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Gavrilo Princip, conspiracy theories and the fragility of cause and effect

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Achille Beltrame's illustration of the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip (Image: Wikipedia)

A hundred years ago this day in Sarajevo, disgruntled nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired a shot. An Archduke and his wife died, the world mourned and fulminated, and in a rash of misunderstanding and patriotic throes the nations of Europe went to war with each other, a war that in its calculated butchery exceeded all that came before it and changed the course of history. Even today the fields of Ypres and the current of the Marne call out to us and demand an explanation. How could a lowly nobody like Princip change everything?

When you read the story of the shots that led to World War 1, what strikes you is how staggering the gulf between cause and effect was, how little it takes for history to change, how utterly subject to accidental and unlikely events the fickle fortunes of men are. Reading the story of Princip and the Archduke, one sometimes gets the feeling of being no more than wood chips being cast adrift on the roaring river of history.

The dark comedy of the assassination of the Archduke and his wife is succinctly narrated in skeptic and writer Michael Shermer’s highly readable book “The Believing Brain“, and the story is as good an example of the roots of conspiracy theories as any other. It sheds light on human psychology and illuminates conspiracy theorizing in all scientific quarters, ranging from creationism to climate change denial.

Shermer recounts how, on that fateful day, six conspirators waited in the shadows to carry out their deed. When the Archduke’s motorcade passed close by, the first two conspirators failed to take any shots because of the crowds and an inadequate line of sight. The next conspirator managed to throw a bomb at the Archduke’s car but it simply bounced off and fell into the car behind. The two conspirators quietly disappeared while the third tried to commit suicide by ingesting cyanide but simply vomited and was captured by the police. Unlucky Princip and the other two insurgents gave up and sauntered away. Meanwhile the Archduke made it all the way to the city hall and gave a speech, expressing outrage to the mayor that he had just been subjected to an assassination attempt.

Since the Archduke had just expressed outrage at an attempted assassination, he should have known better than to drive back the same way he came. However it seems that only one of the generals in his entourage suggested taking an alternative route back. But in the heat of the moment, for some reason this timely advice was not communicated to the driver who decided to again drive back through the city center. While this was happening Princip had purportedly given up and was hanging around a bakery, maybe enjoying a pastry. However when he saw the car return on the same route the opportunity was too good to pass; more so since the transmission seemed to be jammed and the driver could not back up. The rest is very much history.

Even after Princip’s arrest World War 1 was not foreordained. Nothing is. But as Barbara Tuchman recounts in her marvelous book “The Guns of August“, an almost surreal comedy of errors and a mountain of human stupidity on the part of Europe’s leaders and diplomats followed the Archduke’s murder and led to the Great War. But part of Shermer’s motive in recounting Princip’s story is to illustrate the absurdity of most conspiracy theories. A lot of conspiracy theorists, including those who deny climate change or evolution, try to convince everyone of some grand machinations going on in the highest reaches of government/industry/secret syndicates that lead to reality being either hidden from the public or being shamelessly manipulated for nefarious ends. But Princip’s story tells us how messy reality is; the assassination almost failed, and at every turn its success or failure depended on events that ultimately were a function as much of chance as anything else. Anyone who believes in well-oiled conspiracy theories flawlessly functioning in the dark has simply ignored the great role of historical contingency in the operation of human affairs and the natural world.

But the murder of the Archduke provides us with another valuable window into the fickle nature of history and the minds of conspiracy theorists. This window illuminates the fact that staggeringly important events can result from trivial causes. Even a relative nobody like Gavrilo Princip or Lee Harvey Oswald can change history because of the unpredictable effects of chance and circumstance. But the problem is that the human mind being what is, it looks for causal patterns that are as large as the effects they produce. We find it easy to accept the incalculably evil Nazis as the cause of World War 2 but find it hard to swallow the lowly Princip as the pivotal cause of World War 1. We find it even harder to accept the inconsequential Lee Harvey Oswald as the causal factor for the murder of the consequential John F Kennedy. In the face of disparate differences between cause and effect our mind resorts to what Shermer calls “patternicity” and “agenticity”. Since we believe that the agents responsible for historic effects should be as major as the events themselves, we start conjuring them up to soothe our psychology. So, since Oswald does not fit the right profile as an agent for JFK’s assassination we start invoking the CIA, the Cubans, the Mafia and LBJ as more plausible agents, even if the evidence implicating these entities is thinner than the other evidence. The pattern fits, but only in the comfortable confines of our minds.

It is this inability to grasp the disparities between cause and effect that leads to some of the most prominent conspiracy theories involving science, including climate change and evolution denial. For instance, consider some of the questions that both camps raise when confronted with the evidence: How can puny humans cause the global climate to change? How can “microevolution” be responsible for “macroevolution”? How can minor policies that we undertake today be useful for ameliorating the untoward influences of climate change tomorrow? Even when the mountain of evidence is monumental, conspiracy theorists will try to discredit the entire edifice based on tiny details. Transitional fossils? Too sparse to say anything about evolution. Melting of ice sheets? Too inconsequential to say anything about global climate change. Bacterial change (as demonstrated massively through the patient experiments of Richard Lenski)? Too minor to account for change in higher animals. Conspiracy theorists either cannot accept or actively deny the role of simple details in the larger picture, although the former trait is definitely widespread.

But the tiny details matter. Over the ten decades following that unfortunate day in June, it is science itself that has provided some of the answers to these conspiracy theorists. Not that the evidence will make most of them change their mind, but we have found for instance the sensitive dependence of natural phenomena on initial conditions, a finding which is at the heart of chaos theory; as demonstrated by the famous “butterfly effect”, even slight changes in initial conditions can lead to enormous changes in the outcome. There is an entire science of complex systems now devoted to such effects. Through physics we have also discovered the ultrasensitive dependence of the features of the known universe on the slightest differences in the values of the fundamental constants; change the strong force in nuclei by one percent and it may make the difference between a universe with or without life. As recounted in the recent book “The Butterfly Defect”, we have also realized the complex web of interdependencies between both natural and human events that globalization has stitched together; for instance a recent natural catastrophe in Hong Kong affected the shipping and distribution of a significant percentage of hard drives around the world because the major manufacturers of these drives happened to be located there. And none of these phenomena are really predictable; they are really the product of chance and contingency.

Science therefore has now provided at least some justification for what the human mind always suspected, but what some human minds refuse to believe; that small changes can lead to big changes, that these small changes can be random and unpredictable, that fickle accidents of history can affect both the human and the natural worlds. Today as we contemplate Princip’s actions and the rupturing of world affairs that followed, it is wise to also contemplate this web of interconnections and to use it as a bulwark against those who would deny its implications and instead try to foist their own deterministic prejudices upon its gossamer threads. As the old proverb goes, we now know and can even rationalize how for want of a horseshoe an entire kingdom can be lost. Whether we find this fact fascinating or heartbreaking, we need to accept it as a fact at the heart of reality itself.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jasonandrews 7:06 pm 06/28/2014

    This is a very interesting article. The butterfly effect is something that has always fascinated me.

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  2. 2. phalaris 8:20 am 06/29/2014

    But it’s incorrect to draw the conclusion that WW1 only happened by pure chance. As the account of that day makes clear above, there were many out to get him, and plenty of other ways the Archduke might have been assassinated that day or somewhen else. And, as the article also makes clear, they were absolutely, and presumably out of bravado, cavalier about safety.
    Also although Princip struck the spark that day, serious histories make it clear that the tense international situation allowed it to light a fire. There could easily have been other incidents that might have started it – there had been a succession of crises before 1914, any one of which might have had the same effect.

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  3. 3. MarkGubrud 9:41 am 06/29/2014

    Does it make sense to say all the violence of WWI was caused by one assassination, or was this event just the stray neutron that initiates a chain reaction when a critical mass exists? The standard history emphasizes the underlying rivalry of the major powers and the reliance of military planning on preemption and offense, beginning with mobilization under rigid timetables which could not be interrupted. This was the large cause of the large event.

    The assassination of JFK no doubt altered subsequent history, but did not trigger World War III although there was some possibility that it might, since Oswald was linked to both Cuba and the Soviets. All sides recognized this danger, and undertook to limit it in part by quashing conspiracy theories suggesting a Soviet or Cuban plot.

    The mainstream account of Oswald as the lone gunman who acted out of highly confused personal and ideological motives is entirely plausible, but the psychological explanation given here is at most one element of the appeal of conspiracy theories. One could as well say that people like this condescending and smug explanation because they find conspiracy theories too threatening.

    In the real world, there are lots of conspiracies, lies, and covert action ranging from personal affairs to corporate to state and military covert action.

    That we know so much about so many conspiracies is one reason to doubt the plausibility of conspiracy theories that require too large-scale and delicate operations to go off without a hitch or any defection. This is especially true when theories require that a large number of people who in real life tend to be committed to an official ideology of loyalty to the president and to the nation instead remain loyal to a monstrous conspiracy.

    Climate change and evolution deniers do engage in conspiracy theorizing but these denialisms are highly politicized and promoted by powerful institutions – corporate interests, fundamentalist churches and the political Right.

    In contrast, 9/11 and JFK conspiracy theories appeal more to the relatively powerless. A better explanation for their appeal, I think, is that they explain our lack of power in terms of unseen forces that act unfairly and are too powerful to defeat – so it’s not our fault.

    This is itself is disempowering, and suggests a meta-theory: all conspiracy theories are secretly promoted by powerful institutions. They don’t want you to believe the official story. They want you to waste your life trying to disprove it.

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  4. 4. Chryses 10:36 am 06/29/2014


    I suspect the conspiracy theorist(s) will challenge your hypothesis, and claim the examples you used were “cherry picked” to warrant your prejudices.

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  5. 5. jasonandrews 8:42 pm 06/29/2014

    The assassination is the classic example of the butterfly effect. The butterfly flaps its wings but the circumstances must be right for a hurricane to develop from it. When Princip killed the Archduke, the circumstances were perfect. The gentle breeze from the flapping wing became the tornado, and then the tornado became the hurricane. Perfect storm.

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  6. 6. docdynamo 12:26 pm 07/3/2014

    This is an extremely poorly thought out article. In order to refute conspiracy thinking the author uses as an example a historical event that all historians recognize as being a government conspiracy.

    What Mr Jogelekar omits from his article is that the assassination was planned, funded, equipped and organized by the chief of Serbian Military Intelligence Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who is more commonly known by his code name Apis. WWI was started by a Serbian government conspiracy. That the conspiracy required a comedy of errors to succeed does not make it any less of a conspiracy.

    Tuchman’s interpretation that WWI was essentially a train wreck caused by diplomatic errors has been obsolete for at least five decades. Fritz Fischer established in the early 60s that the German government intentionally and deliberately used the assasination to start a war that it desired. Current historical debate centers around whether Russia and France were equally responsible for deliberately launching the conflict as argued by Sean McMeekin.

    WWI was not an example of the cliched butterly’s wings in action. It was the result of at least one actual conspiracy and deliberate actions of multiple governments.

    I reject most conspiracy theories because they are the result of lazy research and poor reasoning. This article is the result of the same sins.

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  7. 7. Coreqi 10:24 am 07/6/2014

    I created an account on SA just so I could add a comment to the commentary. Please SA… spare us the frustration of having to read through dribble such as this.

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  8. 8. John65 10:36 am 07/7/2014

    I’m always stunned by the prevalence of conspiracy theories. I always expected that there would be a movement toward rational scientific theory based thinking in society in general. Numerous examples show that this has not been the case. Silly me! It just goes to show that I have my own prejudices to deal with. This article, using the absurd beginnings of WWI, as an example does a good job illuminating the phenomenon. Paul

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