Thursday, August 23, 2007

Conspiracy of Dunces

The Pathfinders column from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whatever is the point of psychology? Is it really a science if most of its theories are not testable, its tests not controllable and its predictions not reliable? Worse, it takes no account of cultural and political context, focussing on the individual as if they live alone on a desert island, which removes the very large but, for psychologists, awkward possibility that society and not the individual is the problem. Whatever useful insights it may have afforded over the years could be as nothing to the damage it has done to individuals and to social preconceptions about individuals, condemning people in droves to a panoply of 'isms' and 'ologies' and 'opathies' rather as Soviet doctors used to diagnose political dissent as a mental illness to be treated by hospital confinement in a gulag. Generations of mentally unstable people may well have been relentlessly tortured by well-meaning practitioners of 'obvious' truths which could turn out to be wrong, such as the idea that it is best to relive your childhood potty traumas instead of letting sleeping dogs lie (New Scientist, February 3). Small wonder many recovered mental health patients themselves regard 'therapist' as two words.

Psychology, like string theory, exists in the grey hinterland somewhere out of reach of mainstream science but still disproportionately influential in the intellectual zeitgeist, somehow not quite untrue enough to disregard completely, but frustratingly beyond any concrete and reliable quantification. But whereas the nutty and mind-bending world of quantum mechanics can at least point to its equations as evidence of its roots in solid ground, psychology has its feet in shadow and its head in the clouds, as amorphous and elusive as the mind-states of the individuals it claims to illuminate.

A recent article in New Scientist about the perennial phenomenon of conspiracy theories inadvertently underlines just how bovine psychologists can be in their mutual conspiracy to ignore the real world around them (July 14). Beginning with the mildly interesting observation that those who believe one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe others, and that the 18-35 age range, and those in the lower income brackets, are the most susceptible, the article goes on to propose the intriguing idea that major events cannot, in the popular mind, have trivial causes, because our worldview cannot allow it. Positing ourselves as rational creatures in a supposedly ordered and rational universe, we shy away from the hideous tyranny of randomness, that force of nature which defies our control and thus denies us our sense of meaning and 'place'. Thus, Princess Diana didn't die because a driver got drunk, it was all a vast conspiracy involving the top echelons of power. Ditto JFK, who ninety percent of Americans believe could not possibly have been offed by one lone nutter with a rifle and some personal issues but rather good eyesight. Ditto 9/11, whose reverberations spanned the globe like Krakatoa, and which clearly couldn't have been simply the work of a few homicidal amateurs who got very, very lucky.

As with so many arguments in psychology, there is something in all of this, though not much. True, people like a sense of order, and in an ordered world, effects ought not to be wildly disproportionate to their causes. Yet people don't automatically create a conspiracy theory out of their children getting randomly run over in the street, or losing their job, or suffering some other deep and personal tragedy. And why not? Because in these cases, they are usually in possession of the facts. And this is the key social difference which, as usual, the psychological explanation removes from consideration.

People don't fall for conspiracy theories because of some metaphysical hunger for proportionality, but because they know - and those in the lower economic reaches know particularly well - that the working class in general, like the proverbial mushrooms, are kept in the dark and fed on shit, and that in such solitary confinement, imposed by shadowy jailers with almost biblical power over the means of communication, almost anything might be true.

So, no real need to invoke psychology at all. Put any sentient, self-aware animal in an environment where they can't trust their senses, and pretty soon they'll stop functioning 'rationally' and display all the signs of being mad as hatters.

What is particularly unfortunate about conspiracy theories is not that they foster a view of the world as hopelessly in thrall to some shadowy elite with god-like power, because this is largely true. What it incorrectly encourages is the much more damaging idea that this elite is actually much cleverer than the rest of us.

In fact, politics, even geo-politics, is not brain surgery, and world leaders, despite their privileged backgrounds, are not exceptionally gifted individuals. Anyone who can run a corner shop could run a country, given the same infrastructure and advisors as the present incumbents, and allowing the same level of incompetence in an economic system which is anyway chaotic, unpredictable and accident-prone. They may not do any better, but they wouldn't do any worse.

And thus the central mistake of conspiracy theorists is the notion that anyone is really in control of anything. Did Blair force the UK population into war with Iraq against their will, based on power and intelligence they didn't have? No, he lied through his teeth and then held his nerve, while the protestors held a couple of big demos and then gave up, satisfied that they had done their bit. He didn't really have the power to go to war, he just bluffed the working class into believing he did.

And the resulting quagmire of blood in Iraq illustrates perfectly why the cultural institution of leadership, based as it is on this assumption that there are 'experts' who know better than us, can be so catastrophic. Just as science in the US cannot advance until the reactionary moron in the White House is removed, so it is only with the retiring of Blair that a new administration can start to make tentative noises about 'reconsidering' the Iraqi affair. A socialist democracy is one which presupposes that everyone is in possession of the facts and that there is no leader whose decisions cannot be reversed, even when the disastrous consequences are screaming at everyone.

Yet the notion that those in control know what they're doing is hard to shift, even as news comes that many biohazard centres have failed to report accidents and leaks, because there is a culture of silence, reinforced by the unexpected jailing of one scientist who did report losing some vials of plague (New Scientist, July 14), and that you can buy dirty bomb materials like caesium in the US because nobody checks your credentials (New Scientist, July 27).

Fortunately perhaps, those whose messianic task is to attack the institutions of 'western imperialism' by removing limbs and heads from innocent workers, are no more competent than anyone else. What is overwhelmingly apparent from the recent stories of the failed London bombers, with their rucksacks full of soggy chapatti flour, and the bizarre and shambolic episode of the two doctors and their astonishingly low-tech attempt to set fire to Glasgow airport, is the towering ineptness of these suicidal warriors of the new order. As New Scientist couldn't help wondering, with their medical knowledge and access to drugs and radioactive material, why on earth the two Glasgow doctors couldn't have come up with something more imaginative than a Range Rover with a few gallons of petrol on board. Still, on reading the protestations of innocence made by those other men who were amazed to find themselves being prosecuted, and just recently jailed, for loudly and persistently advocating mass-murder in the wake of the Mohammed Cartoons affair (they claimed they were making 'a joke'), it is clear that IQ is not an inexhaustible commodity among terrorists any more than it is in the establishment.

Can all this possibly be explained by the Peter Principle, we ask? This is the famous idea, formulated in his 1968 book by Dr Lawrence J. Peter, that in a hierarchy every member tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence. The subversive corollary of this, which Dr Peter took some care to avoid stating explicitly, concerned as he was primarily with business organisations, is that all hierarchical organisations, including the capitalist system itself, are necessarily run by idiots.

Surely not, you protest. Wouldn't such a world be insanely self-destructive, out of control and in defiance of every principle of common sense and good management? It cannot be so. The conspiracy theorists, for one, would never allow it.
Paddy Shannon