The natural cause of the human mind is certainly from credulity to skepticism. ~ Thomas Jefferson
There is a kind of courtesy in skepticism. It would be an offense against polite conventions to press our doubts too far. ~ George Santayana
The strongest continuous thread in America’s political tradition is skepticism about government. ~ George Will
Let’s begin our look at skepticism in politics with a cartoon about conspiracy theories. It shows how problematic the observations above become when self-assurance and a pushy unwillingness to listen inform virtually all efforts to find the truth about important public events.
For ease of reading, here is the long speech in the second panel:
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?
The loquacious, condescending stick figure asserts that confirmation bias affects everyone. You have to ask, right off, why confirmation bias does not affect the speaker. Why would someone who asserts his argument in this way not acknowledge that his own assessment of conspiracy theories illustrates confirmation bias? Why does his reassuring litany of criticism not count? He declares with certainty that his own beliefs are true, and that opposing beliefs are “complete fictions.” He seems just as sure of himself as the people he mocks.
Most notably, he is not interested in looking at evidence, or at his friend’s reasoning. He cuts his friend off after eleven words, sure that whatever he has to say is nonsense. How does he know arguments that challenge the official version of events on 9/11 are insupportable? Because they disagree with his own beliefs! It breaks his heart that his friend disagrees with him, or more accurately, that his friend cannot distinguish between what is true and what is false. He dismisses all arguments he labels conspiracy theories, and piles them onto the same heap. He cannot be bothered to look at the evidence for each one, because he decided a priori that they all fit the same pattern. When you’ve heard one, he says, you’ve heard them all. They all come from the same source. They all have the same result: error.
Note that of three examples he names at the end, only one of them – about the moon landing – pertains to alleged government deception. The other two, regarding creationism and perpetual motion machines, have nothing to do with conspiracy theories as such. Conspicuously omitted – the key case for comparison with theories about 9/11 – is research about the Kennedy assassination. Couldn’t the cartoon’s author have come up with, say, a couple of political arguments over investigative reports that have incomplete evidence or poor analysis? If the pattern of unjustified, mistaken skepticism is so clear cut, it would not be so difficult to do that. Nor would it be difficult to indicate why the alternate theories are false, though that might be difficult to do in a cartoon!
Let’s look at a class of theories where the cartoon’s author has a point. These theories blame Zionists, the Mossad, Israel, world Jewry, or some related group for almost everything. If the president passes gas in public, it must be because the Mossad put a grain-based gasification compound in his food. If it wasn’t the Mossad, it was the Zionists. If it wasn’t the Zionists, it was the Illuminati. In this class of stories, the villains are pre-identified, and the fact pattern must point to the villain. It’s convenient, when you have a lot of mysterious evil to account for, to have a real-world Voldemort behind it.
We might grant that that Israel’s intelligence agency, like the CIA, causes plenty of harm with underhanded covert activities. We can assume that Israel, like any nation involved in warfare and other elements of international politics, is not free from blame for acts no nation would ever want to acknowledge. That does not free conspiracy theorists from giving evidence for Israeli involvement in particular cases. You cannot blame Israel for every bad thing that happens because you don’t like or trust Israel, any more than you can blame the U. S. government for every bad thing that happens merely because you distrust the U. S. government.
No matter what your beliefs, you have to make arguments and formulate hypotheses that somehow point to evidence, even if you cannot produce the evidence right now. Take charges against Israel: you cannot affiliate yourself psychologically with anti-Zionist groups, and expect other people to accept your arguments merely because you and your allies pound your points home so forcefully and with such confidence. In this respect, the stick figure in the cartoon is correct: self-assurance and a sense of certainty are no good indicators of which claims are true, and which are not.
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. Automatically denying authority to anything government says may seem to entail extraordinary cognitive overhead, but in fact it makes sorting information a lot easier. To disbelieve anything that originates with government, especially when the statement is consequential, gives you an accurate, efficient point of departure in any search for truth.
After speaking passionately about the value of skepticism, it’s also useful to 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 some 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 cartoon stick figure above regard skeptics as mildly insane, delusional, and even contemptuous. Moynihan does not say right out that pop-eyed Infowarriors pose a danger to the rest of us. Others, such as Cass Sunstein in an article called Conspiracy Theorists, do argue that case. They say that skeptics are dangerous, because they undermine support for the state on false grounds.
When you regard people who disagree with you as insane and dangerous, you have stepped into uneasy territory. Josef Stalin and the practices of his regime come to mind. So does 1984. When government becomes paranoid, everyone becomes paranoid. The marriage of fear mongering and politics looks uncomfortably familiar and threatening, especially in the United States, where authorities so routinely claim to assert their power according to well established law. When you transform other people into threats – objects, actually – merely because they don’t think the same way you do, you initiate a cycle of fear and paranoia that destroys trust all around. That’s something to be skeptical about.
This essay is an excerpt from Infamy: November 22, September 11. The book’s last chapter is titled “Vindication of skeptics”.