Monday, February 07, 2011

The Art of Conspiracy

Recently, I watched a number of disasters on YouTube. It's a long story of how I just up and started watching horrible events one day, but the gruesome viewing began with the Ramstein air show disaster in 1988. Then I went to the Challenger space shuttle explosion that occurred on my birthday back in 1986, an event I remember for being outside at recess and then spending the rest of the day watching news coverage at school. And then, of course, there's 9/11.

If you're not familiar with what's going on almost 10 years later, 9/11 has become the new JFK for conspiracy theories.

I'll fully admit that I've been drawn to conspiracy theories in the past. I accepted Oliver Stone's JFK as total, stunning, absolute fact for years. I'm an open-minded guy, so if you give me a compelling argument that I cannot refute and can't find evidence against, I'm willing to go along. The thing is, JFK came out in 1991, before the height of the information age. And it can be argued that even 9/11, back in 2001, was before the age where information was everywhere.

Now I know some people just basically are wired to believe the official explanation immediately, and God bless you guys. I tend to want to know down to the last detail. I am willing to concede certain things until I get the information I need. One of the things that bothered me about 9/11 was the collapse of WTC 7, probably the gateway drug into 9/11 conspiracy. Almost anyone looking at the building, un-struck by planes and containing just a few small fires, might wonder why the building just collapses. That bothered me, too. I have gotten to the point in my belief system though, that there is likely a logical, non-conspiratorial reason for it...but I'd like to know what the reason is. (Thankfully, there are some people smarter than me who have posted videos on YouTube explaining how much damage WTC 7 actually took before collapsing).

Now, I'm not going into all the theories and different conspiracies here. My post is spurred on by a completely coincidental airing of 9/11 Science and Conspiracy on National Geographic soon after my YouTube viewings. The program focuses on scientific debunking of the conspiracy theories, with 9/11 "truthers" watching on and basically saying, "This scientific experiment is complete hogwash!"

My curiosity now focuses on, "What makes people believe in a conspiracy?" The 9/11 Science and Conspiracy program takes time to talk to people who offer their theories on why people believe what they believe, and their points are valid, but I think even they go a little too far in explaining it. It's a bit of an irony when the people grounded in truth offer somewhat elaborate reasons for why people who dabble in the unknowable believe what they do.

As someone who has believed in some conspiracy theories, I believe the first element of it comes from having a skeptical mind about anything that is presented to you. I believe people with this kind of mind have been fooled before by something and found that being fooled was an embarrassing situation. They start quoting The Who and claiming, "We Won't Get Fooled Again!"

And that's how conspiracy builds, and then never gets beaten down. In The X-Files, creator Chris Carter made a brilliant role-reversal between two characters in order to ensure his science fiction series was "grounded" in its beliefs. Fox Mulder would normally be the nut, while scientific Dana Scully would be the one to put an end to all this. But what happens is, tons of weird, absolutely beyond-scientific occurrences happen on the show, and it's Scully who is the nut who keeps saying, "There's an explanation! It can't be what I just saw in front of my eyes!"

So if I let something strange enter my head and say, "Wait a minute...that just doesn't seem right," and then start finding odd coincidences or little things that can't be immediately explained, and then have others who think the way I do who reinforce that belief...well, then you want to dig deeper. I think the conspiracy theorists have fallen victim to the "Won't Get Fooled Again" problem because it's a self-reinforcing policy. Here's what I mean:

By allowing the official explanation to be your belief, you are now allowing the possibility that you are being bamboozled. A conspiracy theorist never wants to allow for the idea they are being fooled, so it's easier to say, "We aren't getting all the facts." No matter how stupid one sounds trying to debunk an official explanation, the core idea that, "You can't get anything past me" still holds. I watched with some amusement and horror as truthers were presented facts and were extremely quick to go on the offensive. One man incorrectly referred to the argument against him as a "straw man" argument. Let me explain:

Conspiracy theorists believe the World Trade Center buildings were taken down by controlled demolition, that the official explanation (that intense heat melted steel girders on one floor, causing the collapse of the remaining floors above it, creating several tons of pressure on the remaining floors below) is a laughable lie. So, in order to prove that such intense heat could make the girders fail, NatGeo got a group of professionals together to burn a steel girder with jet fuel. And it's no surprise the girder failed in about 4 minutes. So one guy says, "Well, that's not what I'm saying. It's a straw man argument." Straw Man fallacy is where one person takes a position, and then another person distorts the position in order to make the other person sound stupid. Salesmen use it: "Do you want to make a ton of money at home selling commonly-used products to people around the world?" When you say, "No, that doesn't appeal to me," the salesman returns with, "You mean, making tons of money doesn't appeal to you?"

And yet, conspiracy theorists say that the melting of the steel girders could not have caused a collapse, even when it is shown to them. The reason why is that the conspiracy is no longer a search for the truth, it's a belief, and to be shaken from that belief is to admit that you can now be fooled. So once the theories get debunked, the conspiracy theorist says, "Well, these people doing the test are obviously on the take. The government and multi-million dollar corporations tell them what results to find." One demolitions expert said it best, "It's like Whack-A-Mole. You keep slamming one theory down and then another comes up. And then you slam that one down, and another comes up."

Nothing can possibly change a conspiracy theorist's mind. You could have streaming video of 10 years of every inch of the World Trade Center before the attacks, video of all the planes in the sky, all the evidence in the world, and there will always be a crack in the story. These videos were obviously doctored! When will we see the real video?

I felt the need to write about it just because of my own dabbling into conspiracy theories. I think the difference between me and those who make it their life is that I'm willing to shake my beliefs. I'm not worried about being fooled. I'll always be curious and entertain those ideas, because I think it's important in any field of study to take on all points of view in order to get closer to the truth, or at least debunk other possibilities.

I remember reading an article about one of the original, actual, CSI guys and how he built his cases. In one particular murder case, the defendant claimed that the reason why the blood pattern on the wall appeared the way it did was because the victim shook his/her head in such a way. Well, he tested this theory out, ridiculous as it seemed, and came up with the conclusion that there was no way the events went down as the defendant said it did. When asked on the witness stand if the defendant could be telling the truth, the CSI guy said that there was no way that it happened like that. The defense lawyer then said, "You couldn't have possibly done an experiment in which you know for sure," and the CSI guy responded, "I have done that exact experiment."

I love stuff like that.

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At 2/17/2011 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I had like four paragraphs written on this, and then Blogger ate it. My main point is that people should accept that there are certain things they simply will not know. It won't change the world if we find out who killed JFK.

At 2/21/2011 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Tupac is still alive.

At 7/19/2011 07:58:00 PM, Blogger Jade said...

JUst wanted to say if there were a FB "like" button for this I'd use it. And also that I am so glad to see this blog still up and running as it used to be one of my favorites years ago. :)


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