-old to realize that a story like Cinderella is just a gussied-up narrative of an experiment in selective breeding.  It may be even harder for our inner revolutionaries to accept that once upon a time there was some actual point to aristocratic claims to be inherently superior to ordinary folk -- though by now any such superiority would surely have filtered through the population as a whole.

It is more sobering yet to consider that the ultimate fruit of that Darwinian experiment -- which required men to over-achieve and out-perform all rivals in order to be assured of leaving descendents -- may be our present twin catastrophes of ceaseless war and environmental degradation.

But perhaps most disconcerting is the possibility that, at least on a certain level, all of us may be no more than lab rats in an ages-long breeding project, whose basic guidelines are so firmly engrained into us through story, song, and art that we never think to question them. 

We have to ask -- what is our true role in this project?  Are we the active sculptors in the workshop -- or the passive clay?  The unwitting pawns of our remote ancestors -- or the superhuman beings they could only dream of becoming?  Lacking clear answers, we can only speculate as to who we really are, where we came from, and how we got here. 

But an even more important question presents itself.  If that particular experiment is now coming to an end -- as the general rejection of aristocratic norms and imperatives over the last two centuries would suggest -- then perhaps the script that has been programmed into us has run its course, and we will soon be free of its dictates.  In that case, it becomes urgent to ask:  Where do we mean to go next?

Tags: Magical Earth,

Piercing the veil
February 13, 2008

All the great philosophies, in one way or another, offer the same simple message: The reality we inhabit is no more than a thin skin stretched over the substance of true reality.

This skin might be compared to the tenuous films of air and water that sustains life on the surface of our planet. Everywhere above our heads and everywhere beneath our feet lies a vast, unknown domain.

There are many ways of conceptualizing this larger domain, all of them useful to a degree and all of them ludicrously inadequate. We are creatures of the surface and never experience the depth of reality directly. Instead, we infer its existence and nature through the effects it has on our mundane world — and we devise metaphors, drawn from the things we do know, to express our inferences.

Recently, many of our older metaphors — such as “God” and “spirit” — have become decidedly creaky and started to show their age. They were made for a world in which the social relationships and state of scientific knowledge were very different from our own, and they no longer function effectively to attune us to the workings of a greater reality.


On Conspiracy Theory
December 13, 2007

Of course conspiracies exist. Human beings just *love* to conspire together. It comes as naturally to us as breathing and is as instinctive as two six-year-olds cooking up a secret plan and agreeing not to share it with the five-year-old next door.

I'm more than half convinced that language was invented to make it easier for proto-humans to keep secrets -- which is something you can't do nearly as well when everybody communicates by yelling "oonk, oonk, oonk" across the clearing. Even such basic items as clothing and houses may have originally been devised to enhance the game of "what am I hiding" long before they were put to any more practical purposes. Conspiracy has been a great driver of cultural evolution.

On the other hand, there's one major problem with conspiracies -- and that is gossip. Human beings love to be let in on secrets, but they aren't all that good at actually keeping them concealed, especially not in the long run. Secrets are a form of social currency, and the rewards to be gained by spreading them around are almost always greater than the rewards for keeping them buried. 

So even though I accept the notion that conspiracies happen on a regular basis, I'm pretty skeptical of the stories about vast, complicated, multi-generational conspiracies that are peddled by many conspiracy theorists. Those scenarios just don't seem to reflect human nature. 


Border courtesy of Kelly's Web