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Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Conspiracy Theories, Writing and Logic 103

Guest Blogger

In editing a piece of promotional work for someone one morning, I was reminded again of the many similarities between writers, who tell fantastic stories for a living and have no intention that they be taken as fact, and conspiracy theorists, who tell fantastic stories for a variety of reasons with every intention that they be taken as fact.

In Truther circles, as in plotting a story, the narratives often become increasingly elaborate as they expand. Take Jade Helm, for example, or the Birther Movement, or Sandy Hook, or 9/11 or any one of a number of conspiracy theories that have grown up over the course of the last decade. These theories often become increasingly byzantine as the conspiracists seek to answer the inevitable logistical and logical questions that their theories evoke.

For example, with regard to Jade Helm (which is either a mundane and regularly held military exercise or a plot to take over Texas) one might ask the following:

Where will the US military put the Texans they so fear while taking over that sovereign nation . . . er, embattled territory . . . uh, I mean, federated state?

Well, there are several empty Wal-Marts in various locations in various cities in Texas. That’s where the enemies of the Federal Government will be taken.

But how shall they be gotten to and from these centers without anyone noticing?

Ah, there are underground tunnels that connect the empty Wal-Marts to train yards or other points of dispersal.

Dispersal to where? Where would an incursion of prisoners not be noticed?

Obviously, to FEMA camps set up in unpopulated areas of the country so isolated that no one knows they’re there.

This line of questioning could go on for some time, but I’ll stop there.

battleshipAs I suggested in the previous post in this loose series, a question that is seldom asked (or, if asked, is treated superficially as if it, too, was a matter of simple logistics) is WHY? Why does the US military wish to forcibly “take over” one of the states that is already part of our Union?

Answer: Because the Feds want them to do it.

But this only leads to yet another WHY: why does the Federal government want to capture rank and file Texans?

Answer: Because the POTUS wants it to.

As you can see, we’re no closer to the Big WHY. WHY does the POTUS want to militarily take over a state that is already part of the Union of which he is the presiding executive, and imprison random Texans (at great expense)?

Answer: I’ve heard it’s because he hates America (why?) or that he wants ISIS (or the Chinese) to take over the country (why?) or because we suspect he’s a Muslim (why?) or because . . . Well, you get the drift.

At this point, “just coz” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the real world in any real sense. It doesn’t even work in fiction. In fiction, far more than in real life, we expect coherent patterns to emerge and coincidence to be a non-factor. Above all, we expect to be able to understand the motives and rationales of the characters, else we cannot follow their story lines, much less empathize with them. There must be an actual motive that merits the scale of the events the writer proposes occurred.

diffuse-an-argument-800x800The trick to writing readable stories in just about any genre is to make the characters’ logic accessible to the reader even if that logic is flawed, based on false premises, ethically and morally bankrupt, or completely alien. A character’s motives—their Big WHYs—must make sense to readers on some level or readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief or follow the narrative. Their reaction may be much like my reaction to conspiracist logic: “Wha—? You’ve got to be . . . LOL. . . . Wait a minute. Seriously? OMG, I can’t even . . . Oy. Headache.”

A phrase that’s been floating around the blogosphere for awhile is “word salad”, which is the verbal outcome of thought salad. An article I read a while back referred to this verbal incoherence as a “sentence-like string of words”. It also described trying to extract real meaning or logic from these strings of words as “a category error”—as in, you are attempting to understand logically something that is not logical, but is merely a logic-like string of thoughts. The author likened it to attempting to polish a duck.

I believe writers of fiction and non-fiction (journalists, pundits, statesmen) owe their readers more than something that only seems like a logical thought because it’s set in what looks like a real sentence describing a real Thing.

Perhaps there are writers clever enough that they can get away with murder (literary murder, at any rate) because their sentence-like strings of words sound enough like the real deal to dazzle readers into thinking they have experienced a coherent idea, felt a particular emotion, or discovered a truth.

salad_platterSome polemicists, for example, make such good use of evocative phrases and emotionally charged words that they give the perception that they’ve said something factual, when no facts have changed hands. Some politicians are especially adept at stringing together evocative words that, if confronted with those words later on can—in all honesty—say, “No, I didn’t say that.” And, by golly, a careful reading of what they wrote or said reveals that they didn’t actually say what people thought they said. This form of plausible deniability allows every reader or listener to take away from the sentence-like string of words whatever they wish.

I’d like my stories—whether fictional or fact-based—to contain real sentences that grow out of coherent thoughts. I’d like to give my readers the real Thing, not a semblance of that Thing, even at my most ambiguous. And that’s why when I begin to turn ideas into stories, I ask myself WHY; why would my character do this, say this, feel this?

If the answer is “just coz” I’d like them to, I’m not doing my job.

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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 102

QuestionI commented in an earlier post that I have observed similar thought patterns and behaviors in some inexperienced writers and conspiracy theorists (or truthers, as they are often called).

In my first article on the subject, I explored some of the common elements in the narratives spun by truthers—specifically Sandy Hook truthers—and inexperienced writers I’ve worked with over the years in different contexts.

Some of those elements include:

  • The importance of time. For example, that video cannot be taken of an event before reporters or even people with cell phones have had time to reach the scene.
  • The continued existence of persons or characters involved in the narrative and their pre-existence before the narrative.
  • The interconnectedness of those persons or characters with other persons or characters.
    The marks that people leave where they live, work, go to school, shop, etc. In other words, paper trails and back story.

My interest in conspiracy theories as fiction narratives was piqued again more recently when an online colleague, Chris Hernandez, posted a couple of articles on the recent dust up over Jade Helm 15. Jade Helm 15, for those who may not have heard of it, was one in a series of war games that our military conducts in the US to prepare our soldiers for battle. It has precipitated a number of conspiracy theories about The Government’s real intent in holding these joint military exercises.

For me, the discussion crystallized a common element in both intentionally fictional narratives and conspiracy theories: the absence of a motive.

I became engaged in the online comment stream on Chris’ blog with those who insist that The Government has intent to (choose one or more of the following):

  1. Invade Texas and declare martial law.
  2. Send certain citizens or all citizens of Texas to FEMA camps via secret tunnels beneath defunct Wal-Marts. (There’s also a conspiracy theory about those camps being equipped with thousands of guillotines purchased from France, but that’s a different bouilloire de poisson.)
  3. Allow China to invade Texas.
  4. Allow ISIS to invade Texas.
  5. Make a show of force at the border to warn the ISIS terrorists in Mexico to stay the heck out of Texas (which, you’d think, would be a good thing).

Be it noted that Texas is only one of nine states that will host these exercises on private property.

It is an interesting facet of conspiracy theories that no two truthers agree entirely on the exact nature of the conspiracy and some may differ widely on what the reality is, hence the conflicting ideas above. Among Sandy Hook conspiracists there are groups who spend much of their time and effort in debunking each other; whether that will also happen with Jade Helm conspiracists remains to be seen. But, regardless of which of these scenarios a truther believes or a writer posits, there is an important question that must be answered in order for the scenario to make sense to others.

Many questionsIn a word: WHY?

I’d argue that this is more important in achieving buy-in in intentional fiction than it is in conspiracy theories because most readers demand a certain amount of veracity in the plot and character details or a narrative before they will suspend disbelief. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories are free, but one must usually pay for a book. (Please, Dear Reader, pay for my books!)

Author Anna Quindlen has said that, in writing fiction, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means by this is that a reader will cheerfully believe in unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos if a writer makes the human details realistic and believable or if, in the context of the fictional world, the writer can show that it makes sense for there to be unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos.

This is the standard I apply when I play Jedi Master to less experienced writers, and it causes me to ask, as I read a writer’s work, “Why? Why would X character do this? Why would this group function this way?” In other words, what is their intent or purpose?

In the case of both conspiracy theorists and some writers, that question draws a blank stare accompanied by the dulcet tones of crickets singing in the grasses. In one instance I recall vividly from a writers’ workshop years ago, I asked an aspiring fantasist why his character did something that was both out of character (as revealed in the story) and against the apparent magical rules of the fictional world. He looked at me with a completely perplexed expression and said, “This is fantasy. There are no rules. That’s why I chose to write in this genre—I can just make stuff up as I go along.” (Yes, you can hear eyes rolling if four people do it simultaneously.)

Similarly, conspiracists ignore the basic reality that in order for a person or organization to undertake a tremendously expensive and time- and energy-consuming exercise that requires exhaustive planning, they will have a pretty solid reason for doing so—at least a reason that makes sense to them and offers sufficient payoff to compensate for the expenditure of resources and energies.

jessica-rabbitI find that this inability to answer the basic question “Why?” is most prevalent in both writing and conspiracies when it comes to assigning rationales for the “bad guy”. The old school comic book or fairy tale villain was just evil ‘coz he was evil. Like Jessica Rabbit (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) he or she was “just drawn that way” because the writer said so.

In modern fiction, most readers want and even demand more than “just ‘coz” from an antagonist. They want characters that are nuanced, realistic, relatable. They want to be able to understand the motivations of the villain, even if they do not relate to them. They want the characters they read about to seem like real people with real motives.

I have come to realize that we are more demanding of the fiction we read than we are of the allegedly factual accounts we consume in the daily news.

The payoff aspect of the Big Why inherently raises issues of scale. Some of the most trying moments I’ve experienced as a ghostwriter and editor are ones in which I have been unable to make a client understand that a reader will not suspend disbelief if their characters are acting out of scale. That is, blowing up the FedEx truck that’s blocking your driveway instead of simply asking the driver to move their truck.

I’ve experienced a similar level of frustration when trying to get a conspiracist to understand the importance of a rational reason an individual or group would do something huge and heinous when there were simpler, legal, more straightforward ways of accomplishing the same thing … or the huge and heinous thing was completely unnecessary because the desired situation already existed. For example, that taking over Texas is unnecessary because Texas is already part of the United States, having been annexed in 1845—an event that set off the Mexican-American war. As Chris Hernandez put it, “All your Texas are belong to US.”

Essays & Articles

Personally, I think that everyone, especially writers of fiction, could benefit from at least a cursory study of conspiracy theories and conspiracist arguments. Having asked numerous questions about logical connections (most of which go unanswered) I’ve become hyper-aware of those connections in my own stories and, more profoundly, in my own real world thinking.

There is one way in which the naive writer and the conspiracist differ. When a writer neglects to answer questions about the logical connections in her fiction, it may affect her ability to publish or, having published, to satisfy readers. The most dire impact is on the writer, herself. When conspiracy theorists and those who buy into their theories fail to ask those questions, the consequences can be far-reaching and destructive to society as a whole.

Here, I invoke Anna Quindlen again.

“Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.”

Amen.

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Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

Conspiracy Theories, Writing & Logic 101

the thinkerI have recently participated in ongoing conversations online with Sandy Hook truthers. After listening to the litany of “reasons” that they have for suspecting a hoax or conspiracy of some sort (what sort varies), and hearing their questions, and reading some of their source material, a pattern began to emerge.

They seemed to have little awareness of a number of things that, as a writer, I must take into account in every story I write and every plot I conceive.

These include such things as:

  • The passage of time. Some of the truther suspicions centered around the lack of news footage showing events that took place during and immediately after the school shootings. There is no visual record of the escape of the children at the school, therefore that escape never happened and/or those children never existed.
  • That the people in the scene exist beyond the camera eye. There is a sense that the people depicted in the story freeze in place or disappear from reality when the camera is not trained on them. They exist only to populate the places where they can be seen. Otherwise they are in a sort of stasis and do not interact with others, which leads to…
  • The connections between people—the interconnectedness of everyday lives that goes far beyond where the people on camera physically touch. To the truther, those individuals who were direct actors in the events of the day are the only ones worthy of consideration—and of course, whatever Machiavellian Puppet Master is pulling their strings and writing their lines of dialogue. They are disconnected from family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, people with whom they share vocations, avocations or hobbies. In the mind of the truther, their outside connections do not exist. They are creatures of the plot.
  • That everyone leaves some sort of “paper trail”—or a electron trail, at least. Everyone has a back-story that includes mortgages, jobs, cars, subscriptions to magazines, Facebook pages. They must eat, clothe themselves and purchase other necessities. They have lives that go back in time. If they were part of a conspiracy, that paper trail would also exist, logically, between the individuals and the Master of the conspiracy.

It was as if every citizen of Newtown who was directly connected to the school shooting in some way, came into being when they walked “on stage” and froze or disappeared when they walked off again into the invisible wings. Between them and those whose lives were touched indirectly, there was an impermeable wall. The rest of Newtown existed in a stasis field.

I found this all strangely familiar. It is the same set of logical and logistical issues that I’ve found myself going over with writers I’ve mentored. An odd coincidence? Not really. Both the writer and the truther are attempting to lay out a narrative that seems convincing to their audience and is internally consistent.

Kilroy 062909Therein lies the similarity and the problem: some plotlines will only remain internally consistent if time, the continued existence of the characters, their interconnectedness, and back story are ignored.

There, the similarity ends. I have some new insights into what motivates truthers that may be beyond the purview of this blog. But with writers, I think inexperience and tunnel vision (Okay, and possibly laziness) may be to blame for stories that fail to ring true or which raise too many unanswerable questions. These are generally solvable for writers. For truthers, not so much.

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My Friend Mycroft, Part One: Spiritual Exploration

My Friend Mycroft, Part One: Spiritual Exploration

Mycroft_Holmes
Mycroft Holmes

Once upon a time, I had a forum friend who called himself Mycroft (a reference to Sherlock’s allegedly smarter older brother). He was an atheist (still is as far as I know) and we spent pleasurable hours discussing belief, certitude, faith, reason and other subjects of interest to both of us.

Well, at least I found the discourse pleasurable. I’m pretty sure Mycroft found it frustrating at times because I refused to “color inside the lines” of religion that he was accustomed to.

One day Mycroft asked me: “So, is there a specific religious way of exploring reality?”

What a fascinating question. Given the context in which it was set, Mycroft was asking how exploration and faith integrated or coexisted. Obviously, the definition of faith (or anything else) depends on what dictionary you use. The Oxford defines faith thusly:

1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something. 2 strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. 

• a system of religious belief 

  • a strongly held belief or theory 

The operative meaning of “apprehension” is to understand or grasp. There is nothing in the Oxford definition that restricts the faithful to believing something for which there is no proof, nor is the mechanism for “spiritual apprehension” defined.

I would say there are as many different ways of spiritual exploration as there are scientific ones. I’m not even sure I could state positively that scientific methods relied less on intuition than spiritual ones do. Science, after all, is the realm in which people like Einstein have “aha!” or “Eureka!” moments that catalyze their exploration of a particular aspect of reality. I think the difference between scientific and spiritual exploration lies, in part, in what sort of evidence the explorer accepts as valid.

After opining that faith through reason is not really faith at all, since faith must necessarily be blind to reason, Mycroft said: “So, if a believer concedes that he can’t hold some part of the belief system for true, he’s not a believer…”

How so, I asked. Why wouldn’t the response be (as in a scientific process) “I don’t know exactly how that works. Let’s keep exploring.”  I can accept as fact that God created the universe(s) (which Bahá’u’lláh describes metaphorically as “He said BE, and it was,”) yet say, I don’t know exactly what mechanisms went into that happening. That’s the province of science which is, according to the scriptures of my Faith, a tool for discovery that is as much a product of God’s operation as spirituality.

“Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA) 

And again:

“The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material, it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God”.—Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 112

Higgs, Baby!Yes, Abdu’l-Bahá actually said that—science is divine. Frankly, the dichotomy between science and religion and their respective processes of exploration seems artificial to me for I can also say, “I believe that love really can destroy hatred,” admit to not understanding the mechanism by which that occurs and resolve to explore it. That is not, perhaps, the province of science, but it’s still a worthy study. 

Looking at it another way, one can do rigorous, rational exploration of spiritual human reality or one can indulge in superstitious dogma. Likewise, one can do rigorous, rationally sound exploration of physical human reality or one can indulge in pseudo-scientific “beliefs”.

Next time: My friend Mycroft on Science as savior

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Part 1 of Religion — The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

Part 1 of Religion — The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

David Langness
David Langness

Editorial note: We’d like to welcome guest blogger David Langness and his nine part series that takes a look as religion’s rap as the most harmful agency on the planet. David is the host of Bahaiteachings.org and is a member of the Bahá’í community in my old stomping ground up in Nevada County, California. So, without further ado … take it, David!

oOo

My friend the historian and I had a long discussion about religion the other day.  When he learned about my belief in the Baha’i Faith, he challenged me by saying “I think religion has been responsible for most of the problems of humanity throughout history.”

It shocked him when I agreed.

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Making Reality Behave, #2: Useful Fictions and the Scientific Method

Making Reality Behave, #2: Useful Fictions and the Scientific Method

Books-with-Letters-above-it-300x199

“Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA)

There is much talk about the scientific method as a paradigm for acquiring knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s a good paradigm, one that is used prescriptively in the Bahá’í community as part of the culture of learning promoted by the Universal House of Justice. But I’m finding more and more that the scientific method is at least as vague a notion (or at least one with as many variations) as faith. Stephen Friberg’s series on the Enlightenment goes into that in some depth—in fact, he gave a presentation at our local Bahá’í Center a while back on the evolution of the scientific model.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it is we mean by a scientific method. Some people (not scientists) think that science is what is consciously performed in the controlled environment of a lab. Some think science is just a collection of “facts”. There is also the notion that any knowledge worth having is scientific knowledge and that only science (or math) can make meaningful and worthwhile pronouncements about this worthwhile knowledge.

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Science Wins! (Rerun!)

Science Wins! (Rerun!)

Win-win?

My apologies for posting a rerun. I hope to have new blogs soon. I’m about a month out from knee surgery and the time I’m not spending doing physical therapy, icing down my leg and taking care of family necessities, I must write and edit to make a living. A thousand pardons, and I will try to answer any comments … eventually. 🙂

“Science Wins!”

This was the headline on a another blog site I frequent. It was in reference to Stephen Hawking’s  latest book, in which he proclaims that because there is such a force as gravity, therefore the universe sprang into being through spontaneous combustion—er, I mean “creation.”

Okay, that was my sarcasm sneeze for the day. Glad I got that out of my system.

I questioned the meaning and context of the declaration that “science wins,” asking what was the field of contest and who the opponent. What, I asked, did science win?

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How We Know Stuff: Faith, Reason and Relative Pitch

How We Know Stuff: Faith, Reason and Relative Pitch

hubble.nasa.space.telescope.star.v838.monocerotisIt occurred to me as I was writing a piece on what it means to say “I know” something that I will never be able to grasp, on my own, certain scientific or mathematical concepts.

Black holes, dark matter, imaginary numbers and mathematical proofs are doors closed in my face. There are other things I can grasp and can articulate, and some I grasp but cannot articulate.

When it comes to the things I cannot grasp, I must accept the testimony of someone who claims the he does have the ability to grasp those concepts, do those experiments and understand their results. I can only hope that they can describe these things to me such that I can reason put whether or not they might be correct. I have no way to prove for myself the existence of such things as black holes or dark matter or neutrinos or imaginary numbers.

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If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

Gold yin-yangHuman beings seem to like to think in binary.

“If not A, then B.”

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” (A statement that, ironically, has multiple meanings.)

“It’s an either/or situation.”

We answer “yes/no” questions.

We decide if we want this or that.

We think in ones and zeroes—literally, if we program computers down to the machine language level.

Yet, in the squishy world of reality, binary thinking is one of the most significant obstacles that we place in the path of human progress. There are issues in which this is glaring apparent.

One is EITHER pro‑choice OR anti‑abortion. That is, either one believes abortions should be available for any reason from dire necessity to “oops” and that it is just another form of birth control OR one believes that no woman should, under any circumstances, have an abortion. Ever.

One is EITHER a gun‑lover OR a gun‑grabber. You are pro‑gun or anti‑gun. You are for the Second Amendment, or you are against it. You either respect gun rights OR you want to take them away from everyone.

One is EITHER a liberal (aka progressive) OR one is a conservative. One EITHER believes in the welfare state OR in individual sovereignty.

One is EITHER a hero OR a villain (or believes someone else is either a hero or a villain).

If you are one side of any of the above binary pairs, you are all that is good; if you are on the other side, you are unmitigated evil. Which is which depends entirely on which side you are on.

It is a zero sum game—there must be an absolute winner and an absolute loser.

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The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

The Scientific Spirit #3: Russell on Unity and Plurality

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

One of the most convincing aspects of the mystic illumination is the apparent revelation of the oneness of all things, giving rise to pantheism in religion and to monism in philosophy. — Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, “Unity and Plurality”

Thus Bertrand Russell begins a chapter on Unity and Plurality in which he explores the metaphysical or mystical concept of “oneness”.

The words “unity” and “oneness” are much-used in both religion (or mysticism) and philosophy, but are also prominent in science. As Baha’is believe in the unity of God and the oneness of mankind, physicists seek a “grand unified theory”, a principle of everything, as they seek the origins of the Universe we inhabit. It would be easy to argue that these two related terms do not mean the same thing within these disciplines. Easy, but possibly inaccurate.

Russell comments that:

An elaborate logic, beginning with Parmenides, and culminating in Hegel and his followers, has been gradually developed, to prove that the universe is one indivisible Whole, and that what seem to be its parts, if considered as substantial and self-existing, are mere illusion. The conception of a Reality quite other than the world of appearance, a reality one, indivisible, and unchanging, was introduced into Western philosophy by Parmenides, not, nominally at least, for mystical or religious reasons, but on the basis of a logical argument as to the impossibility of not‑being…. (ibid.)

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