The German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961) studied the development of schizophrenia. In a 1958 book he defined an early stage of schizophrenia as “apophenia.” Conrad explained that apophenia consisted of the “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.” What follows is an attempt to illustrate this idea by reference to a contemporary political controversy.
The “Steele Dossier” was inserted into public consciousness between July and September 2016. The “Whistleblower Complaint” was inserted into public consciousness between July and September 2019.
The author of the “Steele Dossier” reportedly was Christopher Steele, a highly-regarded former British intelligence officer. The author of the “Whistleblower Complaint is believed to be a highly-regarded Central Intelligence Agency officer.
The basis of the “Steele Dossier” was unverified hear-say. The basis of the “Whistleblower Complaint” was largely then-unverified hearsay.
The “Steele Dossier” was first communicated to a consulting firm in the employ of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to an FBI agent stationed in Rome. Then, when the information did not reach the public or result in an official investigation, it was shared with journalists. The “Whistleblower Complaint” was first communicated to a government “tip-line” and resulted in a formal complaint. Then, when the information did not result in an official investigation, it was shared with Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
The “Steele Dossier” alleged—among other things–that: 1) that Trump presidential campaign officials conspired with the Russians; 2) that Carter Page played a key role in this conspiracy; 3) that Paul Manafort directed the conspiracy; 4) that Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had met secretly with Russian representatives in Prague.
“The Whistleblower Complaint” alleged—among other things–that: 1) Trump tried to extort the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden; 2) Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, played a key role in this conspiracy; 4) US Attorney John Durham may be investigating Ukrainian leads as part of his probe of the origins of the Russia-Trump investigation.
It is useful to recall the context for both cases. In the case of the “Steele Dossier,” Russians had intervened in the 2016 US presidential election, not least by releasing secret information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton. The Australian government informed American officials that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had told one of their diplomats that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. President Trump has doubted/denied the reports of American intelligence agencies about Russian interference and took umbrage at the investigation of alleged conspiracy between his campaign and the Russians.
In the case of the “Whistleblower Complaint,” 1) Ukraine suffers from endemic corruption. During the Obama Administration, Vice President Joe Biden led an effort to pressure the government of Ukraine to shape up. 2) Information on the dealings in Ukraine of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, provided some of the basis for Manafort’s indictment. 3) In 2014 Hunter Biden joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company run by oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky. Once Vice President Joe Biden took charge of trying to damp-down Ukrainian corruption, Hunter Biden’s position created an apparent conflict-of-interest that was acknowledged by the New York Times. 4) In Spring 2019, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko began alleging “interference” in the 2016 US presidential election by Ukrainians working against Trump. Other officials have denied these allegations.
It is impossible at this point to predict the final outcomes of the two cases. The case of the “Steele Dossier” is not yet concluded.
1) In March 2019: Special Counsel Robert Mueller “did not establish” that a Trump-Russia conspiracy had existed. 2) The Special Counsel did not charge former Trump campaign official Carter Page with any crime. The Special Counsel stated that Michael Cohen never visited Prague. Paul Manafort was convicted of financial crimes committed before 2016 and for obstruction of justice committed during the investigation of those crimes. He was not charged with conspiring with the Russians. 3) The Department of Justice Inspector General has been investigating allegations of Federal Bureau of Investigation misconduct in FISA warrant applications to surveil former Trump campaign official Page. This investigation included a July 2019 extended interview with Steele. By mid-September 2019, a draft report on the FISA warrants was circulating inside the Department of Justice and the FBI. 4) In late April 2019, Attorney General William Barr appointed US Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.
The case of the “Whistleblower Complaint” is just beginning.
1) After the Mueller Report, Democratic efforts to impeach Trump had languished, with House majority leader Nancy Pelosi paying more attention to public opinion polls and the situation of the moderate new members of the House than to the left wing of the party. 2) The “Whistleblower Complaint” shifted the balance of forces. House of Representatives Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry. 3) Attorney General Barr has denied being asked to contact Ukrainian officials, having any contact with Ukrainian officials, having any contact with Giuliani with regard to Ukraine, and knowing about the Trump phone call until several weeks later, possibly as a result of the whistleblower’s complaint. 4) In late September 2019, John Durham was reported to be investigating how the incriminating information on Manafort reached the FBI from Ukraine.
There is a lot of scope for apophenia in these events.
 See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia. I first encountered the term in William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003), a sort-of science fiction novel set in what John LeCarre called “the recent future.”