Note: This is the second blog post in a four part series.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Ross Douthat’s recent NY Times column on conspiracy thinking, “A Better Way to Think about Conspiracies,” formulates a four-part test for deciding which alleged conspiracies to keep an open mind about, or in Douthat’s own words, “a tool kit for discriminating among different fringe ideas.” Among other things, Douthat recommends: “Prefer simple theories to baroque ones.” This first criterion can thus be restated in Occam’s Razor terms as follows: prefer simpler conspiracy theories to more complex ones. Let’s call this principle “Ross’s Razor.”
In brief, Ross’s Razor tells us that when we are presented with competing explanations of the same event (e.g., Germany’s defeat in World War I; Trump’s loss in 2020 despite winning in Florida and Ohio), we should select the simplest explanation, the explanation with the fewest assumptions. As an aside, this preference for simplicity, though attributed to William of Ockham (1287?–1347), a Franciscan theologian and scholastic philosopher (see image below), may, in fact, go as far back as Aristotle’s treatise Physics, which states, “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.” As a further aside, whether we define simplicity in terms of the number of background assumptions or in terms of how nature or the world operates, I personally prefer to frame the simplicity/parsimony criterion in probabilistic terms, since one of the rationales for this preference for parsimony is a probabilistic one: the idea that the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one.
Either way, however, what does “simpler” mean in the domain of alternate realities or conspiracy theories? Does simplicity refer to the number of conspirators? The goal of the conspiracy? The number of steps necessary for the conspiracy to succeed? Worse yet, however we answer the foregoing questions, one of the supreme ironies of many conspiracy theories is that they pass Douthat’s parsimony test with flying colors, especially when it is the truth that is often ambiguous and messy! By way of illustration, consider the German “Stab-in-the-Back” Myth that I mentioned in my previous post. In many ways, this particular conspiracy theory provides a far simpler and parsimonious explanation of Germany’s defeat in World War I than the truth does.
Yes, the German Army was low on reserves, and yes the United States changed the course of the war after the Battle of Cantigny (28 May 1918), but how could the German public know these things at the time? Also, even if the number of German reserves and the number of U.S. troops were publicly-available information, what could be more simpler than to believe that Germany was stabbed-in-the-back by a visible group of traitors, the “November Criminals” who signed the armistice in November of 1918? Simply put (pun intended), it is this tempting yet misleading simplicity that is one of the main attractions of so many fringe conspiracy theories! That said, I will consider the remaining three factors in Douthat’s four-part test in my next few blog posts.