Occam, Copernicus, and QAnon

The Geocentric Model (Universe Today)

The principle known as Occam’s Razor states that all other things being equal, “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” in any theory. The most parsimonious, or least elaborate, theory that is (a) falsifiable by experiment and (b) adequately explanatory of observed facts, should be preferred over its competitors.

The poster-child for the principle is Ptolemaic astronomy, which starts with the premise that the Earth is the centre of the universe and everything else (sun, moon, planets, stars) moves around it. This geocentric view prevailed for quite some time; but its math grew ever more baroque, as optical technology improved and more and more accurate (and confounding!) observations of planetary motion were amassed.

The math needed to explain these observed planetary motions in a heliocentric (Copernican) system was far simpler, more elegant, more consistent, more parsimonious than the enormous inventory of special cases and course-corrections planets needed to make in the Ptolemaic model. But so long as the heliocentric model was officially forbidden, scholars had no alternative but to refine and improve the ruleset and computations of the Ptolemaic model, in order to accommodate fresh observational data. (Most Anglo/Eurofolks, if they know nothing else about the history of science, remember that optician/astronomer Galileo Galilei was threatened by the established Church for suggesting that the Earth goes around the Sun and not vice versa. Heliocentrism was, at the time, illegal.)

Most people of any age have some sense of the age-old truism that it’s easier to tell the truth than remember and defend a lie; the lie has to get more and more complicated, and it’s hard to keep it consistent over time. The same is true of inadequate theories.

What does all this have to do with QAnon and similar conspiracy theories?

Various aspects of modern life — such as the gutting of local economies in the US, the offshoring of production capacity, the transfer of manufacturing and engineering expertise to Asia and out of the Anglosphere, the precarity of employment, the steep rise in inequity of resources, the undermining of public goods and projects that leads to an ambience of decay and disrepair — are painful and troubling, and require some explanation.

The obvious explanation involves 40-odd years of repeated tax cuts, gross license and privilege granted to incorporated businesses, wealth concentration, predatory takeover of (once) public utilities and properties, repeal of anti-trust legislation, financialisation of the economy, and a host of other developments associated with the “triumph” of neoliberal market theory. The obvious explanation is that wealthy people have by persistent effort managed to roll back the restraints on wealth accrual and the power of commercial interests that were put in place after the Great Depression and the Second World War; the US in particular seems on track to return to social and fiscal conditions similar to the 1920's.

It’s pretty clear to an outside observer that America is experiencing a class war — which the upper classes are handily winning. But for tens of millions of Americans, it’s a fundamental article of faith that capitalism is fair and meritocratic, and that the pursuit of individual selfishness inexorably leads to Pareto-optimisation (much as the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would inexorably lead to the peace and plenty of the People’s Paradise). Rather than reexamine that geocentric premise, Americans need an explanatory theory for the precarity, anxiety, and general decline in living standard that now bedevil their communities and their families.

The obvious (and fairly simple) explanation above is, for most residents of America, as unthinkable as Copernican astronomy was to a Ptolemaic scholar. Fear of the success (and the subsequent excesses, blunders, and corruption) of the Soviet model has been drilled into the American public for generations — to the point that most are unable to distinguish between, say, public health care and Stalinism. Any analysis of current events that involves any mention of class and wealth is heresy and anathema, tainted with the indelible red dye of Communism.

Enter the Ptolemaic model. Clearly there’s some kind of collusion or conspiracy going on, some capture of government, because the government has lost the mandate of heaven and is not taking care of the people as disaster follows disaster. But to suggest that the power of capital has captured the government, or that the “democracy” on which Americans pride themselves has devolved into an oligarchy focused on mutual back-scratching rather than the public good… that would be Socialism-speak, which is forbidden.

So the Ptolemaic explanation for the social ills of late capitalism is an elaborate fictional conspiracy; and like all explanatory theories built on a false premise it necessarily becomes increasingly ornate, multiplying entities and special cases with enthusiasm (or desperation) over time as its predictions go unrealised. It takes a significant contortion of reason and perception to believe that the entire Democratic Party of the US — indeed the entire liberal/progressive establishment — are working in concert to cover up the mass kidnapping, sexual abuse, and exsanguination of young children.

It takes a similar contortion to believe that school shootings are all faked, or that the entire national health establishment is in on a sinister plot to inflict autism on the nation’s kids. It takes a tremendous effort of belief at this point, to maintain that the Covid-19 pandemic is a fiction and a scam. And yet there are Americans on Covid care wards who go to their deaths railing and ranting that the disease is a fake, a liberal plot, a Scam-demic. That takes a tremendous act of faith.

The kind of faith, perhaps, demonstrated by the old joke about a fellow who bought some Patented Lion Powder to repel lions from his neighbourhood in London. “You ninny,” said his friend, “You’ve been had!” “So I have not,” retorted the happy purchaser: “Have you seen any lions hereabouts lately? Well, then.”

For QAnon adherents, if something is in the conventional news that means it is fake; and if something is not reported on, that means it’s true. The reason there’s no media trail on the alleged disappearances of tens of thousands of children is because of a vast cover-up; and the reason there is coverage of a mass school shooting, is because it’s a black op aimed at delegitimising gun ownership. The belief system is unassailable, unfalsifiable — which would disqualify immediately any theory proposed in peer-reviewed science. As more and more incongruent information has to be denied, ever-grander networks of conspiracy are required to explain all the apparent contradictions.

These contortions — these deformations of perception and logic — are structurally similar to the increasingly loopy (literally) mathematics of the Ptolemaic establishment. As more and more observational data confound the narrative of the status quo ante (the American Dream), more and more elaborate theories must be invoked to explain why the prevailing dogma (American Exceptionalism, white supremacy, laissez-faire capitalism and “free” markets) is not delivering on its promises.

The dogma itself cannot be questioned; so the only alternative is to build fantastical air-castles of conspiracy. During the Stalinist era, if any factory or collective farm failed to meet its production quota, the shortfall was blamed on a conspiracy of capitalist saboteurs: the theory and practise of forced collectivisation could not be questioned. One strong talking point of the early Nazi movement was the “Dolchstoss Theory” which explained away the inconvenient truth of Germany’s humiliating defeat in WWI: there was a sinister and widespread conspiracy (led by Jews, of course) to betray the nation from within. That Germany’s war could have been a major geopolitical own-goal was not thinkable. Hardline proponents of the fossil industry are quick to claim that all 10,000 or so reputable climate scientists who warn us of the dangers of carbon emissions are part of a vast “Red/Green” conspiracy to destroy capitalism and bring America to its knees.

Fast forward to today: if Trump did not deliver on his grandiose campaign promises, it can only be because a vast, inconceivably powerful cabal of liberals and Democrats — the Deep State — sabotaged his every move. If Trump lost the 2020 election, it can only be because the election was rigged in a vast, nation-wide conspiracy of state officials, voting machine manufacturers, and the US Post Office.

Occam would ask, which is the simpler and more likely explanation? Which requires less elaboration? Which multiplies entities unnecessarily? The simpler, more likely explanations are that forced collectivisation was a bad move, Germany’s precipitation of WWI was a bad move, the climate scientists are almost certainly right, Trump made whopping campaign promises like many another politician with no intention of keeping them, and Trump simply lost the election.

But for large numbers of people now, as in Galileo’s time, heliocentrism is off the menu.

To the bewildered observer from the “reality-based community” it appears that where we go one, we go mad. But mad in a very recognisable way, a way that recurs throughout history, deeply baked into human nature — a persistent unwillingness to grasp Occam’s Razor and use it appropriately.

QAnon’s ever-morphing, ever-elaborating, interlocking kaleidoscope of self-referential conspiracy theories is the Ptolemaic astronomy of our time. Let us hope it never becomes the official dogma of an authoritarian national government and we put no more Galileos in the dock… although there are straws in the wind that suggest there may already be new Scopes Trials and academic purges on the horizon, at least in selected states.

The long view is (so far) moderately reassuring. Astronomy survived geocentrism. Soviet biology, after long struggle and much tragedy, survived Lysenkoism. The US space program has survived raucous denial of its achievements. The John Birch Society did not convince most people not to vaccinate their children against polio, despite its wild claims about
“monkey serum.”
It remains to be seen whether American democracy can survive its present absurdities, and the wild Ptolemaic contortions of our current conspiracy addicts will one day be no more than a curious footnote.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store