Saturday, December 01, 2007

Privilege vs. Availability

Conspiracy theories are all the rage, but most of their followers know quite little about a surprising convergence in their origins. The Unidentified Research Center, a conspiracy theory think-tank thought to be based in Roswell, New Mexico, has been churning out conspiracy theories for the last sixty years or so.

Think of your favorite conspiracy theory. Chances are, the URC was behind it, at some point in the stage: conception, composure, fabrication, or cover-up. Only now, in celebration of their sixtieth anniversary, is URC actually opening up. 2000 lucky entrants will be taken on a guided tour of the facilities of "Area 51," the URC's main headquarters. Sign up now, with a $50 deposit, for your chance to win this exclusive once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! You won't want to miss it.


Conspiracy theories provide an interesting example of the difficulties we encounter in perception. They are, almost exclusively, about the bias of privilege, that we can see or learn about something that no one else knows.

Beyond the fun we can have talking about conspiracy theories, though, there is another interesting issue. From the handout we received on "Biases Affecting Information Processing" (found online at, a different bias often directly conflicts with Privilege: Availability. One bias postulates that we want the accessible information, while the other postulates that we want the inaccessible information.

Can these be resolved? Or can only one of them impact us at any given time? Perhaps if we work to reduce the influence one of these biases has on us, we only dig ourselves deeper into a rut on the other one. Can anyone offer any insight into this contradiction?

And especially, can anyone provide any (personal) examples?


SamE said...

By the way, the URC doesn't exist; I just made up both of those paragraphs off the top of my head.

Just to fuel your thinking, here is a brief list of major conspiracy theories:

1) The Roswell UFO incident. In 1947, a "flying disc" (later identified as a weather balloon) was discovered on a ranch north of Roswell. Thirty years later, some of the remaining Roswell locals told interviewers that there had been aliens who landed near Roswell, and that a massive cover-up had taken place. This led to, among other things, to several books, on both sides of the issue.

SamE said...

2) Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code. If you haven't read it, I shouldn't "spoil" the entire novel, but if you have read it, you already know the main points. Just in case you didn't already know, it's not real. Almost all of the interpretations and many of the facts are merely fictional, although some people tend to see them as nonfiction. It's a conspiracy theory like the rest.

SamE said...

3) As we discussed in the senior history classes this Friday, conspiracy theories surround Pearl Harbor, centered on the question of whether FDR, or the government, knew about the Japanese attack but did nothing. New information released recently has fueled the debate, and much of it centers on whether the US had broken the Japanese codes at that point.