August 13, 2006
There was a splendidly grown-up article by Matthew Parris in the Times the other day, that should be compulsory reading for all the pundits writing about terrorism. The bit I particularly enjoyed was where he was talking about those "joining up the dots" - a phenomenon that William Gibson described as apophenia:
"Gestalt can border on madness. I distrust people too insistently driven to “join up the dots”. Dots may be just that: dots. They are susceptible to being joined up in very different ways. It is always easy for the dot-joiner to make himself look more perceptive and alert than the naive, doubting fellow who can still see only dots. That is how it must have felt to be a doubter in 1930s Germany, as clever, vigilant men joined up the dots and saw an international Jewish conspiracy. The chaps who, behind the apparent world, can discern the shadowy outline of witches, papists, communists or capitalist plotters will often appear cleverer and more prudent than the chaps who can’t.
I look at Orion and I do not see the Hunter, his belt or his sword. I see a group of unrelated stars. Whether, however, we discern Great Bears, ploughs, crabs, crosses or only chaos, this kind of star-gazing is harmless because we cannot by imagining shapes create the things we have imagined. More dangerous are the constellation-makers among our presidents, prime ministers and newspaper leader writers: it does lie within their power to breathe life into the monsters they think they see. If they keep shouting that we face a clash of civilisations, a war of the worlds, they may drive bigger numbers on both sides into the arms of the smaller numbers who do want to rally volunteers for a battle."