Tag Archive for 'Rational ignorance'


Conspiracy theories and the current market turmoil

A friend pointed me to this conspiracy theory video. I’ve not watched more than 30 seconds of this particular video, but according to discussion on the RANDI forums, I understand that it splices footage directly from a number of other conspiracy theory films into one, with all the greatest hits of the anti-establishment anarchist left being given a run (christians and/or jews are evil and secretly rule the world, 9/11 was a government inside job, the entire global banking system is a sham and run by bad people, etc).

Of more interest to me is this question, put to me by my friend:

Why are more and more of these conspiracy theories coming out in video format only, with no transcriptions?

Perhaps it’s to appeal to a wider audience (i.e. more people are willing to watch a movie than read the equivalent text). Perhaps it’s because a movie can more readily achieve an intense, even emotional, impact than abstract text. Perhaps it’s just another example of market demand and supply …

The real (as in true) explanations for what goes on tend to be considerably more complex and almost infinitely more tedious than those offered by conspiracy theorists. People seem to want answers, but aren’t willing to accept that they might be anything other than simple and exciting. Maybe that’s a result of today’s media culture of soundbite-driven news and action movies, but maybe it’s just an unfortunate consequence of otherwise rational ignorance. You can’t be an expert in everything (strictly speaking, it’s too costly), so you don’t waste your time trying and instead trust the summaries given by people you take to be experts.

As an example of the demand for simplified summaries, consider the recent turmoil on the world’s credit- and stock-markets. I have spoken to several people about the happenings and most of them aren’t the least bit interested in understanding the details of what’s going on. Instead, they only want to know if (a) the world is going to end (i.e. they’re going to lose their job or their pension savings are going to collapse) or (b) if it’s all been caused by evil, money-grubbing people deliberately destabilising the world for their private profit.

By my thinking, to really understand the current turmoil (I still refuse to call it a crisis), you need to understand the basics of:

  • How bonds work
  • The difference between long-term and short-term bonds
  • The difference between government and commercial securities
  • The fact that central banks announce a target interest rate rather than fixing it by fiat
  • Reserve requirements
  • Overnight inter-bank lending
  • How banks view loans to consumers (i.e. as assets)
  • Structured finance in general
  • CDOs in particular
  • Derivatives
  • Hedging and hedge funds
  • The difference between credit markets, stock markets and foreign exchange markets and how movements in each might affect the others
  • The carry trade

And that’s before you start considering the psychology of the people involved and all the resulting work in behavioural finance. Unless you’re seriously (and usually, professionally) interested in investment, finance or economics, why would you care about all of those details? You wouldn’t … you just want to know if the world is going to end and if there’s somebody to blame.

On the supply side of these nuggets of information, you have … well, you’re looking at one. Commentators, both professional (in the mainstream media) and self-appointed (in your local pub and all over the internet) are competing to convince you that they are experts in the topic at hand and having managed that, to provide you with their summarised opinions.

Suppose, however, that for some reason you can’t properly identify who is a real expert or you have some reason to distrust the experts you can identify. In that case, you’re left taking in the simplified views of non-expert subject-matter aficionados, of which a small but statistically-significant fraction are going to be conspiracy theorists. Insofar as they want to expand their customer base, conspiracy theorists (who, to be frank, are often less troubled by the truth than they are with attracting an audience) will experiment with their provision of service to best meet the demand for simple and exciting explanations. Thus, we have movies with no (tedious) transcripts.