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The World Trade Center towers smoking on 9/11

New York City’s skyline on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks occurred as a result of a conspiracy.

Shawn Hamilton published an interesting article titled Rethinking Conspiracy in the Foreign Policy Journal (October 27, 2014). Here is an excerpt:

The terms “conspiracy theorist” and “conspiracy nut” are used frequently to discredit a perceived adversary using emotional rather than logical appeals. It’s important for the sake of true argument that we define the term “conspiracy” and use it appropriately, not as an ad hominem attack on someone whose point of view we don’t share.

According to my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the word “conspiracy” derives from the Latin “conspirare,” which means literally “to breathe together” in the sense of agreeing to commit a crime. The primary definition is “planning and acting together secretly, especially for a harmful or unlawful purpose, such as murder or treason.”

It was in this sense that Mark Twain astutely observed, “A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public.”

Conspiracies are common. If they weren’t, police stations would not need conspiracy units to investigate and prosecute crimes such as “conspiracy to import cocaine” or any other collusion on the part of two or more people to subvert the law 

Unfortunately, too many people smugly chide “conspiracy theories” as if they imagine that such a derisive characterization reflects superior intellect—whether or not they know anything about the issue in question. It’s a pitiful display of ego inflation and intellectual dishonesty, yet it appears to be a common approach preferred by those either short on information and critical thinking skills or harboring a hidden agenda.

Here are a few examples of past “conspiracy theories” that have been commonly derided but were later determined to be credible…

Against this view, consider these remarks from a cartoon included in Vindication of Skeptics:

Conspiracy theories represent a known glitch in human reasoning. The theories are of course occasionally true. But their truth is completely uncorrelated with the believer’s certainty. For some reason, sometimes when people think they’ve uncovered a lie, they raise confirmation bias to an art form. They cut context away from facts and arguments and assemble them into reassuring litanies. And over and over I’ve argued helplessly with smart people consumed by theories they were sure were irrefutable, theories that in the end proved complete fictions.

Young-earth creationists, the moon landing people, the perpetual motion subculture – can’t you see you’re falling into the same pattern?

You’ll note that of the three examples listed in the conclusion, not one of them refers to a political conspiracy. Political conspiracies are an especially tricky category.

Was 9/11 a conspiracy? Obviously, because the attacks involved more than one person. With that settled, the next task is to analyze the evidence to determine what happened, who was involved, how the conspirators carried out the attacks, what their motives were, and so on. As we try to understand what happened on 9/11, the idea of a conspiracy is not a controversial concept. It does become controversial when we suggest that the government’s conspiracy theory is incorrect.

Conspiracy theories develop in a political context where people sharply disagree, aside from particular cases, about the level of trust citizens ought to grant their government. Some people regard government as absolutely untrustworthy, since it enables and protects people who commit crimes, and criminals are not to be trusted, ever. Others say that even if government makes mistakes, it sincerely tries to serve and protect its citizens. Therefore government deserves our loyalty, and benefit of doubt when we investigate hard-to-resolve, public crimes like 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination.

More generally in our political discourse, conspiracy theorists regard themselves as skeptics. They see people who accept mainstream or official accounts as credulous. A mirror image holds for people who reject conspiracy theories and give credence to official accounts. These analysts regard conspiracy theorists as credulous, and regard their own skepticism about non-mainstream accounts with a sense of self-assurance. In fact, mainstream skepticism may see conspiracy theorists as credulous crackpots.

When you see or hear phrases like beyond crazy, whacko, or nut job, take a moment to think about why someone would use words like that. Get a skeptic’s feel for the evidence that underlies the disagreement, and for the arguer’s motives. See whether people who smugly dismiss others with terms of ridicule have considered all types of evidence, or responded with a balanced, discerning treatment of the so-called whacko’s questions. People who value deliberation and analysis generally do not use words like that.

Remember this important point when you hear people ridicule conspiracy theorists: independent researchers were right about the Kennedy assassination. Not every theory about who shot Kennedy, or why he was shot, is correct, but skeptics were correct to say that the government’s investigation was incomplete, that the case was not closed. Numerous influential people dismissed independent researchers who began their work as skeptics, but the outcome of the researchers’ work vindicated both their tenacity, and their desire to comprehend all of the evidence related to the case.

That does not mean all conspiracy theories are correct. It does mean that we should not credit government with competence or good faith as its commissions conduct investigations and compile reports. We do not owe government benefit of doubt, certainly not for investigation of political crimes. They have not earned it, do not deserve it, and certainly do not need it. The initial presumption for all investigations ought to 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. Until it reveals all the secrets it harbors about its past crimes, it has no claim on our beliefs. No one trusts an unrepentant criminal.

If that seems overly skeptical, ask which is more reasonable, or safe, when stakes are high: to disbelieve 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.

The fitness of dishonest governments – the question of whether they have any claim at all on our loyalty – burdens discussion of conspiracy with more weight than most political conversations can bear. You fear the heavens really might fall. Yet to ignore conspiracy theories due to fear creates a terrible situation for citizens. To place your faith in a government that is actually a predator clearly places you in a more dangerous position than any other civic mistake you might make.

Thoroughgoing skepticism of every official pronouncement – from spin, statistics, and self-justification to formal investigative reports – gives citizens a robust strategy for safety and freedom, if they can bear the discomfort or sense of exclusion that may arise from not participating in mainstream arguments. Questioning the veracity of anything government says may seem to entail extraordinary cognitive overhead, but in fact it makes life safer, and certainly brings you more directly to the truth. To disbelieve anything that originates with government, especially when the statement is consequential, gives you an accurate, efficient truth filter.

We can speak passionately about the value of skepticism, but we can also remember the value of a Zen-like detachment from the world of argumentation and political alignments. What is the best response to people who speak on behalf of government, or to analysts who explicitly align themselves with a mainstream version of events? Be cautious and open to all possibilities in your response. Above all, be cautious about reaching any conclusions until you have considered important pieces of evidence yourself. No one cares which side you take, except you. No one cares whether you take any side at all.

The real world of political discourse, however, is anything but Zen-like. Michael Moynihan concludes, in a Daily Beast article about reactions to the Newtown mass casualty exercise, that conspiracy theorists are not people he cares to associate with:

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.

I think of autodidacts and independent researchers – no quotation marks here – as people who think for themselves. Apparently Moynihan – and the cartoonist who writes about confirmation bias – regard conspiracy theorists as mildly insane, delusional, even contemptuous. Moynihan does not say straight out that pop-eyed Infowarriors pose a danger to the rest of us. Cass Sunstein, a prominent legal thinker, does argue that position. In fact, he argues that conspiracy theorists are crazy, and more likely to engage in political violence than other people. Many seem to agree with him.

When you regard people who disagree with you as insane, you have stepped into uneasy territory. When you excoriate and ridicule people whose understanding of some political crimes diverges from your understanding, then publicly label them as crazy and possibly violent, you have travelled beyond conventional political discussion. The territory looks unfamiliar, and you begin to wonder why someone would talk that way. Then you remember how much conflict and estrangement among groups turns on divergent beliefs – and fear of others who appear different – rather than greed or a primitive desire for domination. In certain political environments, you can transform other people into fearsome threats – objects, actually – merely because they don’t think the same way you do. That is something to be skeptical about.

Related article

Rethinking Conspiracy

Related post

Vindication of Skeptics

Related interview

Cass Sunstein On Conspiracy Theories