The Rule of Three, the Allure of Seven
In Eliezer Judkowsy’s fan fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the politically astute wizard Lucius Malfoy reveals to his heir, Draco, “the Rule of Three, which was that any plot which required more than three different things to happen would never work in real life.” Draco’s stern but supportive father then, “further explained that since only a fool would attempt a plot that was as complicated as possible, the real limit was two.”
There are lots of Rules of Three, but Judkowsky, a very inventive writer known in fanfiction as Less Wrong, probably invented this one about evil plots. Still it makes sense that the more complicated a plot, or conspiracy, the less likely that it will succeed. And in some cases success requires that the plot never become common knowledge, so the more conspirators necessary, the lower the chances of secrecy.
Complication involves more than the number of steps, of course. I used to rehearse plays where dozens of actors performed thousands of lines and hundreds of stage directions on cue every night with nary a stumble. Sometimes we had an orchestra for singing and dancing, too. Theatre is a sort of a conspiracy to influence the audience, and everyone in a production is deathly afraid of falling short at that effort. Over the course of rehearsals, we become a highly invested conspiracy-of-the-willing.
So some conspiracies-of-the-willing are easy to believe. In his Xanth novels, Piers Anthony wrote about the Adult Conspiracy in which adults concealed the truth about sex from children. In certain circles we talk about oil company hacks like Daniel Yergin as if they were part of a conspiracy to deny energy depletion, and in other circles we talk similarly about Senator James Inhofe and climate change. Clearly the mainstream media is carefully managing the release of information to benefit a de facto oligarchy. But that sort of conspiracy is vastly different from the type where men in black suits are responsible for everything that happens.
These MIB conspiracies are seductive, except that to be successful they become so intricate as to beggar belief. For years Rush Limbaugh ran the rumor that the Clintons had arranged the death of their former colleague and aide, Vince Foster. His listeners wanted to believe anything bad about the Clintons. Many people follow stories about UFOs, chemtrails, Obama’s birth certificate and the like because, well, “the truth is out there.”
In the non-fiction world, we often look to Occam’s Razor to distinguish between conspiracies that might be true and conspiracies that we want to be true. John Michael Greer recently reminded his readers of his book, The UFO Phenomenon, where he argues that most UFO sightings seemed to correspond with the Air Force testing new equipment.
A few days ago, Dmitry Orlov reposted an article by Paul Craig Roberts, called 9/11 After 13 years. Roberts’ article is a litany of suspicions and conspiracy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center, the framing of Osama bin Laden, the anthrax letters and the Patriot Act legislation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the reported killing of bin Laden. Roberts claims that the Seal Team that pretended to kill an already dead bin Laden were all sent to their deaths soon afterwards, but someone claiming to be ‘the Shooter’ was interviewed by Esquire last year about his crummy retirement package.
I happened to also run across Roberts as a coauthor of what Econbrowser’s Menzie Chinn calls, The Stupidest Paragraph in Perhaps the Stupidest Article Ever Written. Several economists have taken that article to task. and many have criticized coauthor John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics. Shadowstats was a pet website of Matt Savinar, who used to run Life After the Oil Crash before he shut that down to start North Bay Astrology.
As World Trade Center Building #7 was not struck by a jet, and thus was not supplied with a potent accelerant, its unchecked burning, structural failure and collapse has become a focal point of 911 conspiracy theories. One video of the ultimate collapse of the 47 story WTC 7 looks strikingly similar to videos of controlled demolition, leading many to conclude that it could only be a controlled demolition.
I commented at Club Orlov that in the CNN video that Roberts cited, architect Richard Gage speaks about the many WTC 7 columns that failed, but never addresses the very unusual transfer and cantilever structure supporting the lower floors of WTC 7 over the Consolidated Edison power station. I am not an engineer but I at least understand that WTC 7 was not a redundant structure with a forest of axially-bearing columns. Such a structure is much more resistant to cascading failure than cantilevered columns or columns resting on transfer beams, themselves resting on a few frames.
I also noted that from a non-technical viewpoint, taking down WTC 1 & 2 – the famous Twin Towers – was the visceral image the hijackers wanted, and was seen around the world. There certainly was a conspiracy to damage the towers, and I suspect Saudi Arabia provided funding. But what reward, I asked, justified the risk of smuggling thermite explosives into the relatively obscure WTC 7? And if taking down WTC 7 made sense, why did they not take down the taller building at 3 World Financial Center, or that entire neighboring complex as well?
Is the theory that conspirators knew that substantial debris would hit WTC 7 and cause fires, and that they knew the fire fighters would have no water, so they could demolish it with impunity? Or is the theory that conspirators were so dumb that they planned to take down a building that may have been completely undamaged had the debris fallen somewhere else?
The only answer I got – from another commenter – was bluster and the logical fallacy of Shifting the Burden of Proof.
As I see it three different things happened: intelligence briefings were ignored, flight crews were overcome by fanatics and jets were flown into three out of four targets. And that would be hard to believe if it hadn’t happened. To believe that countless more actors were involved smuggling and installing thermite and detonators in three enormous buildings invokes the Razor if not the Rule of Three.
I’m not claiming that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wouldn’t do something like that; I simply don’t believe they were competent enough to conceive of it, pull it off and keep it a secret. They clearly took advantage of it, though. Whether bin Laden was really behind it or not is another matter. Whether he was really killed in Pakistan is another matter, too. Either of those could have been faked.
We in the Peak Oil community frequently cite Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. We talk about collapse as the logical extension of energy depletion, not the result of a conspiracy. We talk about Climate Change as the logical result of the runaway release of carbon, not chemtrails. So why do we need to resort to conspiracy theories to explain one event in which citizens of an oil-rich region push back against an oil-based empire?
At the Age of Limits conference, John Michael Greer reiterated his opinion that believing in an impending apocalypse is a mark of hubris, a desire to feel that we are so special that the world will end with us. I feel the same way about conspiracy theories. We like to feel that a conspiracy is out to get us because it is easier than realizing that the world is ridiculously complex and that while we may be in the way of larger forces, we are practically insignificant to them.