NOTE: These posts have been reproduced from my old blog, "Random Notes", because I plan to cite their contents in an upcoming essay. I have finished the essay, but, unfortunately, it cites a lot of essays I have not yet reproduced. So it may take time to find and post all of them. Until then, you will like see a handful of these essays popping up on my blog amid a few new essays.
NOTE: Due to some oversight, this post was reprinted twice, once on 11/30/2013 and once on 02/10/2014.
Once upon a time I was interested in theology. I know, I still write about it from time, but in the remote past I was much more regularly interested in it, thinking and writing about it the way I now write about economics or politics. I wasn't a blogger then, as it was long before the heyday of the internet, and so most of my writing was done on an old electric typewriter, and the results were read mostly by friends and acquaintances, and anyone to whom they passed along their copy of my thoughts.
While I was writing on matters theological, I came to a number of conclusions. Some rather conventional, amounting to no more than novel justifications for theories already expounded, but others were quite unusual. In one specific case, I came to conclusions that were not only at odds with most thought on the matter, but also happened to coincide with my own personal beliefs quite strongly. And that troubled me. I began to worry if, like those one the far left who find justification for communism in early Christianity, I had twisted my sources to find what I wanted. I was actually quite hesitant to share my thoughts on this specific matter for that very reason, and I spent a long time thinking things over just because the results were so close to what I already believed. (I did subsequently find a few others who had reached similar conclusions coming form completely different sets of beliefs, so I felt somewhat vindicated, but for a long time I stayed silent from fear that I had been misled by my own prejudices.)
I mention this because these memories came to mind the moment I started thinking about those who espouse conspiracy theories. (Yes, this post, as a few recent posts, was inspired by the insane rantings of our very own Idiot Twins.) In responding to a recent comment on my blog, I pointed out that the writer was willing to accept any argument, believe any theory, so long as the end result was blaming the Jews. And, having written that, I realized that such backwards reasoning, starting from a conclusion and then fining arguments and supposed facts to fit it, is the defining characteristic of conspiracy theories. (Cf "False Flag Theories and 9/11", "Tips for Conspiracy Theory Buffs #1", "Rewriting History Concerning World War II", "The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories", "All Conspiracies Great and Small" and "Slieght of Hand".)
If you look at the many conspiracies popular now and in the past, you will see that each was founded upon nothing more than the search for evidence to fit a given conclusion. For example, the Truther belief that there must be more to 9-11 than meets the eye (or the belief of some that the government must be to blame). Or the certainty of JFK conspiracy theorists that SOMEONE else must have shot Kennedy. Or the New World Order conspiracy theory that the US is planning to take over the world. Similar to that, there is the NAU conspiracy that is certain the powers that be want to absorb the US in a North American Union.(Though, oddly sometimes this is presented as a threat to US sovereignty, and others as a first step in US imperialism, and, in a few really mind boggling efforts, both.)
However, to provide an example of this thinking, let me leave aside those theories which are mostly favored by the left (or the very fringe of the right) and look at an example of backwards thinking that may offend some readers, as it is a right wing version of the same process, and that is the many "birther" theories. (I have written quite a bit on this topic, see "An Interesting Question", "A Small Update on the Birth Certificate Controversy", "Birth Certificate Controversy Revisited", "One More Post on the Birth Certificate Controversy", "Really, The Last One on This Topic", "Wrong is Wrong", "A New Take on an Old Topic", "A Brief Follow Up", "Slate Imitates Me, But I Really Don't Mind", "Legislative Intent", "Not A Smoking Gun", "Can Hawaiians Travel Overseas?", "An Impossible Argument to Lose", "While I am Away... (A Question on "Natural Born")" and "Maybe Obama Was Born in Gulf Breeze, Florida" for details.)
When this whole issue first arose, it was actually somewhat plausible. The first I heard of it, there were simply some questions about Obama's published birth certificate, and I even gave it two rather kindly disposed posts ("An Interesting Question", "A Small Update on the Birth Certificate Controversy"), granted, in the second I did dismiss a few claims, as my experience with computers told me they were wrong. (Eg. the complete ignorance of the ways lossy compression can alter images.) Still, I was open to the argument, admitted the possibility and, though in the later essay I did state I thought the argument unlikely, I admitted new evidence could change that perception.
And, as time went on, the evidence did not hold up. The supposed mistakes proved to be identical to other, known good certificates, the other supposed irregularities were either shown to be common, or were at least within the scope of normal procedures. There simply was not enough to hold up. Perhaps a few things were somewhat irregular, but that is not a sign of a conspiracy. The fact that my grandfather Clarence is listed as "Clearance" on a few government documents shows laziness and incompetence, not a conspiracy aimed at an elderly hillbilly from Tennessee.
But then something interesting happened. Those who had invested so much in finding Obama ineligible could not let go of that conclusion. And so, they began to look for other proofs. They dug up old arguments (which were hardly legal precedent) about children of foreign parents running for president, they looked for birth announcements, checked his travel history in Indonesia, and on and on. And they kept finding "irregularities". And, forgetting that the initial argument fell flat, they kept using the "inconsistencies" as proof that Obama had something to hide, despite the fact that the "inconsistencies" never existed, except in their minds. And so, using their own disproved suspicions as proof something must be wrong, they found more and more wrong, and convinced themselves where there is smoke there must be fire, forgetting they had created the smoke in the first place. (I know some will say "but there were irregularities", but life is full of irregularities, we just normally accept them as part of life, noticing them only in these cases -- cf "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise".)
Of course, none of this is intended to argue whether Obama is eligible to hold office or not. Personally, I have not seen anything that would convince me he is not, but I could change my opinion with the right evidence. What I want to show is the way in which an initial question, properly raised, gathered a momentum of its own, and, in the end, the conclusion became more important than the question, developing a life of its own, and riving people to find evidence to support it, as the original evidence was demolished.
That is the way that many conspiracy theories work.
Look at the arguments I have heard about Jewish conspiracies. Supposedly Jews are so powerful they secretly run the world. Yet, somehow they are so weak they cannot silence those who promulgate this theory. (The same is true of most such theories. If the conspirators are so clever and powerful, why can't they silence the freaks who push such theories? And why do they leave behind such silly evidence?) And then there is the Holocaust. Some argue that it never happened, Jews invented it for sympathy. Other that it did happen, but it was some sort of massive sacrifice intended to hide Jewish schemes.
Here we can see precisely what I am discussing. The conclusion that Jews runt he world is taken as a given, a fact, and thus all evidence is massaged to fit the conclusion. For example, the Holocaust. Either it didn't happen, because it couldn't if Jews ran the world, or else it did, but it was all part of the conspiracy.
This way of thinking is not how the truth is established, it is not a rational thought process. The thing it resembles most is the way lawyers plead their cases, fitting facts into the conclusion they wish the jury to reach. If facts are uncomfortable, they are ignored, or, if impossible to ignore, made to fit the conclusions. That is pleading, not reasoning.
Some may respond that lawyers are trying to reach the truth, that that is the whole point of courts, but that is wrong. lawyers are not there to present the truth, but to win the case, to present the argument most favorable to their side. If the truth come sout at all, it comes out because the judge or jury compared the two pleadings, used one to cancel out the weak arguments of the other, and gathered an approximation of the truth. Laywers' pleadings are not, in themselves, anything close to the truth. Nor should they be. They are meant to be biased.
The truth is reached by being willing to abandon any belief, to challenge any one of your ideas, and test its truth every moment. That is how one establishes facts. When one strives to justify his preconceptions, he will never be open to truth, and that is why conspiracy theories are so dangerous, and why I so often criticize those who hold them, even in their most innocuous forms. It is because, once one had established the habit of reasoning from conclusions, he will become ever more difficult to convince of any alternate beliefs.
If you doubt this, just look at any truther site, or any holocaust denier site, and see how they handle any contradictory evidence. While calling themselves "truth seekers" and others "blind gullible fools", they themselves engage int eh most egregious backwards thinking, denying any evidence that fails to suit their beliefs, either dismissing it as "disinformation" or somehow explaining it away. That is a dangerous way to think. And, sadly, it seems to be slowly encroaching on the political mainstream. ("Conspiracy Theory Enters the Mainstream")
I have a suspicion this essay will garner some responses from our own Idiot Twins, my personal purveyors of spurious beliefs. However, in this case, I am not troubled by that realization, as they will doubtless provide quite a few perfect examples of this process. From blaming the Armenian genocide on Jews to claiming the Holocaust didn't happen because of soccer fields at Auschwitz -- apparently they never heard of "guards" -- they have pushed any number of bizarre theories, so I am confident they will not disappoint in providing me with countless examples.
It may not be immediately obvious why I recommend the following essay, but for those who found this interesting, I recommend "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", as well as the follow up "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", they both may provide a little bit of insight into the reasons why conspiracy theories are so popular. (There are also "Historic Myopia" and "The Runaway Stagecoach", which were earlier attempts at the same topic. "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism" "Juvenile Intellectuals", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom" and "Something of a Paradox", may be helpful as well, along with "Deadly Cynicism", though less than the first two I named.)
In a way, the birther argument can be summarized by the following imaginary conversation:
Joe: I think Ted is a child molester.Not in all cases, but in many, the entire argument seems to follow Joe's logic, creating its own allegations and then using them as "proof" there is "something" wrong.
Jim: Why? I never thought that.
Joe: You're probably right. But he seems to me to be a tax cheat.
Jim: What makes you say that?
Joe: Nothing. I do think he could he a thief though.
Joe: Maybe not. But there has to be something wrong with the guy. Why else would there be so many allegations about him? Where there's smoke, there's fire!
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/06/28.