Monday, May 31, 2010

Preliminary Sketches for the Cognitive Study of Conspiracy Theorising

The following sketches result from the course Ritual and Magic in early Judaism and early Christianity held in the University of Helsinki from March till the beginning of May 2010 by István Czachesz and Risto Uro. Even though the course, concentrated on ritual and magic from the cognitive perspective, was as good as I have come to expect of courses in Helsinki, I felt I was unable to get a real grasp of the big picture. There were various scholars with theories. They utilized data collected by cognitive psychologists to explain religious practices; hence the name cognitive science of religion. But some of the theories and individual ideas were clearly overlapping – different titles for the same phenomenon. Sometimes I merely thought there must have been some commonality, but nothing was clearly spelled out. No wonder that Aku Visala – whose dissertation Religion Explained? A Philosophical Appraisal of the Cognitive Science of Religion ( includes a useful general outline of the CSR movement – confesses in Acknowledgments that “[i]t took me about a year to realise what was going on in the cognitive science of religion, another year to find out a way to approach it”. In this regard I still have approx. nine months to go on clueless.

For starters, however, I wanted to read a single treatise on the subject, a single work that would let me see just how the cognitive approach really clicked when applied to a massively complex phenomenon like religion. Of the alternatives I chose Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors (2001) with a clear goal in my mind, to try and push the cognitive approach into an interrelated, equally complex phenomenon known as conspiracy theorising i.e. postulating conspiracies behind (usually) events of significant consequences. Following John Dewey and especially Thomas Kuhn, this method is the preferred way of training a new generation of scholars; simply make them try and imitate their predecessors, and they will quickly catch up, and develop their approach into new directions. For this essay I will first summarise Boyer's work, and then apply its method to a select few conspiracy theories, with a little bit of help from the psychologist Michael Shermer, who gets a brief mention in Boyer's book (Boyer 2001, 384), and who is about the only one who has begun to utilize cognitive approach in the study of conspiracy theorising. Various other works that have been brought to my attention during the course on ritual and magic will also be mentioned when relevant.

Summarising Boyer in one paragraph, he takes as his starting point the notion that the human mind consists of numerous modular inferences systems activated and deactivated depending on the information the brain receives. Religious thinking utilises these inferences systems, but they would continue to exist even if religious concepts did not. Consequently, religious concepts are parasitic in nature, though it would be a misunderstanding to take the word negatively – religious concepts are parasitic just like “[o]ur capacities to play music, paint pictures or even make sense of printed ink-patterns on a page are also parasitic” i.e. all of these benefit and depend on the existing inferences systems. (Boyer 2001, 357) Religion is also the probable outcome from the manner these inferences systems work. This origin of religious concepts explains easily why they are relatively similar all over the world, as we will see.

In the first chapter Boyer summarises the earlier attempts to explain religious behaviour and thinking. All of these have one thing in common: a belief that “there must be a single factor that will explain why there is religion in all human groups”, a single 'magic bullet' that gives the precise explanation for everything religious. (Boyer 2001, 56-57) Even though scientific enquiry favours theories that have less moving parts – the principle of Occam's razor – there is a line where the suggested explanations become too simplistic and lose their explanatory power. Religious concepts employ multiple mental modules and, consequently, require multiple interrelated explanations before their true power becomes fathomable. It seems that we humans have a tendency, following the philosopher Robert Nozick, to prefer hidden hand scenarios, where a single unifying principle is sought to explain a given phenomenon. (Boyer 2001, 343) It feels unintuitive to accept that no one explanation will suffice, but to unintuitiveness the scholar's mind must be trained – most phenomena in scientific discourse are not adequately dealt with only one all-embracing cause.

Following Boyer, I should also make a brief sketch of the earlier attempts to study conspiracy theorising. From the 1960s onwards scholars in the field of cultural studies like David Brion Davis and especially Richard Hofstadter began to write about conspiracy theories. Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) is considered a classic. In this essay conspiracy theorising is approached as a style, rising from feelings of alienation and helplessness of the pathologically paranoid. The paranoid theorist views history in both apocalyptic and dualistic terms. The enemy, the core group behind the conspiracy, comes off as an almost divine force; no amount of negotiation will do. The paranoid style breaks loose in the conspiracy theorist's refusal to allow any possibility for error or confusion in the reality – instead, every detail must be placed into a rational order. After Hofstadter the conspiracy theory studies were dominated by sociological and psychological approaches. In the turn of the millennium a backlog of fine studies appeared, including Jodi Dean's Aliens in America (1998), Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories (1999), Paranoia Within Reason edited by George E. Marcus (1999), and Peter Knight's Conspiracy Culture (2000). Of the recent treatises I should mention David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories (2009) and Arthur Goldwag's Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (2009), an encyclopedic treatment of all things conspiratorial. Some of the aforementioned authors have had something to say of the cognitive approach to their subject, but as Fenster comments in a recent interview, uncharted terrains “include insights from social and cognitive psychology, social history, extensive ethnographic research, and from comparisons across culture as well as time”. (Rorotoko's cover interview on May 21th, 2010 at

In the second chapter Boyer tries to describe the supernatural, a key concept in the discussion of religion. His analysis concludes that a supernatural concept breaks down ontological categories, our intuitive understanding of the proper nature of objects, whether they are HUMAN, ANIMAL, PLANT, ARTIFICAL (man-made), or NATURAL (mountain, river, tree, etc.). A statue (artificial) that sheds tears (belongs to human) breaks its ontological category. A mountain (natural) that digests (human) does likewise. Spirits can be viewed simply as HUMANS that do not age or die, both non-human traits. Furthermore, Boyer and Justin Barrett have tested the effect of breaking ontological categories, and concluded that exactly one violation makes the concepts and stories more memorable that if they were simply “odd” without the single violation. The power of the ontological categories lies in the fact that they bring to our mind numerous inferences without much effort i.e. when we observe that we are dealing with a HUMAN, we will automatically infer that she possesses the whole cognitive apparatus, and will have intentions, thoughts, plans, and will be able to remember what we are saying, etc. With the supernatural these inferences come just as easily. It is worth noting that the religious traditions always posit the human cognitive apparatus to supernatural entities; there are no gods that do not remember what they observe, no spirits that are not in interaction with others, and no talking trees that are in existence only when no one is looking at them.

Following Boyer, some considerations regarding the terminology should be made here. What are we talking about when we conjure the phrase conspiracy theory up? Conspiracies certainly do exist; of that there is no doubt. According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary ( a conspiracy is simply “the act of conspiring together” and “an agreement among conspirators”; “a group of conspirators”. There is no need to draw a complete chronological list of all the secret bandings between people, and their (usually) politically motivated effort to change the order of things, for they range too far and wide from the assassination of Julius Caesar to the Gunpowder Plot in the 17th century England to the recent Campaign Financing Scandal in Finland.

A much more modern phrase, conspiracy theory can be traced only to the end of the 19th century. A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” according to Merriam-Webster, and “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties” according to Oxford English Dictionary (where it was included only in 1997) are neutral descriptions. In popular speech the conspiracy theory is more multifaceted than the dictionary entries give it credit for. It can be used to describe a mild alternative interpretation of a particular chain of events, as well as an extremely bizarre alternative reality. For an example, the former happens when the Persian Gulf War is renamed to “the Oil War”, or attention is drawn to the fact that democratically elected leaders receive most of their information through civil servants who remain in their positions regardless of the election results (so-called Shadow Government Conspiracy). The latter actualises when the former BBC journalist David Icke depicts the elite all over the world as belonging to a race of shape-shifting reptilian humanoids, who originated from inside the hollow Earth, or when the late Michael Jackson is claimed to be still alive, that he is in fact La Toya Jackson, the fifth child of the Jackson family, having been his alter ego for years even before his “death”. The variety found among the conspiracy theories leads me to question if there is any sense in placing all of them under a common label. Furthermore, conspiracy theory is regularly used pejoratively, to deny the factuality of a belief thought as inconceivable if not downright crazy. The situation is complicated even further by scholars who have wished to retain the term for a specific usage. George Johnson, to take but one example, has used conspiracy theory in Architects of Fear (1983) to describe a construction that is based on certain methodological flaws.

It is well-known that the concept of religion is virtually impossible to describe without closing some traditions intuitively understood as “religious” out. With conspiracy theories we will most likely have to succumb as well; various conspiracy theories cannot be mapped out without the concept of family resemblance i.e. all of them are related to some other theories, but no essence, common to all of them, can be found. On the other hand, Boyer does not problematise the concept of religion. He has chosen a cast of religious traditions, and uses them repeatedly to illustrate his points – the Kwaio of the Solomon Islands and the Fang people of Cameroon. It feels like a good idea to choose some particular conspiracy theories for furthering the discussion. Let us begin with the following duo: Prieuré de Sion as a historically orientated conspiracy theory, and 9/11 as a conspiracy theory tied to a ground-breaking event (at least from the perspective of the Western world). To summarise these theories into one sentence each, Prieuré de Sion is a clandestine organisation created during the first crusade to place a descendant of Jesus to the throne of united Europe (basic text: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln), while 9/11 refers to the terrorist attack in New York in 2001 that was organised by the U.S.A. government, executed by the CIA (basic text: Loose Change (the documentary) that was directed by Dylan Avery in 2005).

The conceptual difficulties with conspiracy theory remain to be solved at some other time. We will still be able to follow Boyer and ask if the ontological categories are violated in conspiracy theories. Which one of the aforementioned categories is activated here? From Richard Hofstadter onwards it has been noted that the body of conspirators is viewed as an almost divine force, almost omnipotent and omniscient entity. This suggestion holds true in all of our test cases: Prieuré de Sion's behind-the-scenes existence for centuries, the CIA's ability to pull off a large-scale strike against its own while transferring the blame to a third party with no one blowing the proverbial whistle holds an almost supernatural aura over the actors. Are these actors placed into the HUMAN category? A concept invented by the anthropologist Larry Hirschfeld, naïve sociology, comes to the rescue. According the Hirschfeld the human mind is ill-equipped to handle complex interactions inside a social group, thus we intuitively think that social groups have intentions, desires, and other human features – the Church teaches, the committee suggests, this ethnical group holds that, etc. Naturally, any church and any committee consists of individual human minds with human features, and the collective itself does not have any – we just treat them as if they had (Boyer 2001, 288-291) Consequently, the correct ontological category for the body of conspirators is definitely HUMAN, whether they are secret societies, governments let loose, or aliens from another worlds.

The abundance of the word “almost” in the preceding paragraph gives the conclusion away. While religious concepts contain a violation of the ontological categories, conspiracy theories come close but do not go all the way. Boyer himself concludes that “the popular version of aliens – they have knowledge we do not possess, they have counterintuitive properties, they have huge powers (give or take the occasional aeronautical mishap) – would make them very similar to most versions of supernatural agents.” (Boyer 2001, 190) At the same time there are differences. Conspiracy theories certainly resemble religions and agents in the conspiracy theories resemble religious, supernatural agents, but only some of the dimensions of religion can be found in conspiracy theories. Following Boyer we could, at most, conclude that conspiracy theories are ersatz-religions in some, but not in all aspects.

The above consideration – that there is no adequate description for the concept of conspiracy theory for the field is too large and too varied, and that conspiracy theories, as opposed to religious concepts, do not violate ontological categories – can be challenged in a number of ways. Even though no one worships the Ickean shape-shifting reptilians, some cults do worship visitors from other worlds, come up with rituals for them and let them effect their personal day-to-day lives, as Boyer, too, agrees. (Boyer 2001, 190) Michael Shermer, on the other hand, juxtaposes “souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention” without distinguishing between them in any way – all are entities with “power and intention”. (Shermer 2009a, 36) The historian Robert Goldberg holds that the “conspiracy thinkers constitute a community of believers”. (Bower 2009, 11) I am inclined to speculate that conspiracy theorising, as Boyer thinks of doctrinal religions i.e. religions with a clear-defined dogma (Boyer 2009, 305), results from a chain of peculiar historical incidents and is not the rule; in the long run ordinary religions will still win the race. For now we will agree that it is still reasonable to distinguish between religions and conspiracy theories, even if the actors they posit share some striking similarities.

Boyer's third chapter lays down the basics of his understanding of the cognitive processes. The Brain, a machine that thinks, contains a myriad of inferences systems that are activated and deactivated depending on the information the brain is fed with. A particular human characteristic is the possibility of decoupling cognition i.e. the inferences systems can work even if the information used is known to be fictional – we have the ability to imagine possible worlds, and still draw inferences from our imagining. Examples of these systems, under the folk biology category, are the intuitive understanding that species have a permanent essence (it is “catness” that makes the cat a cat), the intuitive understanding that ANIMALs (including HUMANs) have intentions, the face-recognition system, and the contagion system that keeps us away from potential dangers through emotions of fear and disgust. No further comment is warranted; we have to begin from the assumption that at the intuitive level the conspiracy theorist's brain functions similarly to every other brain, just as Boyer assumes.

Finally, in chapter four Boyer gets some highly useful stuff nailed down. Religion is practical for we tend to use and interact with gods and spirits in connection with significant events. Citing Stewart Guthrie's anthropomorphic tendency – that our most natural inclination is to interpret environmental cues in human terms, including supernatural agents that always have a human cognitive apparatus in religious traditions i.e. they understand, remember, and have intentions and desires – Boyer concludes that “[o]ur imagination naturally turns to human-like creations because our intuitive understanding of persons is just far more complex than our understanding of mechanical and biological processes”. (Boyer 2001, 163) He refers to Justin Barrett's suggestion of a mental module called Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), responsible for postulating agents behind all sorts of signs. In Barrett's mind there is a clear evolutionary reason for the hypersensitiveness of HADD: in the middle of a hunt it is more preferable to have the occasional false alarm than to undervalue the signs pointing to a potential hunter.

Strategic information is another core concept in chapter four. Differentiated from neutral information, strategic information is knowledge that is evaluated to be important in the human game of social interaction, in which case it triggers those inferences systems dealing with social interaction. Furthermore, it helps to explain the perseverance of agents produced by HADD. For humans the strategic information is always incomplete, whereas the supernatural agents have access to all of it. Consequently, inferences systems dealing with interaction on a personal level are activated. The concept of relevance, first proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, holds that those concepts that produce more intuitive inferences requiring less cognitive effort get passed around more. The supernatural agents fall into that category. In Boyer's words, “concepts that 'excite' more inference systems (or all of these) are more likely to be acquired and transmitted than material that less easily corresponds to expectation formats or does not generate inferences... because the way our brains are put together makes it very difficult not to build them”. (Boyer 2001, 187)

The chapter is heavy on theory, and some concrete examples are in order. First, I should note that Michael Shermer's concepts of agenticity and patternicity are yet other names for Guthrie's anthropomorphic tendency and Barrett's HADD. Patternicity is summarised as “the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”, agenticity as the “human inclination to postulate intentional agents behind the patterns extracted from the 'noise'”. (Shermer 2009a, 36) The same general idea is yet again duly documented in the psychologist Bruce Hood's SuperSense (2009). Let us now observe these mental modules in action:

As we pondered this sequence of events, we became increasingly convinced that there was some pattern underlying and governing such an intricate web. It certainly did not appear to be random or wholly coincidental. On the contrary, we seemed to be dealing with the vestiges of some complex and ambitious overall design... Were we in fact dealing with a calculated pattern? If so, the obvious question was who devised it, for patterns of such intricacy do not devise themselves. All the evidence available to us pointed to meticulous planning and careful organization – so much so that increasingly we suspected there must be a specific group of individuals, perhaps comprising an order of some sort, working assiduously behind the scenes. (Baigent 1983, 92, 94)

In the above quote Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln justify the existence of Prieuré de Sion behind various historical incidents. They have gone through an awful lot of historical detail, connected them to other historical details, and finally began to see some pattern in all of it. They are absolutely right in saying that the obvious question was who devised it, an obvious question rising from the mental modules handling the agency identification. Lest I be misunderstood, one thing should probably be said aloud: these mental modules are not conspiracy-theory-generating-systems in themselves. Every bit of data that our brains receive is more or less “noise” for it is the function of the brain to construct a coherent perception out of the data, and to effect a coherent placement of the individual into a relation with the world outside of the mind, i.e. the brain does not “see”, instead it builds a picture based on the data feed to it by the senses. The same mental modules are responsible for common survival in the world of information, and the paranoid style of postulating grand conspiracies behind incidents. In other words, some of the patterns our brain construes are, to take a naïve stance of scientific realism to the world, “real” while other patterns are “not real”. Likewise, sometimes our tendency to find agents “gets it right”, sometimes it does not. The epistemological questions are way out of the scope of this paper, but interested parties are directed to Brian L. Keeley's essay Of Conspiracy Theories (1999) and Charles W. Lidz's essay Conspiracy, Paranoia and the Problem of Knowledge (2006) for starters.

Consequently, Baigent et al. are using the exact same inferences systems that I use when I try to make sense of the compositional history of Markan gospel(s). I, too, go through an awful lot of historical detail, and make connections. I, too, begin to see a pattern at some point – a hypothesis of a possible historical reconstruction, if you will. Contrary to a conspiracy theorist, I maintain rigorously that the pattern I let my mind draw is acceptable by other scholars i.e. it conforms to the rules of the game, the scientific method (generally) and the historical method (more specifically), and the specialised methods used in the exact field of biblical studies (most specifically). I am able to do this – at least this is my sincere hope – because I have been trained to deal with nonintuitive i.e. scientific reasoning (to borrow the concept from Elisa Järnefelt), instead of the intuitive reasoning my brain is naturally attuned to, and the counterintuitive reasoning prominent in religious thinking. As McCauley and Lawson put it in Bringing Ritual to Mind (2002), “[h]uman beings' preoccupation with agent causality typically results in their underestimating both the influence of variables outside of agents' control and the role of the environment in shaping events around them”. (McCauley & Lawson 2002, 21-22) Under normal conditions we wish to find agent-centric explanations because of their intuitiveness. Receiving training in scientific thinking helps us to restrain this tendency. The brain, however, is still structured in the same way in both the historian's and the conspiracy theorist's head, and the same mental modules are activated.

In the end, only epistemological considerations dictate who will get published in academic journals, and who will get ridiculed as a crank. In the study of history there are limits to the available conclusions a historian is able to draw. Naturally, these limits are not set in stone – scholars in the margins of the Academia like Robert Eisenman, Barbara Thiering, Robert M. Price, etc. are constantly trying to move the boundary marker from the consensus position it happens to sit at any given moment; a necessity for the scholarship to continue moving on.

A similar pattern-agency inference happens with 9/11. When the conspiracy theorists have sorted out the available data, they have concluded that i.a. three skyscrapers collapsed even though only two were hit by planes, the words George W. Bush used soon after the second hit were ominously “apparent terrorist attack”, there were eyewitness stories including the sound of explosions, and rumours that the Muslims (or the Jews, or insert-an-ethnic-group-here) had been forewarned and stayed at home that day, etc. It does not really matter what kind of anomalies the conspiracy theorist comes up with. The inferences system dealing with patterns kicks in at some point, presumably (for I am unaware of any psychological test cases) the increased complexity makes the pattern creation easier – that would be, at least, my working hypothesis. If we view the conspiracy theorising as a paranoid style, as suggested by Hofstadter, then every single anomaly needs an explanation for every detail must be placed into an internally coherent, rational order. As noted above, the human mind is prone to postulate agency equipped with human cognitive apparatus. Such agent will have to have intentions and desires, an ability to calculate and to think ahead. With such cognitive tendencies it is small wonder that 9/11 has become one of the most cheered for conspiracy theory in the world.

One thing, however, cannot be adequately explained. If the pattern-agency inference produces deductions of intentional agents behind random occurrences, why is the culprit the government of the USA? What is wrong with the theory of Al-Qaeda Conspiracy – do we not have as much intentional agency there as we want? The answer to this particular question must be similar to the answer we will have to give to one of Boyer's examples. In chapter seven on rituals he poses the question why the Kham Magar of Nepal have an initiation rite for the new shaman in which the candidate tries to bite a ram's tongue. Why is he biting a ram's tongue and not a chicken's foot? (Boyer 2001, 265-266) The question is too precise. The cognitive approach at our hands can only be applied statistically, predicting likelihoods and general trends. Individual variations cannot be explained. For this reason it should be emphasised that the cognitive study of conspiracy theorising will not make other approaches meaningless. Our understanding will still increase when people continue to apply sociological theories, political theories, literary theories, etc. to the phenomenon. For this particular question we would do better to cite the fragmentation of reality or the “unmanageable reality” of the postmodern world (Knight 2000, 115-116, 135), and the increasing distrust regarding politicians (especially) and governments (generally), multinational corporations and the Academia (Goodman 2006, 360).

To end the discussion of Boyer's chapter four, a brief note on the concept of strategic information is in order. In Boyer's model, together with the concept of relevance, it explains the continued survival of pattern-agent inferences. What about conspiracy theories? We will begin by noting that not all of them are created equal. We react with much more seriousness to 9/11 than to the elven sock conspiracy, a notion that socks are actually larval coat hangers cultivated by the elves, a deduction drawn from the observation that while socks keep disappearing, coat hangers in closet keep multiplying. For supernatural agents the situation is the same. Gods and spirits are more believable than monsters, santas, or tooth fairies. Why is this so? According to Boyer those supernatural entities that have access to strategic information are intuitively perceived as more important than supernatural entities without access. Likewise, large-scale conspiracy theorising focuses on events with political, religious, or cultural importance. Hardly anyone is seriously interested in disappearing socks, or willing to invest much energy on developing a grand narrative out of them. Patrick Leman's research published in 2002 indicated that “people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging”. (Leman 2007, 36) He echoes Knight in speculating that we would rather live in a “predictable, safe world”, and that conspiracy theorising allows us to hold firm to this notion. Are there really conspiracy theories that make the world feel like a safe place? Highly debatable, I would venture to say.

In chapter five Boyer argues that religions are not needed for morality. Moral intuitions come early to humans, regardless of religious thinking, and only the availability of supernatural agents due to our cognitive tendencies brings about the connection between morality and religion. Since gods are equipped with human cognitions they are perceived to be interested in moral choices, and since they have unlimited access to strategic information they can always make the right judgement in any given situation – thus gods are naturally attached to morality. But enough of religion's connection to morality. Is this relevant for our discussion of conspiracy theorising? In the blur line between religions and conspiracy theories – aliens in governments / cultic worship of aliens / actual religious cults – there is a point when the conspirators are no more connected to morality. There is, however, a moral dimension in most of the conspiracy theories. Many adherents view themselves as noble and unselfish, altruistically aiming for the truth when the rest of the world keeps it eyes shut. Space does not allow an excursus to this topic, but Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories discusses the psychological roots of the “totalizing conversion” in conspiracy theorist's worldview.

The second part of chapter five deals with accidents. Boyer narrates an anecdote from Cameroon where he was instructed that “there was more than meets the eye” when something bad happened to people. (Boyer 2001, 219) Usually the accidents were effected by witchcraft. How come we begin to search for such explanations in the first place? Boyer suggests that “[s]ome events are such that they naturally suggest questions (Why me? Why now?) that are simply not answered in terms of ordinary causal processes”. (Boyer 2001, 225) The formulation of these questions creates a certain format for the possible answers – and the most intuitive answers, as we have seen above, contain intentional agents; John Gartner even claims that we can pinpoint the source for the feelings of reward after finding a pattern and ascribing agency behind it to a certain neurohormone, Dopamine. (Gartner 2009, 38) The importance of choosing valid research questions is highly emphasised in the study of history as well, where subtle changes in wording can lead to unforeseen consequences. In most of the standard methodological treatises the historical sources are opened-up only after the historian has posed her questions. (E.g. Kalela 2002, 92-97) Preceding questions and expectations direct attention and result in divergent readings.

In Boyer's model inferences systems responsible for social interaction become activated, and the possibility to use agency related systems in decoupling mode offers the framework for ascribing a supernatural agent behind the accident. Gods are equipped with great powers because they obviously need them to get the accidents to happen, while the stories featuring the great powers of gods assist in spreading this particular connection around. In the naturally suggested questions an event with significance elicits we have another partial answer to the question of popularity certain conspiracy theories enjoy compared to some others.

For the rest of Boyer's treatise the differences between religions and conspiracy theories become accentuated. Chapter six concludes that every religious tradition is interested in treating dead bodies for their encounter produces conflicting inferences, creating a state of dissociation in our cognitive system. Chapter seven talks about rituals, and Boyer concludes that they do not produce social effects. Instead, we think they do, for our intuitions following the aforementioned concept of naïve sociology cannot be put into words adequately, and we perceive only the event and the effect of social change it represents, leading to magical thinking, that the ritual is the cause and the social change the effect. Chapter eight demystifies the society. Humans have a cognitive tendency to form social groups. Religions are not required, nor do they have a major role in keeping the existing groups together.

Finally, in chapter nine Boyer weaves the threads together. From his cognitive perspective religions are the outcome of combined relevance, emerging for the functions of multiple inferences systems. What can we conclude of the cognitive basis of conspiracy theorising? Asking this question from Shermer, he views the concepts of patternicity and agenticity as central, but other factors are taken in as well: “Add to those propensities the confirmation bias (which seeks and finds confirmatory evidence for what we already believe) and the hindsight bias (which tailors after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.” (Shermer 2009b, 30) The process of conspiracy theorising would also need, as its starting point, Boyer's naturally occurring questions giving the format for the possible answers. Inside these lines the pattern-detection inferences can then begin their work. Shermer's mention of the confirmation bias, known also as the amplification illusion, and the hindsight bias needs a further refinement. Conspiracy theorists are not merely seeking strengthening evidence. In both our primary test cases, Prieuré de Sion and 9/11, the authors work hard to transform counterevidence to fit into their theory, thus making it ultimately unfalsifiable in Popperian sense. Consider, for example, the following quote.

According to the “Prieuré documents” Sion was an organization of considerable power and influence, responsible for creating the Templars and manipulating the course of international affairs. The references we found suggested nothing of such magnitudes.” (Baigent 1983, 165)

Is this the end? Of course not, for from scraps of contrived and highly speculative evidence Baigent et al. conclude that Prieuré de Sion was simply hiding behind various façades like La Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, different Masonic traditions (Scottish Rite, Oriental Rite of Memphis), even Le Hiéron du Val d'Or – it is, after all, supposed to be a secret society with great influence. The authors have morphed the counterevidence into supporting their reconstruction. How can one argue against such a construction? For 9/11 something similar happens. Modern conspiracy theorists are keen on quoting disinformation as the source of opposing arguments i.e. a counterargument is simply wrong, a deliberate attempt by the conspirators to hinder the search for truth. In the words of James H. Fetzer, a prominent conspiracy theorist, “[o]ne of the telling signs of many disinformation artists... is that a lot of their claims are simply too strong to be true”. (Fetzer 2001, 2) How can one argue when one's bad arguments are bad, while good arguments are “too strong to be true”?

Thus, with all of the above considered, we can tentatively sketch out the phenomenon of conspiracy theorising. A question following a significant event sets a format for the answer – pattern-recognising inferences system locates a pattern – agency-postulating inferences system posits an intentional agent behind the pattern – the confirmation bias keeps the counterarguments at bay – the hindsight bias together with paranoid style assures that no evidence is left from integration into the conspiracy theory. And for the last time, just in case. These inferences systems function in all human minds. Only epistemological considerations, complex political, religious, and cultural interactions with other human minds result in some of the possible reasonings being labelled as acceptable, and others as conspiracy theories.


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Shermer, Michael
2009a Agenticity. Scientific American 300, 36.
2009b Paranoia Strikes Deep. Scientific American 301, 30.

Visala, Aku
2009 Religion Explained? A Philosophical Appraisal of the Cognitive Science of Religion. PhD Dissertation for the University of Helsinki.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Concealed Neuroanatomy of Michelangelo

Neuroanatomists Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo propose in their new article Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo's Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel (Neurosurgery 66, 851-861) that Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) deliberately concealed a neuronanatomic structure in the Separation of Light From Darkness, part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Others remain sceptical. R. Douglas Fields wonders, with pictures, if this is merely another Rorshach test where "anyone can extract an image that is meaningful to themselves" - neuroanatomists spotting neuroanatomy.

Obviously, Clement's letter to Theodore is not the only academic debate where the existence of hidden messages is argued.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quote for the Day

While accepting a historical Jesus, the scholarship also tends to suggest that the search for him is a little like the search for the historical Sherlock Holmes: there were intellectual-minded detectives around, and Conan Doyle had one in mind in the eighteen-eighties, but the really interesting bits — Watson, Irene Adler, Moriarty, and the Reichenbach Falls — were, even if they all had remote real-life sources, shaped by the needs of storytelling, not by traces of truth. Holmes dies because heroes must, and returns from the dead, like Jesus, because the audience demanded it.

From Adam Gopnik's essay What Did Jesus Do? Reading and unreading the Gospels in The New Yorker.

Spotted at TaborBlog.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Doctoral Training Course: Some Further Thoughts

Last week I wrote down some live notes from a Doctoral Training Course organised by the Finnish Graduate School of Theology. Having just corrected some silly grammatical mistakes (not all of them as some sentences were just too weird to bother with, due to the high speed I had to produce text), I feel like writing down some further observations and clarifications.

There was a second day for the course with workshops and stuff, but that I couldn't attend. The first day with the general lectures was very interesting, and offered some good ideas I will have to put into use. Tiina Kosunen's talk regarding the academic portfolio was one that I liked. The idea of documenting one's competence in various fields and summarising it into a single portfolio is a good practice to follow. My initial despair - the urge to hit myself with heavy objects - was caused by the sudden realization that should I follow Kosunen's advice, I would have to allocate another month for doing something only remotely academic or interesting; an experience I have already had in January 2010, writing a perfect funding application that in the end has not yet had much success, if it ever will.

Theo van der Zee went through the process of getting a paper fit for publication, with enough detail and thoroughness that I have no further questions regarding the technical aspect. An ideological consideration, however, remains. In my relationship with the library of the department of theology in Helsinki University I have witnessed that prices for monographs and journals are high, while library budgets are tight. From my humble perspective the situation looks completely artificial. Libraries pay heavy sums to the publishers because there is no other option. Universities allocate heavy sums to the libraries because they need to obtain the necessary material for both students and faculty. Universities beg for funding, etc. From the amount of revenue the authors receive (judging from hearsay) one would think that the publishers are struggling to make the ends meet. And to add some insult to the injury, the end result manifests itself e.g. in prohibitions to quote (!) authors who are writing for different publishers. Next time you see a scholarly treatise where the author paraphrases an ancient text instead of offering a complete translation made by some other scholar, the reason may well be that the other scholar's publisher has denied the use of his or her translation.

The following questions bug me. If only some North American publishers have the resources to give a good peer-review process to a monograph and European publishers like Brill do not do this, how come the volumes are still so exorbitantly priced? If I wish to publish my own writing e.g. in this very blog, could my publisher forbid that? How can I combine the need to publish in peer-reviewed journals and my own conviction that information should not be kept restricted, an ideal promoted e.g. in the philosopher Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic (2001)? The last question could be solved by publishing in peer-reviewed open-access journals, but will that decision put me into an academic marginal, for good?

Returning to the training course, after the coffee break Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner was her usual overwhelming self, with lots of great ideas. Of the panel discussion I had time to listen to the first three opening speeches before heading to train some swordsmanship, giving me the impression that for the individuals who were not working as part of the academic community in its strictest sense (holding a position in a university), the advantage of having a PhD had only to do with one's own virtue, so to speak, with one's own development into the cultivated and cultured person one happened to be at the moment of the panel discussion. That in itself has to be worth something.

Last, I can't resist but congratulate the good sense of humour Kulervo exhibits in this comment:

You should bring your sword to future panel discussions of your work on Secret Mark. It will help keep the discussion civil. And if you need to run off to the salle again before the end, you can use it to cut the discussion short.

I mean that metaphorically of course. I just mean that you could wave your sword in the air and shout "I have to go now!" and they'll understand that you need to head off for practice.

In RL people have actually asked casually if I noticed the comment I received, for they had found it extremely funny. The humorous aspect is transcended further when one realises that the sword in question looks like this:

Just imagine waving that bastard sword around, a movement that, unsurprisingly, is not found in Fior di Battaglia, the early 15th-century manuscript used as the basis for the school's curriculum.

Next I am writing a short comment on the recent papers dealing with the handwriting in Theod.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Live Blogging A Doctoral Training Course

For a fun experiment, I am going to write down notes from a Doctoral Training Course of the Finnish Graduate School of Theology while attending the event. I have no previous experience of such gatherings, and as far as I know, anything can happen.

6th May, 2010

10:15 - Welcome to the Course

Mikko Ketola, Rope Kojonen, and Eeva Heiskanen welcome everyone, and give some details of the day; there's bound to be something for everyone. Ketola remembers to mention the sponsors. The course starts with a positive note - free coffee is served in the afternoon.

10:30 - Documenting Your Academic Competence

Tiina Kosunen, the speaker, is introduced both from the perspective of her CV and from the perspective of her portfolio. The portfolio feels a lot more comprehensive document of her competence than the CV, but it deliberately lefts some details out; e.g. Kosunen does not say anything of her ability to produce Swedish in writing, although she handles oral presentation quite well.

Why portfolio? Because, as Kosunen clearly states at the beginning, not everyone in the room will ever work with research questions in the university setting. One has to be able to express one's abilities outside this setting.

In practice:

1) Collect every document (course material you produce, columns, articles, contracts, email correspondence), etc.) in the basic portfolio, for your own use, so that you will have a good idea of what you have been doing.

2) Produce specialized individual portfolios from the material collected in your basic portfolio - teaching portfolio, research portfolio, administrative portfolio including computer skills - and finally, academic portfolio that includes everything above.

3) Everything should be summarized into 4-6 pages (plus appendices).

4) Academic portfolio is not a document of wishful thinking, of what I might become. However, compared to a bland CV, academic portfolio does include parts of self-reflection and analysis, and discussion of the future potential. If CV is a landscape, portfolio is a clearly focused photograph - some parts are deliberately blurred.

5) Academic portfolio contains references; list of publications and other relevant documents are included in appendices; stuff in the basic portfolio has to be made available upon request, and this fact should be mentioned in the portfolio.

6) Follow the instructions (titles, topics, maximum number of pages, etc.), if given!

7) Some good online references: google "Academic Portfolio"; "Documenting Evidence of Your Work"; "Documenting Academic Work"; "Developing a Portfolio".

Academic portfolio:

Personal information
Education (from the most recent backwards)

| Regarding research

Experience in academic context
Personal research philosophy
Important publications
Grades and awards
Other academic merits
Visions and plans

| Regarding teaching

Experience in teaching
Pedagogic principles and education
Skills with technology and producing material
Grades and awards
Experience in teaching assessment and development
Visions and plans
Other teaching experience

| Regarding administrative skills

Experience in administration
Experience in administration outside university setting
Positions in the society
Publications, presentations and popularizations


Emotion of the moment: wanting to bang head on the wall.

Discussion follows. How to include nursing leave? How to include work in the Church? Is it a good idea to summarize one's academic career in one or two sentences somewhere; Kosunen suggests beginning with an introductory sentence, or summarizing all at the end. Where to include positions of trust; Kosunen suggests that only relevant positions should be included.

12:00 - Lunch

A 45-minute block of piece and serenity. North African couscous salad, an apple and pure spring water, instead of the industrial tasting lunch at the local UniCafe. Piece of mind restored.

13:00 - International Publishing

Theo van der Zee begins with an introduction to the differences between Netherlands and Finland; it is very quiet here compared to the rest of the world, e.g. people speak with much less volume.

All of us are asked to write down a single question regarding international publishing. My question: How do I choose between journals, how do I find out which journals I should aim for with a particular article I have written?

Assumption in the beginning: I have something to tell to other scholars in my field. International (i.e. English-language) journals offer the most wide-spread forum for discussion. Monographs, even in the field of biblical studies, look like to be the thing of the past.

Design of an article:
0. Cover Page
1. Abstract
2. Introduction - Problem / Issue
3. Theoretical reflections - Diagnosis
4. Research Questions(s) and Hypotheses
5. Method - Design, Instruments, Population
6. Results
7. Conclusions and Discussion - not only a summary
8. References

Cover Page should be the only place with personal information; other sections get sent to referees. Abstract should include points 2-7 in the given amount of words. Under #7 should be discussed how the results corroborate with #3 and with other scholars' results and in practice. Focus of the article should be kept sharp, keeping it clear what are the new questions, new results, new conclusions, new contribution to the progress of science.

But wow, according to van der Zee historians (I am counting myself into that population at this moment) do not deal much with theoretical concerns, because - apparently though not explicitly stated - there is this single historical method, no fudging with this.

Now we come to my specific question: How to choose a journal? Simply put by van der Zee: Choose the journal(s) your colleagues are publishing in, because that is the forum you are having your discussion in, especially when the ranking of a journal is not really important in theological studies. After receiving a receipt that the journal has received your submitted article, the peer-review process commences. Based on the anonymous evaluations the editors of the journal decide between yes, probably, or no. The anonymous comments are sent to the writer, and in case of probably the article can be changed to get accepted for publication. It is a humbling experience; even senior scholars get their articles refused, for only a few papers get an immediate green light. Patience is required, as well. It will take at least six months for the paper to get published, if one is lucky. It is better to reserve 18 months for the process.

And just what kind of papers do various journals prefer? This really depends on the journal. The Journal of Empirical Theology headed by van der Zee has seven criteria by which it judges potential articles. Skipping the self-evident criteria the most important ones have to do with the focus of the journal, and if the potential article has some theoretical considerations for the field that belong to the focus of the journal. One more time: It all depends on the journal. Get to know the journals in your particular field, submit a manuscript after careful consideration, be patient.

Some do's from van der Zee

Submit to only one journal at a time
Submit only finished manuscripts
Wait patiently for the peer-review process to end
Keep yourself within journal guidelines

Some interesting discussion follows. The level of English is stressed; most people are encouraged to get professional help with the language, even writing in one's own mother tongue and getting it translated into English, not trying to do it themselves. Is the peer-review process really anonymous? Do letters of recommendation from eminent scholars help in publishing papers? No to the first one, yes to the second - though van der Zee himself stresses that he personally is not very amused with these letters of recommendation. Are the articles really replacing the monographs? Depending on the exact field, in biblical studies the monograph is still the rule; however, only the American publishers do have the resources to do a proper peer-review of a monograph.

14:30 - Coffee Break

Had the Ancients known coffee, we would call that the Medicine of Immortality.

15:00 - Dissertation as a Process

Emotion of the moment: Mmmm, good coffee. And the previous presentation was both interesting and useful, and not stressing in the least.

We begin the section with some general comments. Antti Marjanen heads the next year's doctoral training, feedback and ideas are welcome. Tapani Innanen advertises the benefits of a poster; training course in 2011, everyone aboard. The poster he has as an example looks like a mixture between a giant diagram and a placard, and yes - I have never heard of that before.

Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner talks about pursuing a PhD as a process. But first, The Chicago Manual of Style is essential in writing academic papers. Starting the actual presentation from historical considerations, the university began as an institution for producing civil servants, experts, teachers, and critical scholars. Even today a PhD should transform people into critical thinkers who are able to assess situations where clear solutions are lacking, able to defend arguments, able to take the big picture into consideration. How can we express these abilities so that others can see them, too?

It is necessary to know oneself

Skills relating to expressing
Skills relating to reasoning
Skills relating to time management
Technical skills
Language skills
Social skills

Group discussion follows (even though the auditorium is about as ill suited to this task as possible). Can I summarise my dissertation topic into two or three sentences, and relate it to some larger cultural phenomena? Yes, we can. I am dealing with an apocryphal gospel known as the Secret Gospel of Mark. The current context is the general interest in the apocrypha, which has lasted some two or three decades, and the fierce debate concerning the authenticity of the gospel fragment, a discussion that has been moving outside the boundaries of normal academic argumentation.

How can we verify the research process we have had, e.g. to get further funding after spending a year in a library? An article is probably the best option (even in non-academic publications, e.g. popularising accounts); giving presentations abroad, either in conferences or visiting a university is another good option (even if only writing a report of an international conference); seminar papers in one's own university are certainly adequate; one's university instructor could also write a convincing recommendation.

Last, it is a good idea to get as much feedback as possible. Anywhere, everywhere, all the time. As many people as one can convince to comment on one's texts and ideas. Maybe one should write a blog and hope for massive amounts of expert commentary?

Emotion of the moment: Overwhelming presentation, but absolutely interesting material.

Especially the end of the presentation, due to time running out, went fast-forward in warp 9.

16:30 - Panel Discussion

Hmmm, battery's running a bit low. In any case, I have to leave before the end of the panel, to get in time to the salle where I practice to become the world's best mediocre swordsman. Further analysis coming when I get some time to reflect.