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The natural cause of the human mind is certainly from credulity to skepticism. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Let’s start today with a cartoon that shows how problematic Jefferson’s observation has become in an age of distrust:

Vindication of Skeptics

Conspiracy theorists regard themselves as skeptics. They see people who accept mainstream accounts as credulous. Mainstream people regard conspiracy theorists as credulous. Under the mainstream brand of skepticism, conspiracy theorists are credulous crackpots.

Here is Michael Moynihan’s conclusion to an article in The Daily Beast, where he considers reactions to the Newtown massacre:

After a week among the anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists, the pop-eyed Infowarriors, and various autodidacts and “independent researchers,” I’m convinced that America is indeed overflowing with people who need their heads checked out.

Here’s an important thing to remember when you hear people ridicule conspiracy theorists: the independent researchers were right about the Kennedy assassination. Not every theory about who shot Kennedy or why is correct, but the skeptics were correct to say that the government’s investigation was incomplete, that the case was not closed. After so many people dismissed researchers who began their work as skeptics, the evidence vindicated their tenacity.

That does not mean all conspiracy theories are correct. It does mean that we should never give the benefit of doubt to government. They have not earned it, do not deserve it, and certainly do not need it. The initial presumption for all investigations should be that the federal government is not trustworthy, that it does not tell the truth, and that anything it says in a particular instance is unreliable. That much it has earned – doubt for all time.

If that seems an over-reaction, ask which is more reasonable or safe when stakes are high: to believe institutions of proven dishonesty, or to grant them a third or a fourth chance. You might give a family member a second chance after a relatively minor instance of dishonesty, but is it reasonable to give governmental institutions – in particular intelligence and investigative agencies – a second chance after involvement in something as grave as the murder of a president? The wise course is to distrust a government like that, ignore it, set it aside, and create one in its place that does not harbor secrets about atrocious crimes.

One large theme is the fitness of dishonest governments. The narrower point concerns our response to apologists for this government, or for analysts who explicitly align themselves with a mainstream version of events. When you hear one person crudely dismiss others who disagree, be cautious in your response. Be cautious about the mainstream point of view, be cautious about the conspiracy point of view, above all be cautious about reaching conclusions until you have looked at the evidence yourself.

When you see or hear phrases like beyond crazy, loopy, whacko, or nut job - you see that mode of discourse a lot – take a moment to think about what’s happening. Most of all, get a skeptic’s feel for the evidence that underlies the disagreement. Chances are, as in the Kennedy case, people who blithely, smugly dismiss others with terms of ridicule have not considered all types of evidence, or given a balanced hearing to the whacko’s questions. People who are deliberative, analytical and open do not generally use words like that.