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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Which conspiracy theories have merit? Which are nonsense?

By what criteria do we determine which conspiracy theories have merit and which are nonsense? That question -- the underlying theme of many previous Cannonfire posts -- seems more germane than ever, now that we've seen the rise (and fall?) of Sandy Hook "trutherism." In fact, that question forms the basis for a couple of interviews I've conducted behind the scenes, the results of which you will soon see.

Right now, I'd like to share a follow-up communication with one of those interview subjects. Here's the message I sent him earlier today:
Last night, I watched an episode of Jesse Ventura's "Conspiracy Theory" -- the one about water. Ventura decried the fact that bottled drinking water in the U.S. is unregulated: "They could be putting ANYTHING in there!"

But in the same program, the former governor relied on Alex Jones, a self-identified Libertarian. The whole point of Libertarianism is to get rid of regulations and to trust the corporations.

Isn't there a massive contradiction here?

I decided a while back that one way of judging the potential worth of a conspiracy theory is to ferret out the political stance of the person offering it. If you have a theory to sell to me, don't expect an easy time of it unless you share my anti-Libertarian, pro-FDR economic viewpoint.

What do you think of the notion of using ideology as a quick-n-dirty way to assess the possible worth of any given parapolitical idea? Such a criterion may seem unfair at first blush -- but for me, it works.
Let's be honest: No-one can claim total freedom from bias. Any conspiracy theory originating with an admirer of Ron Paul, Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman will probably repulse me. (As you know, the Paulies are notorious CT junkies.) I might yet be turned around in favor of said theory, but only if the weight of the evidence exceeds that of the key to Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

What are your criteria (and biases)?
If the theory comes from ANYWHERE right of center, then it is suspect. The further right the origin the more likely it is to be utter bullshit. Theories coming from the left usually have at least some plausible evidence or some evidence of logical rigor.

I like the old saw from "Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out."
Interesting post and question. I would certainly approach an Alex Jones with more skepticism than a Peter Dale Scott. Yet Jones has done interviews with people like St. John Hunt that are worth a look. I would be as skeptical of an extreme leftwing ideologue as a rightwing one, yet the rightwing nuts have the leftwing ones vastly out-numbered.

Stephanie Caruana once accused me of being evidence-minded, as if that were a slur. (By the way did you ever look into the Skeleton Key? I still have a few questions about that I never resolved.)

Joe--Consider this theory: As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, there is a concerted effort to brand all conspiracy theories equally implausible. Thus: If believing in a faked moon landing is crazy, than believing in a second shooter on the Grassy Knoll is crazy.

There is nothing inherently crazy or astute about theorizing. Everyone agrees that conspiracies exist (i.e., that people work together for shared goals). History tells us that Southerners including John Wilkes Booth conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln, that Italian-American mobsters conspired to control the vice rackets, that Al Qaeda conspired to hijack planes on 9/11, etc. So theorizing that some activities are coordinated is no better or worse than theorizing that some activities are freelanced.

The conspiracy theories with merit are the ones supported by evidence. And I am going to spend the next year as I've spent the past 30--excavating and presenting hard evidence that John Kennedy was killed by multiple dickweeds who were hoping we would shut up about it afterwards.
Isn't this the genetic fallacy?

(I tend to be suspicious of evidence when tendentious people present it; but not necessarily the claim.)
They're right about bottled water, anyway. A few years ago Coca Cola tried to introduce their water brand into the UK, which led to two scandals: firstly, it came from the mains, which is to say it was tap water, and secondly it then had "minerals" added to it, which turned out to be carcinogenic. I don't know how it works in America, though.

As for conspiracy theories in general, you need to assess by the evidence as with anything else. Not just the fringe theories, either, but official conspiracy theories, too. Like the Birmingham Six thing, official conspiracy theories are often just bullshit designed to wrongfully imprison people.
lambert, you're right.

Maybe some fallacies are simply shortcuts we take in acknowledgment of the brevity of life.

If Larry the Liar tells a difficult-to-believe tale, arguably we should withhold judgment until we've checked out his story with care and objectivity. But life is short, and experience has taught me not to trust guys like Larry.

So I first do a background check. I'm simply more inclined to invest the time needed to check out a claim when that claim is made by Harry the Honest instead of Larry the Liar.

If that attitude brings us into the realm of the genetic fallacy, then so be it.
There is some connectivity between Leftist and Libertarian beliefs wrt to the Establishment.

I guess it's somewhat like the the Alawites and Shia.
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend". Once the common enemy is no longer a threat, then the fireworks between those two groups light up.

As to Alex Jones, even a broken clock has to be right some of the time. You can't always throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Governments are like any bureaucracy, especially Corporatist governments. Corporations are sociopathic, and operate like a Wild Beast which must be chained and watched continuously. To trust them for accurate, truthful information, in a vacuum, is a bad mistake. Always assume malevolence toward individuals, as they find the greater good in the health of the hive, over everything else. In this age of NON-transparency and Shadow, it is necessary to draw conclusions without absolute and verifiable evidence. I listen to the words, but more importantly, I watch behaviors which are often inconsistent with words.

Just sayin'

I'm 'biased' in favour of the self-liberation of the exploited majority, and therefore against exclusivist rackets among those who are, or who would be, representatives, opinion formers, talking point publicists, etc.; and indeed, against said luvvies (a superset of politicians) even if they're decent enough not to consciously aim to establish or continue or participate in such rackets.

As you can imagine, I don't have many friends! :)

Ideology? You can shove it. I don't think the above attitude constitutes an ideology. Sure, there've been some 'theorists' who've been sympathetic towards it, and some whose work is useful in places despite their lack of a huge amount of sympathy towards it. Marx, Pannekoek, Debord, whatever. Not many names come to mind, though, over the past 40 years during which society has become increasingly totalitarian. But the vast majority of those who self-present as upholding or detourning some aspect of these theorists' work tend to be, let's admit it, a bunch of recuperator fuckers. There've even been some utter scumbags some of whose work has been useful despite their having attitudes that are unpalatable and utterly obnoxious. Not many, though. And I haven't encountered any libertarians in that category. And for some types of scumbag, such as Malthusians, Zionists, and bell-curve merchants, it's impossible. Sticking your fingers in your ears and going 'laaaaa' is the way to go. The more dug someone gets into any ideology, the less they're worth listening to. Especially if the ideology is a complete crock of turd.

Don't get drawn in. Keep moving, keep learning, and whatever you do, keep looking out of that window! Respect others who do the same and who share your basic values.

All learning involves learning more about how to learn. The best learning does so consciously. Every many and woman is a star ;)

In thinking forever! And anything that gets on the TV, or that gets bigged up on the internet, is likely to be shite, both in itself and in terms of the bullshit market of ideas and attitudes it strengthens by contributing to. The emotional plague is mental too!
All CTs have merit, even ones wholly nonsensical (as determined in the end).

They all operate to remind us that things are often not the way they seem, and that false appearances can be deliberately manufactured. This is obvious to a knowledgeable person, but sometimes forgotten as many things are taken at face value.

Usually CTs adduce unknown or forgotten (alleged) data or facts which create cognitive dissonance with the conventionally accepted story. Oft times these are simply false, but the CT then has the value of a settled null result. Sometimes the odd data or fact is true, but has a more conventional explanation. When no plausible alternative explanation can be found, and the data/fact cannot be credibly disputed, then the CT has to be countered with another creative CT or conditionally accepted.

But the initial CT needn't have evidentiary support beyond general principles such as asking cui bono. Modeling an inquiry after a criminal investigation into a murder, you look for things like the significant other, insurance beneficiaries, any known enemies, and etc.

The difference is that usually a CT author has no subpoena power to compel testimony or production of documents or other evidence, and so is more limited to information in the public domain or what may be gleaned from journalistic endeavors. Sometimes if such power were available, an air-tight alibi might be found, to close off a line of theory.

As a practical matter, as such CT theories are endless and always proliferate, we do of course triage out the CT production from known liars and hoaxers.

Still, it is valuable to consider any CTs about untouchable sacred cow figures, as otherwise their carefully groomed legends and facades are unexamined.

In fact, some on the right will say the ultimate end of the Clinton impeachment and most of the alleged scandals they mongered over him was misdirection, to provide distraction from the deeper political monolith he belonged to. No, not some halting low level money bid for Chinese influence, but the Goldman Sachs connection starting with him in his Arkansas creation, the AFDA.

XI; Cui Bono only has traction when the perps aren't dead, or at least bona fide nutz with a sprinkling of psychotropic enhancement.

One of the more interesting features is who assesses conspiracy theories? An established feature of democracies is that the government assesses key historical events as part of its accountability obligations to the electors, either by Congressional Inquiry or UK style Royal Commission. On something that's not politically threatening such as the Challenger Space Shuttle you get a meaningful inquiry -- truthful witnesses, access to relevant documents, minimal political interference and public disclosure of the evidence, the inquiry processes and the findings. However, there is a trend, at least in the US, of an increasing failure of these inquiries on sensitive political issues such as the JFK assassination or 911 (some might argue that it's always been that way). Instead of real inquiries with real findings we now get non-transparency and official 'findings' which are often nothing more than instructions on how the public should think on the issue. This bullshit approach (especially successful in the case of 911 and the WOT) has been ramped up with a whole range of political issues previously subject to robust public debate, now sidetracked by issuing bumf or motherhood statements. -- the GFC involved no criminal behavior and our financial markets are sound; al Qaeda is such a threat that anyone who reveals any government secrets is guilty of treason; Iran is the greatest threat to world peace ever seen and must be attacked immediately. These are all statements alleging conspiracies by others to attack society, conspiracies the government has obligingly resolved for us in terms that suit them. Notably their chief proponents are not citizen nutjobs of the Left or Right but government policy makers backed by an obliging media. Real conspiracies are airily dismissed and fictional ones are constructed out of whole cloth and marketed as real. So I'm more concerned about the increasing activity by governments to shut down the very idea of any meaningful public debate and direct it into very narrow limits, of what is taboo and what is socially acceptable (eg what we should think of Wikileaks). A government that can lie all pervasively and with impunity is not far off a police state that can disappear anyone it chooses. I think we are into that territory in the US and in the EU we see it in their contemptible handling of their financial crisis. I don't think people understand how terribly removed we have become from real democracy, how narrow and prescribed are the new ways of acceptable thinking. Like an abused wife, we find reasons to take our beatings.
I try to approach the more outlandish conspiracies (controlled demolition / Sandy Hook et al) as being like an innoculation against stupid. In that respect I am not offended by their existance. Having said that it must be a real drag trying to moderate a blog that attracts adherents to those particular faiths.
Roland, the Challenger shuttle disaster DID have grave political implications, as some senators averred in remarks on the floor.

Apparently, the countermanding of the engineering advice to launch that day under the anticipated temperature conditions was a political act of the Oval Office, to provide Reagan a surprise telephone hookup to the shuttle during his SOTU address.

This was to emphasize his supposed commitment to education (with the teacher aboard), and hide the military nature of the shuttle's purposing as civilian in intent.

The teachers parents say they were told by her the night before they were going to launch regardless of conditions.

This is a most under-examined and under-reported scandal, per your own claim that it was innocuous.

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