• Dr Hugh Willbourn

#23 Cock-up, Conspiracy or Murmuration?

Updated: Aug 15


Photo by Paul Berry on Unsplash


Three of the most baffling mysteries of the last year and a half are:

  • Why have so many people consented to so much destruction of health, wealth, education and liberty?

  • How come “the science” is so unscientific and leading institutions, publications, professors and officials have become so partisan?

  • And above all how come all over the world so many Governments have behaved so badly, so often, for so long and in the same way?


At times it is very difficult indeed not to believe there is some ghastly conspiracy to impose a great reset and control us all for our own good. But can it really be true that there is a malevolent group of Bilderberger Billionaires sitting on enormous black leather chairs, stroking Persian cats and planning a Great Satanic Reset?


History offers us two theories of Government: cock-up and conspiracy. Cock-ups are fuelled by inexperience, incompetence and inadequate thinking. There are plenty of cognitive biases to fuel this theory.

In March 2020 I wrote that our problems were increasing because we had lost our psychological herd immunity.

In May 2020 I highlighted Leon Festinger’s marvellous study of a flying saucer cult, When Prophecy Fails. When people subscribe to a cult that prophesizes disaster but the disaster does not occur on schedule a sizeable number of them will become more fervent believers in imminent doom to buttress their own threatened belief system.

There are many more significant errors of thinking. For example in July 2021, at Question Everything Seminar, Luke Johnson mentioned

  • Groupthink

  • The Illusion of Control

  • Sunk cost fallacy

  • Bias for action &

  • Confirmation bias.

There are also plenty of reasons why a conspiracy is implausible. Conspiracy theories imply intelligence but what is most striking in the Australian and British Governments – to take a couple of random examples – is the lack of intelligence.

Surely a conspiracy on a global scale would involve too many people to be easily controlled? The most well-known candidate, the Great Reset of the World Economic Forum, has grandiose goals, but can scarcely be said to be leading or controlling anything. It is rather being led by pompous dreamers and environmental zealots. It is quite a long step from decrying population growth to mass murder.

Furthermore while both covid and the covid vaccines are killing people they are not killing enough people to make a significant difference to overall mortality or the global population, or at least not yet.


Perhaps most telling of all is to ask, “What would be the point of a conspiracy?” The world’s uber-rich already own almost all the world. They already control us economically. Why would they want to take on the administrative hassle of more world domination? They don’t have to obey the rules anyway. If Elon Musk wants to drop in for the weekend, he is free to do so.


Of course no environmental zealot nor capitalist pig wishes to let this crisis go to waste, and everyone is making the most of it.

For Big Pharma, all their Christmases have come at once.

Public health officials have never had so much power or acclaim.

Climate change zealots are fighting to prevent car driving or aviation from making a comeback.

Even lowly security guards get to shout at people for not washing, masking or spacing.


But is there really a conspiracy?

And why are so many scientists and medics lying, or keeping their mouths shut when lies are told?

If conspiracy is implausible, and cock-up does not account for the global co-ordination of mendacity and authoritarianism, is there any other possible explanation?



MURMURATION

In 1986 Craig Reynolds wrote a simple, brilliant program. He set off an number of moving particles he called ‘boids’ and gave them three simple rules:

§ Separation – steer away from nearby boids

§ Alignment – Move in the same direction as nearby boids

§ Coherence – move towards the centre of nearby boids.

The boids behaved like birds. They gathered into flocks and separated and wheeled and turned and gathered again like a murmuration of starlings.

Flocking like this is called an “emergent behaviour.” The whole flock has properties of shape and movement that do not belong to any single one of its constituent birds. It is a co-ordinated movement of hundreds or even thousands of birds moving in patterns that look exquisitely choreographed – but there is no choreographer. There is no leader.



SIX TENDENCIES

Let me posit my opinion: No one is in charge of this.

Although Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates are doubtless making the best, in their eyes, of this disaster, they are no more in charge of it than you are and the politicians are as hopeless as ever.

However the internet has made it possible to take our mistakes and spread them all around the globe. There are six human tendencies, mediated by the internet, that have led us into this mess. I have written about the internet elsewhere. In this post I focus on these Six Tendencies.


I propose that public and Governmental responses to Covid-19 are emergent phenomena determined by the six following human tendencies:

  • Fear

  • Greed

  • Over-valuation of abstraction

  • Emotional Incompetence

  • Cognitive Inertia

  • Groupthink.

The behaviour of approximately 80% of the population and more than 95% of people in positions of political, medical and scientific authority is determined by these six tendencies. They work together, just like Craig Reynolds' three rules of Separation, Alignment and Coherence, to create the murmuration of totalitarianism.



FEAR

Fear is a perennial motivator. Along with its companion greed, it is the key driver of the marketplace. The UK Government originally stoked fear of Covid-19 in the British population but the fear is now self-perpetuating and out of control.

Of course many of us do not like to admit that we are fearful. We would rather call ourselves sensible and socially responsible or cautious. However when this ‘social responsibility’ is asserted belligerently the underlying fear becomes visible.

The more fear is manifest, the more it elevates tiny risks into terrifying threats.


The rule of Covid fear is,

“Be fearful and in the presence of fear be more fearful.”

GREED

All around the world Governments’ panicky largesse has attracted a feeding frenzy of sharks. The biggest sharks are getting the bigger shares. Big Pharma is not doing anything unusual. It is standard practice to sponsor research to undermine cheap generics (like ivermectin) when expensive new products (like ‘vaccines’) are brought to market. If Governments shovel money their way it is quite understandable that they take it. It is also standard corporate practice to do their best to turn a customer into a repeat customer. So of course there will be plenty of research demonstrating yearly booster shots are necessary to keep the population safe from viral variants.

All the other private sector partners and parasites have naturally clustered around. The providers of Test and Trace, the Deloittes and Capitas and even the PPE provider chancers are just doing what greed tells them to do, as they have always done.


The rule of greed is “Be greedy, and if you can get away with it, be more greedy.”



OVER-VALUATION OF ABSTRACTION

This belief that a universalized abstraction is always better than a contextually grounded understanding is a delusion, as I wrote earlier, that can be traced back to Kant’s grandiose categorical imperative.


In the Covid context public sector scientists and hapless politicians have over-valued abstract measures like ‘case’ numbers (now re-defined as positive test results regardless of symptomatology) as a proxy for disease and anti-proxy for health although they are now largely irrelevant.


The error is compounded because over and over again these abstract numbers are considered more important than a series of contraindications and lacunae which are dismissed individually and sequentially long after their cumulative significance should have called the value of the initial abstraction into question.


The madness of cleaving to policies founded in abstract analyses and numbers even in the face of an immediate, visible threat to real human lives is not at all limited to lockdown lunacy. It is a pervasive and lethal affliction. Two recent tragedies illustrate this disastrous attitude, and must stand for thousands more.


As the enquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell tower stated:


“Once it was clear that the fire was out of control and that compartmentation had failed, a decision should have been taken to organise the evacuation of the tower while that remained possible. That decision could and should have been made between 01.30 and 01.50 and would be likely to have resulted in fewer fatalities. The best part of an hour was lost before AC Roe revoked the “stay put” advice.” Section 2.19 (b)


Residents were killed by the prioritising a policy built on abstraction above their immediate physical safety.


On May 22, 2017 after multiple failures by police and security guards a suicide bomber blew himself up as the audience was leaving a concert in the Manchester Arena. As the Telegraph reports,

“It would be an astonishing two hours and 43 minutes before fire crews with their first aid training, specialist cutting equipment and stretchers were allowed by managers into the arena. In the crucial period after the bombing, fire crews were held back at Manchester Central Station for their own health and safety protection.”


The abstract protocol of ‘risk assessment’ was given priority over managing a risk appropriately to save the lives of mortally injured people. Several people died who should have lived.


The appalling failures of Grenfell and Manchester are rooted in the British tradition of lions led by donkeys. Individual firefighers should not be blamed. In the Grenfell case we know the name of one of the donkeys – Dany Cotton – but although she is rightly reviled she is but one of many over-promoted idiots. Doubtless the managers in Manchester will claim they were following procedures just as Eichmann did at his trial in Israel. The reality is that in the UK the ‘emergency services’ are no longer fit for emergencies.


As for Covid, the UK had a perfectly reasonable pandemic response plan and threw it away. One of the few times a policy should have been used, it wasn’t.

Nevertheless, the primary error is the same as that of Fire Brigade at Grenfell and at the Manchester Arena: a lack of authoritative, competent, context-sensitive leadership.

The British Prime Minister abandoned the pandemic plan because he was panicked by over-promoted academics and fear of the media. Fire brigade managers did not abandon plans when they should have. Both were appalling failures. There are times when it is the right thing to do to risk your life, or that of others, to help save lives at risk as we were shown by Mamoudou Gassama.


The maleficent rule of abstraction in the Covid context is:

“Always follow an abstract rule rather than respond appropriately to each unique situation.”



EMOTIONAL INCOMPETENCE

It is always a challenge to gain an adequate emotional education, and the narrowing of education in recent times has made it more so.

A lack of emotional understanding or insight leads to a lack of empathy, of independence, of authority and of principles. Those ancient virtues have been supplanted in some by ideologies and in others by a vacuum. As a result many unwittingly suffer stunted emotional development. This produces for example the sort of person who can’t decide whether to sleep around or get married, and then does both to the detriment of all his partners and children.

The modern passion for fragility and victimhood completely misunderstands the value and function of enduring emotional difficulties. Hence, rather than discover the wisdom, insight and empathy available to a person with mature emotions, many people avoid all meaningful contemplation of their emotions and dismiss them as a source of confusion, pain or weakness. Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood the value and power of emotions. As he wrote to his friend Thomas Poole,

“Deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling, and all truth is a species of Revelation.”


The rule of emotional incompetence is this:

"Cultivate emotional insensitivity and call it neutrality. Avoid emotional insight or discomfort and promote your narrow-mindedness as rationality."



COGNITIVE INERTIA

Humans have a tendency to believe that if something is true now, it will continue to be true in the future. The latter is true of mathematics and physical laws, it is less true of human society and living creatures. Whilst the fibonacci series does not in itself change, every plant whose foliage is described by that series is an ever changing process of growing then decaying.

Today the dominant paradigm of truth is not, pace Coleridge, revelation but fixity.

I do not mean by this that truth and reality are ‘up for grabs’ or that ‘my truth’ is a meaningful phrase. I simply assert that some things change and frequently people fail to notice.

Eighteen months ago Covid appeared to be very dangerous. That is no longer true, if it ever was. Covid remains a significant a cause of death, but it does not make the top 10. Official data from UK shows that Covid was down at number 24 on list of causes of death by May 2021.


In the USA, in Chicago, in July 2021 there were 105 murders. That is exactly three times the number of Covid deaths, 35, in that month. The authorities in Chicago are behaving as though Covid-19 is a huge threat and murder is not.


The rule of cognitive inertia is

“Whatever you believe, believe it is absolutely correct and immutable. If circumstances force you to change your belief, believe strongly that your new belief is absolutely correct and immutable.”



GROUPTHINK

The term Groupthink was coined by Irving L. Janis. He stated that people tend not to voice their concerns if they are opposed to the dominant opinions in a group. Solomon Asch devised a neat experiment in which he found that nearly three quarters of his subjects were willing to deny the evidence of their own eyes when surrounded by other people denying the truth.

If a groupthinking person notices an anomaly the automatic response is not to investigate but to find immediately a reason, however absurd, to dismiss it.

Robert Cialdini came up with a complementary notion he called ‘social proof’ by which he meant people tend to conform to orthodox norms just because others do.

These are all varieties of the ancient rhetorical argument ad populum, “If everybody else is doing it, it must be right” or in the modern idiom “Eat shit. Twenty billion flies can’t be wrong.”

The ubiquity of this tendency was revealed in a study last year which found that the implementation of lockdowns, masking and social distance by Governments in the OECD was not driven by medicine or epidemiology, nor by number of cases or deaths or by ICU capacity. It was driven simply by the behaviour of neighbouring countries.


The rule of Groupthink is simple:

"Don’t be an outsider. Don’t question. Follow the majority."



NOT CONSCIOUS BUT DANGEROUS

We do not know what a starling thinks, if anything. Similarly we cannot know whether any given person is aware that their behaviour is driven by these Six Tendencies. Humans are notoriously good at believing that they are in charge of their own decisions.

However these tendencies explain a great deal of the extraordinary behaviour of Governments, corporations and populations over the last year and a half.


It is an interesting, albeit depressing, exercise which I do not have space to lay out here, to consider some significant players in the current situation and map the extent to which the Six Tendencies explain their behaviour.


There has undoubtedly been a great deal of what Mike Yeadon called “convergent opportunism” but I am still not convinced that there is a malign and evil intelligence behind this catastrophe. I am sure there are many cynical and amoral actors, but there are many more who do not realise that they are doing evil. Most believe themselves to be doing good or at least – in the language of therapy – “making the best decisions given the information and options available to them at the time”.


I believe we are all swept up in an emergent phenomenon that is no more conscious than the astonishing shapes and movement of a murmuration of starlings. This is not to say that it is not coordinated, not powerful and not dangerous. It is co-ordinated, it is very powerful and it is very dangerous – all the more so perhaps because it is not conscious.



TRAPPED IN THE FLOCK

It is very difficult for a bird to change direction in the middle of the flock. The flock determines the right direction and there is no obvious alternative.

If one of our leading epidemiologists finds himself in the middle of a flock of SAGE starlings it is quite understandable that he might mock outsiders who tells him his actions are destructive. The way he sees it they are all doing good, albeit with some unfortunate collateral damage. They do not see an alternative. They really do not see the true consequences of their actions. Like the birds in the middle of the flock they are creatures of powerful situational forces.


Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there really is an evil genius somewhere organising a conspiracy to overthrow civilisation and decimate the population. But if he, or she, does exist, they don’t need to put in much effort. The Governments, the 80%, and emergent behaviour are doing the job for them.



SOLUTIONS

If my interpretation is correct, or even partially correct, it provides some indications of ways to improve the situation.


If you find yourself in the middle of the flock, don’t even discuss Covid or anything to do with it. Just refer to it as an unimportant inconvenience that will soon pass. Tell an irrelevant, but entertaining story to pass the time and build rapport. People in the middle of the flock are not ready to, nor capable of, escape.

While you are there, assume we all agree. They don’t have the same internal notion of autonomy as you do. They believe that conformity to the ‘right’ external authority is the best expression of personal autonomy, so by using ‘we’ you can gently undermine their orthodoxy.


As for you, if you have read this far, you are usually on the edge of the flock. You can easily break away and, for some time at least, you can bring a few others with you while those left behind move at least one bird closer to the edge.


Your own sphere of influence is vital. Here you can assert a sense of proportion and humane principles. It may seem very small, but at any moment you could find yourself on the leading edge of a large flock and your consciousness and ethics will guide it.


It sometimes takes a real existential effort to develop your own emotional understanding. It is not easy, but it is hugely rewarding. For those who want a bit of guidance I have started running some online courses on emotional development, negotiation and storytelling.


We can also connect in groups to achieve far more than we can alone. I have been both touched and fortified by those who have contacted me because of this blog. Some wonderful groups have arisen to create practical responses to the devastation of education in the UK.


We can all do a great deal to free our fellows by choosing not to be driven by the Six pernicious Tendencies.

When fear arises we can feel it without being driven by it. That is what courage is: standing our ground when fear is all around us.

We all have a tendency to be greedy, usually in a part of our psyche that we prefer not to see. Every time we resist that tendency we help ourselves and others.

Our minds are infested with abstractions, some of them in very helpful guises. Some abstract measurements and policies are useful. Our best guides to their utility at any given point are a clear vision of our immediate context and the sensitivity of our emotional understanding.

We all know that we should not idly nod along with the groupthink but being human, and lazy, we may forget. It is worth remembering, and having friends who help you remember.


Recently I have been surprised to notice that it is a little more difficult to stay friends with people with whom I disagree. It is too normal now just to let friendships lapse but I really benefit when I make the effort to stay friends and stay in touch. Perhaps it requires me to be a little bit more conscious.

Perhaps being more conscious is the work that I, and we, need to do, to defeat these Six Tendencies in others and ourselves.


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