Occam’s Conspiracy Theory

I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the persistence of conspiracy theories, whether related to the Common Core or education policy more generally. Wrestling with conspiracy theories and the like matter; as Jonathan Martin’s New York Times article on GOP Common Core politics shows, education policymaking involves all sorts of claims: legitimate, fuzzy, and easily falsified.1

There are conspiracies in the world, generally of the criminal sort and often unsuccessful in the short or long run. There are also political conspiracies, though my strong sense is that these are much less frequent in the U.S. for several reasons, primarily that organized behavior in politics is perfectly legal in the United States, despite the arcane rules surrounding election financing and collaboration.2 But conspiracy theorizing is a pastime that runs well past the factual basis for most claims.

Like many others, I have wondered how to respond to conspiracy claims that seem to wander far from the verifiable truth. In the age of various “truthers,” often well-paid to lie about politics and policy, is there a way to cut to the bone on outright false claims? The calm use of Occam’s Razor doesn’t really work, in my experience.3  I think this is the case largely because explanations that fail to involve intentional mechanisms do not scratch the human pattern-finding itch. To see a set of events as the result of incompetence, social structures, or miscommunication is unsatisfying, even if true or perhaps precisely when it is true. Even though most of us live with complicated social structures every day and witness miscommunication at frequencies several orders of magnitude greater than true conspiracies, there is something about conspiracy theories that scratch that itch to find a single cause of pain.

The other problem with “test this against a less appealing alternative explanation” is the human tendency to confirmation bias. So maybe reversing that a bit might help, forcing the adherent of a fanciful explanation to construct the minimizing analysis. Someone wants to push an unnecessary explanation of events? Let’s pose an alternative that includes that explanation and other equally implausible mechanisms. Show me that the generative philosophy for Common Core adoption was UN Agenda 21 by itself or Bill Gates by himself and not UN Agenda 21 and ________; Bill Gates and ________; or UN Agenda 21, Bill, Gates, and ________– with the blank filled with a variety of equally implausible explanations: aliens, the Mafia, the John Birch Society, the dead hand of Hari Seldon, or, heck, the Freemasons.

The problem with doing so is not the value of such a proposal: I think someone having to defend one implausible theory versus two would be doing most of the cognitive work, and work that isn’t required by confirmation bias. The practical problem is proposing such a challenge without getting punched. So only the swift of foot should be inclined to try this.

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  1. In the last 24 hours I’ve been involved in a minor Twitter skirmish over whether and the extent to which Martin’s article exaggerated federal influence on their adoption; such is the intensity of perceptions that every inch of factual claims matters. Martin wrote that the Obama administration “link[ed] the adoption of similar standards to states’ eligibility for federal education grants and to waivers from No Child Left Behind.” No state won Race to the Top dollars without adopting Common Core standards; several states received waivers without it. Martin’s article is well over 80% correct; in a field where the basic structure of the profession leads to errors (deadline pressure, shrinking support for editing or long research), that counts as pretty good in my book. []
  2. For a great discussion of conspiracies, including the attacks on Freemasons in the early 19th century, see the relevant Backstory Radio episode from 2013. []
  3. From what I gather, the research on this bears out my suspicion. []