Explanation: Conspiracy Stories and Theory of Mind

Wildfires and Conspiracy Explanations

California, the green and gold state, floods during the winter while greening the grass, and burns during the summer dry and brown.  It is well and good that some of the winter water is saved in lakes and reservoirs to combat the summer fires.  In a previous essay I told about fire being our most useful and valuable tool, but fire wears a Janus face and in structural and wildfires it is a most ferocious enemy.  It is also fascinating.  I well remember that many years ago everyone had an incinerator in the back yard to burn paper goods and garbage, and I would watch in wonder as the roaring flames rose from the blackening paper, twisting, turning, and disappearing.

The combination of destruction and fascination generates the epic figure of the fireman fighting an implacable enemy.  That combination also generates research into fire science, explaining the behavior of fire with the intent of increasing our control over it, and decreasing the monetary costs and lives lost combating it.  Fire scientists, almost on a whim, flew a well-instrumented airplane through a plume of fast rising hot gas to study its behavior.  Most plumes top out at a lower elevation.  This ‘firenado’ – hot air rising into the stratosphere – was an unusual fire behavior.  Out of their measurements together with other studies, the fire scientists learned that within that large-scale vertical turbulence, smaller scale horizontal vortexes can form, bursting out of the plume at ground level at high velocities and igniting material in front of the fire zone.

The temperature within the combustion zone is, in part, dependent upon the supply of oxygen.  Firenadoes cause a ground-level low-pressure zone that draws cool air from the surrounding area bringing in sufficient oxygen to generate very high combustion zone temperatures and near total destruction of the burning materials.  This inflow of cool gas also contributes to the generation of the horizontal vortexes.

This is fire science: one type or style of explanation.  By virtue of its methodology it possesses a tight convertibility between experience and perception, and their symbolization, that is, in explanation.  Every element of their explanation can be traced back to a measurement or a repeatable observation.  Anyone can repeat the observations and measurements and verify their conversion into explanations.  Out of this process arises explanatory verifiability and reliability, fire science.  Science explanations tend to converge.

The total destruction and fast-moving fire fronts of recent fires generated very different explanations in some minds: conspiracy stories of “hidden powers behind fires.”  Wildfires, caused and spread by invisible elites using “directed energy weapons” such as lasers to force rural dwellers into cities or to clear the land for the proposed high-speed rail system.  One retired fire chief, from a residential fire department, noted that the fire that destroyed Paradise, CA, was extraordinarily hot and moved very rapidly.  This was beyond his experience so he found an explanation in “airplanes released nanoparticles of combustible metals.”

Where did his conspiracy story come from?  Did he think of it himself?  If so, then the chief’s mind did the best it could with the information and motivation it had at hand.  His perceptual problem was the unusually rapid expansion of the fire zone and the extreme destruction of even non-combustible materials.  He put together his fire science knowledge of dust explosions and a knowledge and probable fear of nanoparticles – we do not know how he might have developed that – and produced an imagined fire behavior mechanism out of the psychological mechanisms of fear, danger and suspicion.

What he did not do was to research and understand the meteorology of the area with its frequent high winds driving down a canyon supplying oxygen and spreading the fire rapidly.  Nor did he read about the horizontal vortexes of hot gas igniting materials in advance of the main fireline.  Instead of an explanation based on meteorology and fire science, he made an explanation based upon invisible agents of evil and told a fear story of airplanes spreading metallic nanoparticles.  He did not see the airplanes, but he knew that they had to be there.  His airplanes did not fly through the flame plume measuring its properties with advanced instruments to collect evidence.  His airplanes flew through his mind spreading danger, fear, and suspicion.  He knew that they were operated by dangerous elites with great power.  By virtue of his insight he possessed a truth not accessible to most other minds.  Suspicion, fear, danger and evil agents are major characteristics of conspiracy stories.  Without evidence he has truth and certitude of the cause of the fire.

Or did our fire chief learn his conspiracy theory from someone else?  There are plenty of sources such as websites and YouTube, but more likely it was talk shows.  If I were a roving reporter doing a report on fire conspiracy stories, I would be sure to ask the fire chief if he listens to talk radio.  I’ll bet you breakfast that he does.  The story may have passed from one mind to another via a communication media. These stories are infectious, and this is the basis of a contagion model for conspiracy stories.  Minds are susceptible to them.  Why are they so attractive?  Why did a conspiracy story resonate in his mind, rewire his mind?

Theory of Mind

Let me tell you a different story to develop the first part of an explanation for conspiracy explanations.  I remember lying on the living room couch and watching a Midwest thunder and lightning storm with sheet and forked lightning and near continuous thunder.  Lightning lit up my world startling me.  Thunder hammered it closed and I shuddered under its impact.  I was about 6 or 7 years old and scared.

There is nothing in our naif perceptual and conceptual set that explains thunder and lightning.[efn_note]I wonder why the order of events is lightning followed by thunder but in the common word usage thunder precedes lightning.[/efn_note] and reduces the startle, the terror and danger.  Thunder and lightning appear to be miraculous, effects without cause.  We cannot perceive and immediately understand the cause, the buildup of electrical charge within clouds.  The subsequent electrical discharge, lightning, a violent spark that heats the atmospheric gases, is in effect an explosion, and we hear the shock wave as thunder.  We perceive the effect and not the cause.

The human brain is quite unsatisfied with lack of explanation.  So, we invent cause to match effect and tell stories.  When I was young someone told me that thunder was the sound of giants rolling bowling balls across the sky.  I had never seen a bowling ball or bowling alley, or heard the sound of balls rolling down the alley, but I somehow understood that rolling balls made a noise.  Giants bowling is an agency story: invisible giants much like humans but of different appearance and with enlarged powers did human-like things in a different place.

We, as members of the species Homo sapiens, understand that other individuals have minds much like our own, that is, we possess a theory of mind.  We extend our theory of mind into biology – anthropomorphizing animals – and into the inanimate world – animating the inanimate.  We preferentially explain the unknown in terms of extensions of human attributes and of acts of human-like minds.

Theory of mind is our understanding that other entities have minds, that they actively engage their environment with their own perceptions, cognitions, knowledge, emotions, motivations, needs and drives, that is, they are independent agents with their own minds, able to modify, affect, or influence their environments and other minds in those environments.  “Agency is the power to initiate an action[efn_note]Barbara Ehrenreich[/efn_note].”  We extend theory of mind to our pets and other animals that appear to be sentient.  Crucially, we extend theory of mind into inanimate processes and beyond to imaginary entities imbued with human-like attributes, or with super-human powers and other non-human attributes, and with moral qualities ranging from pure good to pure evil.  We grant them those attributes and powers and then worship them for their super-humanity.

There are several elements to the thunder story.  First, the need to tell a story – that is, to lay alongside thunder and lightning a collocation of words, symbols in a specific order, that somehow reduces or satisfies this mental need for understanding of danger and fear.  A story may be miraculous or mundane so long as it reduces the cognition ‘deficit:’ the unknown, expressed in “I don’t understand,” which is a powerful motivation.   It is related to curiosity, the need for exploration of the dangers and resources of a territory.  So, I posit the fundamental need of explanation via symbolization, that is, story telling as a reduction of cognition deficit and a resolution of “I do not know” into “I now know.”

Second, the giants bowling in the sky is an agency comfort story.  The terror of thunder and lightning becomes nothing to be afraid of, it is only giants at play and having fun.  There is no danger in play; there is delight.  In the previous essay I added visualization to my concept set.  A story can elicit imagery.  Many people who hold the idea of giants bowling must be able to visualize the action, with all of its drama.

As children we learn of the agency of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.  These are fun agency stories that mask the true agents, our parents, for the purpose of generating our surprise and wonder.  We know that a dime does not get under the pillow by itself.  Agency of some sort puts it there.  These fun agency stories are, as we age, subject to the discipline of reality and we have little trouble letting these stories go as we begin to understand how Easter eggs, gifts at Christmas and dimes under our pillows come to be.  it was our parents’ acting as agents to create the miraculous.  We pride ourselves on growing up and attaining better explanations.  The miraculous evaporated and the mundane remained.  We find better explanations based upon evidence.

Agency fear stories are a different matter.  An electrician I worked with said “personally, I don’t think there is a God, but I keep one foot in the door just in case.”  Jim kept one foot in the door out of fear that he might be wrong.  Agency fear exists in some sort of mental limbo, unprovable and not disprovable, yet powerful for the power of command and punishment we invest in our gods.  Jim could not rid himself of the fear of an invisible, powerful, and punishing God – punishing him for disbelief and misbehavior.  Likewise, conspiracy fear stories exist in the same mental limbo, unprovable and not disprovable.

If the fire chief generated his conspiracy stories from looking at the news reports on the fire, then he needed to tell a story about something that perplexed him.  The easiest and most natural way to satisfy this need was to invoke his theory of mind and find that the fires were the result of agents.  His agents were human, unspecified elites, but frequently the agents are experienced as invisible and ineffable beings of various sorts.  The specific form of agents is a combination of individual psychology together with the sociology and culture within with the individual is operating.  The combination of our theory of mind together with imagination and visualization generates supra-normal agents.

Giants bowling in the sky, the Easter Bunny, Sant Claus, and the Tooth Fairy are not agents of danger generating fear, so danger and fear are not necessary attributes of invisible agents.  The fire chief cannot rid himself of his fear of elites operating airplanes spreading nano-particles.  Why is danger and fear associated with agency in conspiracy stories?  Why do conspiracy stories outrun evidence and critical thinking?

Conspiracists cannot be argued or ‘evidenced’ out of their explanations.  They are locked in, perhaps intoxicated with their reasoning, with their possession of knowledge superior to that of the dupes and sheeple, with the power of being right when everyone else is wrong, and with being the smartest one in the room.  Their fear may rest on a generalized existential fear and their suspicion of agents generated by their theory of mind.  This an explanation resting on a psychology of conspiracy.

Why does our theory of mind generate danger, fear and suspicion stories?  Why are they so attractive, contagious, tenacious, and difficult to eradicate?  Are conspiracy stories and explanations the product of a deranged mind or of a human mind in a deranged society?  With these questions I move from the psychology of conspiracy to its sociology and from the individual to the collective mind.  I proclaim that conspiracy stories are a cognitive bias in some minds, easy to engender and difficult to dissipate, but that there are deeper reasons for the bias to be found in the temperament of the individual minds and the needs of a social group.

I will take up the sociology of danger, fear, and evangelism for these stories in the next essay.

Afterwords

There are in my explanations, no invisible agents, no super-beings, no God or gods, and no Final Cause.  I extend my theory of mind no farther than the science of biology allows.  There is, at the bottom, only ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I cannot know.’  I am willing to rest there.  That is a moving limit.  In my time I have witnessed biology telling me not to ascribe human mental attributes to animals and 50 years later telling me that our mental abilities are derived from neural systems common to animals and that amoeba and plants can communicate.

I resist conspiracy stories, with difficulty at times.  I recall a wall of books, shelf above shelf in a bookstore, on conspiracy explanations of the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963.  Yes, I remember where I was and who told me of the terrible event.  I would very much like to know exactly what happened.  Somehow the current official story of a lone gunman seems incomplete and these conspiracy stores appear to tell a better and more believable story.

It is now 56 years later and the conspiracy stories have metastasized and diverged with time.  There are so many of these stories, all different.  They have not converged into one agreed upon truth; they have diverged.  How am I to choose one that is ‘true?’  Would choosing one story reveal more of my person than of the truth of the assassination?  Christopher Scaife, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London observed “it happens to all of us: we think we are describing the world when in fact we are describing ourselves.”

I am not a conspiracist.  I do not experience existential and agency fear, and am not suspicious of other people.  Rather, I am more credulous than perhaps I should be.  I do not ascribe agency to what I do not know and do not seek novel, imaginary, fanciful, or exciting explanations.  These are attributes of my temperament, a relatively fixed set of mental and emotional attributes that define major elements of my personality.  Temperament is an over-all, large scale pattern or tendency such as curious or fearful, credulous or suspicious, wild eyed or reasonable.  When I began writing essays, I specified that I was exploring the temper of my mind and I have put aspects of it on display for all to see.

Explanation, essay writing, and story telling, are individually path and motivation dependent.  That is psychology.  In the next essay I will posit that the roots of this psychology are deep within the sociology of a social species, that is, our sociology has an evolutionary history and itself possesses path dependency.  At this point I depart from the current scientific canon, head first, right off the wagon, to suggest that temperament, while personal, is sociologically functional – that is, personality in some respects subsumes under sociology – the needs of a social group.  Temperament, while basically individual, is more fundamentally sociological for it governs to a large extent how an individual functions within its group.  I am willing to go one step farther to suggest that perception of the needs of the group will develop aspects of individual temperament.  This is only a possible working hypothesis to take a good long look at.  Note how carefully I held this one at arm’s length.  I am going to do my best to make a substantial argument in its favor in the next essay.

Resources

For the firefighter: first person accounts may be found in this resource.  I used the phrase ‘epic figure of the fireman fighting an implacable enemy’ from having read several first person accounts:

http://www.firecritic.com/2014/10/21/top-firefighting-books/

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/firefighting

Fire science: Douglas Fox “Firestorm,” an essay about research into the most destructive wildfires.  Reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2018.

For fire conspiracy stories:

https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article221651030.html

For conspiracy theory in general:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conspiracy_theories

For a more technical article on the psychology of conspiracy https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0963721417718261  Click on Download PDF on the top left side of the page.

The contagion model of conspiracy stories: This is one part of a larger theme repeated over several of my recent essays: stories may resonate (infection or contagion model) or dissonate (rejection or immune reaction model) in the receiving mind.  Both of these reactions may present sociological problems.  There may be a critical mass of conspiracists, believing a fanciful story and demanding action on their perceptions.  There is another major intellectual problem, story dissonance, the clash of truths.  Too many truths, too little convergence, too difficult to parse the differences.  Yes sir, folks we have a problem right here our minds.  Another essay waiting to happen.  I have nattered over this problem of convergence and divergence, or resonance or dissonance in a mind, in several recent essays and have now produced a suitable explanatory mechanism.  I can hardly wait to expound upon it.

For theory of mind: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind

We also understand that some individuals have mental deficiencies, that is their minds function somewhat differently and their mental defects can be almost catastrophic.  I have in mind, in particular, the disabilities of paranoia, schizophrenia, Down’s Syndrome, and autism because I have observed these in other minds.

For thunder and bowling:  https://www.iusedtobelieve.com/nature/thunder_and_lightning/god_bowling/

Ravenmaster: Scaife, Christopher, Ravenmaster: My Life With the Ravens at the Tower of London, ISBN 9780374113346, p. 174.  The fuller quote is: “Maybe in writing … I’m subconsciously making the ravens into the image of me, and me into the image of them.  It happens to all of us: we think we are describing the world when in fact we’re describing ourselves.”  Well said, and the theory of mind at work.  I recommend this book highly, both for his descriptions of himself and of the ravens, his minds and their minds.  Chris is very percipient and an excellent writer.