27 August 2011
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
The author, a Canadian journalist, spent three years researching this subject focusing on the "Truther" movement. This included surfing Truther Internet forums, attending Truther conventions and a number of one-to-one interviews. For those who have not come across them before, a Truther is someone who believes that the 9/11 attacks were not the work of Al Qaeda but instead believes one of a number of alternative conspiracy theories, most of which include the leadership of the US government amongst the conspirators.
In the preface, the author cites surveys showing that a reducing number of Americans "basically trust their government." The percentage has fallen from 73% in 1958 to 22% in 2010. He writes:
"Conspiracy theories, the subject of this book, are both a leading cause and a symptom of this intellectual and civic crisis. When a critical mass of educated people in a society lose their grip on the real world – when they claim that George W. Bush is a follower of Nazi ideology, that Barack Obama is a Muslim secretly plotting to impose Sharia law on America, that the United States government is controlled by Israel, or that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] is preparing to imprison political dissidents in preparation for a totalitarian New World Order – it is a signal that the ordinary rules of rational intellectual enquiry are now treated as optional. It is not unusual for intellectuals and politicians to reject their opponents' arguments. But it is the mark of an intellectually pathologised society that intellectuals and politicians will reject their opponents' realities."
The author acknowledges that some conspiracies are real and gives the examples of Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Teapot Dome scandal. He also recognises that some questions can be hard to answer if not insoluble:
"There is always a tiny grain of truth at the core of popular conspiracy theories, even in the case of concocted ones. Or at least some vexing question. How did Adolf Hitler exterminate European Jewry without the Allies finding out about it earlier? How was Lee Harvey Oswald able to shoot JFK twice within such a short period of time? Why does the US flag appear to flutter in the moon landing footage? In most cases, experts can provide persuasive answers. But sometimes, the truth is that we simply don't know."
Contrary to my expectations when I bought it, the book neither details the 9/11 conspiracy theories nor spends any time rebutting them. However it does mention some resources that readers wanting to learn more about the conspiracy theories and their rebuttals can turn to.
The book "Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand up to the Facts" by the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine.
The website Links for 9/11 Research compiled by Mark Roberts.
The blog Screw Loose Change.
“The 9-11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Official Government Edition” I have a hard copy of this and have read most of it and recommended very highly. Unlike many official publications, it is very readable.
Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster: Final Report of the National Construction Safety Team on the Collapses of the World Trade Center Towers (NIST NCSTAR 1)
An educational forum to discuss 9/11 conspiracy theories set up by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
The author considers the definition of "conspiracy theory" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary "a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot" to be unsatisfactory as it applies to both real conspiracies and to the type of conspiracy discussed in his book. He writes:
"So instead, I adopt the narrower definition set out by Oxford University conspiracy theory scholar Steve Clarke and Brian Keeley of Pitzer College (formerly of Washington University): A theory that traces important events to a secret, nefarious cabal, and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their theory, but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high-level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society."
In the following review, I have touched on some topics that I found particularly interesting and do not attemp to mention all of the chapters.
In this chapter, the author identifies three historical influences on American society:
(1) America's religious tradition of apocalyptic millenarianism.
(2) America's original political culture based upon the independent yeoman farmer which struggled to come to terms with the modern society that began in the late 19th century where economic and political power is highly concentrated.
(3) Frightening new technology such as space travel and nuclear energy controlled by a new class of menacing technocrats.
The author reminds us of the impact on the American psyche of the assassination of President Kennedy. "More than one million Americans were moved to write condolence letters to Jacqueline Kennedy in the months after the assassination." He mentions an estimate that by the early 1990s over 2,000 books had been written about the assassination and that 95% of them alleged some form of conspiracy to kill the president.
The author also mentions a typology that he calls "Flowchart Conspiracism" which proceeds by drawing organisation charts of interconnected conspirators. He spends several pages on Daniel Estulin's book "The True Story of the Bilderberg Group". In 1954 a group of 50 Europeans and 11 Americans met in a Dutch hotel, the Hotel de Bilderberg, near Arnhem. It has continued to meet annually in various locations on an invitation only and is alleged by Estulin to be a conspiracy that controls the world bringing together such organisations as the CIA, Mossad, MI6, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and others.
In passing I have attended the first two meetings of a Muslim retreat called the Concordia Forum and my aspiration is to have someone write a book about us alleging similar global power!
In this chapter the author looks at the conspiracy theory set out in "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion". I have some more background on that conspiracy theory elsewhere on my website in the review of “Voodoo Histories” by David Aaronovitch.
The Protocols are chosen because the conspiracy is set out in some detail, has been thoroughly debunked, and has a typology which is reflected in most modern conspiracy theories including the various 9/11 conspiracy theories. The author identifies some recurring traits.
The conspiracy theory identifies a single overarching power that controls history. He writes:
“This psychic need to impute all evil to a lone, omnipotent source inevitably requires the conspiracist to create larger and larger meta-conspiracies that sweep together seemingly unconnected power centres. This is why, as discussed in the previous chapter, modern conspiracy theorists are so fond of flowcharts – in which all of society's actors can systematically be grouped into cascading hierarchies that soar upwards to a single, ultimate puppetmaster."
The conspiracy theorist believes that those behind the conspiracy are willing to annihilate whole swathes of humanity and will do literally anything to advance their dark plots. He writes:
"As noted elsewhere, influential Truther Michael Ruppert believes the 9/11 plot is part of a long-term conspiracy aimed at exterminating most of humankind…”
The author points out that prior to the 20th century most European conspiracy theories were about the plots of outsiders seeking to seize power from society's rightful aristocratic stewards. However in the Protocols this changed: "the evil doer was no longer the outsider, sneaking into villages under cover of darkness to poison wells and steal babies. He was now entrenched in the banks, the trading houses, the salons, the Masonic lodges, and all the rest of society's nerve centres." Similarly Truthers place the source of their conspiracy at the heart of the US government.
The author reminds us of the famous "Cross of gold" speech by Williams Jennings Bryan and its "financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world." He points out that while William Jennings Bryan was obsessed with gold, a key component of most conspiracy theories is that the evil conspirators are plotting to control some crucial substance whether it be oil, body parts, the life force of children etc.
This concept occurs repeatedly in the Protocols with the Jews being willing to engineer any form of human tragedy for financial gain. Modern conspiracy theories also lay great stress on cui bono; for example the author mentions that Truther Webster Tarpley believes that the unsuccessful shooting of President Ronald Reagan was organised by Vice President George H.W. Bush in order to gain the presidency. Of course the Truthers point towards the neocons, the military-industrial complex, Wall Street and the oil industry as the “beneficiaries” of 9/11.
The conspirators are capable of doing almost anything as part of the plot.
The author details the theory of A.K. Dewdney, a retired Canadian mathematician who believes that there were no Arab hijackers. The passengers were killed using sarin gas and the planes were flown into their targets by government programmed computers. This theory has to deal with the inconvenient fact that a number of passengers made telephone calls to their loved ones from the aircraft. Dewdney’s explanation is that the phone calls were faked in real-time by US government agents working from the equivalent of a secret call centre with a detailed computerised script. There are almost two pages of explanation of Dewdney's fantasy. He writes:
"Even as the conspiracy theorist imagines a world-controlling cabal that is subhuman in this lack of pity, morality, honesty, and empathy, he is simultaneously awestruck by their superhuman intelligence, ambition, guile, discipline, and singularity of purpose.
Given the evildoer’s massive intellect, it is imagined that he has access to – or seeks to perfect – doomsday machines and other science fiction technology is worthy of Dr No. Truther David Ray Griffin, for instance, warns readers in his many books that 9/11 is in fact a "Space Pearl Harbor" that will somehow lead to the weaponisation of the cosmos."
In this chapter the author changes the emphasis from looking at conspiracies to focusing more closely on the individual conspiracy theorists themselves and the factors which cause some people to become conspiracy theorists.
The author spends several pages discussing Richard Gage, an architect who heads up a group called "Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth." Gage gave up his career to become a full-time Truther, in the process losing his wife, but he was remarkably upbeat when the author interviewed him. The author also profiles David Solway. In both cases he considers the underlying motivation to be a midlife crisis. He writes:
"In their new role as radical truth-seekers, they have an opportunity to reinvent themselves in front of a new audience of strangers who have little knowledge of their past lives, and who evaluate them entirely on the basis of their newly created identity.
Like all forms of midlife crisis, this sudden lurch into conspiracism offers middle-aged men a sense of revitalisation and adventure. In some ways, in fact, it offers an even more complete escape than the proverbial mistress and sports car. For a middle-aged man who’s grown tired of life's familiar patterns, conspiracism provides more than just fresh surroundings: it offers an entirely new reality."
The writer begins by looking at various alternative theories about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare, and how these theories keep being modified as inconvenient information appears. He categorises failed historians as those for whom "conspiracy theories are a tool to eliminate the cognitive dissonance that arises when the course of human events doesn't cooperate with the results demanded by their ideology."
He refers to George Orwell's 1945 essay "Notes on Nationalism" which explains how ardent nationalists “inevitably lapse into fantasy when history does not unfold as their parochial vision demand.” He considers that many Muslim conspiracists fall into this category as do others who are stridently anti-American.
After discussing the persuasiveness of damaged survivors in the context of anti-vaccination conspiracies, (for example the incorrect allegation that the MMR vaccine causes autism) the author recounts:
"During my interviews in the New York City area, I met a variety of Truthers who fell into the damaged-survivor category: emotionally traumatised parents, children, siblings or spouses of 9/11 victims, including one genuinely pitiful middle-aged protester who carried a sign featuring a picture of a handsome young man alongside the words "The NOW [New World Order] murdered my cousin Bradley Van Hoorn."
He goes on to explain:
"Damaged survivors are particularly effective as recruiters for conspiracist movements because the spectacle of their grief short-circuits our intellectual faculties – much in the same way that graphic testimony from a crime victim can sway the jury to convict an innocent defendant. “When I saw Bob [McIlvane] cry at the Commission hearing in New York in 2004, it broke my heart," Pennsylvania-based 911blogger.com founder Jon Gold told me when I asked him what drove his activism. "The anger I felt when I saw we were lied to was enormous. I couldn't imagine how much extra pain must have been felt by those who actually lost people. I believe they deserve better."
The author gives the example of David Icke who claims to have received messages from another dimension and who believes that at the top of the conspiracy is an alien race of lizard-people who control the world. There are others who have a similar mindset.
"Central to the Cosmic Voyager's worldview is the fictional reconstruction of human history – often according to some foundational myth about an ancient, Edenic society whose inhabitants frolicked about blissfully, until some cataclysm or shadowy cabal dispersed them. In this spirit, Cosmic Voyagers usually become obsessed with Stonehenge, Mayan eschatology, the lost tribes of Israel, Dan Brown-esque Christian pseudohistory, Atlantis, the pyramids of Egypt, Easter Island, and other markers of a supposed master civilisation."
Very few conspiracy theorists are clinically insane. The author writes:
"Only a small minority of the Truthers I encountered seemed out-and-out insane. This should not be surprising: the 9/11 Truth movement is a socially constructed conspiracist phenomenon – cobbled together on the Internet from the contributions of thousands of different people. Genuinely insane paranoiacs usually cannot take part in this sort of collaborative effort because they are incapable of extended social interaction in any medium."
Despite that, the author does give a couple of examples of Truthers whom he regards as delusional.
Before looking at crank Truthers, the author warms us up with the example of Ignatius Donnelly, a Republican congressman in 1868 who became obsessive about Atlantis. The author identifies a number of Truthers whom he classifies as cranks and writes:
"As a conspiracist, the crank’s defining feature is an acute, inveterately restless, furiously contrarian intelligence. Many cranks have an Asperger's-like obsession with arithmetic, flowcharts, maps, and lengthy data lists. Like Donnelly, they are unable to take any expert's word in even the most technical subject. The crank can be satisfied only once he has personally established the truth of his theories using nothing but primary sources and the rules of logic.
… For reasons that seem obvious to me from such experiences, there are no crank women, only crank men.
Typically, the crank is a math teacher, computer scientist, chess player, or investigative journalist – careers in which the mind is trained to tease complex patterns out of empirical data. Like Donnelly, many come to their crankdom in middle age, or at the end of their working lives, as they are casting about for some project to occupy their hyperactive brains. In some cases, cranks are high-functioning intellectuals frustrated by a menial profession (the most notorious example being the voluble taxi driver with a crank theory about every news item that comes across his radio).”
"Conspiracism is attractive to the Doomsayer because it organises all of the world's menacing threats into one monolithic force – allowing him to reconcile the bewildering complexities of our secular world with the good-versus-evil narrative contained in the book of Revelation and other religious texts."
The author points out that Evangelical Doomsayers need not be Evangelists or even Christians, and gives a list of other religious movements and cults which have adopted similar eschatology. "… The common denominator in all of these is not any particular conception of God or theology, but a fascination with visions pertaining to end time, imminent cataclysm, judgement, and redemption."
Typically younger, the firebrand is "… a street leader – someone with the self-confidence required to bark commands into a megaphone and the charisma required to elicit compliance."
“Conspiracists of the firebrand type are the easiest ones to spot, because they always are the noisiest. For the firebrand, conspiracism supplies an ideological pretext to strike shocking, militant political postures, and thereby satisfy his hunger for public attention. Most specimens of the type are in their late teens or early twenties, a time when the developing mind is most vulnerable to angry, totalising ideologies."
In this chapter the author points out how the Internet facilitates conspiracism:
"Over the last decade and a half, the Internet has utterly transformed Conspiracism – no less than it's transformed pornography, music distribution, journalism, and social networking. Prior to the mid-1990s, conspiracy theorists pursued their investigations in isolated obscurity, typing out manifestoes on basement card tables, or amid the non-fiction stacks at their local library. The stigma associated with their craft, in conjunction with the communications limitations predating the World Wide Web, meant that each conspiracist was essentially a unique movement unto himself, his ideas mutating and evolving without social input from others – like an obscure species of land animal confined to a remote island.
Just about every author in the field of JFK conspiracism, for instance, has the president dying in a somewhat different way, at the hands of a customised menagerie of secret agents, gangsters, and Cubans (a state of conspiracist confusion captured nicely by a faux headline in the Onion, datelined in 1963: 'Kennedy slain by the CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons: President shot 129 times from 43 different angles')."
The author points out that with the aid of the Internet modern conspiracy theories develop within a collaborative network, similar to collaborative work on Wikipedia or Linux. The conspiracy theories develop very quickly due to the shared efforts of hundreds of scattered conspiracists who now tend to focus on the same talking points.
He also points out the damaging effect of the Internet's ability to deliver customised news to you. Instead of the wide-ranging news once received in a printed newspaper or on a mainstream television news channel, conspiracists can concentrate purely on their obsessions:
"Many true conspiracy theorists I've met don't even bother with web surfing any more – they rely for their news on the menu of stories that are delivered automatically to their email accounts through RSS feeds, daily email newsletters, and Facebook groups. From the very instant they first boot up their computer in the morning, their inboxes comprise an unbroken catalogue of outrage stories ideological tailored to their pre-existing obsessions."
The author also discusses the power of film as a propaganda medium. After briefly covering past film propaganda such as Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" and George Orwell's description of "The Two Minutes’ Hate" in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" he points out that modern technology has drastically reduced the cost of creating video while the Internet facilitates its rapid sharing. Accordingly a significant part of 9/11 conspiracism involves the production of propaganda videos.
His extensive experience has taught the author that it is pointless arguing with conspiracy theorists. He quotes from "Reclaiming History: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy" by Vincent Bugliosi:
"The conspiracy community regularly seizes on one slip of the tongue, misunderstanding, or slight discrepancy to defeat 20 pieces of solid evidence; accepts one witness of theirs, even if he or she is a provable nut, as being far more credible than 10 normal witnesses on the other side; treat rumours, even questions, as the equivalent of proof; leaps from the most miniscule of discoveries to the grandest of conclusions; and insists, as the late lawyer Louis Nizer once observed, that the failure to explain everything perfectly negates all that is explained."
Of his own experience of debating with conspiracy theorists the author writes:
"Whenever I've tried to debate Truthers on the facts of 9/11, for instance, all of my accumulated knowledge about the subject has proven entirely useless – because in every exchange, the conspiracy theorist inevitably would ignore the most obvious evidence and instead focus the discussion on a handful of obscure, allegedly incriminating oddities that he had memorised. No matter how many of these oddities I managed to bat away (even assuming I have the facts immediately at hand to do so), my debating opponent always has more at hand.
In this game, the conspiracist claims victory merely by scoring a single uncontested point – since, as he imagines it, every card he plays is a trump."
I would like to take as my last quote from his book the author’s citation of Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister 1957 – 1963, who was quoting his classics tutor at Oxford University:
"Nothing you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this: that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education."
In other words, those who are taken in by conspiracy theorists have a deficient education, regardless of how many degrees they may have.
I have no hesitation in accepting the official report of the 9/11 commission mentioned above as giving a more or less accurate narrative of what happened on that horrible day.
I have spent no time studying the Truthers’ conspiracy theories because I have better things to do.
The idea that President Bush and Vice President Cheney would choose to kill thousands of their fellow citizens is a preposterous slander. The number of people who would need to be part of the conspiracy would run into the hundreds or even thousands, and the idea that something like that could be kept secret with nobody leaking it (either before or afterwards) is ludicrous.
At just over 300 pages the book is a gripping read.
Afterwards the reader will be much better informed about the main protagonists of the 9/11 Truth movement as well as some earlier conspiracy theories. He will also have been entertained by the extent of human foolishness, some of which is unfortunately very sad.