Passages: How the World Works

My favorite news magazine, The Week, is celebrating 20 years of publication with its current April 16th issue, which has retrospectives of cover images, editorial essays, and so on. Here’s one of the latter, by editor-in-chief William Falk.

The U.S. government destroyed the World Trade Center and made it look as if terrorists did it. The CIA killed Kennedy. A secret cabal runs Wall Street and the world’s banks, cleverly manipulating the levers of finance for its everlasting enrichment. What these conspiracy theories all have in common is the presumption that the world is run by a small coterie of super-competent people — people so smart they make no mistakes and can hide their elaborate machinations from the rest of us. It’s a comforting belief, providing order in the place of chaos. but it’s not the way the world actually works. If you poke your nose into any large institution — government, medicine, universities, newspapers, Hollywood, major corporations — you’ll find that even the most successful of them is plagued by the same spasms of stubborn foolishness, shortsightedness, and rank incompetence that you and I see in our own lives every day. Even the smartest among us can succumb to periods of collective madness, in which people cannot see what is right in front of their eyes.

This is from 2008, on occasion of that year’s financial crisis. “…we now know this about the all-powerful that supposedly runs the world: It’s no smarter, or wiser, than the rest of us.”

This isn’t a link (or a Links and Comments post) because The Week’s site is relatively anemic; you cannot find each issue’s comments readily online. (You can by logging in with subscription ID, and then you can see entire issues in image format, but without links to each article.)

To me this is a general example of conspiracy thinking: how random events must be due to some cause, some agency, whereas in reality, the world is driven mostly by incompetence and chance.


From today’s Letters column in The New York Times. This does have a link: Letters: New Twists in the Abortion Debate.

I’ve made this point before, here eloquently stated:

Re “What Has the Pro-Life Movement Actually Won?,” by Ross Douthat (column, April 4):

The pro-life movement has failed to recognize a crucial fact: Abortion has always existed, even where laws ban it. No public censure, legislation or punishment, not even protection of the fetus under the 14th Amendment, would prevent all abortions.

But we do know how to reduce the number of abortions. Comprehensive and accurate sex education and easy access to contraception, including for teenagers, have been proved to reduce abortions. Many abortion opponents resist those programs.

According to Mr. Douthat, abortion opponents have begun to realize that their stance requires them to back policies that support pregnant women and the children they bear. This is a welcome change.

Even if those new policies were adopted, abortion is much too controversial and complex to be settled with a ban that would not actually eliminate the procedure. Instead, let’s devote more resources to preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Conservatives who think that by repealing Roe v. Wade they will eliminate all abortions are naive. Or simple-minded.

Another letter at the link has this passage (with useful links):

Not content with misinterpreting the Second Amendment by ignoring the word “militia,” conservatives are now prepared to misinterpret the 14th Amendment by ignoring the word “born.”

For those who retain qualms about abortion — again, it’s simplex thinking that an embryo becomes a human upon conception. It takes some 30 weeks before an embryo’s brain develops to enable the most basic thinking. (See chapter about this in Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions.)

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