Given all of the conspiracy theories bouncing around the net nowadays, I thought it would be timely to revisit Coyote's Law. Coyote's Law states:
When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by
- A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people -OR -
- Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence
To some extent, Coyote's Law is a logical extension of Occam's Razor. However, it seems to have consistent and frequent application in modern politics. Here are a couple of examples, but I am sure the reader can think of more:
There are a number of revisionist historians that make the argument that Pearl Harbor was actually an elaborate FDR plot to overcome domestic isolationism and bring the US into the war. They point to the many missed intelligence clues, the incredible unreadiness of the defenses at Pearl Harbor, and the missing US carriers as evidence of a conspiracy. However, most historians have concluded that Coyote's Law holds, that our failure at Pearl Harbor we the result of mistakes and incompetence, not conspiracy.
The mother of all conspiracy theory subjects is, of course, the JFK shooting. Many people simply refuse to believe that a lone gunman, and a fairly unimpressive one at that, could have pulled off such a killing. He must have had help from the Cubans, or the Mafia, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the grassy knoll, or whatever. Despite all the millions of hours of research into these theories, Coyote's Law still holds - it is much more likely that JFK was killed due to poor protection and the vulnerability of any one man to a sufficiently dedicated gunman who is not committed to getting away after the assassination (which, by the way, is still true).
To some extent, in both these cases it is a bit unfair to use the word "stupidity". I am reminded of a quote by Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if it was his actual words) in a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts. Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination". To some extent, that is what happened both at Pearl Harbor and with the JFK assassination, and, essentially, with the 9/11 attacks. What occurred was so new, so unprecedented, that no one could really make themselves believe in advance that it would happen. But, none-the-less, it resulted in incompetence, not conspiracy.
Which brings us to the 2004 election. Certainly, in this case, no one can claim a failure of imagination, as just about everyone half anticipated vote-tally screw-ups after Florida in 2000. However, in their review of conspiracy charges regarding election counts, this Caltech-MIT report has a fantastic restatement of Coyote's Law:
Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes?
EEEK! Frank Borman is the astronaut. I had Martin Borman, the Nazi. Sorry. (and yes, this mistake was due to my STUPIDITY and INCOMPETENCE, and not a Boys From Brazil conspiracy.