Hanlon’s Razor — “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
One of things that saturates our information world today, which drives me absolutely nuts, is the proliferation of conspiracy theories on everything from pedophilic pizza parlors to scheming Chinese scientists, making super-germs in labs. It’s not that sexual exploitation of children isn’t a problem — as we devolve into more and more segmented authoritarians, where the rich are easily removed to various sex islands, I become less and less surprised. And I’d never doubt that various powers-that-be wouldn’t think of germ warfare against other humans. That’s historic.
But even in perversion, or destruction, v-memetic rules must be followed, at least if there are people involved. Authoritarian bosses are far more likely to place concubines in the office next door, instead of in some far-off Shangri-la. And germ warfare is also much more likely to take place with some smallpox-laced blankets, seized in desperation by freezing indigenous people trapped on reservations, than the more elaborate schemes of dispensing through hidden microchips triggered by 5G signals.
History is full of the types of horrid excesses that humans liked to (and still do) inflict on other humans, as well as our other fellow travelers in the animal and plant world. But more diabolical means require social organization, and like it or not, they also require empathy development. You simply can’t get to requisite complexity without information coherence. And that comes with growing a conscience. Sure, there might be a few that don’t get there. But statistically, most will.
Even if you consider some of the wilder things we’ve done — the atomic bomb comes to mind — these are things that could not have been developed without long, empathetic supply chains, working synchronously toward a larger, if in the end ignoble goal. Part of the reasons the Nazis lost WWII was not that their armaments were more poorly designed than the Allies. They lost because of reliability issues because they conscripted slave labor forces to build their various airplanes and Panzer tanks. Drop some dirt in that transmission, now, won’t you? Think about THAT supply chain.
It’s also fair to say that all bets are off when technology is captured. Terrorists are far more likely to use a nuclear bomb than a nation-state, because in order to make that bomb requires a higher form of social evolution than a terrorist, stuck in a neo-tribal mindset, is going to possess. We live in a world now where the folks that developed the technology have exited the stage, and darker forces have picked up on its potential.
Examples? We sell F-16 jets to Pakistan, but leave our own Air Force guards to guard against their unauthorized use. An article I read today about selling F-35s to Turkey, which at some level we are contractually bound to do, as Turkey is a NATO country, was puzzling through similar problems. An F-35, imperfect as it is, is a tremendous piece of networked firepower. Do we really want Turkey to have a combined AWACS/super-cruise fighter so close to active Russian military forces? As US hegemony declines, the dangers of war are not so much about people attacking the homeland. They are of rival powers squaring off to fight old, unresolved fights. Escalations between India and China are but a recent example.
But back to conspiracies. One of the ones that has been making the rounds regarding COVID was that Chinese were scheming around germ warfare regarding coronaviruses, and the virus escaped from the lab to give us our contemporary pandemic. Large and monolithic, the CCP was attempting to give itself an ultimate killer weapon, when things went awry in the lab. Because of that famed Chinese coordination (ever watched that video of all the Chinese children bouncing balls in a circle together) they managed to pull it ALL off. Until, well, they didn’t, and then they went around silencing and killing people, including doctors who might expose their plot to activate the killer bug with 5G technology.
Give me a break. This is the chronic wrong-headed comparison I see made in the popular (and serious) literature between things that kids can do that adults can’t, inevitably attributed to a distortion of empathy. Kids can play that spaghetti tower game better than a group of hospital execs. or lawyers, but you sure wouldn’t want a bunch of 8-year-olds running a hospital. Though you might want a group of 8-year-olds running a hospital if your other alternative was a bunch of lawyers! (Sorry, all my lawyer friends. I couldn’t resist!)
That doesn’t mean that I believe there is zero chance of COVID-19 starting from the lab in Wuhan. I actually think there is a probability of failure with any containment exercise in germ research. There’s a reason why there are different labs with different biohazard ratings. And there is also likely the chance for certain types of failure that should preclude any experimentation on certain types of viruses. It’s simply too unsafe. But that kind of thing is the result of human hubris — not conspiracy. The short answer is this — once a given complexity/sophistication threshold is exceeded, the chance of failure is real. And failure is going to only be realized if you run the experiment over and over again.
Conspiracies, especially complicated ones, require a certain memetic stew that just doesn’t exist in the real world — or at least very often. You have to have smart people, taking Authority-driven direction, while at the same time exercising creativity in how they’re encountering obstacles that run contrary to the diabolical plans of the conspiracy. That’s not easy to do. People capable of managing complexity are also likely to be connected to lots of information sources. And that’s going to run contrary to that extreme loyalty-for-nefarious-ends that any conspiracy really needs. Any movie conspiracy, if it’s accurate, always has lots of goons. But even goons have to be paid. You don’t just sign up to be a goon. You sign up because you get some money. Or if you’re ideologically aligned, you’re also probably stupid. Look at how the protests/riots are playing out. What level of coordination are we seeing?
That said, complex, deep historic conditions CAN create conditions for disaster. But the reason disaster happens isn’t the result of coordination of conspiratorial parties. More likely, it’s the result of deep historic bills that converge on a moment, and come due. Let’s explore the potential for a viral release from a Wuhan lab.
For those that know much about China, they know that almost every kind of megafauna long ago was exterminated from most of the Chinese mainland. Most of it was eaten — it is true that Chinese people like wild game. But it’s more than that — Chinese medicine itself is close to 2500 years old, and blends a certain amount of deep holism sprinkled with magical thinking. In an Authoritarian culture (and China is most definitely an Authoritarian society) the information transference from a rhino’s horn to an erectile dysfunction cure is all too obvious. This is a fact, folks.
And as the Chinese population has exploded, harvest of any wild animal has become more and more problematic. If you had a historic food from the wild when you had a population of 200 million, you can imagine the demands on that same wild source if your population is 1.25B. It ain’t pretty — and it’s not exactly like there’s a whole lot of grounding validity. You bought those things from someone else, they were a tradition in your family, and China is laced with these traditions. China is also covered — almost every square inch — with people and their devices. There is hardly a square acre reserved as real wildlands. Contrast this to their neighbor, India, where large parks (and associated megafauna) still remain.
One of the big problems in China is that through attrition, lack of habitat, and deliberate campaigns, most of the wild bird life in China is gone. This is hard to imagine for most Westerners to imagine, but during the Great Leap Forward, Mao even ran what was called the Four Pests campaign, where people all went outside for days, banging pots and pans to keep birds aloft until they literally fell out of the sky.
Events like this can have tragic, unobserved, and un-studied consequences. Radical population devastation does not always result in a bounce-back to historic levels. Once various thresholds are crossed, the ecological balance is fundamentally altered. And other species, formerly perhaps only in mild competition with birds, can find a way not just to establish a foothold, but fill ecosystem niches formerly unoccupied by them.
This is not the first time this has happened. The classic example of more recent times was the collapse of the cod fishery off the Grand Banks. Hard draggers and trawlers essentially clear-cut the ocean floor, not just taking the ground fish, but also creating unrecoverable conditions for their future.
Into the ecosystem gap flourished another species — lobsters. Lobsters, now no longer suppressed in marginal competition with cod and other ground fish, saw exploding populations. We like to eat lobster, so we didn’t really care. But the plentiful populations of lobster are very likely linked to ground fish devastation. And now that a new equilibrium has been established, it makes it even more difficult for the cod to return — even if they possess much larger amounts of biomass, and use the system more efficiently. They simply can’t get started again. Because of those damn lobsters.
But back to China. One of the most interesting features of China is its karst topography. Karst limestone makes many of those funky looking towers of rock you see across China. And whenever you see a combo of limestone and water, there’s a ton of stuff you don’t see. That would be caves. I have never explored Chinese caves, but there’s got to be a ton of them.
And if you have caves, and no birds to compete for insects, well, guess what. You get a lot of bats. Bats that might have been marginalized before, now can flourish. Lots of bats. And bats, as we now know, carry coronaviruses. Lots of them. And they poop a lot. All those insects have to go somewhere. Bat guano is also super-valuable — it’s selling for ~$90/25 lb. bag at WalMart.
Now you have a fascinating incentivized stew that favors release of coronavirus into the human world. You’ve got the guano, of course, and people who might want to dig it up, which is obvious. (I’ve heard lately about Chinese miners — nothing about what they’re mining, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) But now you also have interested scientists, not so much interested in the poop (maybe the viruses in the poop!), but interested in stuff scientists are interested in, which, quite frankly, is often egocentric and arbitrary. When it comes to the desire to serve the public, scientists are all over the map. But they are definitely driven by their passions, less so the money. And you’ve got something fascinating to study. There are lots of accounts of Chinese coronavirus scientists going into the plethora of caves, now crowded with bats that previously didn’t exist because of bird annihilation.
Lots has been written about the phenomenon of spillover — when viruses cross the divide between animals and humans. I’ve not read David Quammen’s eponymous book, but I know David, and he’s very thorough.
At the same time that much is made of the difficulty of animal/human transmission, I think it’s also important to remember that these things are also a function of probability. Mess with enough batshit, long enough, and sooner or later, you’re likely to catch something. It’s taking that low-probability event — spillover — and repeating the trials often enough.
And so that’s what I think happened with COVID-19. I think we are always quick to blame peasants and wet markets and such. Eating bats is unappetizing, at least for those of us in the West, and it is always easy to blame the poor for our problems. And miners. Especially poop miners. Scientists, belonging to a more respectable caste, tend to skate on their responsibility. I’ve known enough scientists (and I’m one myself, though of a decidedly different sort) to appreciate that they can “follow their nose.” Even if that nose takes them into the middle of a large cave filled with bat guano.
And so they brought it out. And it was likely mishandled, which is why some of them died. So I wouldn’t completely rule out the idea that COVID-19 came from the Wuhan Infectious Disease lab.
But a conspiracy? Give me a break. See Hanlon’s Razor at the top.
6 thoughts on “The Memetics of Conspiracies and Hanlon’s Razor”
Oh my god, I halfway through writing a blog about the difference between incompetence and conspiracy! It’s counterintuitively not what you’d expect, but interestingly exactly what you’d end up learning
I agree with your assessment of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 as germ warfare. It’s highly improbable and, besides, an unnecessary speculation. But that isn’t to say that governments don’t conspire all the time, as obviously they do with near endless historical examples to demonstrate this basic truth. That is precisely what gives the plausibility to the more absurd conspiracy theories, since the conspiracy theorists can point to the plethora of real world examples.
In response to Hanlon’s Razor, keep in mind that conspiracies don’t require malice at all. Very few conspirators would self-identify as malicious. Also, most conspirators would not even think of their actions as conspiracies. It’s just not how humans typically think about their own motivations, even when they are planning things in secret. Humans are talented at rationalizing, as talented as they are in conspiring.
If conspiracies weren’t far from uncommon and far from ineffective, there would be no intelligence agencies and no military special ops, not to mention no organized crime. Yet there are such things in countries all over the world. People conspire all the time and they generally rationalize their conspiracies as moral and beneficial, not nefarious. And indeed, most conspiracies are surely positive or neutral, or at least could be interpreted that way by those involved.
Most conspiracies aren’t grand social and political schemes. It doesn’t even require anything extreme or unusual: planning a surprise birthday, a family not talking about incest, siblings lying to their parents about going to a party, a company maintaining secrecy about proprietary technology, etc. It happens all the time. There is nothing more human than the ability to conspire. Some tribal societies maintained secrecy about rituals over centuries or maybe even millennia.
I’ve been writing about this fascinating topic going back many years.
As a side note, there is another reason the Nazis lost. A key factor was drug-induced psychosis and health decline. Drug addiction relates, as you know, to loss of empathy. Read Norman Ohler’s “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich”. Going by your argument, the decline of empathy in German society could have eroded the ability to maintain a complex social order.
Hi Ben — I wouldn’t define institutional efforts as conspiracies — I look at them as more of a ground-up effort that is self-organizing within the limits of complexity that those believing in the conspiracy actually have. Institutions can obviously do lots of interesting things, including lie to other human beings.
BTW — I wrote about Blitzed a while ago — because of tense issues, perhaps you are referring to that? If not — here’s the post. https://empathy.guru/2017/05/23/blitzed-drugs-in-the-third-reich-what-it-means-in-terms-of-social-structure-and-performance/
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