Society is not a science problem (but science’s problems are social)

The scientific mindset is powerful for investigating phenomena of the natural world. When it comes to the socio-political, it can make us foolish.

Conspirator, or victim of a conspiracy? Yesterday at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.

“Scientists are the easiest to fool. … They think in straight, predictable, directable, and therefore misdirectable, lines. The only world they know is the one where everything has a logical explanation and things are what they appear to be. Children and conjurors—they terrify me. Scientists are no problem; against them I feel quite confident.”
— James P. Hogan, Code of the Lifemaker

I semi-jokingly describe my job as being a “humanistic technophilosopher”. It sounds a bit grandiose, but it’s really an attempt to capture a simple idea: in our technological society, the most interesting stuff happens at the boundary of the humanities and the sciences.

Whilst it is common for scientists to lament the innumeracy of their artistic counterparts, it is my observation that scientists can be equally naive about the social. In fact, they can be even more profoundly ignorant, since the artists know they are mathematical weaklings, but the numerate are conceited that their reductionist rationalism is the right tool for political problems.

Understanding why this widespread arrogance exists may prove illuminating, and this is best shown via an example. Several people have pointed me at a published scientific paper by an Oxford University researcher about the scaling properties of “conspiracies”. (Defining one is problematic, as we shall see, hence the scare quotes.) Can we take its conclusion — conspiracies don’t scale well — at face value?

The paper’s fatal flaw is easy to spot in its abstract and abstraction (my emphasis): “In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy.” Anyone who thinks complex historical narratives collapse to binary probabilities is already in deep trouble! Indeed, the idea that there is a single truth in the social is extremely contentious.

What this paper attempts is to produce a universal model of all phenomena whereby an intentional deception is jointly maintained over time by a closed group. It assumes there is a single and well-defined class of narrative called a “conspiracy”, and furthermore presumes that the author has the superior wisdom and raw data to personally discriminate between truth and lies. The scientist, you see, is not so easily duped! These are also perfectly “true or false” phenomena in their totality, both in their construction (is it a conspiracy or not?) and their extinction (they either fail totally, or don’t at all).

Having been a childhood victim of a Masonic conspiracy — the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult — that operates persistently in the open, I feel in a somewhat privileged position to comment on Dr Grimes’s epistemological endeavour. In short, it is demonstrably foolish, and illustrates why physics journals, for the sake of their credibility and integrity, should stay well away from commenting on sociological matters.

Let us first recapitulate the author’s core model, so we can easily see why it is nonsense. It treats the properties of these “conflicting narratives” as being a scaling problem a bit like a computer science exam question. There is “good data” and “bad data”, with “good actors” and “bad actors”. The “bubbles of falsehood” are filled with “bad data and actors” who collude with the lie; and outside that bubble is the rest of society, comprising “good data and actors”, filled with integrity and truth. Should the skin of the bubble be punctured, in either direction (inside-out or outside-in), then it will always completely burst, as the bright rays of truth rush into the prior darkness.

There are some mathematical elaborations on the model to give it a semblance of numerical authenticity through complexity, but it’s already holed below the intellectual waterline, and doomed to sink into the deep. Its simplistic theory of power, social hierarchy and privileged information is so absolutely at odds with lived reality that we can dismiss this fairy tale equation with minimal mental effort.

As Feynman himself said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” So the mere existence of large and long-lived conspiracies instantly kills off this model’s validity.

Some simple examples might include:

  • The Sicilian Mafia (which was not known by that name for a very long time; it largely operated in secrecy).
  • The Manhattan Project, whose scale (>100,000 people), methods and detailed operation was kept from the public until the 1970s; a 25 year timespan.
  • Secret societies, easily found and too numerous to list here, which have sustained conspiratorial activities over many generations.

Indeed, the very examples it cites as being “obviously not real conspiracies” are open to challenge, such as the suppression of cures. The pharma industry has successfully repressed the use of cannabis-derived natural remedies that are proven effective for conditions like chronic pain, arthritis, anxiety and epilepsy. They have instead pushed harmful and addictive synthetic compounds, like opioids and benzos, that are far more profitable.

It is therefore credible that the lucrative cancer industry is equally reluctant to admit that natural and dietary treatments — that stimulate the immune system into action, and starve the malignant growth — can be more effective than their barbaric “cut, poison and burn” regime in at least some cases. This is especially so given that other core medical “official received wisdom”, such an on fat and carbs, is empirically untrue.

The problem of this paper’s approach to complex social phenomena is its desire to reduce them to simple equations. The world of shared understanding doesn’t work that way. Indeed, in the case of organised acts of deception or corruption, the model leaves out pretty much every single defining attribute of an actual conspiracy! As such, the paper is of less than no value: it would have been better that it has never been published at all. Its information content is negative, bolstering the continued viability of genuine conspiracies by promoting a false public certitude in their non-existence.

Here are some of those defining characteristics which obviate the validity of this trivialised numerical model:

  • As viable systems theory tells us, all scalable systems require constrained locality of reference of information. Most conspiratorial endeavours are not “flat”, they are hierarchical, with only the leaders being truly “in on the secret”. Boom! We’ve already killed the model dead at the first step.
  • The security services operate with extremely strict compartmentalisation, so those lower down have essentially no idea what the ultimate purpose of their work is. The intentional semantics and the operational semantics are different things; those at the base of the hierarchy do not have access to the intent, so the model is deficient.
  • A major conspiracy is, by its definition, typically of a criminal nature, and run by people of psychopathic and violent tendencies. Am omertà can be imposed by violent force on those both inside and outside the conspiracy. There are many real-world examples I could draw upon, but they would distract you by providing too much provocation with murder and mayhem.
  • Those who may be involved in the conspiracy at the lower levels may be victims of cult-like indoctrination. They will absolutely defend the conspiracy against attack, believing that it is the one true way! The is the opposite of what the model proposes, where they are all fully aware of the lie they are participating in.
  • The world is also full of partial truths and disinformation, and there is not necessarily a clear boundary of the conspiratorial activity. This is particularly the case in military domains where whole programmes are classified and secret. For instance, we know for sure that the USSR lied a lot during the 1960s space race, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if the Americans pulled a few porkies too.
  • There is a blurry line between a conspiracy and the ordinary emergent alignment of interests of the powerful and corrupt. The world is a complex web of interacting narratives, and which way is morally “up” is often unclear. This is the “shoal of fish” problem, translated into collectives of crooks.
  • False flags and similar “trigger events” can provide a pretext for wars and genocides. Those involved may quite believe they are fighting for freedom and civility, when they are engaged in nothing of the sort. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were based on faked data, hence being candidates for “conspiracies” that break the model.
  • Total buy-in by the public is not necessary; you only need to fool some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time. Those being deceived, if they feel they are in the majority, will self-police the rest by the use of ridicule.
  • There is no consideration of psychopathic cultures, and how they infiltrate, infect and invert organisations and societies, often using bribery and blackmail. The “conspiracies” don’t exist in isolation, but instead form a network of mutually reinforcing “dark power”. You can’t expose and eliminate one without attacking them all.
  • Finally, the truth can be hidden in plain sight. The public will ignore it if they have been successfully propagandised by their parenting, education and the media. The idea that you just need to tell one investigatory journalist that those in power are liars, and that society leaps up in indignant agreement, is laughable.

By making conspiracies a phenomenon composed solely of individual actors, and ignoring the entirety of the institutional and power context, this paper does a serious disservice to historical inquiry. It ignores how war is intrinsically the art of deception: it’s in the logo of The Mossad. Well-funded intelligence services (aka professional liars) exist to spin false narratives to keep enemies confused. There is also structural falsehood spread by organised crime, some of which may be very “respectable”, like the Libor interest rate rigging scandal with the major banks.

At its most extreme, we have totalitarian societies where the entire purpose is a conspiracy of a small ruling elite against the populace. The experience of whistleblowers in the West is pretty grim; elsewhere, it is frequently a lethal activity. The embedded and endemic nature of “power through deceit” is notable by its absence from this trivialised model. It cannot account for the societies we see, so it must be dismissed.

Perhaps most troubling is that it is ignorant of how evil operates. Wickedness always presents itself as goodness, and scales by seduction and cooption into participation. It is “ultra-lean”, in that it parasitises the energy of others by misdirecting their efforts. It is often very hard to know whether you are operating in the service of good or evil. I do not envy my honourable warrior friends, some of whom belatedly discover their sacrifice in military service was betrayed by a corrupt establishment.

In short, the “semantic dark matter” of manufactured mass delusions — and how they scale — is what is really interesting. “Conspiracy theory” is a loaded term, and what we should care about is understanding how false beliefs spread and collapse. They clearly can encompass whole societies, and span centuries. The history of science is replete with doctrines and dogmas that have only been abandoned after ferocious battles, and that is in the domain of the natural world, not the social and political one.

The intrinsic deficit of the philosophy of science is that it leaves out the scientist and society. It assumes there are no external power struggles, and no adversaries seeking advantage by deception. The consequence is that we now face a widely-acknowledged crisis of cheating and replicability in mainstream science. There truly are large-scale and persistent conspiracies, and the scientists don’t sufficiently grasp how they operate to infiltrate all institutions, including their own.

This problem is hard to remedy, because it means admitting that the conceptual foundations of science itself are wobbly. There are limits to what problems rationalism on its own can address. After all, how can you know if data is being falsified, especially if the “replication” experiment was also a cooperative fraud? It’s a bit like with investigations into plane crashes: if you assume that the only causes are design, operation and pilot errors, then you will ignore intentional acts of murder and sabotage, especially if the perpetrators have installed their own agents on the investigatory team!

The philosophy of science deliberately exalts gnosis (knowledge) above pistis (faith). Science is deemed a neutral activity, with morality is seen as external function of actors who are reduced to puppet-like mechanical roles. For better or worse, it separates man from creation, and that framing can lead us to warped beliefs about the nature of reality. Religion also claims to be a rational inquiry, using domain-appropriate methods, into the ethical and spiritual. Its mutually antagonistic relationship with science seems unhelpful to the development of both.

That said, rumour has it that God now has published a sequel to the Bible, mischievously titled The Dawkins Delusion. Towards the revelatory end, the protagonist receives his comeuppance by losing his head in a city park, as punishment for his heresy. Apparently it is a top-seller in many galaxies! At least, that’s what I read on one popular conspiracy website. So it must be true, no?