Conspiracy deluxe (now with smug math references)

The following was intended to be a direct response to a couple of statements in Curt’s last post, but, as these things tend to do, the direct response quickly metastasized into a rambling diatribe only tangentially related to the initial impetus. So, never one to lose an opportunity to pad my post count, I’m pulling it out of its original destination in the comment box and posting it here for all to see, comment on and, if need be, snicker quietly under their breath.

Would complicity in 9/11 change your estimation of the American government’s valuation of human life and liberty?

In the sense that I have a hard time accepting the concept that an institution as massive as the federal government even has a coherent “valuation of human life and liberty”, no. But, even if you think that George W. Bush is Satan’s person knob-polisher, he didn’t personally orchestrate the entire thing even if we accept the hypothesis that he (or Cheney, or whoever) is ultimately behind it, so in the sense that rather a lot of people, presumably not all sociopaths, would have had to have been involved, it would be quite troubling.

In both cases, the assumption seems to be that there are only two possible theories, so any nagging inconsistencies or incompleteness in one theory is implicitly support for the other. The towers falling straight down so quickly or life getting started in the first place might be problematic for the conventional explanations, but they are not really positive evidence that God exists or that the U.S. government blew up its own buildings.

I’ve spent rather a lot of time interacting with “conspiracy theorists”, so I think I’m qualified to say that this is a somewhat inaccurate caricature. Are there some conspiracy theorists who see the nefarious USG behind any unusual or hard-to-explain occurrences with bad results? Of course. Are there more who always blame evil Republicans for 9/11, global warming, cold winters and bad television? Absolutely. But there are plenty who were/are at least moderately more rational. To extend the towers-falling-straight-down example, some pursued a thought process more or less like the following: first, questioning (more or less idly, at least initially) whether the towers falling straight down was a plausible outcome given the purported circumstances, then deciding that the circumstances as stated weren’t a plausible explanation, then questioning what set of circumstances would have led to the indisputable result of both towers collapsing straight down and then, finally, in most (but not all) cases embracing some alternative set of circumstances that would be more plausible.

It’s instructive to point out that the conspiracy theories tend, on the whole, to lose their coherence at this last stage. The controlled demolition theory is popular, but by no means universal; there are those who are convinced the planes were loaded with missiles, or that they were drogues full, not of passengers, but of high explosives, or whatever. Oh, sure, most blame the thing on the government, but, assuming one accepts the reasoning in the above paragraph as more or less sane, there’s no escaping the fact that someone had to have placed the demolition charges or put missiles on the planes or flew the drogues or whatever your favorite explanation is and, really, it’s hard to think of any organization other than the USG that could have pulled any of those off. Unbelievable as it might seem to argue that the federal government placed, wired up, timed and ignited demolition charges in three separate buildings (don’t forget WTC 7) without anyone noticing (which, given the precision required would be rather a hard thing to do), it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to believe that the Mafia or the Chinese or even al Qaeda could have done it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, provided one thinks more is going on than meets the eye, involving the government in your explanation (though perhaps not actively) is more or less inevitable.

Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing this particular line of reasoning; I’m just saying it’s not as cracked out as it might first seem. In broad outline the path to becoming a conspiracy theorist isn’t terribly unreasonable: something seems fishy, seek alternative explanation, recognize alternative explanation requires additional participants with significant resources and opportunity, deduce participation of local actor with most of both. Any particular deduction of a conspiracy theory almost certainly rests on questionable assumptions, but that’s likely to be the case even for a true conspiracy theory, since a conspiracy theorist is, by definition, someone not in on the conspiracy.

At this point a number of “conspiracy theorists” of my acquaintance point out that the official explanation is itself a conspiracy theory in that it seeks to explain what happened by means of a secret conspiracy: in this case, of Arab fanatics. This is, presumably, intended to justify alternative theories by putting them on the same level as the official one (whether by raising up the alternatives or by dragging down the official explanation I leave up to you); semantics, granted, but sometimes semantics are important. Of course, this means that, be the official explanation never so true, it’s likely to suffer the same defects as any other conspiracy theory; it would actually be much more troubling if the official explanation explained everything perfectly, since this would imply that either the people who came up with it were themselves a part of the conspiracy or that they were able to perfectly reconstruct rather a lot of events that were only observed by people who are now dead. The conspiracy-minded response to this observation is obvious and the ensuing recursivity is left as a simple exercise for the reader.

At this point any freshman English teacher could tell you that I ought to end with some sort of coherent conclusion that ties all of the above together, but I guess the point is that I don’t have one. I do think there are some suspicious aspects of the official theory, but an inevitable consequence of the above exercise is that at least some such difficulties are a priori inevitable, especially when one takes into account the equally inevitable mixture of incompetence, corruption and coincidence. On the other hand, there are some aspects of various “conspiracy theories” which sound compelling at least to a non-expert like myself. So there.

6 Responses to “Conspiracy deluxe (now with smug math references)”

  1. Curt Says:

    Um, ok, I’ll take your word for it, but while I have no doubt your conspiracy-minded friends are reasonably lucid, I wasn’t talking about them, I was talking about the conspiracy theorists in the article. I am fully aware that there are good, reasonable grounds for questioning the official version of events, but I’m almost equally certain that that is not overly relevant in this case. All this frantic Venn diagram-drawing and confident assertion about the various layers of the “conspiracy” is not really consistent with the kind of skepticism that you seem to be advocating. Just like there are rational reasons for questioning evolutionary theory and perhaps for believing in God, but every little ambiguity and loose end is not a reason to embrace an even more grandiose, totalizing and questionable theory.

  2. shonk Says:

    Hey, I said it was “somewhat innaccurate”, not “wildly innaccurate”. There are certainly people that absolutely fit your description; I’m just saying that not all conspiracy theorists are nutballs (or that their nutballery is more subtle, or whatever). I just felt like you were painting with too broad a brush, is all.

    Random thought: more or less any argument with a specific conclusion is somewhat inconsistent with skepticism, which probably gives us good reason to be somewhat skeptical about skepticism, as well (not that this is the only reason).

    (Incidentally, “friends” would be too strong a word; my use of the words “interacting” and “acquaintance” was precise)

  3. Curt Says:

    As a matter of fact I was neither “somewhat” nor “wildly” innacurate, because I was not attacking the position that you are defending. I was not “painting with too broad a brush,” because I was writing specifically about the conspiracy theories mentioned in the article. It’s you that are trying to expand it into a sort of general issue by subtly substituting a more moderate rational position in place of the megalomaniac one previously under discussion. Third point, I don’t necessarily think that it’s true that “any” specific conclusion is inconsistent with skepticism, and I wasn’t claiming that paranoid conspiracy theorists are being unduly credulous simply because they are embracing one. It’s the nature of the conclusion and how they have arrived at it. Claiming that a couple buildings falling straight down and the absence of visual evidence of a plane crashing into the Pentagon is conclusive proof of the workings of an elaborate shadow government seems quite excessive to me. Those bits of evidence are good grounds for questioning the official line, I agree, but they don’t even come close to buttressing the grandiose conceptions of the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, and the fact that some people think that it does in my mind indicates that those bits of evidence are not themselves the basis of a theory but rather simply confirmations of pre-existing belief. And maybe there are more substantial grounds for that belief, but without any evidence for it it seems more like some sort of quasi-religious faith to me. So yes, all theories are vulnerable to skepticism to some degree, but implying that these conspiracy theories are no more vulnerable than any other is dignifying the whole thing way beyond its merits.

  4. shonk Says:

    Relax. My post was simply an immediate reaction to yours, colored by my own experiences with some rather unusual people (mostly wackjobs, but reasonably rational wackjobs), not some sort of comprehensive critique. When I read phrases like “pretty exhaustively catalogues the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories” and blanket, unqualified statements about “the mindset among the conspiracy theorists”, my initial reaction is to assume that one is making a general statement. You’ve since made it abundantly clear that you were intending only to make specific statements, with which I have no disagreement whatsoever.

    Also, your reading my random thought as some sort of implication that “these conspiracy theories are no more vulnerable [to skepticism] than any other” is way off base, though understandably so, since I didn’t explain at all. My statement about skepticism was, as I said, a random thought, completely inspired by your phrase “consistent with the kind of skepticism”, which forced me to wonder whether anything could be consistent with comprehensive skepticism. I’d never quite thought about it in that particular way before and, since the answer appears to be “no”, it struck me as an elegant objection to pure skepticism. Anyway, it just seemed interesting, so I threw it out there, but it wasn’t intended to be at all pertinent to the discussion at hand, though, again, since I didn’t exactly explain any of this, it was certainly reasonable to assume that it was.

  5. Curt Says:

    I suppose it depends how you define skepticism. Maybe formal or ancient skepticism is a kind of epistemological nihilism, but I have never met anyone who actually held to that so I can’t say. I have always thought of skepticism in the common sense to be not the denial that anything is true or justifiable but simply a constant calling into question beliefs and propositions. This is not inconcistent with beliefs or assertions but might even be a necessary complement to them.

  6. shonk Says:

    Sure, it was sort of a pointless comment. As I said, it only applies to what I called “pure skepticism”, which might more accurately be called radical skepticism or, as you said, formal skepticism.

    On the other hand, you’re absolutely correct about what I would probably call practical skepticism.

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