Conspiracy

The Secret History of Anything You'd Like

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The historian Rob MacDougall plays a game:

Forget the conspiracy of vampires. What about the conspiracy of GIANT FLYING SKULLS?

We…tried a new exercise I called "The Paranoid Style," an attempt to simulate historical apophenia–the uncanny way that history has of providing evidence to confirm whatever paranoid historical theory you just set out to prove.

The "Paranoid Style" game was suggested by some friends of mine, many of them Shaolin masters in playful historical thinking. After a little briefing on pareidolia and apophenia, illustrated with the most convincing five minutes of the old Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz mashup, I asked each participant to choose one well-known historical figure. Then I told them we were looking for evidence of the secret conspiracy of vampires that has pulled the strings behind the world for hundreds of years. So we went through what we knew about each of our historical figures and found "evidence" of each one's role for or against the Great Vampire Conspiracy….

[T]he participants were more than game, and I thank them for indulging me. If anything, they were too willing to indulge me: we very quickly spun out a goofy little chronicle of the vampire-vs-electricizer war behind the world, but we probably didn't work at it long enough to get to the real kick of autohistoric apophenia, when the evidence starts to line up all too well with the fantasy you have just concocted, and you skate right up to the edge of believing. It's a powerful and uncanny feeling, and if it serves as good inoculation against pseudohistorical thinking, it also colors your relationship with "real" history ever after.

Tim Powers, whose novels often involve secret histories, has said he encounters something similar while researching his books: He reaches a point where he needs to start "resisting paranoia because you'll find that your research genuinely does seem to support whatever goofy theory you've come up with." The lessons here apply not just to crank theories but to more plausible storylines as well, many of them embedded deeply in our culture. Anyone who's in the business of constructing narratives—be we historians, journalists, or anything else—ought to understand how easy it is to fall into this trap, when a combination of confirmation bias and serendipity blinds you to the ways your story might not describe the world. Marshall McLuhan, no stranger to conspiracy theories himself, famously said that the map is not the territory. What he didn't add was that, with sufficient ingenuity, a territory can be made to yield some very strange maps indeed.

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  1. This game did not work out well at all in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

    1. I think Eco was one of the inspirations for it. See the “suggested by some friends of mine” link.

      1. So I see. Nice to see the master get some credit.

  2. Hear Hear.

    IMO, this is pretty much where Noam Chomsky and all his followers are at.

    I heard a quote once…. something along the lines that Chomsky constructs his history as if the USSR didn’t exist, and that reading it is consequently like reconstructing a grandmaster chess game from only one players moves. Obviously, if you can only see what one side is doing, everything looks like a vast conspiracy manipulated by unseen sinister forces.

  3. So, Connections was a load of crap?

  4. YES! So glad to see the Tim Powers shout-out. I was mentally drafting a post on him while reading the excerpt.

    His stuff (generally) rocks. I wasn’t as crazy about the Fault Lines books, but The Anubis Gates is a total fave, and I have The Stress of Her Regard and Declare in my re-read pile.

    1. Did you hear that the next Pirates of the Carribean movie is going to be based on On Stranger Tides?

      1. Are you joking? That’ll be odd.

          1. Yep, it’s true.

            I’m a little disappointed that this means On Stranger Tides won’t be getting a proper movie of its own, but I suppose I shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

            1. Another PotC movie?

              I think I may puke.

  5. lets play the game here…Let’s pretend there is a group of crazed religous fundamentalist camel jockeys who are trying to destroy our country because they hate supermarkets, levi’s jeans and an abundance of scantily clad promiscusous women….furthermore lets pretend that a secret intelligence agency in the US governmnent is protecting us from the many sophisticated terror plots that the barbarians keep coming up with.

    1. That is just crazy. Almost as crazy as believing that the government would stage a giant terrorist attack and kill 2800 of its own people, yet somehow manage to not only pull the whole thing off but keep it so secret only a few select “geniuses” on the internet figure it out. Amazing.

      1. The government didn’t have to stage an attack…just lie about what they knew about the event…and plenty of people on the 9/11 comission say that is exactly what happened.

        1. Unless you posit a cabal of the aforementioned “scantily clad promiscusous [sic] women”, I fear I must disagree.

          However, I do believe that Buzz Aldrin was sent to the Moon to avoid being pegged as the shooter in the JFK assassination.

          1. We got rid of Lonewacko for being a birther. Now we have a truther to take his place.

            1. Calling all forum crazies! Please tell us about how your particular conspiracy theory is perfectly reasonable – not at all like those OTHER conspiracy theories. Are you there Libertymike? Please tell us about the JEWS.

  6. you’ll find that your research genuinely does seem to support whatever goofy theory you’ve come up with.

    But the WPA really did end the Depression!

    1. And the government can create jobs and wealth by just borrowing or taxing.

  7. What can you say about Chocolate Covered Manhole Covers? — Larry Niven, 1971

  8. I’ve never seen steel melt like that.

  9. If you start with the assumption and then go hunt to find facts to fit it, you can convince yourself of nearly anything. People have written entire books convincing themselves that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. They do this by taking facts in isolation and assuming a particular explanation for them and dismissing any more innocent explanation. So you get things like “no common actor could have written so well about the nobility”. And when you respond “but he got all kinds of geography wrong just like a common actor living in 17th Century London would have”, they say “the real author was just making mistakes to cover his trail”.

    See also the entire class of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

    1. Also, with the expansion of human knowledge, there are so few topics for “original” research in the humanities that PhD candidates increasingly are left with a hard choice between abject trivia and spurious bullshit.

      Academia will only catch up to this reality after it has become largely irrelevant.

      1. Also, with the expansion of human knowledge, there are so few topics for “original” research in the humanities that PhD candidates increasingly are left with a hard choice between abject trivia and spurious bullshit.

        Shut up. You’re not supposed to tell anyone that. Funding might be cut.

      2. with the expansion of human knowledge, there are so few topics for “original” research in the humanities

        Are you kidding? History, even recent history, is filled with terra incognita.

    2. They do this by taking facts in isolation and assuming a particular explanation for them and dismissing any more innocent explanation.

      I remember in college sitting in on a sociology class and the professor telling his students when they write their midterm paper to only include evidence that supports their thesis and to ignore evidence that contradicts it.

      He then went on to lecture how Germany after reunification would dominate the EU and rise again as a world power like it did in the 30s.

      This garbage is not some fringe form of historical inquiry but is being taught in American universities.

      1. Germany does not dominate the EU? Fooled me.

    3. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.

      Of course not. He wrote Eugene O’Neill’s.

  10. We’re largely a nation… nay, a culture of conspiracy theorists.

    The number of times a day that I have to explain to users on my network that A did not cause B, or more specifically, rebooting the switch in the A closet did not cause a font change in their Word Documents… it’s the same mentality. Hours of time spent debunking stupidity when you could be moving the ball forward.

  11. The real Conspiracy starts or nurtures all the fake conspiracies in order to hide among them. You can’t see the tree for the forest.

  12. Finally the conspricy has been revealed. I don’t know why they left out the squid.

  13. OMG, leaving out the squid was part of the conspiracy to discredit conspricy theories.
    The cnspricy goes much deeper into the bowels of the government (but not in a gay way, not that there is anything wrong with that).

  14. “The lessons here apply not just to crank theories but to more plausible storylines as well, many of them embedded deeply in our culture.”

    So you’re saying the glitch on Wall Street had nothing whatsoever to do with the pending financial regulation bill?!

    Sure. That’s what you want us to think, isn’t it!

  15. This is similar to a game I came up with in high school. 4 decks of cards – one of people, one of places, one of events/phenomena, and one misc deck. You drew a card from each deck except the miscellaneous one and rolled a dice to determine which deck to draw and additional card from and had come up with a conspiracy involving each of them and explain away any contradictory evidence. It was pretty fun as long as you were playing with creative people, although the results were generally more humorous than pausible sounding.

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