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Conspiracy theories and Occam's razor

December 30, 2009

A conspiracy theory’s (CT) complexity is typically not minimal to explain the situation and therefore violates the simplicity principle behind Occam’s razor. CTs often require an unlikely coincidence of people, events and motivations.  There are often systemic explanations that fit the events and facts more simply. This does not prove any particular CT false, but it says we may want to approach all CTs with skepticism toward the elaborate solution if just to ward off helplessness.

Here are some corollary ideas:

By adopting systemic explanations that capture a repeated pattern, we are farther ahead in dealing with the next challenge of design, perception or interaction than if we have the correct but exceptional explanation in any particular case. Call this the “secular” assumption or “uniformity” assumption. Patterns that repeat in some form give us options for response.  Exceptional explanations take away our ability to react sanely.

It is easy to mistake familiar as equivalent to simple. This is true in some sense as there are mental and emotional costs in incorporating and using new tools, ideas and perspectives.  I don’t mean emotionally simply or personally simple (convenient). Simple means this explanation accounts for more facts and events with fewer assumptions, especially assumptions in-particular (i.e. super-natural forces).  This situation is analogous to algorithmic complexity or compression and coding.

Some failures to recognize a simpler-than-CT solution may be merely naive or narrow perception or laziness (failure to exploration a plurality of explanatory systems. See Kevin Kelly on Simplicity and Occam’s razor.)

CTs make us helpless by removing (i) learning from the past (ii) learning from the experiences of others (iii) removing confidence in our ability to apprehend a new situation without making the primary assumption that secret or esoteric knowledge will be needed to interpret and understand.

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