Recently readers at OEN have been treated to a first-hand view of the phenomenon described by psychologists as "patternicity." Today, and over the past months there have been a series of articles, comments and links focusing on the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
It seems that someone noticed that photographs of the collapse of the towers looked a lot like, well, those videos we've all seen of the controlled demolition of old buildings. One moment the building is standing, the next we see some puffs of smoke, the upper parts of the building begins to buckle and fall with the collapse progressing as additional charges are exploded in an engineered sequence of detonations. Prior to the demolition, crews weaken the structure and strategically place the charges to cause the building to collapse inward of its own weight as key points of support are exploded. When the dust clears all that remains is rubble.
In the WTC collapse, the structure of the upper floors initially withstood the impact of the jetliners, but the intense fire caused the steel supporting the weight of the floors above the fire to fail; the enormous mass of the falling debris slammed into the floor below and caused it to buckle and focus the full force of the falling material on successive floor spans below in a rapidly accelerating cascade of destruction. In the following hours and days, with growing horror, rage, and grief, we all watched it replayed in photos and films shot from every angle. We experienced the disaster vividly over and over and over.
It was an awful event, in the truest meaning of the word, and exactly the sort of event that triggers the patternicity that is the root cause of people believing things that are ultimately not true. Writing in Scientific American, Michael Shermer says, "Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it "patternicity," or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise."
Once a conspiracy theory gains traction, adherents continue to build the case by selectively gathering congruent information, and ardently dismissing contradictory evidence. Cognitive Dissonance make believers feel very uncomfortable when confronted with new information that does not comport with their belief.
The conspiracy belief is further reinforced by social agreement as believers persuade others. You can easily see this phenomenon in the OEN conspiracy articles and comments. Believers use pejorative language to discredit dissent, and form a choir of agreement around sympathetic opinion. But that's all it is, opinion with patternicity artifacts as "proof."
There is a certain paranoia that makes non-believers suspect. (I will surely be accused of perpetuating the conspiracy because of opinions expressed here.)
In the 1950's Major Donald Keyhoe published books asserting that Flying Saucers were real, and conspiracy theories flourished that our government had been take over by space aliens and was keeping the grim truth under wraps. Some of these theories persist today, though few people now are anything but amused at the belief.
We, as humans, presume that we are more logical than we truly are. We rarely think much about how we come to know something. Seldom does new understanding proceed logically, at least at first. Initially we form a tentative idea or a concept. This idea becomes an organizing principle, something to guide the process of perception and action. When we act on our concept we get new data, a kind of reality check for our idea. Based on this we revise or update the concept keeping what is useful and discarding what is not. We move ahead in an ongoing cycle of concept, action, observation, and concept revision.
This process works pretty well so long as observations are objective. When inconsistent observations are shunned, all sorts of mischief happens. The law, science, and philosophy all institutionalize practices that seek to ensure objectivity. But among conspiracy true believers, no negative proofs are credible. So people end up believing really weird things.