Of conspiracy and irrationality…

Humans are hard-wired to discover patterns in the experiential world and make connections based on those patterns. An excellent article in The New York Times Magazine this week demonstrates what happens when we make those connections and then let emotion rather than reason guide our critical faculty. Lisa Belkin’s article, “The Odds of That,” is about how coincidence becomes conspiracy in feverish minds. The article also has much to say about our interaction with events and the media that portray those events. I found this section particularly interesting:

For decades, all academic talk of coincidence has been in the context of the mathematical. New work by scientists like Joshua B. Tenenbaum, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at M.I.T., is bringing coincidence into the realm of human cognition. Finding connections is not only the way we react to the extraordinary, Tenenbaum postulates, but also the way we make sense of our ordinary world. “Coincidences are a window into how we learn about things,” he says. “They show us how minds derive richly textured knowledge from limited situations.”

To put it another way, our reaction to coincidence shows how our brains fill in the factual blanks. In an optical illusion, he explains, our brain fills the gaps, and although people take it for granted that seeing is believing, optical illusions prove that’s not true. “Illusions also prove that our brain is capable of imposing structure on the world,” he says. “One of the things our brain is designed to do is infer the causal structure of the world from limited information.”

If not for this ability, he says, a child could not learn to speak. A child sees a conspiracy, he says, in that others around him are obviously communicating and it is up to the child to decode the method. But these same mechanisms can misfire, he warns. They were well suited to a time of cavemen and tigers and can be overloaded in our highly complex world. “It’s why we have the urge to work everything into one big grand scheme,” he says. “We do like to weave things together.

“But have we evolved into fundamentally rational or fundamentally irrational creatures? That is one of the central questions.”

Now there’s a provocative question. Here’s another: What happens when a fundamentally irrational creature gets news and political information from a medium–TV–that presents everything as episodic drama and entertainment? This article is a must-read. I’ll be assigning it to my students this semester.