Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The plausibility of conspiracy theories

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One cannot dismiss the power that organisations have collude to achieve their collective interest. There is a great deal of evidence of this in various organisations, whether you are talking about:
1. Price fixing between major organisations
2. Corruption in trade deals
3. Financial scandals

Conspiracy theories are often debunked by the assertion that 'if something was wrong don't you think someone would complain. I have several reasons for suggesting this is not true:
1. Systematic deception: People need not know that they are contributing to an illegitimate or immoral system. For example, an industry organisation sets up a database of convicted felons to avoid employing them. This would be construed as a legitimate function because these people pose a threat to society. High powers can however use the database to blacklist other people who have no say.
2. Selective employment: There is the opportunity to employ people of certain character to achieve certain goals. For instance, I worked for a stock broker in Sydney where my boss was receiving death threats. He employed a hostess from the gentleman's club across the street. She was accustomed to accepting all manner of people. This MD had to personally teach her how to use Word & Excel because she had no idea, and she was paid as much as an analyst. You would have to ask why? Because she is rewarded for keeping her mouth shut. She was not a prostitute. She had a wealthy broker BF, so she didn't need to shag her boss. There are other people too who are less likely to cause problems - compliant souls.
3. Chinese walls: Its easy enough to take actions outside the organisation with which one is involved, yet retain the perception of independence. In stockbroking, you might have a retail arm and a corporate finance division, but you can be sure the companies are inter-related. Brokers are allowed to do this, and as was the case with my former employer, those offices can be next door to each other. The government regulator (ASIC) does not investigate such issues.
4. No evidence trail: Many of these actions are legally sanctioned because there is usually a loophole that allows organisations to get around them. When the law is arbitrary, there is nothing stopping governments or private organisations from rationalising anything. The 'arbitrary' is the power to coerce, manipulate or force a certain course of action against others. Destroying all evidence is one way, creating a legitimising rationalisation is another, and then there is dealing with organisations which have no integrity whatsoever like the Chinese government. I was an analyst of a Top 500 company that sought an agreement with the Chinese government to develop a tantalum mine. I knew the project was not viable, but the perception of viability allowed the company to raise more money at a higher price. Once the money was raised, the agreement was rescinded.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all conspiracy theories are true, but I do believe the process of questioning and investigation is proper and legitimate. There are powerful people who are conceptual thinkers who can structure systems to serve them unbeknown to unconceptual or compliant thinkers. The reality is conceptual thinkers fall into 2 types:
1. Manipulators who want a sense of control over other people. These people often arise from impractical realists because they want the validation.
2. Realists who place a respect for facts above people's feelings. These types tend to be marginalised because they are self-centered, goal-orientated and socially ungraceful. Its not that they can't manipulate, they wouldn't lower themselves. Its not that they want to hurt others, its that they don't think people should be afraid of the truth.

Its interesting that when I do a psychological test I am often interpreted as a manipulator. Of course I question myself, but the reality is that psychologists don't understand the difference because the developer of the test had a subjective frame of reference. Consider this thinking by a psychologist. He has 4 different theories of cognitive understanding, and he decides each is valid. They all serve a different function so he is happy that they serve their purpose well enough. This is classic pragmatic thinking. He has no compulsion to resolve any contradictions, or to develop an integrated theory of condition.
In conclusion, any idea or conspiracy cannot be accepted or dismissed because it affirms your views. They need to processed through a process of critical thinking. There is a tendency for people to only filter the unfavourable material and accept the good news. We see this with people's attitudes to compliments and criticism. Don't get me wrong. Some criticism is not intended to help you, but elevate the critic. For example, the critic who makes arguments that show they were not listening to the ideas you outlined, or the person who quickly pounces on your ideas before you have finished outlining them.
Andrew Sheldon
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