An intertesting article here relating to conspiracy theories and their worryingly increasing prevalence. The ease with which barking mad, crazy or just slightly twisted stories can be “broadcast” to the world worries me. And the fact that people can easily find stories which they believe confirms their suspicions is more worrying. There is a part of the human population which which sees “intent” of a conspiratorial kind on all sorts of things. In recent months I’ve seen Ebola blamed on Obama (and half a dozen other strange conspiracies), the refugee crisis in Europe blamed on Zionists, 9/11 blamed on Bush, the Paris shootings blamed on the French government, MMR blamed on causing autism and by some strange twist on the drug companies themselves. On one level these beliefs are slightly amusing. On another they are literally lethal – people were killed due to a conspiracy theory surrounding Ebola transmission, and kids die if not vaccinated for Mumps Measles and Rubella. More generally they simply get in the way of analysts looking for credible data. In a related sphere I’ve even seen on “Linked In”, the so-called professional social media, a photo with weird accusations about charities that simply didn’t stand up to ten seconds of fact checking. A serious, professional person had copied a photograph of a worrying/scurrilous accusation about a series of charities suggesting that they were in effect scams for the senior executives and posted it on linked in. The willingness to believe something as fact “because the internet told me” is incomprehensible. And the speed with which conspiracy theories can now gather pace is remarkable, aided by technology, and it makes countering such nonsense all the more challenging. It is easy to find people on the internet who share similar (perhaps extraordinary) views, and it’s easy for the extraordinary to masquerade as cogent facts. One cannot dismiss such things any longer as being beliefs of a tiny percentage of weirdos – last year an academic study found half the population of an advanced western civilisation endorsed at least one conspiracy theory. So we are no longer in the territory of being able to dismiss such belief as irrelevant. Conspiracy theories are now mainstream. A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.
The article in the Guardian goes on to suggest that a cognitive bias is at play, namely the “intentionality bias”. We humans are an imperfect species, and I’ve written before about cognitive biases and how they impact on the function of intelligence analysis, but not this one. The intentionality bias was perhaps something that intelligence analysts could ignore as they were (we hoped) above such nonsense, but I’m no longer so sure. The nature of the internet seems to facilitate the intentionality bias, allowing those subject to it to reinforce their views and easily find those who share their views which adds credence (in their view).
Maybe there’s an added danger for intelligence analysts. By the very nature of their tasks they are encouraged to find links and insights where none are apparent. And if one is to look at the fictional portrayal of the intelligence world you will find nothing other than major conspiracies, whether that be James Bond and Spectre, Jason Bourne and Treadstone. The Guardian article hints at a solution for the Intelligence analyst. By educating analysts in critical thinking techniques it appears that they may become less susceptible. I’ve been looking recently at such techniques as “hypothesis mapping”, “competing hypothesis analysis” and “causal storyboarding” which both encourage a broad range of hypotheses (even the weird ones!) to be incorporated in a systematic intelligence analysis process. I’ll blog about these a little in coming weeks. But it seems that conspiracy theories can be legitimately taken into account and discarded, quite often, by assigning a probability score against them or simply recognising that other causes beyond conspiracy are possible. Occam’s Razor beats conspiracy theories pretty reliably.
My own view is that the large organisations which are credited with conspiracies, whether they be governments, corporations or religions are simply not functionally capable, in the modern age, of the large scale evil intent they are portrayed as having. The truth is that bad things happen due to incompetence, and most large organisations are incompetent and simply not capable of a conspiracy even if that is their intent.