Well, that didn’t take long.
It was maybe 10 or 15 minutes (if that long) after I received The Washington Post’s alert that Notre Dame de Paris—the scene of one of my favorite books in high school—was on fire that I first saw someone online tie it to 9/11 and Muslims. (It didn’t help that YouTube’s algorithm linked Notre Dame fire videos to articles about 9/11.) Others tried to link it to Jews.
Really? That’s where you’re going to go?
Don’t misunderstand; I get the need to make sense of tragedies like this—and this is a tragedy, especially considering the historical, architectural and cultural impact of the more-than-800-year-old cathedral apart from its religious significance. As Donia Hammami told The Post as she watched the church burn, “This is a historic moment for all of us, in the worst possible sense of the term.”
Watching video of the center spire falling hurt my heart, and I feared what would happen to those beautiful rose windows, religious relics and the works of art housed there. Notre Dame is the most-visited site in Paris, with well over 12 million people a year, and has long been on my bucket list.
Now that inspiring building is gutted, with the roof and much of the interior lost or damaged in the fire.
However, it’s been deemed structurally sound, President Emmanuel Macron says it will be rebuilt, and at least $450 million has already been pledged by French billionaire families and companies. Though some relics are lost forever (like the remains of two saints stored in the spire), many of the artworks were rescued during the fire, and some had already been removed for cleaning during restoration. That at least is reason to have hope.
Yes, there were at least two previous Islamist plots to bomb the cathedral in 2016 and 2017, and there have been attacks on Catholic churches in France in the past year, mostly vandalism, but also arson, such as the fire at the Church of St. Suplice last month.
But leaping to conclusions, while apparently a political Olympic sport, is not what we should do. But since that is what we are wont to do (despite knowing that getting more facts before judging is better), as in other instances, we should apply Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. At the moment I’m writing this, investigators are preliminarily attributing the Notre Dame blaze to an accident.
Why? Well, you may have noticed in photos and videos that there was scaffolding around the section of the center spire and the roof that was on fire. That’s because extensive and much-needed renovation/restoration was underway in that part of the church; that location suggests that the fire might have started because of that work. The fire is believed to have started in the attic, which was dry and dusty, and crisscrossed with wooden beams. Flammable solvents would probably have been in use (and they don’t necessarily need a spark), so it’s easy to see how a fire could start. With all that wood (there’s a reason they called the attic “the forest”), once it started, there’d be little chance of stopping it.
Sure, it’s still possible that there is another, more nefarious, explanation, but in this case an accident seems most likely. That didn’t stop at least one theorist from opining that perhaps firefighters were in on it and delayed getting to the fire for two hours. Because it’s totally believable that no one would notice there weren’t any there. I just have no idea why I couldn’t find any evidence to support that. Gosh … it’s like someone made it up …
Shepard Smith had to cut off a guest Monday who insisted it was no accident, something he couldn’t know at this point. That guest was also a far-right figure in France known for advancing conspiracy theories, so why he was being interviewed … well …
About the same time as the Notre Dame fire, there was also a fire at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem in the Prayer Room, but it was extinguished quickly and no injury or damage was reported. That, of course, prompted a few other conspiracy theories about why it got so much less coverage than the Notre Dame fire. (Really? Notre Dame was gutted. Don’t make me lecture on news selection.)
Everything in the world is part of some conspiracy, it seems, and the simplest explanation is never the route for conspiracy theorists. QAnon and others like it are so ridiculously complicated, with so many moving parts that even Rube Goldberg would think, “Yeah, that’s nuts. And not the good kind.”
Christopher French, a psychology professor at the University of London, explained in Scientific American why people believe in these theories: “Although conspiracy beliefs can occasionally be based on a rational analysis of the evidence, most of the time they are not. As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.”
Cognitive biases then often take every error in early reporting as proof of a cover-up, forgetting that it takes time for the full picture to emerge … or simply not caring, because it’s all a plot, dammit, just like Q says.
And of course, anyone disputing a conspiracy theory is in on the plot. And they probably killed Kenny, the bastards.
William of Ockham would have a field day with all this. That is, if he could get past all the politics infesting this and every other news event. He’d also probably be a big fan of the KISS Principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid. (And yes, I know that the term “Occam’s razor” wasn’t coined till about three centuries after his death, and he didn’t invent it. Still, he frequently and effectively used it, which is likely why it was named after him.)
When I see things like QAnon, which pulls in Pizzagate, Spygate and other assorted tales, all perpetrated by a “deep state” cabal that encompasses basically everyone but the true believers, I laugh at the ridiculous unlikeliness that it could happen.
And then I weep a little that people actually believe it.
Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol, told the BBC: “We do not like the idea that out of the blue something terrible can happen; therefore, it is psychologically comforting for some people to believe in a well-organized conspiracy of powerful people who are responsible for those events.”
Since when has anything in politics been well-organized? That alone should tell you most conspiracy theories are more often than not nothing but fever dreams with stunningly simple explanations.
But that would take all the fun out of it, wouldn’t it?