Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn't more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what's underneath), and that they're basically an admission of one's own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he's part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation's policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It's just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it's really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.

I've found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can't seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it's worth peering through PPP's full results to see the nature of some of these associations.

For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were "misled" or "intentionally-misled" puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn't ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon's razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were "true believers", of course I don't really know for sure, and I don't think it's fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it's just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren't huge partisan differences like over WMD).

One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK's assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That's 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn't be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it's sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren't due to some dark part in people's souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There's no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for "sinister" reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn't even hide a tawdry affair.

Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to "government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals", it's possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.

Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a "hoax". That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective - often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I'm often accused of being a part of but I'm sure I'm missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it's not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.

Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn't healthy thinking, it isn't rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.


More like this

Today, newspapers including the NYT and WaPo are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death both on their front pages and opinion pages I was thinking if it's finally time to confront one of the most persistent, and widespread conspiracy theories out there - that of a larger conspiracy…
Ever since Chris Mooney's Republican War on Science was published in 2005, folks have been looking for a way to argue that Democrats are just as bad. The standard example for this counternarrative, one which Mooney even offered in his book, was vaccine denial – the claim that vaccines cause autism…
I've recently written about the relationship between conspiracy theories and hate speech. Too often, conspiracy theories are used to justify irrational hate for one group or another, and to direct anger over lack of control of one's life onto a group the conspiracist ideologically opposes.…
New Scientist has an interesting article by Patrick Leman on the psychology of believing in conspiracy theories. Belief in conspiracy theories certainly seems to be on the rise, and what little research has been done investigating this question confirms this is so for perhaps the most famous…

Most well-informed people think there is reason to suspect that some of the Bushies deliberately lied to the U.N. and the public. Their own professional intelligence agencies had told them that Iraq didn't appear to have any active WMD programs, yet they went out and claimed the opposite. Making nasty insinuations about the supposed mental inferiority of people who were upset by the results, as the promoters of this report do, amounts to saying that challenging a ruling [American] regime's self-serving claims is unacceptable cognitive behavior.

There are in fact multiple bogus "conspiracy" labels in this story. Most conspicuously, Bigfoot is not a conspiracy, it's a myth or legend or a cryptid; in the unlikely event that it exists, it would be a hominin or great ape. There could be a "Bigfoot conspiracy" of people acting together to perpetuate belief in the legend by manufacturing fake sightings, but I doubt that belief in such a conspiracy is what these folks mean to demonize.

They also sneer at the 15% of respondents who said they believed in disease-mongering by pharmaceutical companies. Really, only 15% are paying attention? Surely more than 15% of the public is old enough to remember the days when nobody was said to suffer from Overactive Bladder, Low T, or Osteopenia, much less pounding pills for it. (Have most of the public ever heard of the disease of Sarcopenia, suffered by virtually 100% of elderly people yet not to be considered normal aging? No? Well, just wait until a drug company can get something through the FDA that puts on muscle without killing too many people without major comorbidities in short-term trials - they're already working hard on it - and there will be commercials to tell us all about the horrors of sarcopenia.)

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist)

I'm surprised it wasn't higher than 5%, actually. Remember, the antichrist is SUPPOSED to take over and do horrible things. That's prophecy. It's God's Plan. By a certain logic, voting against the antichrist is, thus, acting against God's Plan. These people are eagerly looking forward to the apocalypse and trying to push it forward in any way that they can.

By Michael Suttkus, II (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I would agree that many people holding these notions are more guilty of not paying attention than falling into conspiracy-belief. I also think about the comment my mother made, many times, about the assassination of President Kennedy: "I just didn't want to believe one puny man could do something by himself that hurt the country so much." I've noticed the same notion in others - that some things are so massively disruptive that it just has to be true that it was a conspiracy of (fill in the group) that was responsible - no single person could do it. Aren't there still people who feel the same way about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand?

And, as we've seen, there are many people who will dismiss the conspiracy theories of others while keeping their own because, well, dammit, theirs are true.

@Jane. I agree with top half, however:

They also sneer at the 15% of respondents who said they believed in disease-mongering by pharmaceutical companies. Really, only 15% are paying attention? Surely more than 15% of the public is old enough to remember the days when nobody was said to suffer from Overactive Bladder, Low T, or Osteopenia, much less pounding pills for it.

Based on the wording of the question it was that pharmaceutical companies and doctors conspire to invent new diseases. That's a bit more ridiculous that their natural, and capitalistically-consistent behavior of pharma, of trying to make sure our diagnostic specificity is poor for whatever condition they happen to have a pill to treat. I agree. They are pill pushers. But suggesting there is a cabal of doctors that gets together and thinks up new diseases? It's a bit much.

That's the problem with many of these questions. You can impute more or less meaning than the question actually suggests.

Hell, there's still people that think Pearl Harbor was a hoax. No Really. And that fine is not enough. I mean, wasting the taxpayers money over this stuff should be its own crime. It's beyond frivolous. It's downright outlandish.

This article has sparked a new conspiracy for me: 5% of Americans are satanists! [The 5% who voted for Obama even though they knew he was the antichrist].

5%! You people need to WAKE UP! With a conservative estimate of 1 child sacrifice per satanist per year, this means 16.5 million children are dying every year because of the secret satanists controlling America!! Can you sheeple not see the TRUTH!?

[I would have written that in five different colours if the html allowed it].

By faustusnotes (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

Actually, modern science indicates that ingesting fluoride is ineffective at reducing tooth decay and harmful to health. Politics, not science keeps fluoridation alive. Some would call that sinister.

Google "LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK"

Question for Mark Hoofnaggle: how much do you really know about Lyndon Johnson? Is LBJ a topic you are well versed in? You seem to think you know something about Oswald (US intelligence) agent, but what do you know about Lyndon Johnson?

1) LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination by Phillip Nelson
2) JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters by James Douglass
3) Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot
4) The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh
5) Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty by Russ Baker
6) Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson by Jablow Hershman
7) Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III by Peter Hounam (LBJ engineered the attack on the USS Liberty)
8) Inside the Assassinations Records Review Board Volume 5, by Doug Horne
9) Watch "The Men Who Killed Kennedy - the Guilty Men - episode 9" at YouTube -
best video ever on the JFK assassination; covers well Lyndon Johnson's role
10) Google the essay “LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK” by Robert Morrow
11) Google “National Security State and the Assassination of JFK by Andrew Gavin Marshall.”
12) Google “Chip Tatum Pegasus.” Intimidation of Ross Perot 1992
13) Google “Vincent Salandria False Mystery Speech.” Read every book & essay Vincent Salandria ever wrote.
14) Google "Unanswered Questions as Obama Annoints HW Bush" by Russ Baker
16) Google "Did the Bushes Help to Kill JFK" by Wim Dankbaar
17) Google "The Holy Grail of the JFK story" by Jefferson Morley
18) Google "The CIA and the Media" by Carl Bernstein
19) Google "CIA Instruction to Media Assets 4/1/67"
20) Google "Limit CIA Role to Intelligence" Harry Truman on 12/22/63
19) Google "Dwight Eisenhower Farewell Address" on 1/17/61
20) Google "Jerry Policoff NY Times." Read everything Jerry Policoff ever wrote about the CIA media cover up of the JFK assassination.

By Robert Morrow (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

I am going to give you just a few nuggets about LBJ. Something that just scratches the surface on what many in the JFK research community know about him, as far as his character, hatred/fear of the Kennedys, mental instabilities, murders on his rap sheet.

From Arthur Schlesinger:

January 14 1969

I took part with Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, Eric Goldman and Ted Sorensen (in Kansas City) in a National Education Television commentary. Afterward Bill and I went over to the Algonquin for a drink. We talked a bit about the problem of writing about Johnson. Bill said, as he has said to me before (and Dick Goodwin has said even more often), that one great trouble was that no one would believe it. He said that he could not see how one could write about Johnson the private monster and Johnson the public statesman and construct a credible narrative. "He is a sick man," Bill said. At one point he and Dick Goodwin became so concerned that they decided to read up on mental illness - Dick read up on paranoia and Bill on the manic-depressive cycle."

[Schlesinger, Journals, p. 306]

January 15 1971

Last night I spoke at the annual dinner of the Century. I sat next to Mac Bundy and we discussed, among other things, the Khrushchev memoirs. I remarked on the curious resemblance between Khrushchev's account of the life around Stalin - the domineering and obsessive dictator, the total boredom of the social occasions revolving around him, the horror when invited to attend and the even greater horror when not invited - and Albert Speer's account of the life around Hitler. Mac said, "When I read Khrushchev, I was reminded of something else in addition - my last days in the White House with LBJ."

[Schlesinger, Journals, p. 333]

By Robert Morrow (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

People have been flapping their gums about the JFK assassination for a long time. Including the perps, LBJ being one of them. And I will leave this as my last post for now.

Madeleine Duncan Brown was a mistress of Lyndon Johnson for 21 years and had a son with him named Steven Mark Brown in 1950. Madeleine mixed with the Texas elite and had many trysts with Lyndon Johnson over the years, including one at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX, on New Year's Eve 12/31/63. In the late evening of 12/31/63, just 6 weeks after the JFK assassination, Madeleine asked Lyndon Johnson:

"Lyndon, you know that a lot of people believe you had something to do with President Kennedy's assassination."
He shot up out of bed and began pacing and waving his arms screaming like a madman. I was scared!
"That's bull___, Madeleine Brown!" he yelled. "Don't tell me you believe that crap!"
"Of course not." I answered meekly, trying to cool his temper.
"It was Texas oil and those _____ renegade intelligence bastards in Washington." [said Lyndon Johnson] [Texas in the Morning, p. 189]

[LBJ told this to Madeleine in the late night of 12/31/63 in the Driskill Hotel, Austin, TX in room #254. They spent New Year’s Eve together here six weeks post JFK assassination. Room #254 was the room that LBJ used to have rendevous’ with his girlfriends – it used to be known as the e "Blue Room" and now it is known as the "LBJ Suite" and rents for $600-1,000/night as a Presidential suite at the Driskill; located on the Mezzanine Level. Note: Lyndon Johnson's presidential schedule and other accounts confirm that LBJ indeed was at the Driskill Hotel on the night of 12/31/63]

By Robert Morrow (not verified) on 05 Apr 2013 #permalink

Mark you are transparently, a one sided, biased, brain washing, government lovin road block to freethinking. Poor journalism,.2 out of 10, must try harder and think for yourself

I'm fully aware of these accusations. The fact you think this evidence is impressive, is a sure sign you lack the ability to competently judge quality evidence. I'm not going to waste my time going through more of the invariably boring, weak, and fabricated evidence of people with an axe to grind. All of the conspiracy theories are equally weak, based on innuendo and linking disparate actors in some grand plan that has magically eluded any real evidence for 50 years. It's nonsense. The evidence against Oswald is solid and damning. The idea that the CIA uses crazy losers who try to defect from the US to the USSR (and were found to intolerable by the Russians and sent back), is not consistent with reality. Here was a man that was trying to kill to make a political point, hence his attempt on Edwin Walker months before Kennedy.

We're not interested in debating crank conspiracy theories here.

Mark = of course many are on the fringes, but the majority are motivated by evidence, not by fear and hatred as you suggest. Many, such as myself, have an intelligent respect for the truth and don't like to be lied to. Do some research as Robert Morrow suggested, then write an article based on the evidence.

By Howard Schumann (not verified) on 06 Apr 2013 #permalink

The evidence is that LHO killed Kennedy and acted alone. Reading comprehension is needed here, I didn't say that the Kennedy assassination conspiracies are motivated by fear or hatred. As usual, no one reads.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser.

I've done plenty of research on this, the evidence against LHO is overwhelming. The evidence of the conspiracy theorists is innuendo, fabrication, and paranoia.

but the majority are motivated by evidence

Hardly or the evidence that shows Oswald was the gunman wouldn't be dismissed without any more than 'nu-uh' as rebuttal. Your contention (it isn't serious enough to be called an argument) is that since lbj was a bastard he had Kennedy killed. Dressing it up with hundreds of pages of false and baseless assertions doesn't change that.

Besides,why pick your crackpottery over the contention that the fatal shot came from a secret service agent in the following car, as some other guy seeking five minutes of fame claimed.

Your views seem to be motivated by the same type of view held by my mother : that one would never dream that one man could do so much to a nation. The difference is that she was rational enough to know that sometimes that is exactly what happens.

I think there are several socio-psychological forces behind conspiracy theorizing — there's usually a xenophobia component, but there's often a "historically-significant events mustn't be largely contingent or even mostly random" component, as well as things like overgeneralization, oversimplification, and various other cognitive biases.

And it really ought to be noted, especially given the subtext of this post, that conspiracy theorizing does not require that the theories be false — it is a habit, a style of thought that will frequently result in falseness, but not necessarily. People can be right, but for the wrong reasons.

The truth-value is very often kind of a rabbit trail in these sorts of thing — and by "these sorts of things", I mean that this topic is not unlike urban folklore. Urban folklore is often false, but it is not always false; and, more to the point, it's truth-value is not its defining characteristic(s). It's a combination of how urban folklore socially function with the shape examples of it usually take.

So the question is whether we can identify some common thread in almost all conspiracy theorizing, setting aside things like truth or falsehood that are distracting and arguably are insufficiently characteristic.

And I'd say that the xenophobia bit you discuss is a really good candidate. In the comparison to urban folklore, this would correspond to that "how it socially functions" part. Most conspiracy theories involve villains; and those villains are without exception members of an out-group relative to the theorist. Which is strikingly similar to that function in urban folklore — van Brunvand noted that a large portion of urban folklore deals with social fears related to out-groups.

And then we might consider if there's a correspondence in conspiracy theory to that "form" part of urban folklore. And I think there is. I guess this goes without saying, maybe, but conspiracy theory very much has an emotionally satisfying sense of being someone who has peeked behind the curtain, someone who is privileged to know hidden truths. They're in some sense self-aggrandizing, they're implicitly (or explicitly!) arguing that non-believers are foolish. The narratives are very often shaped around this; a chronicle of difficult enlightenment against a powerful opposition.

A striking characteristic is that they are almost without fail convoluted and detailed. A general suspicion that 9/11 wasn't precisely what it seemed to be isn't much of a conspiracy theory, though it's an undeveloped, casual example. No, conspiracy theories as they actually exist and propagate are always detailed. If they're not detailed, they are not "fit", they fall by the wayside. So they have this "shape" — it's interesting to speculate why they do.

One implication of my comparison of conspiracy theories to urban folklore (or, for that matter, metaphysical cosmology) is that it's a mistake to think about this in terms of it being a kind of common error of thought that we can mostly reduce or eliminate through better education or journalism. It's almost certainly serving some sort of psycho-social function (one we might object to, but functional nevertheless) and cannot be understood, or eliminated, without dealing directly with that function. As I think that xenophobia is essential to that function, I don't see it going away any time soon.

By Keith M Ellis (not verified) on 06 Apr 2013 #permalink

The psychosocial function that Keith hints at above, is not only social cohesion but sensitivity to signs of danger. When the value of that variable is set too low, tribes fail to recognize actual danger and perish; when it's set too high, tribes go into collective auto-immune reactions and implode. What has survived to this point in history is a more limited set of parameters for that variable, with the occasional outlier who (one way or another) ends up making news.

As well, there is the "pattern sense" on the part of individuals and societies, and this has its own parameters beyond which it is maladaptive: Set too high, one sees false patterns everywhere and one's predictive ability is swamped with noise. Set too low, and one fails to recognize actual patterns of events, and fails to predict subsequent events in that pattern. (Strictly speaking, "patterns" exist only in the human mind/brain, but statistical regularities and probabilities describe events that occur in nature.)

Here I'll introduce my extension to Hanlon's Razor: "....or common cultural assumptions and biases." (Never attribute to conspiracy that which can be attributed to incompetence or common cultural assumptions and biases.)

On the political extremes, there are assumptions & biases that feed obvious CT such as with 9/11. But let's not forget that such things also exist within the mainstream of the political spectrum.

The entire belief system that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11 was essentially a form of CT based on a cultural bias on the part of neocons: and proof of that point is found in the various PNAC publications criticizing former presidents for not having invaded Iraq and destroyed Saddam when they had their opportunities. Bin Laden himself had been characterized as "a guy who lives in a cave" by no less than Senator Orrin Hatch (in the context of complaining about the "waste of money" involved in NSA's monitoring of Bin Laden's satellite phone: needless to say, Bin Laden quickly ditched his satphone) (oops!). So among the neocon right, the idea that a cave-man could be behind a military-grade attack on the US, was, like the idea that a sick loser could have been behind the JFK assassination, dismissed in favor of the idea that a larger conspiracy involving a state actor was required: and Saddam, with his particularly atrocious track record, fit the bill.

The PNAC papers on Iraq don't demonstrate a right-wing conspiracy to pin evil deeds on Saddam; they demonstrate that the right wing believed in conspiracy theories involving Saddam doing evil deeds. Subtle but critical distinction: the distinction between deliberate cynical action, and sincere but "not even wrong" beliefs that lead to sincerely-motivated but "not even wrong" actions.

Examples can be found across the political spectrum and throughout our society. This stuff is entirely commonplace. And frankly I don't think there's a way to shut it down because it's based on emotional and cognitive traits that are normally distributed.

So instead, we get to have fun throwing tomatoes and suchlike at those whose danger-sense and pattern-sense are both pegged at 11.

In other cases we also get to have fun throwing rotten veggies at those whose danger-sense and pattern-sense are both pegged at 0, such as climate change denialists and laissez-faire advocates.

That's a really nice analysis, G.

Your discussion of the neocons, 9/11, and Hussein is interesting because it's very striking to me that the idea that Hussein cooperated with Al Qaeda is, well, absurd giving the history of Ba'athism, Hussein's desire to be a modern Nassir and the associated secularism of Arab nationalism, and the ideology of Al Qaeda.

One (well, me) is tempted to simply disbelieve that the neocons truly argued for this connection in good-faith; just as it's similarly tempting to dismiss the possibility that members of the Bush admin argued in good-faith that Hussein possessed WMDs. And, indeed, I feel sure that in some individual cases there was deliberate, opportunistic dishonesty.

But...well, there's the simple truth that the differential weighting of evidence is a difficult problem, though we like to think it's mostly not. This is an example of what you were talking about when you discussed "common cultural assumptions and biases".

I can imagine scenarios where Hussein collaborated with Al Qaeda out of a desperate hatred of a common enemy. I can imagine scenarios where Hussein had successfully hidden continued development and stockpiles of chemical WMDs (not nuclear weapons development, though, that's entirely incredible and only those ignorant of the scientific/industrial context of nuke development could believe otherwise). Those scenarios are very unlikely, I think, and the evidence for them was extremely weak or nonexistent.

But I would think that.

I write all this with something similar in mind — how we typically differentially interpret the statements and infer motivations of our allies and opponents, particularly in the political context. Our allies we interpret with maximum generosity, our opponents with maximum suspicion. So, if you're a liberal (as I am) you interpret Obama's statement of having visited "all 57 states" as a puzzling minor error, probably a simple speech-error resulting from having two competing ideas at the same time while he was speaking. But, on the other hand, you interpret Bush's reference to Africa as a "country" as deeply significant, indicating everything from his geopolitical awareness to flaws in his character. If you're a conservative, you reverse this pair of assessments.

Hoofnagle self-attests at being pessimistic about people's rationality. I find myself ambivalent about this because on the one hand, if anything, I'm even more pessimistic. But, on the other hand, I include myself and my allies in this and, more to the point, I think that we generally overestimate how much individual rationality is actually possible. I've been spending much of my adult life learning to be forgiving of others about this and to see the glass as half-full: that the real triumph here, the true reason for optimism, is not that individual people can be rational and know things, but that we've built cultural institutions and traditions, particularly science, that collectively manage to achieve a much greater amount of rationality and knowledge than is possible in individual human rational capacity.

That's not to say that there aren't less rational competing institutions and traditions or that the more rational ones don't also have occasional failures. But, frankly, I increasingly find it astonishing that we're all not still dancing around the flames worshipping the fire god.

By Keith M Ellis (not verified) on 07 Apr 2013 #permalink

Yeah, we are really not terribly good at building models of the world, in general, that are more complex than what is happening in our own neighborhoods. I read a book not like ago: "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't" It make an interesting point about how most of the time what we are looking at has so many variables in it that we sometimes come up with models that seem to work, for 5-10 years at a time, then implode, when some other variable we hadn't considered changes. The worst, the author states, is "economics", and more specifically, the theory, on the part of much of anyone in wall street, that they can make sane predictions, based on a few weeks of data, or worse, in some cases, less than 24 hours. And, a lot of it comes down to both not knowing which variables are critical, and the completely contradictory idea that we need to only look at those variables "now", without consideration of prior biases, including our own.

In short, our willingness to accept that our conclusions are right should either increase, or decrease, based not just one what happened today, but how certain we where yesterday, and at the start (Bayesian), in contrast to the, far more common, alternative, which says, "What ever your opinion might be, or have been, is irrelevant, only now matters."

We just don't do that kind of analysis. We prefer the latter type, even when not expressed mathematically. But, that type of thinking, and I don't care if you have complex equations, or just "gut feelings" (another author described the human gut in this context as being like Homer Simpson), is what leads people to believe in things like "gambling systems", and the 'gut' feeling that, "This time, the machine will pay out!" It ignores the real variables, when they exist, ignores contradictory information, where the variables are less clear, and presupposes that the outcome is predictable, or that it will be a specific thing, literally from nothing more than a GIGO process (garbage in = garbage out).

If you don't know what is important, or true, and you don't know how to process that into a result, and you thus can't make an accurate prediction about it... you should be going back to the drawing board, or looking at things over a longer time, not, for example, trading stocks, on the "feeling" that the upward trend of stock X will stop tomorrow, or downward trend is ending, and thus it is time to sell/buy respectively. If you don't actually have any data, or functional model, you will lose your shirt at least as often as you get it right. Yet, this is how most of the stock market both a) gets rich, and b) goes broke, and c) implodes, when some variable they are not paying attention to, like the housing market, chain reacts the whole bloody mess, like one of those "room full of mouse traps" demonstrations.

And then, we start making predictions, based on the realization that X does have an effect on Y, or at least some people do, even as someone else goes right back, and creates a new market, with the exact same conditions, or some new set of unknown unknowns, and starts the whole thing all over again.

But, yeah, I think conspiracy thinking ties into this logic pretty well too. It takes a lot of "gaps" tries to fill them in with variables, which may be entirely wrong, or not having the effect they think they do, or which have no connection at all to what is going on, and constructs a "model". The result, if you get really bloody lucky, might have 1-2 false variables, and maybe it works to predict 6 out of 10 similar events, but the fact that it fails at the other 4 is a sign that you got something *hugely* wrong. On the other hand, its also possible that you got *everything* hugely wrong, since 6 out of 10 is "within the margin of error", if you are only using it to test, say, 4 cases, not 400. And, its completely useless, and untestable, and thus impossible to know which parts you have wrong, without outside corroboration of the actual predictions, if the "model" you construct only applies to one single case, like JFK. And, *that* is precisely what is missing - we have variables that people tack on, but absolutely nothing, outside of the variables themselves, and wishful thinking, to show that they "fit" the model.

Keith, the neocons also argued from a position of fear, contagiously picked up from (chief among many) Dick Cheney.

If you look at Cheney's history, it's amply clear that he has lived his entire life in utter abject terror of his own mortality. 1) His evasion of the Vietnam War draft (multiple student and marital deferments, and the moment that marriage was deemed insufficient and a kid was needed, a kid was born nine month later almost to the day). 2) Multiple heart attacks starting at age 30, and ultimately ending up with his own heart replaced with a prosthetic heart pump that in turn depended upon a battery.

Cheney was a man haunted by the Grim Reaper, 24/7/365, for decades. So when the planes hit the skyscrapers, and the Pentagon, that must have been like a full-on PTSD flashback that went on for months. I will bet anyone here the price of a downpayment on a house, that when all is finally known, a number of Cheney's absences to "undisclosed locations" were trips to the hospital to deal with full-blown panic attacks that could have had cardiac consequences.

Keep in mind that emotions are contagious. So here you have Cheney in serious panic mode, and that mood would have directly infected the people adjacent to him, and their collective fear arguably infected the entire US population. Even to this day we see the "constant contact syndrome" of people relentlessly clinging to their mobile devices and freaking out if they lose contact for even a short time: "I was texting you for five minutes, where the heck were you??!!", in response to the "last phone calls from loved ones" meme from 9/11. And we see the submissive attitude about pervasive privacy invasion, also a holdover from those days.

So. What do Washington "think-tanks" do between releasing major reports with much fanfare and publicity? They produce libraries full of other reports that can be used as input to policy discussions in every area of their interest. The neocon think tanks did likewise, including PNAC, and so their assessments of the Middle East and Iraq were readily available to members and friends in the White House. This information arguably influenced the policy discussions and decisions at that point. If nothing else, it was something for terrified people in the White House and policy establishment, to look at and regard as objective and useful.

Further support of this hypothesis comes from the fact that Rumsfeld was specifically directed to _not_ plan for the post-maneuver phase of conflict in Iraq. Rumsfeld was a smart guy, though perhaps somewhat susceptible to something that military theorists call "the seduction of air power" in the quest to reduce casualty counts. But his behavior during that time, threatening his subordinates, yelling at them, and so on, is that of a man under impossible pressure, and is uncharacteristic of his history. He was put under a logical double-bind, which cog sci demonstrates can "break" mammalian brains. And the input that fed the logical double-bind was most likely the frenetic sense of fear in the White House.

This is not to dismiss the errors and mistakes and truly evil things (torture) that occurred in the Bush Administration's response to 9/11, only to suggest that the individuals involved had many of the same human issues that most of us have. Put yourself in the position of being kept alive by a prosthetic heart pump powered by batteries, that could fail at any moment, killing you in a most unpleasant way, and thinking of that every single day, and see what that does to your outlook.

Where opportunistic dishonesty and corruption enter the picture, is where parasites and predators enter any ecosystem, social ecosystems included. The whole piece about Iraq's potential oil wealth would have been intended a) to get Big Oil interested and thereby supporting the invasion, and b) to give them some "favors" for their support. But that was not, IMHO, the primary motive for the Iraq war.

BTW, I'm considerably to the left of Obama, but I have to call this stuff as I see it, including compassion for people in the Bush Administration where called for. And I also cut slack on both sides of the fence, for "gaffes" and suchlike. This also produces the result that when I raise a criticism of a particular person or policy, it's not "concern trolling" as one sees so much in Congress and particularly the Senate.

Lastly, I agree with you that it's surprising we're not still worshipping the fire god, though if the religious right has its way, we'll have the "next best thing," including an edited Bible that removes any reference to actions on the part of Jesus that could suggest he was some kind of communist.


Kagehi, I definitely agree about economics, which is more a set of ideologies and descriptive stats than it is a science in any conventional sense.

Another problem that occurs in markets is what Aldous Huxley picturesquely called "herd poisoning" in a slightly different context. Large numbers of persons, affecting stupendously enormous quantities of money and other assets at the literal twitch of a finger, all subject to emotional contagions and herd behaviors.

Conspiracy theories of the usual sorts, whether about JFK or 9/11 or whatever, at least have not crashed our society's essential systems.

If the downfall of state communism was the combinatorial overload of attempting to centrally manage all the interactions between participants in national economies, the downfall of neo-liberal capitalism will be the chaos math of punctuated equilibria and the theory of flocking behaviors.

Frankly, rather than going after conventional CT, we should be frontally attacking the assumptions on which our economy runs, because those assumptions and resulting behaviors cause real destruction, misery, and death on a large scale.

Conspiracy theories of the usual sorts, whether about JFK or 9/11 or whatever, at least have not crashed our society’s essential systems.

If the downfall of state communism was the combinatorial overload of attempting to centrally manage all the interactions between participants in national economies, the downfall of neo-liberal capitalism will be the chaos math of punctuated equilibria and the theory of flocking behaviors.

Frankly, rather than going after conventional CT, we should be frontally attacking the assumptions on which our economy runs, because those assumptions and resulting behaviors cause real destruction, misery, and death on a large scale.

Ah yes, but you've forgotten about historical examples of conspiracy theories used for abuse of minority groups, and modern examples of conspiratorial thinking used by suppressive regimes. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blood libel etc., used to justify the state persecution of Jews, the red scare and McCarthyism, modern leaders like Ahmadinejad engaging in holocaust denial and various anti-Western conspiracies to justify antagonism towards Israel and the US, the North Korean state propaganda machine, Hugo Chavez (9/11 didn't happen, capitalism killed Mars, Bush is the antichrist etc.).

The presence of cranks in our own congress has proven problematic. Inhofe, for example, with global warming and anti-vaxx crankery, Hatch and laws loosening rules on supplements and alt-med to fully deregulate quackery, the formation of NCCAM (a year waste of over 100million dollars). No, belief in total bullshit is a major problem here and around the world.

The question is, do modern economic theories similarly border on denial of reality? Inasmuch as trickle-down economics, deregulatory madness and austerity have gained hold and remained dominant, despite all the evidence that these practices are terrible for economic downturns, consumer protection, and revenue generation, yes, we have a problem here too. They haven't resorted to conspiracies to support their nonsense (unless you count all the anti-Obama socialism nonsense), but I'll agree, it's some massively-damaging bullshit.

"Conspiracy theory" in the derogatory sense usually applies to hypothesized conspiracies that the powerful within a society, or sometimes people who think they are specially qualified to be opinion molders, don't want common folks to believe in. Your beliefs about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 are supposed to coincide in every particular with the government's public opinions, or you are probably a paranoid or anti-Semite. Yet after 9/11, the Bush administration, especially Cheney, repeatedly suggested to the public that Saddam had helped to perpetrate the event. If a large minority of the public believed the government, that was, according to the general paradigm, good cognitive behavior on their part. (If your government says Saddam is to blame, to suggest that they were phonying up the evidence against him would be a Conspiracy Theory!) The failure of this segment of the population to instantly flip-flop and stop believing the lie when the propaganda stopped coming may show limitations in their information source (thanks, Fox News!) but not necessarily in their cognitive abilities relative to other generally docile and easily suckered citizens.
Since Cheney's task force had already spent time poring over maps of Iraqi oil fields before 9/11, I cannot share the generous assumption of the commenter above that he was motivated by insane fear of olive-skinned people. It seems more likely that, as a successful sociopath, he sees it as just fine to kill or subjugate anyone who stands between his and his cronies' companies and an envisioned fat profit.

Your beliefs about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 are supposed to coincide in every particular with the government’s public opinions, or you are probably a paranoid or anti-Semite.

Except time and time again I've qualified these statements, explained the different rationales between different conspiratorial beliefs, especially with regards to the Kennedy assassination etc. I rejected that the Bush example should even be considered a CT. I know CTs all want to be persecuted as proof of their status as modern Galileos, but give me a break.

The usual response of the CT-prone to the criticism that CTs are inherently defective is that we're just believing "the official conspiracy theory". But this is not correct. There is a big difference between a criminal conspiracy, a cover-up, a run of the mill lying politician(s) with an agenda, and the highly-implausible non-parsimonious conspiracy theory that is designed to explain away evidence, rather than synthesize it.

I know you're not a conspiracist Jane, but you're making their arguments for them, and they're the same one every time. It's a false dichotomy to say if you're not believing the CTs you're automatically eating the government's BS without complaint. This is the classic fallacy. It not between the government version and the CT version. It's about what the evidence shows.

Now, Bush post 9/11 claiming WMDs were in Iraq was highly suspect. Multiple people and intelligence agencies around the world were dissenting with the Bush administrations' conclusions. Powell's presentation at the UN was flimsy, and now with full-knowledge of the reality of the presentation, flimsy is a generous description.

Rejecting CT isn't about rejecting skepticism, it's about realizing true skepticism requires careful evaluation of the quality of different kinds of evidence, acknowledging even with the best evidence that big complicated events generate confusion and uncertainty, and acknowledging one's own tendency towards bias and internal conflict with the data. It also means that once the evidence is in, at some point, you have to accept what it shows.

I had no idea, at the time, if Saddam has WMDs, given the quality of evidence I thought it unlikely, but there was a lot of misinformation out there (including from quality sources such as the NYT). I was relatively confident, at the time, that the Saddam/9/11 link was totally-bogus, because it was so clear that Al Qaeda/OBL were polar opposites ideologically to a someone like Saddam. In neither case did I just "believe the government" and that's not what I'm advocating here. I'm saying believe the evidence, and that means being skeptical of the source, and of course realizing the government often has an agenda.

It's not a conspiracy theory to say we were misled into the Iraq war. Criminal conspiracies do exist. Politicians do lie. What is improbable is that they will do so with such perfection that we're not going to figure it out in like 2 seconds. The whole reason we know about their BS is that the government leaks like sieve, we all know all about curve-ball, we know they were feeding BS to Judith Miller, the evidence all fits and is non-contradictory.

What about being intentionally misled? I still happen to believe that Bush, at least, was a true believer. It's pure opinion, but I don't see him as clever enough to mastermind a dog show. Cheney, on the other hand, has expressed in interviews that he believes that "by any means necessary" is an acceptable option, and while still denying that they used trumped-up evidence, is more or less admitting that the invasion was inevitable. They were going to find an excuse. Is there really a functional difference between intent and such extreme bias that the only data they believed would be that which support what they wanted to be true? Until they admit to intent I won't pretend to know their minds. Either behavior is unacceptable in a world leader.

Let's think about some of the conspiracy theories we're talking about here. Reptilians? I realize it's not the government narrative, but how does it fit the data? Our politicians are trying to undermine US sovereignty for a New World Order? All climate scientists are hoaxing a theory, worldwide with fake data? The US government made 9/11 happen (yet kept everyone quiet on that while failing to produce WMD, better informants than curveball, hiding Scooter Libby's outing of plame, and Petreaus' love affairs)? I mean, the head of the CIA can't keep an affair secret, and these guys think it's possible to have thousands conspire to blow up buildings and fake planes or whatever?

Please. These ideas are laughable. It's perfectly ok to mock conspiracy theories as a sign of defective reasoning because they demonstrate a failure to competently judge evidence. The defense mechanism of the conspiracy theorist is to try to suggest criminal conspiracies, or more typical government malfeasance is somehow proof that they're right, because they're somehow the same thing. They're not. They, if anything, show how absurd the CT is because our government sucks at keeping anything secret.

Re. Mark: I haven't forgotten about historic examples, and in fact we continue to see them in instances such as the persecution and murder of women as "witches" in various parts of the world (Africa and Nepal come to mind if I recall correctly, but the Middle East can always be counted on for religious fanaticism as well). Nor have I forgotten about all the other overt quackery and dumb s--- that goes on in the US Congress, though we might differ on some of the specifics (e.g. we both agree about the anti-vax BS, but I'm more liberal about supplements since by and large they are not a massive public health threat as anti-vaxism is).

But we have got to be clear about the various categories of BS, and frankly your reply indicates a tendency to cross-mix them at the borders.

There's CT (9/11, JFK, etc.), there's medical quackery (e.g. anti-vax), there's anti-scientific quackery (e.g. climate denialism), there's overt obscurantism (suppression of scientific inquiry such as when Bush put a 20-something ideologue in charge of censoring climate reports from NASA), there's imposition of sectarian religion upon politics (e.g. creationism), and of course there's good ol' corruption (which influences many of the others e.g. Inhofe's climate denialism is pretty obvious prostitution). But we need to be clear about what's what, otherwise we risk fighting the wrong battles.

One thing I've learned is that for instances where a debate is conducted among people for whom logical consistency is important, paring it down to the core essentials helps win. Find one diamond-hard nugget of fact that the other side can't make go away, or one question for which they can't possibly believe the answer that their position requires, and you can win. This is a useful way to defeat 9/11 CT for example: just by asking how many people would have had to be involved, and would have had to maintain absolute secrecy during an Administration noted for its inability to keep secrets, as you said.

But another thing that is clearly true, is that for the vast majority of humans, emotion decides and reason explains after the fact. Humans crave emotions: any kind of emotions, the stronger the better. That's why (for example) they go in droves to see films that evoke highly unpleasant emotions: the emotional workout (what Aldous Huxley called "violent passion surrogate," in the same context) followed by the neurochemical rebound to an approximately opposite emotion after the first one has worn off, is intrinsically reinforcing. Emotions are chemicals, chemistry is classical physics, therefore emotions are locally deterministic. QED and the rest follows. For which the clear implication in public debate when dealing with a normal population, is that emotionalisms win every time, except where corruption intercedes.

For example the emotions around the Newtown school shooting are so strong that under any reasonable circumstance they would carry the debate and lead to strong gun control laws. But instead the overtly corrupting influence of the NRA has hijacked that debate by capturing enough Senators to block action. (For the record I'm a moderately strong 2nd A supporter and I also believe in criminal background checks prior to all sales of firearms or ammo, though I don't support psych checks (for privacy reasons) unless an individual has come to the attention of LE due to psychiatrically disturbed behavior.)

In any case what's needed is a broad-based movement for intellectual rigor and intellectual honesty. We can discuss priorities and then proceed. IMHO the first priority should be to frontally attack the utter bull---- that constitutes our national economic religion: starting with the pernicious myth of "growthism," that unlimited economic growth is possible on a finite planet. (Hint: I'll see to it that anyone who can prove that an infinite plane can be mapped to a Euclidean solid, gets nominated for a Field Prize.) But the fact that a small fraction of a percent of the population regularly wastes money going to fortune-tellers, should be way way down the list of priorities. Anti-vaxism is a high priority because it massively threatens public health; "energy healing" is a low priority because it affects only a tiny number. Etc. etc. But notice, none of those examples are conventional CT: they are different types of nonsense.

If the "elders of Zion" crap makes enough of a comeback to even touch policy in Washington, at least for the next two decades, I'll be shocked. After that it's anyone's guess since the Holocaust will by that point be sufficiently removed from living memory that the mass forgetting of history may become a factor. Though I will freely admit that I once believed that racism had been just about wiped out in the US as far as any concrete effects were concerned, until I got my eyes opened by a few specific examples that were utterly egregious, and then of course all the racism directed against Obama. But again, we need to be clear about which categories of BS we're talking about here, because they may operate differently and we need to know that for the purpose of defeating as much of it as possible.


Re. Jane: The reason Cheney et. al. had been poring over Iraqi oil maps, is that a prominent advocate of the "peak oil" theory (first proposed by a Shell oil geologist named Hubbert, and proven correct for US domestic oil production, then extrapolated to world oil production) got a meeting with Bush early on (and presumably Cheney). His powerpoint presentation ended up published online and it was a real doozy in terms of predictions of gloom & doom. No doubt Bush took him seriously, and Cheney did as well.

What they should have done was move toward strengthening energy policy in general, and in fact they did that to some extent: Bush opened up more federal land to wind energy exploration & development than any previous president, and he also stood up for nuclear fission (breaking the anti-nuclear taboo). But the oil fear was still a strong element, and it probably converged with the 9/11 panic to end up contributing to the desire to engage Big Oil in the support for the Iraq war. So, once again, no conspiracies, but a lot of common cultural assumptions working in complex ways (some of them actually productive e.g. wind power and nuclear fission).

Cheney was not a sociopath, he was a ferocious case of thanatophobia (fear of death) and also a thorough cynic. The Wall Street fraudsters are diagnosable sociopaths. Newt Gingrich is a diagnosable narcissist. Tom Delay is a sociopath. Mitt Romney arguably has sociopathic tendencies but is more likely borderline personality disorder. There's another famous name who is also most likely borderline personality disorder, but I can't recall who it is at this moment. Antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy) is the biggest psychiatric pandemic in the USA, and if it received half the attention that autism spectrum disorders receive, we would be in for a real eye-opener as to how many sociopaths are in high places.


Mark, here's an example of a hypothesis that diverges from the official line without delving into CT, and it's convergent with a point you made.

Consider the fact that both 9/11 and 7/7 coincided with major anti-terrorism exercises on the same respective days, on the part of (respectively) the US military, and British law enforcement. Next consider Ahmed Chalabi, the neocons' darling, until he was found to have told the Iran gov that the USA had successfully broken Iran's top-level military & diplomatic encryption systems (this was published in Time Magazine among other places; and crypto secrets of this kind are our most guarded intelligence secrets: that one leak from Chalabi to Iran gov would have set us back by years).

Here we have a guy (Chalabi) who had access to people in the neocon establishment and in the higher levels of the White House, who ultimately turned out to be in the business of selling truly important state secrets to the presumably highest bidder, in other words a spy for hire. For him to have gotten hold of the information that the US had cryptanalyzed Iran, would have required that various people were freely blabbing to him about things that he was in no way officially cleared to hear about (as far as I know he held no formal clearances whatsoever).

Thus it is entirely reasonable to suggest that someone in the Bush Administration leaked to Chalabi that the US was going to conduct an anti-terrorism exercise on 9/11/2001, and four years later, that England was going to do likewise on 7/7/2005. And given what we know about Chalabi it is entirely probable that he went off and sold that information wherever he could: and it made its way around to Al Qaeda, who decided to launch their attacks on those specific dates to take advantage of the "fog of war" confusion over what was in the drill and what was in the actual attack.

This isn't a "conspiracy" theory, it's a "loose-lipped idiots theory" if anything: an incompetence theory. And I'm quite sure that in the end this will be found to be correct. But notice that it's neither the official policy line, nor any sort of CT, and if it does prove out, it does not change our assessment of Bush or Cheney or their immediate subordinates: it merely points to the existence of a few people in the Administration who would have casually blabbed things they shouldn't have, to a guy who turned out to be a spy for hire.

This is also convergent with your point that our gov sucks at keeping secrets. Though, Obama has done _much_ better at keeping real secrets, than Bush did, plus or minus various incidents at the periphery such as Bradley Manning's bipolar manic romp at the behest of a manipulative narcissist twice his age (Assange). (If only Obama was as strong on personal privacy issues: about which I am seriously disappointed in his apparent support of all manner of gov and corporate intrusions.)


As for Saddam and WMD: It was clear to me that the case for him having nukes was flimsy at best, but I made the mistake of believing that Colin Powell was acting honestly. I concluded incorrectly, that the real issue was potential biological weapons, and that the Bush Admin was using a nuke threat as a cover for a biological threat, for legitimate strategic and tactical reasons. Ooops! After Powell left the Administration it started to become clear that he was highly pissed off for having been taken advantage of: his soldier's sense of duty used as leverage to play upon the public's belief in his soldier's sense of honor. His statements about this since that time, via his assistant (a guy named Wilkerson if I recall correctly) have been ferociously damning of the Bush Admin.

In the end, Bush was the King Midas of Poo: Everything he touched turned to s---. I honestly feel compassion for him and for Cheney, in an approximately Buddhist way. And we are still suffering from the economic catastrophe that their policies unleashed, which in another decade or two will be referred to in retrospect as an economic depression.


Yes, 9/11 CT is laughable, but in the end it's harmless compared to anti-vax CT, which in turn doesn't even hold a candle to climate denialism in terms of the ultimate death toll each will end up having.

But let's not make the mistake of going for the easy laughs, when there are far more serious forms of BS afoot, that are truly threatening humanity's future.

Agreed with most, however:

There’s CT (9/11, JFK, etc.), there’s medical quackery (e.g. anti-vax), there’s anti-scientific quackery (e.g. climate denialism),

At the heart of all denialism is a conspiracy theory. Climate denialism, as elucidated in this survey, was based on individuals' belief in a "hoax". That's a conspiracy theory on the level of 9/11 trooferism, that all the scientists in the world are in on some devious plan to fake data for the new world order. Similarly with anti-vax, the need to explain why none of the data supports their beliefs is explained away with conspiracy theories about suppressed data, big pharma, scientists colluding to hide the troof.

One of the main theses of denialism has always been, at the root of all science denial is the conspiracy theory. It's an integral part of denial, because at some point you have to explain why no legitimate science or data backs your view.

We need to create awareness that whenever you hear someone starting to spout a CT, you should immediately discount anything they are about to say, because it's invariably bullshit, usually has an agenda, and it's not sound reasoning. Since each anti-science movement or BS movement has a CT at it's core, creating contempt for CT as a whole creates contempt for anti-science.

Mark - There are those who will namecall anyone who diverges in the slightest from the standard opinion. I never put those words into YOUR mouth, but they are in the mouths of others. Take 9/11 for example. It's ludicrous to claim that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, or that the Twin Towers were brought down by shaped charges. It isn't equally ludicrous for people to think the debris pattern of the Flight 93 crash was a bit weird. Or another example: Fox News prepared then killed a series of reports about a group of Mossad agents who were apparently surveilling several of the hijackers in Florida. It's not obviously unreasonable to wonder what, if anything, those guys knew or suspected about the plan. Now if people are still paying attention to this thread, I'll be called an anti-Semite within 24 hours. Nope, not even close.

You seem to be defining Conspiracy Theory as a theory that we don't, at least by consensus, have adequate reason to believe, and that therefore shouldn't even be considered - "immediately discount anything they are about to say, because it's invariably bullshit". To you, since there's too much evidence that Cheney and cronies did conspire to start a war to make thinking so a mental or moral failing, that belief is not a Conspiracy Theory. But it is also not in the realm of simple fact, since there's never been a full open investigation, and most conservatives refuse to believe it. And it is a theory about a conspiracy. To say "it's not a conspiracy theory, because there's too much evidence that there WAS a conspiracy" would be to define "conspiracy theory" only as belief in truly successful conspiracies (ones that were never fully unmasked), while simultaneously claiming that truly successful conspiracies cannot exist. I refuse to believe the latter a priori.

It isn’t equally ludicrous for people to think the debris pattern of the Flight 93 crash was a bit weird.

Umm, wrong. Why do you think it's weird?

Or another example: Fox News prepared then killed a series of reports about a group of Mossad agents who were apparently surveilling several of the hijackers in Florida

If Fox killed it, how do you know it existed? More importantly, if it were from Fox, why would you believe it's true?

Re. Mark: I agree that at root, climate denialism necessarily requires CT as a precondition, and I've even used that point in arguements: "Do you _really believe_ that there's a conspiracy on the part of 99% of the world's climate scientists?" But interestingly, the comeback I always get when I use that one, is "common cultural assumptions." For example, "they all believe certain things as a matter of ideology or paradigm, that biases their analyses." So if we're going to go after the CT in climate denialism, we have to find a way to isolate it from the "common culture" counter-arguement: a "hard nugget of fact" or a question for which the logical answer breaks the denial paradigm. One such question I've found can work at least at the surface level of reasoning, though not so far at the level of emotional biases, is "what if I'm wrong? and what if you're wrong?" The logical answer is: if I'm wrong we end up investing in a bunch of nuclear & renewables that we might not have needed so soon, but if you're wrong we end up with an evolutionary bottleneck in less than a century."

Emotional determinism is clearly at work there: those who buy into climate denialism are usually in comfortable positions of one kind or another, and are defending their sense of comfort by defending whatever status-quo makes it possible. The sense of comfort is the goal, the climate crisis is seen as a threat to that goal or as an unwelcome intrusion of some kind, and denialism is a means of defense. BTW, if you operationalize "comfort" as "a state of satisfaction based upon minimal expenditure of effort," much becomes clear about human behaviors and attitudes in general.

There comes a point where the only viable response to certain things is the blunt exercise of power. If someone insists upon drunk driving, and no amount of persuasion will stop them, we try to "keep the keys," and if we can't do that, we call the police to pull them over and put them under arrest. Since the climate crisis is a true existential threat, we are well justified in amassing a sufficient majority of voters to force our elected representatives to deal with it or lose their jobs in the next election. For this we only need to persuade the uncommitted, which is much more easily accomplished with rational arguement. There is no need to persuade the hard-core denialists: just bypass them at the ballot box and get on with the job of converting our energy infrastructure to nuclear and renewables.

And for dealing with the anti-vaxers, once again, the exercise of blunt power: deny "religious exemptions" altogether, just as we would deny religious exemptions to the building code or the sanitary code in restaurants. If you were a building inspector and someone came to you demanding to build a house without indoor plumbing, on the basis that the walls of Jericho were a sufficient latrine in Biblical times and they were doing to do likewise in their back yard, you'd tell them to get lost, and no court in the land would uphold them. Anti-vaxism should be recognized as belonging to the same category as backyard-poopism and simply denied across the board, no religious exemptions, no exceptions except medical (e.g. weak immune system etc.). One would have thought that outbreaks of _whooping cough_ in infants would have been sufficient to get the ball rolling on this, but apparently it's going to take some kind of epidemic or pandemic outbreak with four figures or more in casualties. We shall see...

One way to get at this one might be with a dose of reverse psychology: for example introduce a ballot measure in California that establishes a right of religious exemption to any government policy that is based on science, and specifically enumerate the building code and various sanitary codes for homes and businesses. At the same time launch another ballot measure denying any such exemptions across the board, which would include vax exemptions. Word each one such that whichever one receives the most Yes votes goes into effect, and this will ratchet up the competition between advocates for each. But I digress;-)

You have an interesting hypothesis that "creating contempt for CT creates contempt for anti-science [attitudes, altogether]." I'm going to try that one on some people I know who have fallen for some of the BS.

One thing I found that actually worked once, was: When someone at a social dinner started to voice support for the "chem-trails" CT (I'm sure you know about this one), I couldn't shut myself up in time as I blurted out, "Oh good grief!, you don't believe in _that_ horse s---, do you?!" That shut them down, shut them up, and put a stop to any risk that they'd try to spread or recruit for that meme on that occasion. They may have still gone on believing it for all I know, but at least they didn't try to spread it at that gathering, and they might have become just a wee bit more shy about bringing it up elsewhere.

I'm up for testing any social pressure strategy that anyone can make a logical case has a chance of working.


As for Mossad agents surveilling 9/11 hijackers: There was at least one FBI agent who sent in reports about at least one of the hijackers in Florida. But headquarters wouldn't authorize a full-on investigation because the specifics in that case weren't considered strong enough, and FBI didn't have the CIA data about a probable AQ attack to persuade them. It's also true that many countries, even friends & allies, run intel ops on each others' turf, and Israel is no exception. So it would not surprise me if Mossad agents were running around the US watching stuff that they thought might come back to harm Israel at some point.

And there is nothing insidious or suspicious about any of that: about FBI or Mossad running across some of those Al Qaedas at one point or another, or about Mossad being active in the US, or about inaction in higher places, or about Pox Noize dropping a story that might not fit with their ideological predisposition.

But we also see what happens here when people have their danger thresholds set too high. Bush pooh-poohed the CIA briefing, someone at FBI didn't take the early reports on the guy in Florida seriously enough, etc. etc.: all of these were cases of failure to recognize very real dangers. On their behalf it can be said that when one works in an environment where fire alarms are always going off, it becomes very difficult to recognize which one points to a real fire. But we count on these individuals being able to discern the fires from the false alarms, and others in their positions have done so successfully, so it is not unreasonable to criticize those who don't.

So if someone gives you any stuff about "the Mossad running around in the US," the come-back to that is, "Yeah and we have CIA case officers in every one of our overseas embassies. So?"

(BTW, FBI employees are "agents" and the unpaid civilians who help them are "sources," but CIA employees are "case officers" and the (usually unpaid) foreign nationals who help them are "agents." It's slightly confusing, but none the less, using the language correctly is helpful when debating these issues.)

Ha! Thanks for demonstrating my point. Dean, one of the reports was leaked on the Web. Since the original post was not about 9/11 and I do not personally think it certain that Mossad knew what was about to happen, I won't be diverted to discussing the evidence for and against that suspicion. However, given known historical facts, it's simply not the case that this hypothesis is equally as implausible as the theory that the buildings were destroyed by explosive charges - or that Queen Elizabeth is a reptilioid. People can see that.

In general, a conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain observed historical or current facts as the intended or unintended consequence of deliberate self-interested actions by some group of humans (or, fine, Reptilioids). Many such hypotheses are mostly true (I doubt any hypothesis dealing with the complexities of human behavior could be entirely true) and are widely believed. Many (herein termed Conspiracy Theories) are mostly or entirely false and are widely rejected. Between these extremes, there's a vast two-dimensional array of intermediates, which includes some hypotheses that might possibly be true but that most people [within a given social/cultural context] would prefer not to believe because they have unpleasant implications. To label these Conspiracy Theories, effectively demanding that they not be believed *even if they should be true*, is to say that the cultural contexts in which the implications are perceived as negative are to be privileged over those in which they are not.

Jane, are you talking about this nonsense?

But this is besides the point. CTs love to try to blur the line between non-parsimonious conspiracy theories and more ordinary malfeasance. It's not about whether or not I want to believe something. It's about whether or not the evidence for the theory synthesizes all the available data.

The non-parsimonious conspiracy theory does not explain, or inform, it misinforms. It distorts the facts to fit an agenda that the CT wants to push. And I have to say, there was nothing weird about the flight 93 debris pattern. What is the implication? It was shot down? Those passengers weren't really there? All those family members getting calls from their loved once right before it crashed (and photographed almost immediately by a local) are liars?

The Mossad conspiracy theory is a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory as well. So what if Fox news made a story and scrubbed it? News agencies do this all the time. Maybe a source fell through, maybe on fact checking they found out it was BS. With all the confusion surrounding the events of the day, all sorts of initial false reports got filed while people are casting about for correct information. You think this is evidence of a cover-up of Fox? Bush called them up and made them cancel the report because it would uncover a Mossad operation? You think journalists would keep a real story like that quiet?

The much cited "Israeli agents" ultimately turned out to just be 4 illegal immigrants who made the mistake of arousing the suspicion of some cop, ultimately getting deported for not having adequate visas. Only a CT would think that's evidence of them being intelligence agents, who would, if anything, have legitimate papers!

Jane, it's a little disturbing you think there is something to this stuff, I'm worried we've discovered some subtle LIHOP crankery. Spend more time on the JREF forums or the debunking sites. There's nothing to this stuff.

" one of the reports was leaked on the Web. "

It isn't clear to me whether you are referring to your Florida Mossad agents or the "weird" debris pattern to which you alluded.

You still haven't stated what you mean by "weird" patterns (and please don't, I don't need to read another mind-numbing collection of unrelated and primarily false statements). You aren't helping your defense by making these ``snippety'' comments that hint you know something without saying what it might be.

Heh! Nice straw man, Mark; no, not that nonsense, and Dean, they aren't [or weren't] "my" Mossad agents. Given two known facts - the U.S.S. Liberty and the fact that Bibi's first unscripted response to 9/11 was "It's very good..." - I do not personally view it as impossible that the Israeli government could have suspected we were about to be attacked and just kept their traps shut. Not proven true, note, but not impossible either. I genuinely don't know if it's true or not, so I don't hold a strong belief either way.

I do know that pretending that asking the question is like believing in Icke's reptilioids does not get you points with the admittedly diminishing segment of the public that prefers to do its own thinking. You see, since you brought up and focused on 9/11, I mentioned this theory solely to serve as an example of a 9/11-related conspiracy theory that is more plausible than some others you used as straw men. Not all consensus truths are equally certain, so questioning them is not equally unreasonable in all cases.

Your theory is as bat crap stupid as the rest. You think it is more reasonable because it is yours.