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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Two Slices of Bacon

In reflecting on the assasination of JFK I wondered what it was that caused people to believe in the conspiracies in the abscence of evidence. In the First Book of Francis Bacon's 1620 Novum Organum he identified several impediments, which he called idols (aphorisms 38-44), to human reasoning in the pursuit of a correct interpretation of nature. One of the idols he defined is "Idols of the Tribe" (idola tribus). These are impediments grounded in ways of thinking common to the human species. Of these Bacon says that they are "inherent in human nature and the very tribe or race of man; for man's sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things; on the contrary, all the perceptions both of the senses and the mind bear reference to man and not to the universe..." One might say that idols of the tribe reflect the way our brains are hard-wired to interpret our immediate environment. As a result, some things that may seem to be "common sense" may lead us down the wrong path.

One particular example of this kind of idol (discussed by Gould in several essays) is our inability to grasp vast distances and long timespans. Our minds are suited to deal in feet, miles, days, and years, not millions of miles and billions of years. As a result, we can't intuitively feel what these distances and time spans are like although our reason in some sense overcomes this deficiency and allows us to perform calculations and calibrations to deal with them numerically, for example, in space flight and paleontology. In another example, our inability to think intuitively about large numbers makes people ripe for believing in "Bible Codes".

Related to conspiracies, perhaps the most studied and well-known way that humans process information is to see patterns and make connections. My conjecture is that conspiracy theorists employ this particular idol and are trapped by it when they identify a causal relationship in a set of connections (a pattern) between individuals. For example, A) the Florida mob boss Carlos Marcello was known to have harboured ill will for the Kennedys, B) Marcello knew Guy Bannister who was an anti-Castro figure in New Orleans, C) Anti-Castro people were also generally disappointed with Kennedy for his failure to support the insurgents at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently, D) Guy Bannister knew David Ferrie, also an anti-Castro militant, E) Guy Bannister had an office in the same structure as the address printed on the flyers Oswald handed out on the streets of New Orleans (an alternate route is that Oswald was in the Civil Air Patrol at the same time as Ferrie was an instructor), F) Oswald killed Kennedy. Follow the chain and you come to the obvious conclusion that Marcello must have ordered the hit on Kennedy and Guy Bannister and David Ferrie recruited Oswald to do it since it coincided with their own hatred of Kennedy. There certainly appears to be a pattern here and common sense seems to dictate that we take the results of this view seriously. Should we?

While connecting causality with a pattern like this in a world of just a few individuals might make sense, it doesn't in a country will hundreds of millions of people. This is the so called "small world" effect that allows you to link any actor to Kevin Bacon in less than 7 films. The conspiracy theorists are thereby caught just where our idol (the ability to make connections and see patterns) runs into our inability to deal with large numbers and so a likely statistical artifact is mistaken for causality (see this site for a great version of the Bacon game for baseball players). Let me be clear that the pattern may indeed record a chain of causality. However, in order to show that it did we would need evidence. Unfortunately, there is no documentary evidence tha bridges the gaps between these facts in the case of the JFK assassination (see this excellent site for a clear thinking view of the JFK assasination.
). So we've gone from Bacon to Bacon. I wonder if my breakfast is ready....

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