Review of “The Perks of Paranoia” (Video; 2013; 3.30 mins) by Christopher Griffin.
Though the creator of the entertaining video, Christopher Griffin, used the fruitful idea of “hyper-active threat detection” derived from evolutionary psychology to explain the tendency of some hyper-active brains to see conspiracies where there are none, he is only giving a part of the evolutionary picture. He overlooks the idea that–as people have evolved faculties to detect the good or bad intentions of other people, and as we try to detect the intentions for beneficial cooperation or nefarious conspiracies in other groups–we do so because deception and deception-detection are structural ingredients of evolution. It is not merely the simple case of evading predators. There is more going on, and more than we might be comfortable with.
Way back in our evolutionary history deception and deception-detection were functional adaptations, not intentional strategies. If a species survives by deception it is because a gene in an ancestor had randomly mutated and made its host into a deceiver, which gave its progeny an edge over its cousins and secured the longevity of the mutated gene (Dawkins). Then one member of the deceived species had the good chance of mutating into a deception-detector and thereby started its own line of ‘fitter’ progeny. Of course, none of these species do this intentionally or are morally ‘selfish’. It just is the iron logic of evolution in which genes blindly cooperate to produce survival machines which compete in an environment of limited resources. Maybe only with the primates one can detect instances of intentional, strategic deception, but those are quite simple and short-term (de Waal). Then homo sapiens evolved partially through an unintentional cognitive arms race of hiding its own desires and detecting the desires of others (Pinker). Only with the onset of human self-consciousness, with its inner theater to run through alternate scenarios, 1) the capacity for elaborate, intentional deceptions became established (Jaynes); 2) conspiracies and counter-conspiracies became important drivers of the historical process; and 3) scheming became a structural element of the political process (Machiavelli; Peter Dale Scott).
Making the whole picture even more complex and dark is the idea that individuals are sometimes bad liars when they self-consciously try to deceive and will easily be detected. Nature’s unintentional answer to this dilemma is self-deception. Deceivers, who do not know they are deceiving, and will not display any signs of intentional deception, will have an edge over conscious liars who might get nervous.
Though some ‘conspiricists’ (axiomatic conspiracy theorists who tend to make Type I Errors of false positives) can go overboard in making wild conjectures, conspiracy-detection is still a very useful faculty to counter the tendency of some groups to exploit other groups in a devious manner (there are plenty of true positives). Some (maybe many) conspire; others try to detect their plans; then the conspirators try to improve the secrecy of their plans, or, at least, even when found out, they will try to keep the plan going and reap the benefits. Many strategies and counter-strategies are possible (see Hamlet). So, of course, when found out, one strategy to keep a conspiracy from getting derailed, is by denying its existence and debunking those who uncovered the plan (or just getting rid of them, though that might fuel the suspicion).
Another strategy is to have others, driven by their own genetically coded desires, do the debunking for you, preferably while not knowing what service they render (this will make them more believable). It is possible that Griffin and other ‘skpeticists’ (axiomatic skeptics who tend to make Type II Errors of false negatives) fall in the latter category, though Griffin, in the end, promotes the age-old maxim ‘better safe than sorry’, because true positives in conspiracy-detection are still possible:
“The truths they [conspiracy theorists] find may be heavily debated, but in this world of the unknown–a world in which evolution has taught us that caution equals survival–the truth might just save your life someday.”
What is needed is an evolutionary epistemology by which conjectures can mutate till they reasonably fit the data and survive good faith attempts at refutation (Popper). Then we can discuss 1) what constitutes a reasonable conjecture; 2) which data need explanation; and 3) if refutations are lethal or can be absorbed by ad hoc mutations of the original conjecture.
Another element which has to be further developed in the big debate between conspiracy theorists and the skeptics is the use and abuse of divergent epistemic standards, when theorists easily refute their opponents by setting very high epistemic standards for them, but let their own reasoning slip by by setting lower standards.
Meanwhile we have to monitor ourselves for our evolved tendencies to deceive, counter-deceive and self-deceive. Hopefully, in the end, truth is more fit than its opposite (Gandhi).
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1976.
de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Sex and Power among Apes. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
Griffin, Christopher. “The Perks of Paranoia“. The Skeptic. 6 May 2013. A Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource. Web. 9 Dec 2013. .
Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Print. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, London: Penguin, 1961.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton; London: Penguin, 1997.
Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson, 1959.
Scott, Peter Dale. Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.