Some claim that the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 was actually caused by a controlled demolition orchestrated by the U.S. government.
What’s your first association with the title of this week’s show? Do you think of conspiracy theories as the kind of theories that paranoid nutjobs relentlessly like to spout?
Considering some of the wild theories out there—like a secret group of elites (which may or may not be Jews, Freemasons, and/or shape-shifting lizard aliens) control and manipulate the global economy—you’d be forgiven for that association. But before you judge all conspiracy theories in a single stroke, you should consider that there are conspiracy theories that you probably believe. And with good reason.
Take Watergate, for example. While it might once have sounded far-fetched to propose that the President of the United States was involved in such clandestine and illegal activities as breaking in to and bugging the opposition’s headquarters, it turned out to be true, and Nixon ended up resigning when the conspiracy came to light.
More recently, of course, we’ve learned what many had long since suspected—the government has secretly been spying on its own citizens for years. Thanks to Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald, that secret was also revealed.
If you accept these two examples as uncontroversial, then the fact is you believe in at least some conspiracy theories. So, the question we’re considering in this week’s show is whether there is some principled difference between the kind of conspiracy theories that are plausible, and quite possibly true, and the kind of theories that have zero basis in reality. Do bad conspiracy theories have some hallmarks that allow us to dismiss them right away? Or must we investigate each theory individually before dismissing—or endorsing—it?
One place to start is to consider the relationship between the theory and the purported evidence for the theory. When I come across some of the more outlandish theories, I’m often struck by what counts as “evidence” in the minds of the proponents of these theories. They take a set of observable facts, construct some wild story that makes these facts all fit together, and then infer that this theory must therefore be true. However, just because the facts might fit the theory, it doesn’t mean they support the theory.
The problem is that any number of stories could be constructed to fit the facts. While it’s certainly a requirement for any good theory that the explanation fit the facts, fitting-the-facts is not, by itself, sufficient to prove a theory. This is one of the biggest and most common mistakes I see amongst conspiracy theorists—they apparently don’t understand that for facts to count as evidence, they must do more than simply fit with whatever story they’re telling.
So, what more is needed for evidence? That's a hard and tricky question, one that we tackle in this week’s show. Part of the difficulty is that if the conspiracy theory is actually true, then we should expect the evidence to be hidden or destroyed. That’s what good conspirators are supposed to do, right?
But despite their best efforts, conspiracies are often found out. People get cocky or overly confident, they can be sloppy, unexpected events happen, consciences nag, allegiances change, and sometimes it becomes profitable to reveal what it was once profitable to conceal. So, unless the conspiracy is made up of a small, very secretive, tight-knit, and highly-effective group of people, there’s a good chance someone will talk or mess up and someone else will find out. And that’s exactly what happened in the two examples I gave earlier, Watergate and NSA. Which gives us a clue for evaluating different conspiracy theories—if the purported conspiracy is wide-reaching and involves many people over many years, and if no good evidence has ever come to light about it, chances are it’s probably not true.
But again, we come to the question of what counts as good evidence. Let’s take some of the most popular conspiracy theories out there, like the vaccine conspiracy, the 9/11 conspiracy, and JFK’s assassination. In each of these cases, each side believes it has evidence to support its own theory—whether it be an "official story" or a competing conspiracy theory—and they each have their own experts that they cite. How do we sort through and assess these claims? Who should we believe? And who really has the time to figure it all out anyway?
I’m no engineer but the videos showing the collapse of Building 7, which, if you recall, was not hit by a plane on 9/11, do look, to my inexpert eye, like a controlled demolition. But what do I know? Sure, you can find "experts" who will say it must have been a controlled demolition, and you’ll find "experts" who will say the opposite too. To assess the validity of the testimony we hear, we need to know how reliable or how well-qualified each "expert" is and if they are truly in a position to testify on the matters at hand. So, for the inexpert skeptic, it’s hard to know how to sort through all the “evidence” that is corralled by either side.
But even supposing it’s an incontrovertible fact that Building 7 could not have collapsed in the way it did according to the official story, what exactly does that prove? Certainly, it’s a huge leap from this to the claim that a massive US government conspiracy was behind 9/11. Yes, the collapse fits with that story, but by itself, it is not evidence for it.
Now, I know that by expressing any doubt whatsoever about the truth of this particular conspiracy theory, I’m opening myself up to ad hominem attacks from the fanatics who will jump on anyone who dares to question their reasoning, like this guy on Youtube who called John and Ken “media whore propagandists” and, even more hilariously, “employees of the Koch brothers” who will do “whatever it takes to collect a pay check.” Right. Because Philosophy Talk is such a major money-making scheme dreamed up by John and Ken to fool the masses into accepting everything they are told by the corporate media, brilliantly disguised as the show “that questions everything… except your intelligence.” Never mind the facts! Just make them up to suit your world view and then accuse anyone who points out that they’re wrong of being a “sycophant” for the corporate media.
It’s nutjobs like this that give all conspiracy theorists a bad name. They are unmoved by easily confirmable facts and they think that doggedly holding onto their theories, despite the fact that they are full of holes and massive leaps in logic, is a sign of being a “critical thinker.” What a joke!
Yet, as Brian Keeley, our guest on this week’s show points out, we should not confuse conspiracy theories with conspiracy theorists. Sure, there are plenty of folks out there (we all know them) who automatically go for a conspiracy explanation over a more straightforwardly plausible explanation for every newsworthy event that happens. Many of them seem to have difficulty accepting that there are coincidences and unplanned occurrences, and would prefer to imagine powerful forces working behind the scenes to shape every little detail. They seem remarkably out of touch with the contingencies of life. But this is not sufficient reason to simply dismiss every conspiracy theory you encounter. We should consider each one on its own merits.
Now, I’m not saying you ought to investigate whether your local politician is really a shape-shifting lizard alien overlord, but you might want to take seriously suggestions that he conspired to, oh say, illegally close down a major bridge for political gain. That particular conspiracy theory, like several others before it, might actually turn out to be true.