The following conversation occured online, and I thought went well... got some people thinking who had been ardent defenders of the official story...
***the following was written in a conversation thread about Conspiracies***
message 4: by Velocitor (last edited Nov 08, 2009 01:24pm) Nov 08, 2009 11:07am
Everybody likes to play "the voice of reason", solemnly telling the rest of society not to jump to conclusions, to consider Occam's Razor, etc. That's all well and good, but I think we've collectively talked ourselves into a mindset where conspiracy cannot even be considered as an option. If you raise the possibility that an event may have a conspiratorial nature, people start joking about tin foil hats... this, in a society where "criminal conspiracy" is one of the most common convictions in the federal court system (almost every drug distribution conviction is accompanied by charges of criminal conspiracy). We glibly acknowledge the extreme degree of cronyism on Wall Street, but then the suggestion that the housing bubble and the subsequent $12trillion taxpayer bailout/giveaway were engineered is met with sneers of disbelief. I agree that conspiracy should be rigorously proven, but I would characterize present day thought as more like categorically refusing to entertain it as a possibility under any circumstances. We seem to accept the flimsiest of evidence, if it allows us to rule out conspiracy*. That, too, is irrational and emotional. In fact, the armchair psychologizing can cut both ways. Instead of saying Conspiracy theory may be one way of reclaiming power and disclaiming responsibility, we could just as well say Conspiracy denial allows us to preserve faith in the people and institutions in which we have placed our trust. It excuses us from having to consider the humiliating possibility that we were fooled or manipulated. For some, the idea that our leaders or the institutions we look up to could be working against us is too horrible to contemplate. Conspiracy denial allows us to tell ourselves "That could never happen" As for 9/11, I would be interested in hearing how you arrived at the number 5000 conspirators must have been involved (minimum!).
* e.g. the official position on the JFK assassination is not the intellectually honest "We aren't sure", it's "Lee Harvey Oswald was a nut who acted completely alone. Case closed." ...This, in the face of E.Howard Hunt's deathbed confession implicating the CIA... an explanation which certainly addresses "Cui bono" better than the Oswald theory.
message 5: by Greg - added it Nov 08, 2009 12:15pm
I agree with you, Velocitor. There are quite probably instances of poisoning the well.
I think the problem is the people attracted to conspiracies need better PR. And should probably conspire to exclude the fringe-yes of the fringe. There's room to seriously discuss things of this nature, but to reduce history to the machinations of the archetypal smoke-filled room is, in my estimation, silly. No one has the key to history, which is, ultimately, the aim of conspiracy theories.
The best laid plans of Carroll Quigley and CIA gray propaganda, I suppose.
message 6: by HogRider Nov 08, 2009 06:12pm
Haha, Velocitor I knew you would be in here as soon as I saw the review in my inbox. But I think you're abusing the fact that the phrases "criminal conspiracy" and "conspiracy theory" use that same word. They aren't rigorously connected. In the first case we're talking about something very concrete; in the second, we're talking about an ill-defined manner of thinking about major world events. "Conspiracy theory" describes a way of thinking about the event more than it describes the event itself. It's a pathology, not an interpretation. Like pornography, it's hard to define but you know it when you see it. Iran-Contra? Conspiracy. Bohemian Grove world domination? Conspiracy theory. Watergate? Conspiracy. 9-11 "truthers?" Conspiracy theory.
If it's not a way of thinking, an imposed interpretation on top of events that serve a particular psychological function, if it's merely one possible factual interpretation among many, then I'd like to know why websites like this exist: http://www.infowars.com/
Is it really the case that he has come up with better, simpler, more possible alternative explanations for so many historical, political, and cultural phenomena? Or might it be that the peculiar way in which he views/wants to view the world causes him to distort everything in the exact same direction? Occam's razor, bla bla.
Oh, and Blondie, I think you mean "BullFrog" Great word. One of the best.
message 7: by PeaPod Nov 08, 2009 06:33pm
A truly stellar discussion. “Food for thought!”
message 8: by Blondie (last edited Nov 08, 2009 06:57pm) - rated it 4 stars Nov 08, 2009 06:56pm
HogRider, you come closest to what the author underscores in Chapter 1--the definition between a real conspiracy and conspiracy theory. And Velocitor, you certainly raise a point that the author revisits throughout. Aaronovitch knows it's an essential factor in the democratic equation for a people and a free press to ask substantive questions about an event. He even lauds people who research meticulously an alternative explanation of events. However (and here Aaronovitch is sharply critical), when an event is vetted, properly catalogued, and professionally adjudicated by whatever neutral authority, then that's where it should end. Period. Beyond this, politics, emotions, and craziness play the only role in perverting and stretching a conspiracy into a theory. I only wish the author provided more than a glancing look at the psychology--even biology--behind the very human urge to be attracted to conspiracy theory. He leaves a big poop in the middle of the room by mentioning how theories (stories really, mythology, religion, occult) were essential to the paleo-development of humans, but then he doesn't clean up that poop.
Hell, I'm not immune. I engage in office chatter about grand revisionist theory when it's with interesting people about hot topics. I still kinda like the Grassy Knoll theory myself. And we'll have to wait, but I'm sure the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be pinned on the oil cartels somehow.
BullFrog, quite right. See, I told you I didn't know the word.
I arrived at the number '5000 minimum' because a military buddy of mine was involved in that particular conspiracy. When the CIA gave him the 200 page script of how it would all go down (his part was only very minor), on the cover of the document, like some painting reprints, there was an issue number: #2188/5075. Pretty sloppy OPSEC if you ask me.
Thanks PeaPod, coming from you that truly is a compliment.
message 9: by Velocitor (last edited Nov 09, 2009 01:01am) Nov 08, 2009 08:24pm
Haha, I'm glad I didn't disappoint anybody! I don't think there is any qualitative difference between the conventional idea of criminal conspiracy and, say, 9/11 truthers. Suspecting that two punks cooperated to sell illegal drugs, or that some billionaires cooperated to collapse a skyscraper and start a war are only different in scale. They exist on the same continuum. I think what you are referring to as "conspiracy theories" has little to do with conspiracies, and everything to do with sloppy thinking. If my knee-jerk response to every news event is "the CIA did this", that's just a failure to consider all the options, and weigh them on their merits. Likewise if my knee-jerk response to every news story is "the CIA could not have done this".
Parenthetically, I also want to say that categorically dismissing everything www.infowars.com
reports is also sloppy. They were way ahead of the curve on reporting police abuses of power during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and librarians who were ordered by DHS to report on who was checking out certain books at their libraries.
Like many spectrums, the opposite extremes are strangely similar. "Conspiracy theorists" and "Conspiracy deniers" both fail to examine and rationally weigh all the possibilities. In many cases, the only intellectually honest answer to "how did this happen?" is "we aren't sure". But of course that isn't acceptable in the aftermath of a tragedy like 9/11. We needed some cowboys with black hats to go after. So much for rational thought. Now that some of those initial emotions have lost their edge: how do you know that Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11? I've been told he released a tape claiming responsibility. First of all, I don't know whether that's true (I haven't seen the tape, and I don't speak whatever language he speaks). Second, even if he did release such a tape, self-incrimination is circumstantial evidence at best. Lots of people with different agendas claim responsibility for events they had no hand in. Bin Laden hates America, 9/11 happened.. why not claim responsibility? It makes him look more powerful. I have never heard evidence that any of the 19 hijackers met Bin Laden, or even took orders from him through friends of friends of friends. The fact is that the entire nation has jumped on the bandwagon of that theory... and it might be true, but I don't think anybody can honestly say they think it has been rigorously proven. Dick Cheney seemed to think Saddam Hussein was responsible- and even investigated terrorist cells meeting in Prague with representatives of Hussein's government. He's since backtracked on that, but not necessarily because it led nowhere. It would be interesting to hear the rest of that story.
The confounding factor that prevents rational analysis is that based on the belief of the Bin Laden theory, we've gotten into two wars, lost 4000 American lives, and caused God knows how much other suffering. Now if you question the official theory, it implies a huge, tragic mistake. People have a deep emotional investment in the Bin Laden/AlQueda theory. Like I said, conspiracy denial excuses us from having to consider the humiliating possibility that we were fooled or manipulated. You can hardly expect a rational, impartial, or scientific discussion now.
But let's try for a second: What have we seen or heard to prove that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11? I'm not even sure what hard evidence could exist... so why isn't the official position "We aren't sure who was responsible for 9/11"? What have we seen to refute that Saddam Hussein, or China or North Korea, or...yes, some Americans had anything to do with it?
Pushing further, the AlQueda theory of 9/11 does not explain the unusually high volume of short selling of airline stocks on the NYSE in early Sept 2001. Obviously those trades are traceable, yet the details have not been released to the public. That's a pretty glaring hole in the theory. It's really difficult to understand how some people defend the Bin Laden/AlQueda theory as if it were airtight and conclusively proven. Again, the only intellectually honest objective statement we can make is that we don't really know who did it. It would be interesting to hear why this author thought 9/11 was such a locked up case that skeptics of the official story must be engaging in some sort of voodoo thinking.
One thing you mention that is a bit difficult for me is when an event is vetted, properly catalogued, and professionally adjudicated by whatever neutral authority, then that's where it should end. The process of discovering the truth is essentially the scientific method. Collect evidence, form hypotheses on how it fits together, test the theory (if possible)... and we know that science is continually revising itself... usually in minor little adjustments, but occasionally in broad earthquakes. New information comes out, and we adjust. So it should be for news events too. Before E.Howard Hunt's confession, maybe it was okay for the official story to be that Oswald did it alone. But now after Hunt, why isn't it revised? Because it would be embarrassing; it would show certain people were wrong, or lied. Same for 9/11. After going down a committed pathway which has entailed painful investments of blood and treasure, nobody will admit we were wrong now. It would be too painful. I think if we woke up tomorrow with irrefutable proof positive that (say) China was behind the whole thing, a big fraction of the public would still refuse to believe. On one level, I can almost understand that, but clinging to any particular theory like an emotional liferaft is not compatible with objectively seeking to learn the truth.
message 10: by Blondie - rated it 4 stars Nov 09, 2009 12:30pm
Speaking for Aaronovitch, I think he would say that the scientific method is always applicable. Valid evidence has no statute of limitation, and can arise many years and decades after an event (DNA evidence not available just 20 years ago is releasing a lot of wrongfully accused prisoners--and many states have suspended the death penalty because emerging technologies is providing 'valid evidence'). However, Aaronovitch would say that unless you have some sort of measurement rigor, then anybody can make claims on a conspiracy theory, and more and more likely they get valuable, credible coverage on serious news channels. The 9/11 Commission Report is the government's official statement on what happened--not necessarily the final statement.
I think, ultimately, the problem Aaronovitch has with conspiracy theories is that there's an inverse proportion of theories to actual conspiracies. Today, everybody's claim is credible until you can disprove it. Take my neighbor. Until you can prove me wrong, I can claim that she didn't commit suicide at all, but instead was murdered, regardless of the evidence, because the real evidence hasn't been revealed yet.
Again, Aaronovitch doesn't discount that humans conspire--all along the continuum--but at some point the case has to be officially closed. That point will always be in disagreement. See http://www.infowars.com/
I like the Grassy Knoll theory, but I've let it go...
message 11: by Velocitor Nov 09, 2010 02:03pm
...Today, everybody's claim is credible until you can disprove it. Take my neighbor. Until you can prove me wrong,...
That is the downside to the "marketplace of ideas", but I do believe "the Truth will out".