Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Let's Go Debunking...
WE LOVE THIS STUFF. There are all kinds of theories, notions, and arguments that are subject to debunking. We like the adversarial quality of the process, because it's frequently as challenging and entertaining as it can be informative. Which is a pretty cool combination when you think about it. The reason for the post is that I saw an excellent two-hour production by the National Geographic Channel last night on the subject of 9/11 conspiracy theories. It was a thoroughly professional piece of journalism, and I highly recommend that everyone plan to watch the next national airing of the show on September 5th.
The first hour and three-quarters was all science, including abundant experiments and technical recreations which blew apart the contentions of the (mostly) engineer conspiracy theorists they focused on, who were filmed without much in the way of editorial comment or editing designed to make them look like lunatics in the way that editing can. But the final 15 minutes chugged on at the same deliberate pace, in the same dispassionate tone, to consider why conspiracy theorists believe what they believe and where exactly their beliefs run afoul of reality and common sense.
The narrator conceded forthrightly that none of the mountain of evidence and expertise employed in the show was likely to have any effect on those who believe in the conspiracy. Their approach to the evidence rests on a psychological foundation which represents a deliberate choice in favor of a reality they prefer to the reality most other people would accept as real. In this case, they prefer a reality in which powerful American politicians and their henchmen create an illusion of a world that hates America for being America to a world in which irrational fanatics really do hate America for being America. The difference, for them, amounts almost to a religious conviction, which cannot be argued away by mere facts.
Also part of this final segment was a summary of the problems conspiracy theorists face in trying to defend their beliefs. They're on relatively safe ground when they're nitpicking the facts in evidence. But when they must come forward with a counter-theory that accounts for the facts no one disputes, they run into manifold violations of common sense that can never pass the laugh test. The 9/11 conspiracy they envision would necessarily have involved thousands, if not tens of thousands, of accomplices, all of whom have kept silent throughout the years of reporting and analysis on the event. And the conspiracy itself involves all kinds of wholly unnecessary substitutions, deceptions, and switches that make sense only as components of a particular, and usually silly, reconstruction of events whose whole rationale is to explain away what thousands of witnesses actually saw.
But there is also an interesting corollary of the logic laid out in the National Geographic piece. Which is that not all conspiracy theories or outright hoaxes are created equal. There are some key criteria which determine how likely it is that a given theory or hoax might actually succeed. For example, a theory that requires only a handful of conspirators has a much better chance of succeeding than something like the 9/11 conspiracy. Even a larger number of conspirators has some chance of success if the conspirators are homogeneous and highly disciplined rather than so diverse as to require civilian conspirators as the 9/11 theory does (e.g., blue-collar building "imploders," who would have required months of preparation to bring down the WTC towers.) There's also the old dictum of "follow the money," which in this case indicts the conspiracy theorists more than anyone else. The conspiracists on TV are getting publicity, fame, speaking engagements, and in the case of the "Loose Change" producer abundant revenue by promoting the conspiracy. Who, for example, has had the strongest economic incentive over the years to keep alive the theory that JFK was assassinated by anyone and everyone but Lee Harvey Oswald? Conspiracy, in a word, can be an enterprise. And a damned profitable one at that.
Finally, there's the role played by human ignorance. False ideas can be smoothly perpetuated by exploiting what people don't know or appealing to preconceptions that favor the ideas being peddled. For example, all some literal readers of the Bible need to dismiss Evolution is the fact that scientists claim the earth is billions of years old. For them, no other evidence is needed that Darwin and all his followers are in error. For another example, most people tend to believe what they are told often enough without reference to the fact that there are those who disagree on substantive grounds, like, again, the neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution, which was undermined (at least) by one of the discoverers of DNA on the grounds that there simply hasn't been enough time in the history of the earth to account for the complexity of nature's most sophisticated molecule; it must have come from somewhere else, directed by an extra-terrestrial intelligence (not God, obviously, but most conspiracy theories rule out God, don't they?)
Of course, most people don't think they're really ignorant or gullible or divorced from reality. Some, like the nation's prosperous professional debunkers, think all theories and notions that conflict with the settled "way of things" are lunacy. That's why the remainder of this post is devoted to showing you some additional examples, illustrations, and exceptions in the exciting field of "debunking."
First up is what I think is, hopefully, a noncontroversial example of the fact that even the most literate and educated among us may harbor some convictions that are more or less false. The subject is Third World Myths. The video is far more entertaining than we have any right to expect, so I encourage you to watch all of it.
Note that there's no actual conspiracy involved in all the wrong-headed assumptions so many people have. We've simply absorbed a set of preconceptions that aren't quite true and are, in some cases, spectacularly false. Now consider how many times we've believed generalizations put forward by people who don't really know much more than we do, except that they're speaking on camera, with an air of authority. Even experts in a variety of scientific fields can be persuaded by such misinformation. How much of what we all "know" to be true is false?
Next, a teaser for a program I wish the National Geographic would pursue with the same dispassionate rigor on display in the 9/11 show. It's about Global Warming. Remember the criteria laid out above -- the facilitating role of ignorance, even among "experts," and the age-old advisory to "follow the money." There can be such a thing as a "herd conspiracy," led by no one in particular but unified by the vast, common self-interest of willing or intimidated accomplices.
But I want to be clear about one key point. Not all conspiracy theories can be dismissed out of hand. It's just that the rules of rigor always apply. A theory gets more credible if 1) its participants could have been very few in number, 2) no more than one coincidence is required to believe it, and 3) some or many of those involved in the precipitating event were incompetent, lazy, or possessed of some incentive to make inconvenient facts go away. On this side of the argument, I bring you the Robert F. Kennedy assassination in two video segments:
I have no idea what the truth is about the RFK assassination. But there is reason to wonder if the facts might be different from what they're alleged to be. It's not crazy to keep probing. It's probable that Sirhan Sirhan was the lone assassin, but not quite certain. The truth of the matter could lie in the disposition and actions of one additional guy in that hotel pantry. That's the definition of "plausible."
Sorry to have carried on for so long. In recompense I'll close with a fully effective debunking of a wholly silly bit of propaganda. You'll like it. I promise.