Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reverse Occam's Razor

Occam's razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is the principle that generally recommends, when faced with competing hypotheses that are equal in other respects, selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  More challenging, complex explanations can also be right, of course-the principle is only a guideline. Most conspiracy theory holds the precisely reverse view, whether implicitly or not.

Before we continue, it's useful to define conspiracy. It simply means two or more people acting in concert to commit a criminal act. So by this definition conspiracies happen very often indeed. However conspiracy theories do not focus on the small, everyday, conspiracies, but rather those great and overarching. This is reasonable, since these have more importance to world affairs. Conspiracy theories with more importance will therefore be my focus.

Let us first address the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. Obviously the "official story" that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally alone is simpler. That does not make it necessarily right of course. However, assuming one wanted the President dead, and having chosen Dallas as the location, which is simpler? Two or three gunmen, possibly more, versus one? Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, one gunmen could easily have picked off JFK from the Texas School Book Depository.

Most conspiracy theories seem to view Oswald as either innocent or the fall guy of co-conspirators. None that I know of believe he could have committed the shooting alone, for good reason as this would undercut the basis of their claims. Yet this would not by itself rule out a conspiracy. For if Oswald alone shot Kennedy after plotting with accomplices, that would satisfy conditions for a conspiracy. The larger a plot, the more loose ends. After this Oswald presumably had to be silenced himself. Then his own murderer was allowed to live and potentially spill the beans for over four years, let alone the many others who might. An unacceptable risk in any conspiracy to assassinate the US President.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon have been claimed to be impossible if we follow "the official story." While specific claims made by so-called "9/11 Truthers" have been exhaustively answered by experts, why do people leap into the most outlandish theory yet again? If elements of the US or Israeli governments wanted to have the 9/11 attacks occur, they would merely have to sit back and let them happen. If this were done, negligence is far easier to explain (as mere incompetence) than wiring explosives in the Twin Towers undetected, or firing a cruise missile at the Pentagon, along with getting rid of all the Flight 19 passengers, as some theories allege.

One must only put themselves in the mind of the would-be conspirator intent on committing such crimes for a moment to see how daunting this prospect would be, even for secret government officials. The more complex the plan, the more conspirators involved, the more there is that can and likely will go wrong. If these events were successful conspiracies (obviously, 9/11 in fact was such, but assuming others were involved than Al-Qaeda) it was because of the simplicity and relatively low number of conspirators, not the opposite. 

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