Never assume intelligence when stupidity will do the job.
This is a recently composed notion of mine, unlike my “first law,” which I’d entertained for many years prior to writing it up HERE. Now if only I can come up with a third law, I’ll have a complete set. “Laws” like these always come in threes: Asimov’s laws of robotics, the laws of thermodynamics (although some de classé fools claim there are four of these), and so on. Anyway, I’ve got a ways to go to come up with #3, and in the meantime I’m here to talk about the second law. (Notice how I avoided saying, “I’m here to talk about #2” … )
So, “Never assume intelligence when stupidity will do the job.” Every conspiracy theory in the world is predicated upon ignoring this fundamental law of reasoning. This rule has been variously expressed as, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups” by the good folks at Demotivators, Inc. But while this latter formulation drops out as a corollary to the above, the Second Law is the more fundamental statement of the principle involved. So, my discussion here will start with a few examples of conspiracy theories, because these provide the clearest examples of violation of the law. But these are merely exempli gratia, and I don’t want them to overwhelm the larger problem of the ability of gross stupidity to make things unboundedly worse than they already are, without any shred of planning or design.
So, as a first example, consider the theory that is periodically floated that F.D.R. deliberately arranged the attack on Pearl Harbor, in some form or other. Often enough, this is presented under the heading that Roosevelt knew about the impending attack, but allowed it to proceed in order to whip up war fervor in an isolationist American populace. In reality, of course, Washington had just learned of the attack, and had wired Honolulu with the news. But the message got no further than San Francisco, because the Western Union office was closed for the weekend. (Infrastructure – it matters … ) But rather than understanding this as the real confluence of accident and dumbness, conspiracy enthusiasts view it as the Machiavellian machinations of a perfectly executed plan, which has left behind no documentable trail what-so-ever. So which is more credible – a perfectly executed plan without a shred of evidence, or a couple of stupid mistakes? If the latter is not instantly the obvious answer, then I fear no amount of reasoning will penetrate the wall you have erected against basic logic.
Another quick example: Immanuel Velikovsky once achieved a measure of notoriety for his utterly indefensible theories about cosmic billiard-balls wreaking havoc in the solar system, which turn was supposed to serve as an explanation for various mythical stories that were, in turn, supposed to be taken as actual historical accounts. If you are not already familiar with Velikovsky, then you can look him up on your own; I see no reason to waste bandwidth linking to his twaddle. However, as it happened, most scientists of the day had a similar reaction to my own, and many of them quite publicly denounced Velikovsky’s claims in the strongest terms imaginable. And it is here that the conspiracy theory emerged. “Ooooooh!” gasped the enthusiasts. “Look at all that vitriol from the scientists! Velikovsky must be on to something, or they wouldn’t be trying to ‘suppress’ his findings!”
By the way, it is not an infringement of another person’s speech rights when someone criticizes that person for spouting infantile nonsense, especially when that person is, in fact, spouting infantile nonsense. Nor is it an infringement when others decline to provide said person with a platform and a bullhorn with which to spout the aforementioned infantile nonsense. Nevertheless, because a number of scientists publicly over-reacted to Velikovsky’s childish drivel, the fairy tale grew up that those scientists were trying to bury The Truth. Realistically, the scientists were just being a little dumb. Probably if they’d just ignored the whole thing, it would have just died in its own fetid still-birth. As it was, it went on for years, and only finally faded away when it ceased to be sexy. I suspect that many of Velikovsky’s “true believers” became that “special” flavor of climate change denier who admits that the change is happening, but that it is driven by the government controlled HAARP (again, look it up yourself) program.
I’ve chosen relatively innocuous (today) conspiracy theories on purpose. I don’t want emotional energy to get in the way of the analysis. That energy will get in the way regardless, most particularly for those who are deeply invested in such things. But perhaps a couple of trivial examples will plant a seed of doubt in an unprotected corner of a True Believer’s mind. Even though that seed won’t overthrow the weedy tangle of denial and deflection, cherry-picking and histrionics, that dominates the conspiracy theorists’ minds, it might force them to invest a little more energy in their denial that might otherwise be invested in evangelism.
A more homey anecdote will serve here – it matters not whether the story is absolutely true, since its purpose is to illustrate, rather than report, and it is near enough to the familiar that many folks might readily identify with it. So a young intern was set in front of a computer on the first day’s internship. Said intern promptly proceeded to break the critical database upon which the entire company’s business depended. Reports from those involved said it took 6 hours to restore the database from backup. The intern did not learn about this, since the only other part of the company that was presented to them was the exit door. Upon hearing this story, my immediate response was that the company should have hired this person, and just launch the individual like a missile at other systems. If an intern on the first day can break your system, then that system needed to be broken – and put together properly! Notice that in this instance, the stupid people working together were all the “smart” ones who designed the catastrophically flawed database to begin with. Confident of their own cleverness, and sharing a common set of unexamined assumptions, they put together a profoundly flawed system and then blamed the poor dumb bunny who broke it on the first day. Clearly there was no malevolence on the part of the intern, and this wasn’t some wildly exotic hack by a digital super-spy. But that is exactly the sort of accusation that conspiracy theory enthusiasts will heartily rally around.
At a different end of the spectrum are those who would credit or blame God for everything that happens. This is simply a different version of the ultimate, Machiavellian machination thesis, that refuses to note – much less seriously consider – the role of random chance, misguided intentions, and sheer butt-stupid brainlessness, in the evolution of affairs.
And speaking of evolution – it is not survival of the “fittest,” it is survival of the least unfit. It is like the story of the two fellows out hiking when they get charged by a bear. They are both running away, when one guy calls out, “You know, there’s no chance we’ll out run that bear!” “That doesn’t matter,” the other fellow calls back. “I only have to out run you!”
It is never the best and the brightest that survives, it is only the least worst and less dull. And this is why looking for mega-intelligence exercising an infallible controlling hand in the prosecution of human affairs and worldly activities is itself an exhibition of the worst and dullest in human activities. The biggest secret in United States history, the development of the atom bomb, only stayed a secret out of courtesy of the many hundreds of people outside of the program who new about it anyway. When the New York Times published the headline announcing the Hiroshima bomb, the headline simply read, “FIRST ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON JAPAN” because everybody already new what that meant (so much for the great secret). To imagine that less consequent matters could be held in closer secrecy is simply a further demonstration of Herstein’s First Law.