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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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Why Religion 8: Will Wonders Never Cease

Why Religion 8: Will Wonders Never Cease

Some secular thinkers have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to convince religious people that science is more awe-inspiring than God or faith. Why aren’t we capable of appreciating the awesomeness of the Universe, they wonder? Is it the manmade ritual and imaginary miracles that we find exciting?

This was actually a subject of discussion at the Beyond Belief Conference as early as 2006. A group of conference participants debated if perhaps they ought to concoct some science rituals to replace religious ones. Maybe, the theory went, religious people needed some sort of awe and ritual connected to science to make them comfortable with it. The idea was broached by, among others, Caroline Porco, the head of the Cassini space imaging project.

The assumption seems to be that religious people find awe in miracles and what one might call “God lore” instead of the wonders of nature or human creation and imagination.

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Science, Religion and Myth #11: Religion Chained—Science Unleashed

Science, Religion and Myth #11: Religion Chained—Science Unleashed

Maya Bohnhoff

“The Scientific Revolution liberated science from religion. The new science separated spirit from matter. Reason and experiment replaced revelation as the source of knowledge of the world. After the Scientific Revolution, it was inevitable that God would eventually be pushed entirely out of nature and that science would deny the existence of God.” — Margaret J. Osler, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths (Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary and author of Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding in  Early Modern Europe)

This is Something-Everyone-Knows, right?

Yet, Professor Osler follows the above pronouncement with these words: “These unsubstantiated claims have worked their way into the popular history of science and are frequently repeated.” Osler gives a list of folks from the right and left of the debate who “repeat this mantra, reinforcing the belief that the seventeenth century witnessed the divorce of science from religion.”

I find her use of the idea of divorce interesting—as if science and religion were a mid-life crisis married couple scrapping their life together for menopause, youthful fantasies, and red sports cars. Looking at the scrapbook of science and religion’s years together, it’s clear that she doesn’t choose the word idly.

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Questions from an Atheist #7: Got Soul?

Questions from an Atheist #7: Got Soul?

Maya Bohnhoff

This is the final installment in my series of questions from an atheist correspondent.

===========================================================

Today, I’ll consider my atheist acquaintance “Maynard’s” final question:

Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

I know that I (and all other humans) have some capacity or element to our makeup that other animals do not. That much is obvious.

I am writing this blog in characters that symbolize sounds and that, configured in diverse ways, form “words” that carry abstract and concrete meanings (depending on the perception of the same minds that created both the letters and the words). I am also writing this blog (something not found in nature) using technology that other human minds have devised but which I understand only barely, though I’ve worked with the technology for over 20 years. Nor am I always using those tools to merely chronicle material, real-world things that have happened. I write fiction—I arrange my characters and words to tell of events that did not happen, that are not happening this moment and that will not necessarily happen in the future. I write about things that did not happen to people who do not exist in worlds that I made up out of whole cloth.

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Questions from an Atheist #5: God—The Original Time Lord

Questions from an Atheist #5: God—The Original Time Lord

Maya Bohnhoff

I’m actually going to consider three of the questions “Maynard” asked on his blog site. The first two are:

#4: Can God change the past? and # 5. Does God know the future?


These questions involve not only our conceptions of God, but our conceptions of time, which is a dimension we understand perhaps less well than others about which we claim some sort of knowledge. We run into time-related issues, in fact, when we try to measure the momentum and location of an entity simultaneously. Thanks to Werner Heisenberg, we know that when we try to do this, the very act of measuring affects the thing being measured—in other words, out of the movie that is the entity’s momentum, we get a single freeze frame . . . and can no longer measure the speed of the film. To the perception of the measuring tool (in this case, the human eye), the film has stopped.

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Questions from an Atheist #4: Is God Like Us?

Questions from an Atheist #4: Is God Like Us?

Maya Bohnhoff

This is the fourth segment in response to a series of questions asked of believers in general on a science and religion blogspot elsewhere online. Questions like this were once common on this site and answers and commentary by visitors were encouraged. The site has since closed down its forum and stopped all commentary, something I found disappointing, to say the least. But the questions are still valid and worth seeking answers for.

My neo-atheist acquaintance—whom I’m calling “Maynard”—asked a series of questions of believers in general about God. This was question #3: Is God a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?

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Questions from an Atheist #2: Who is this God Person, anyway?

Questions from an Atheist #2: Who is this God Person, anyway?

Maya Bohnhoff

Well, here it is – a day late and a dollar short, as they say. I had two too many blogs to write this week. So, without further ado – Question #1:

Is God a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is God made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)

From time to time someone claiming to be God’s spokesperson attempts to explain this to us, so that seems like a good place to start—with a hypothesis that there is an original Being—a First Cause. We can go into the provenance of the hypothesis and the credentials of the propounders in another blog—for now I’d like to look at what these proponents for the God idea say about it.

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Science: What a Tool

Science: What a Tool

Maya Bohnhoff

On an atheist blog spot that has, alas, become merely a news and opinion aggregator, I was discussing the relationship between belief, faith and scientific inquiry with some folks when the idea was put forth that faith = blind belief in something without any evidence  whatsoever.

I responded that, in my experience, faith and belief came as the result of experience and conscious exploration.

My correspondent found this fascinating: “So,” he asked, “is there a specific religious way of exploring?”

I suppose there could be. Although the word “specific” may be too limiting to warrant a firm “yes.”

What my conversation with this individual underscored for me was the necessity of defining what one means by faith and arriving at an understanding whereby we can actually communicate intelligently about the subject.

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