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 credit official accounts. Mainstreamers regard conspiracy theorists as credulous, and regard their own skepticism of non-mainstream accounts with a sense of self-assurance. In fact, mainstreamers 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. Would a person open to different possibilities think that way? Get a skeptic’s feel – and a dialectical feel – for the evidence and motives that underlie such strong words. 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 whacko’s questions. People who value deliberation and analysis generally do not use phrases like nut job.
As a touchstone, 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. After so many people dismissed independent researchers who began their work as skeptics, the outcome of their research 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 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. It has earned extreme doubt for all time. It has no claim on our beliefs.
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 untrustworthy institutions one more chance to tell the truth. You might give a family member a second chance after a relatively minor instance of dishonesty, but is it reasonable to give government institutions – in particular intelligence and investigative agencies – a second chance after dishonesty about 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 – adds a lot of freight to this discussion of both dishonesty and conspiracy. You fear that if we look truth in the face – whatever truth turns out to be – the heavens really might fall. Yet to ignore conspiracy theories because they bring down the temple is much worse. 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.
This essay is an excerpt from Infamy: November 22, September 11. The book’s last chapter is titled “Vindication of skeptics”.