Islamic School Plots to UFOs? The cognition of conspiracy theories

Any excuse to invent an TV mini-series plot...

Any excuse to invent an TV mini-series plot…

Humans love conspiracy theories. We can’t help it. Creating plots, schemes, unseen forces and secret organisations to explain the world around us is actually wired into our brains. It stems from a thinking process we all develop as babies and forms completely between the ages of 3 and 4, called the Theory of Mind. It’s extremely powerful and evolutionarily was responsible for our success as a species. However, it also makes us behave like paranoid nuts and invent wacky, illogical explanations for things we can’t understand. It drives us to reach for strange conclusions with no evidence… and disregard logical explanations for which we have plenty. To illustrate this, I’ve picked a few examples to chew on, and slice to logical bits with the help of the grandfather of logical thinking tools… Occam’s razor.


The basic thing to remember about conspiracies and plots: They’re really unlikely because of the practicalities…

Before we get into it, remember this idea. Conspiracies are really complex things to enact. Have you ever tried organising a surprise party? They’re harder than they seem, even when everyone knows the person concerned and wants to be part of the surprise. Have you ever tried to keep an ordinary party a secret from someone you didn’t want to come? That’s also hard, even when nobody else wants them to go. Secrets that involve lots of people are hard to keep, even when the people involved all know each other. So imagine how hard a secret is to keep when, as is the case with all conspiracies, it demands the involvement of people who don’t know each other and are employed across multiple institutions with operational procedures that make it hard to conspire in the first place.

The only way it ever works, isn’t in a conspiracy. It’s in terrorist and drug dealer cartel cells, where there is loose organisation, multiple mini-plots and arguably no conspiracy at all – just a method of operating designed to avoid detection. Even then, the cell approach only means if one cell is detected, another is hard to locate. It’s a mechanism that isolates the cells, it doesn’t enable a complex plot to achieve one simple goal. Conspiracy theories, unlike real cells, are not ‘cellular’, they’re huge, cascading sets of faulty logic and as a general rule, don’t exist.

Meet the thinking tool of the 14th Century, and the science of the late 20th

William of Ockham (c. 1287 – 1347) devised a problem solving tool, known as Occam’s Razor, which worked on the principle that when faced with two or more competing explanations for a problem, the one which requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. It’s called his Razor because he used it to slice away at the irrelevant and insubstantial logic with it, to find the truth. It’s basically the premise up on which Arthur Conan Doyle formulated the Holmesian deduction principle that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. It’s a brilliant thinking tool because it merely asks you to stick to the facts… and where facts are missing, work on fact based assumptions. In the 14th Century, this was incredibly radical: For example:

“Why has the village got the plague?”
“It’s a judgement from God”
“So how come the people who haven’t been around plague victims don’t have it?”
“They’re not sinners, so they don’t have the plague”
“So how come when they touch people with the plague, they get it”
“Well… er… they must have sinned in-between not having it and then touching someone with the plague… or something”
“I’m thinking they may get the plague by touching people with the plague, seems logical”
“Do you deny the existence of God?”
“No, I’m just saying it’s a bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

This kind of thinking tool is what academics sometimes call “Folk Philosophy” which led (after about 150 years of the development of psychology) to the work of psychologists like Wimmer & Perner in the early 1980s, who devised a test to show how our Theory of Mind develops as a mechanism that allows us to realise that a) we can have our own beliefs and feelings, and b) so can other people so therefore c) we understand that other people have different thoughts from ourselves. They did this with a test called the “Sally-Anne test” which goes like this:

A child is shown two dolls, Sally and Anne, who have a basket and a box, respectively. Sally also has a marble, which she places in her basket, and then leaves the room. While she is out of the room, Anne takes the marble from the basket and puts it in the box. Sally returns, and the child is then asked where Sally will look for the marble. The child passes the task if she answers that Sally will look in the basket, where she put the marble; the child fails the task if she answers that Sally will look in the box, where the child knows the marble is hidden, even though Sally cannot know this, since she did not see it hidden there.

Where it gets really interesting is when you apply this internal belief model to our evolution and history. Without an understanding of the fact other people and animals have their own minds, which we can’t know, we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a co-operative, social species. We’d have been locked into a world where, like animals, our communication was always simple and observational – like “I’m hungry” or “There is danger” or “I want to mate”. We’d never have asked “How are you?” or “What’s wrong?” or felt the need to explain why we needed “Help” or how we were “Feeling”.

The Theory of Mind enables task planning, co-operation, negotiation, empathy… and the supernatural

When you think of its role in our development as societies, you can see how our innate tendency to reach for spiritual and paranormal beliefs comes from. For example “Who made the sun?”. It didn’t take our ancestors very long to work out that it wasn’t a man or a woman, or an animal. It was too incomprehensible to be explained like that. This big, hot, untouchable, bright thing in the sky? No. That wasn’t put there by one of them. With no knowledge of cosmology, the answer had to be some sort of intelligence, a person who was incredibly powerful, a person with some kind of plan which involved a hot bright thing in the sky that nobody could touch. That person, eventually, got a name (many names, actually) which explained it – God.

That kind of God-cognition must have been a function of our basic psychological processing, because every race has a God, or Gods, or supernatural beings with supernatural agendas in their history. The fact every human society constructed supernatural beings as myths to explain the world around them, but not the same supernatural being (in appearance or manefestation) suggests it’s not reporting something that exists, but showing a common trait in the way human brains work. It’s the psychological equivalent of convergent evolution.

Of course we’ve modified the Gods we conjured over time – with technological and scientific development, the role of the God being has changed from bringing good weather for the harvest, or bringing luck in battle to subtler things like helping us find happiness in love and work, or more serious things like curing our loved ones when science can’t. After all, people don’t say prayers to cure diabetes any more, we can fix that, but for things like cancer, many people revert to traditional comforts. Logically speaking, you should be able to pray for God to fix your toothache too. But we don’t.

From toothache to UFOs

The news today is full of conspiracies. Now, remember, conspiracies universally require two things – the ignoring of Occam’s Razor principles, and the ignoring of the fact all of us have a thinking bias towards inventing beings (with secret plans) to explain natural and social phenomena. Perhaps the best explanation of this can be seen in the UFO conspiracy idea, I.e

Aliens have been visiting the Earth for a period of time (some say thousands of years, others say since the 1950s). The conspiracy explains that our Governments (some, maybe all, definitely the US and the UK) know all about it and are keeping it a secret. We have secret government enforcers (the Men in Black) who’ll make you disappear if you uncover the truth and try to tell the world, too. In fact, some theorists insist that we have wreckage, alien corpses, secret bases and much of our modern technology has been secretly reverse engineered from salvaged alien tech.

Debunking this is simple. An old friend of mine, Nick Pope was the Ministry of Defence’s UFO investigator. One night I asked him what he thought, could there be some truth in the stories. His reply was very succinct. Whilst he acknowledged that, out of tens of thousands of reports of UFOs, perhaps one or two genuinely defied a simple, Occam’s Razor explanation, even those didn’t prove anything more than the fact they were unexplained events. Assuming that, because of a couple of unexplained sightings or unusual background radiation readings (which he discovered at the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting site), we were being visited by beings from another world was crazy. More to the point, as he put it

“The government and military has trouble delivering supplies from a warehouse in Salisbury to front line troops in Basra, despite having a fleet of planes and ships whose sole job is to do it. Civil servants leave CDs of top secret information on trains by mistake. People leak much less interesting stories than UFOs to the press all the time. Based on those facts, do you really think the thousands of people, hundreds of different government and military departments, and dozens of governments, politicians, soldiers, civil servants etc. could keep anything that big a secret for decades when so many people are hunting for it?”


From UFOs to UKIP

It seems fitting to move from aliens to immigrants here. In UKIP, we see a political party that runs on one conspiracy after another. Their leader, Nigel Farage, frequently refers to “The political classes and their friends in the media” to explain why they get so much negative press (some interesting analysis on that and more Farage UKIPpery here). They refer to Europe as though it’s an individual, as opposed to a large, complex set of governmental departments operating across an even larger set of national governmental departments, all of which has at some point in their existence, a democratic process. UKIP makes much capital out of nebulous hoards of Eastern Europeans who are coming to the UK to steal our jobs, but singularly fails to acknowledge the basic economic and legal forces that means it’s the employers, not migrant workers, who decide who gets a job in the first place. It’s one invented, clandestine plot after another – and if you vote for them, they’ll stop it.

That kind of politics is appealing, however, to many people who have an unchecked Theory of Mind and are assuming that there *must* be a plot of some sort which is trying to diminish Britain. Why? Because that’s a more natural explanation to your cognitive bias than grappling with the complex economics of the UK and it’s relationship with it’s largest marketplace, the EU. Because blaming foreigners for the problems we have here is simpler than holding our politicians to account for bad policies. Because blaming employers for exploiting cheap foreign labour challenges the basics of free markets and capitalism, and one thing we all know is UKIP voters don’t like the idea of paying higher taxes or challenging the idea that capitalism isn’t working so well. Back when there was a strong Union movement in the UK, the same people used to blame them for our problems too. UKIP is basically what happens when our psychological processes combine with right wing politics and the basic notion that people who look different and talk a different language are somehow jealous of us because we won the second world war / 1966 world cup.

From UKIP to Islamic Schools

Sticking with the theme of difference, today we’re in the midst of a new conspiracy theory. Last week, the BBC were calling it a “Muslim Takeover Plot” (which is ludicrous) but now it’s been commuted to “Islamic Extremists in Schools” and variations on that theme. Over twenty schools, which have moved away from state control and become semi-autonomous, in predominantly Asian British communities, are being inspected for developing curricula and operations that are deemed to be sowing the seeds of cultural isolation. The parents, it seems, aren’t bothered about it, nor does it seem are the kids, and in fact, so far, the Ofstead reports have failed to show any plot or conspiracy at work. There’s some bad accounting, poor management (not limited to just the schools in question, there are plenty more around the country like that) and a smattering of complaints by staff (again, plenty of other schools have those too). In fact, objectively, there’s nothing to worry about that wouldn’t fall under the umbrella of educational concerns that apply across the entire country.

Except that, of course, the likes of Al Qaeda are muslims. Christian and secular groups don’t have the same profile, the same role in global conflicts, the same cultural baggage… at least, not any more. Go back a few years and you’ll find issues not dissimilar in Northern Irish schools. Dig a little deeper into the UK itself and you’ll find concerns over things like Clause 28 (addressing the teaching of homosexuality) or arguments over the teaching of politics, nuclear disarmament and so on. Go further back and you’ll find people banging on about mixed gender classes, and further still, the crazy idea that girls and poor children should even go to school in the first place. What our children learn, who teaches them and how they are organised in schools was never anything but an argument waiting to happen it seems.

But until there’s actually a Scooby-Do style unmasking of terrorists pretending to be woodwork teachers, there’s no Islamic plot. What there is, it seems, is a cultural issue about diversity and how it is defined and managed within our public institutions, but oddly, no mention of similar issues in the private sector. After all, nobody suggests that majority ethnic areas of cities, such as the areas where the schools are in Birmingham, are broken up to be more mixed. Or that next to every Mosque there should be a Church and a Synagogue, to avoid areas becoming too Muslim. Nobody is arguing that immigrant populations shouldn’t be allowed to gather in the places where they’ve normally gathered for the last few hundred years, be them Jewish, Irish, Chinese, West Indian, Hindu, Italian or whatever. No. There’s no damning calls for an investigation into why so many Australians live in Earls Court, or why so many delis in Soho are run by Italians, is there? No. Why? Because nobody minds it, or thinks there’s a problem with it, or indeed, a conspiracy behind it.

Based on those FACTS, we can probably assume there is no Islamic School Plot either.

From Islamic Schools to Assange

So by now, you should be getting into the rhythm of conspiracy busting. Let’s try it with Julian Assange – Wikileaks hot Twitter conspiracy potato. It was incredible how many people watched the events that lead to Assange’s political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and immediately assumed that the whole thing must be a CIA plot. It was, I was told when I questioned it, obvious. Obviously the CIA had got the Swedish judiciary to listen to trumped up charges of a vague, sexual nature to help them snatch the Wikileaks founder. What other explanation could there be?

Well, if you slice away with Occam’s Razor a bit, it’s not so obvious, especially if you know a little about social history. It’s a sad fact that women who report rape and sexual assaults have, for the majority of history, been disbelieved. In fact the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders has issued more advice for Judges on the matter just last week. So statistically speaking (and therefore logically) it’s more likely for women who claim a sexual offence has been committed to be disbelieved than believed, especially in cases where the sexual encounter falls into a category where the victim knew and may have been intimate with her attacker, maybe even inviting him into her home and having an sexually intimate relationship with them at some point before the crime is alleged to have taken place. So the probability maths suggests that (as in other similar cases) there is no CIA plot to explain it but there is in fact a genuine claim of sexual assault, is against Assange. His accuser wasn’t obviously “asking for it” or trying to frame him.

Combine that with the fact the Swedish Government has an established record of not extraditing people to the USA. That it’s extradited many fewer people than the UK has, for example. Another conspiracy argument, that the charges against Assange are being taken more seriously in Sweden than they would anywhere else, is according to lawyer David Allen Green, totally baseless. So is the idea that the Swedish authorities could interview him in the UK (they can’t, because he’s wanted for an arrest and they can’t arrest him here) or indeed, that they don’t have the legal interments to guarantee he won’t be extradited to the US from Sweden, so they couldn’t offer that guarantee even if they wanted to. Bottom line, it’s highly unlikely that he’d be extradited to the US from Sweden, based on the facts and stats.

Combine that with the fact the CIA are bad guys in pretty much every conspiracy theory at some point, from UFOs to the 911 bombings to the assassination of JFK, and you see a very grey, nebulous picture of the Assange situation emerging. The conspiracy theory isn’t an obvious point at all, it’s nonsense. Finally, taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, with his protectors claiming they’re standing-up for freedom of speech when Ecuador languishes 119th on the index of press freedom (the USA is 32, UK is 29 and Sweden is 10th) makes the whole thing a bit laughable. Who knows if he did it… but one thing we do know is the CIA isn’t out to get him via Sweden. That’s like the police using a monk to catch a drug dealer.

The Theory of Mind / Occam’s Razor lesson

Once you accept how your mind invents people and things to explain the events it can’t see, and you start testing your decision making with a thinking tool like Occam’s Razor, you start finding bum conspiracies everywhere. But what is most interesting is this – conspiracies only exist in the absence of meaningful theories. Right now, the Qatari bid for the World Cup is under scrutiny. There’s no conspiracy theory, just an alleged fraud. If you look at any case of fraud, or allegations of corruption, or crimes where conspiracies were involved like the LIBOR scandal, there’s no theory. There’s a measurable, quantifiable plan that’s under the spotlight. Real crimes, plots and conspiracies don’t need a theory to make them understandable.

Your brain is good at theories though. That’s why we like them. It’s good at making things up too… it’s where stories meet facts. It’s the soul of our imagination and creativity. It’s also the source of lies and bullshit. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just how our brains work. You can correct it or not, it’s up to you.