Monday, December 16, 2013

Coincidence or conspiracy?

I've posted several times about my skepticism regarding most conspiracy theories. At Ricochet.com it is argued that the tendency to suspect the existence of a conspiracy is often related to the need to make sense of the senseless. What if something very bad had happened at the Mandela memorial service? Would the speculations about conspiracy have been comparable to those after the JFK assassination?
Glenn Reynolds hits on something I've been thinking about since the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination: the role of everyday coincidences that we normally ignore if there's no crisis.

Glenn notes a few shady-sounding facts surrounding the crazy sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. He is schizophrenic, yet he'd been hired by this company before. He has been arrested or convicted on a number of charges, some of them violent. The company that hired him has closed shop and vanished. And now we discover that there was a lack of security at the memorial service. With all of these coincidences put together, the whole situation was an incompetent mess, but nothing bad happened. Now, imagine if the interpreter had turned violent towards President Obama while he stood next to him. We'd be looking at all of  these coincidences differently. We'd probably see them as part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate the President. ....

.... I lived near Washington when the D.C. sniper attacks were happening in 2002, and I recall how we were told to be on the lookout for a white van that had been seen near several of the shootings. A friend at work tried an experiment while he was running errands in the area. He imagined hearing a gunshot, and he'd look around for a white van. He always saw one. Often more than one. The actual sniper had a blue sedan. The vans were just a coincidence.

The latter is just a simple example of the fact that man is good at finding patterns, sometimes where there is only noise. .... [more]