The Tribal Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

But one of the key points at which superstition and reason part company is the fact that superstition is non-falsifiable. If the king sacrifices an ox to Baal in the hope he will end the draught, and it rains, Baal will get the credit for the rain. If it doesn’t rain, Baal doesn’t get the blame. Instead, it must be that Baal wanted two oxen — or maybe a virgin maiden or the head of Alfredo Garcia, whatever. If you keep offering sacrifices, it will eventually rain, and when it does, “Praise Baal!”

.. The central fallacy here is the idea that conspiracy theories are reasoning toward anything at all. It is in fact a form of pseudo-reasoning: thinking backward from the proposition that a bad event must have been caused by dark forces, which (allegedly) benefit from it. Like the drunk who only looks for his car keys where the light is good, the truth-seeker only looks for evidence to support the proposition. The levees in New Orleans did not hold, Spike Lee observed, so it must be because George W. Bush had them bombed.

Of course, everything becomes so much more complicated by the fact that sometimes there are conspiracies. But they are rare, they are almost never vast, they usually fail, and when they succeed it is most often more from luck than will. Whenever you hear someone insist that “there are no coincidences,” they are revealing that they live in a world of magical realism where powerful unseen forces are treating us all like pawns. It’s a form of secular demonology.

I’ll be honest: I am far more annoyed by conservatives who traffic in conspiracy theories than liberals who do so. My reasons are twofold. As a practical matter, it bothers me because they make conservatives look bad, and I consider myself more invested in protecting my “side” from making an ass of itself. More generally, it bothers me because conservatives are supposed to understand, as a matter of philosophy, the limits of planning.

For instance, it’s one thing for liberals to claim simultaneously that George W. Bush was an idiot and that this idiot nonetheless managed to orchestrate a massive conspiracy to attack the United States on 9/11. It’s another for conservatives, presumably trained in the laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reason, and the fatal conceit of planning, to argue that the hijackers were just a bunch of patsies for an operation that would have involved hundreds or thousands of American agents — without a single whistleblower among them. This can best be visually represented by someone turning Occam’s Razor into a heavy spoon or soup ladle and beating Friedrich Hayek about the head and neck with it. But that’s what happened to people such as Morgan Reynolds and Paul Craig Roberts. Worse, these people have to believe their colleagues and ideological comrades — whom they knew and for whom they often worked — were in fact brilliant mass murderers.

.. I increasingly feel more like a spectator to American politics than I ever have before. It’s really quite liberating, if exhausting. Because I have zero personal loyalty to, or emotional investment, in Donald Trump, I feel no need to defend him from legitimate criticism, never mind bend my understanding of conservatism to his behavior and rhetoric.

.. Because humans are wired to believe that their leaders are worthy of being the leader, they bend their views to extol the character traits and priorities of the leader. Today, definitions of good character are being bent to fit Trump’s character, and the yardstick of what amounts to being presidential is being shaved down to a nub to match Trump’s conduct.

.. Newt Gingrich is a great example of how everything must be bent to the president’s personal needs. The man who led the expansion of NATO and the passage of NAFTA long ago cast aside these essential parts of his legacy, like so much ballast, in order to stay afloat on the Trumpian tide. But on Thursday, he reached a new low. When asked about a possible Supreme Court fight to release Trump’s tax returns, Gingrich said, “We’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.”
.. I’m sorry, the 40-plus-year fight to get constitutionalists on the Court wasn’t about protecting Donald Trump from embarrassment or criminal jeopardy. The reason why the Kavanaugh fight united nearly the entire conservative and Republican coalition wasn’t about circling the wagons around Trump. Indeed, the only reason the Right unified around Kavanaugh was that it wasn’t about Trump. If Trump had picked Jeanine Pirro, you would not have seen the Federalist Society, The Weekly StandardCommentaryNational Review, et al. rush to support her.
.. During the confirmation fight, before the sexual-McCarthyism phase, conservatives — including, most emphatically, Kavanaugh himself — insisted that the charge that Kavanaugh would be a Trump crony on the bench was everything from wrong to an outrageous slander. Newt himself described the stakes very differently. When the fight was on, it was all about decency and patriotism.Now that the fight is over, Newt is saying “never mind.” None of it would be “worth it” if Kavanaugh doesn’t protect the president’s tax returns — which candidate Trump said he would release! It profits a man nothing to lose his soul for all the world, but for Trump’s tax returns?

.. Transactional Shmansactional

This is the fatal flaw with the “transactional” defense of Trump. Very few people seem capable of sticking to it. The transactional argument holds that one can be critical of the man while celebrating what he is accomplishing (or what is being accomplished on his watch by Cocaine Mitch and others). In private, most of the conservatives I talk to around the country offer some version of this defense. And I find it utterly defensible, as far as it goes. Indeed, my own position of praising the good and condemning the bad is a version of the transactional defense, even if I was a critic of making the transaction in the first place.

.. Indeed, the president’s job description is being retroactively rewritten as Media Troll in Chief.

 

The Theory vs. the Facts

9/11 conspiracy theorists responded to refutations by alleging more cover-ups.

It’s worth lingering over Griffin’s response to illustrate a typical reaction among conspiracy theorists to refutation. One of the bedrocks of the conspiracy theory is that U.S. military planes should have been easily able to intercept any of the four hijacked airplanes on 9/11 to prevent the attack. The Popular Mechanics article notes that only one NORAD interception of a civilian airplane over North America had occurred in the decade before 9/11, of golfer Payne Stewart’s Learjet, and that it took one hour and 19 minutes to intercept before it ultimately crashed. Based on initial reports that misread the official crash report, conspiracists had previously cited the Stewart case as evidence that it normally only took NORAD 19 minutes to intercept civilian aircraft.

“That’s a very debated thing,” Griffin told me. “It looks like somebody has kind of changed the story there. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve read enough about it to look like that’s not true that it took that long.” And what about other physical evidence that debunks the interception theory, specifically the NORAD tapes, which document the chaos and confusion of American air defenses that morning in painstaking detail? Griffin’s response is that the tapes have likely been doctored using morphing technology to fake the voices of the government officials and depict phony chaos according to a government-written script. It’s not surprising, he says, that after 9/11, mainstream historical accounts would be revised to fit the official narrative.

“This is a self-confirming hypothesis for the people who hold it,” Meigs says. “In that sense it is immune from any kind of refutation and it is very similar to, if you’ve ever known a really hardcore, doctrinaire Marxist or a hardcore fundamentalist creationist. They have sort of a divine answer to every argument you might make.”

.. Another article of faith among conspiracy theorists is that the conspiracy would not have to have been very large. In Crossing the Rubicon, Michael Ruppert writes that there didn’t have to be any more than two dozen people with complete foreknowledge of the attacks to orchestrate 9/11, and that they would all be “bound to silence by Draconian secrecy oaths.” But those numbers begin to balloon out of control if all of the people and institutions accused of playing a part in the cover-up are counted. They would have to have included the CIA; the Justice Department; the FAA; NORAD; American and United Airlines; FEMA; Popular Mechanics and other media outlets; state and local law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York; the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and, finally and perhaps most prominently, the 9/11 Commission.
.. Of the alleged conspirators in the cover-up, few play a greater role than Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission’s executive director. A career academic and diplomat, he was asked to resign from his post in 2004 by representatives of 9/11 families because of an alleged conflict of interest stemming from his role on George W. Bush’s transition team. Zelikow recused himself from any part of the investigation dealing with the time period that he worked with the transition team, but his presence on the commission is all the conspiracists needed to discredit the entire report.
.. “I play a very prominent part in their demonology of the world, but the people themselves don’t come across like raving lunatics,” Zelikow says. “They’re often people who in many respects seem quite sincere, very concerned, very patient. They just are fixated.” The obsessive nature of conspiracism makes it very difficult to discuss or debate issues with some of the more hardcore believers. “They’re not really able to listen to you,” Zelikow says. “It’s almost like you’ll say something and then the tape will just replay its loop again.”
.. In 2007 a conspiracist confronted Zelikow in public with the “fact” that many of the hijackers are still alive. Zelikow responded that the 9/11 Commission had looked into the claims and found nothing to them but could not fit every single debunked conspiracy theory into the final version of the report. The questioner’s reply was to repeat his accusation.
.. I had a similar experience on the same topic when questioning Griffin, who begins his book The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortionswith the “hijackers are still alive” theory. I sent him an email pointing out that this theory relied on discredited media reports—the “hijackers” they had found were just people with the same names as the hijackers. In response, he emailed me a chapter on the topic from one of his books and said he was too busy to discuss the issue further.
.. Another common conspiracist tactic is to obsess over minor points of contention and exaggerate the importance of often easily explained inconsistencies in very hard evidence, such as phone calls victims made to family members on the ground describing the hijackings. For example, Griffin says that the phone calls, records of which were made public as part of the 9/11 Commission, were faked by “voice-morphing” technology that fooled family members on the ground.
.. . The petition he started at the time now has signatures from more than 1,500 licensed or degreed architects and engineers, and he is considered one of the movement’s most persuasive leaders.
.. “We’re calling for a federal grand jury investigation of the lead investigator and his co-project leader,” Gage says. “Whoever’s names are on those reports need to be investigated.”
.. Dozens of peer-reviewed papers have been written that support the official hypotheses, but those are dismissed as well. Both Gage and Griffin do, however, point to the movement’s own peer-reviewed paper, published by former BYU professor Steven Jones and Danish scientist Niels Harrit. Because traditional controlled demolitions would have been audible throughout lower Manhattan had they actually occurred on 9/11, conspiracists have been forced to posit a very obscure scientific explanation for their central thesis: that the demolitions used an incendiary chemical called nano-thermite.
.. Griffin and Gage hold this up as mainstream validation of the movement’s work, but the peer-review process of the paper is suspect. (The editor of the journal resigned over the paper after it was published without her approval, for example, and one of the paper’s peer reviewers is a 9/11 conspiracist who has speculated that the passengers on the four flights are actually still alive and living off of Swiss bank accounts.)
.. The man who created the single most influential piece of propaganda about the 9/11 conspiracy is now ambivalent about the movement he helped make popular. “There’s a certain thing called tact that you need when you’re dealing with the public,” says Dylan Avery, director of the film Loose Change, released in 2005 and since viewed tens of millions of times online. “And I think that is a certain approach that a lot of people lack.”

Avery should know. He has been accused of being a traitor, a spy, or—slightly more charitably—just plain “sloppy.” According to 9/11 conspiracy proponent Michael Ruppert, the movement has been hurt by its acceptance of some of the (relatively speaking) more absurd notions that were featured prominently in the early versions of Loose Change, notions that he says were planted as disinformation by those looking to discredit conspiracists. “That’s one of many reasons why I completely cut myself off from the 9/11 Truth movement in 2004,” Ruppert says. “They just swallowed too many poison pills.”

.. Because conspiracy theorists can’t just have disagreements. If you disagree with a conspiracy theorist, then you probably belong to the conspiracy.

.. But in 2005, Haupt started preaching a theory, referred to disparagingly by other conspiracists as the “no-planer” hypothesis, that the footage of jetliners hitting the WTC seen live on TV that morning was actually of holograms. Around that time, he started accusing other leaders in the movement, including Jones and David Ray Griffin, of being government plants themselves. At the end of 2006 he nearly got in a fist fight with Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, and by May 2008 he was accused of assaulting fellow conspiracists protesting at Ground Zero.

.. Conspiracists are not being entirely irrational when they express their fears of government infiltration. The FBI’s counterintelligence operation, known as COINTELPRO, spied on and sometimes infiltrated suspected Communist groups, civil rights groups, anti-war activists, and hate groups, among others, until the program was exposed and shut down in 1971. The FBI was using some of these tactics, including surveillance of journalists, as late as 1987.

..  Cass Sunstein, the current administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In it, Sunstein says that domestic and foreign conspiracy theories pose “real risks to the government’s anti-terrorist policies” and argues that the government should be “cognitively infiltrating” groups that purvey these theories. Sunstein proposes having the government send undercover operatives and paid “independent” contractors onto online message boards and websites—and into some real-life groups—in order to undermine the theories.

.. By the third day of actually speaking with people he had believed responsible for covering up mass murder, Veitch was starting to believe he was wrong about 9/11. “After meeting all of these alleged conspirators that were supposed to be in on it, I realized they were normal family men,” Veitch said. “There wasn’t anything conspiratorial about them.” It was when he questioned a demolitions expert atop the rebuilt World Trade Center 7 that he finally changed his mind about 9/11.

.. Veitch announced his “conversion” on June 29, 2011, on his blog and YouTube channel, saying that he hadn’t been wrong to believe that the government was capable of orchestrating 9/11, but he had been wrong about the facts:

I think because the government has lied about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, we do suspect foul play when other terrible events [happen] … and if governments can lie and kill half a million people, why wouldn’t they lie about killing 3,000? It doesn’t take an incredible leap of fantasy or faith or gullibility. We’re not gullible, we’re just truth seekers. And the 9/11 Truth movement is trying to find out the truth about what happened. … [But you should] not hold onto religious dogma. If you’re presented with new evidence, take it on, even if it contradicts what you or your group might be believing or wanting to believe. You have to give the truth the greatest respect, and I do.

.. This relatively mild renunciation by a relatively minor advocate of 9/11 conspiracy theories was treated as major news in the conspiracy community. Veitch received threatening phone calls and emails. Donations to his site dried up. He was accused of having taken a payoff from the BBC, of having been subject to mind control by “neuro-linguistic programming experts,” of being under hypnosis by British illusionist Derren Brown, and of being a Sunstein-sent cognitive infiltrator. “The best theory I heard has been that I have been deep undercover MI6 or CIA agent,” Veitch said. “[They say] I was basically a one-man sleeper cell waiting to discredit the 9/11 Truth movement and destroy what they call ‘the resistance’ from within.” Last month, Veitch’s site was hacked and a message was sent to his 15,000 subscribers calling him a child abuser. “When your mom phones you saying, ‘Why have you sent me something admitting to being a child molester?’ it’s not very good,” Veitch said.

.. Professional conspiracists like radio host Alex Jones and Ruppert preached conspiracy theories for years before 2001. But for many “truthers,” as they would call themselves, the 9/11 conspiracy was a kind of gateway drug. Most of the leading activists I spoke with became involved in the movement because of the Iraq war, but their anger at the Bush administration soon spread to all major institutions of government and media. “In order to maintain the bubble of the conspiracy, it needs to get more demonic, and it needs to include more people,” explains 9/11 conspiracy apostate Charlie Veitch. “You need more and more evil until you hit the wall of absurdity.”
.. The theory that Veitch gave the most credence to was that there was an ancient order of freemasons, or illuminati, or an extremely rich central banking family that had been in control of all world events since the time of Babylon. According to this theory, 9/11 was a propaganda spectacle orchestrated to make the common man fearful. “There’s something about it which appeals to the ego in people,” Veitch said. “You suddenly feel empowered by having secret knowledge.
.. A more typical theory about who is behind world events like 9/11, espoused by Alex Jones, is that a hodgepodge of disparate banking, corporate, globalization, and military interests are working together to bring about a New World Order of centralized “globalist” government. Jones’ “world government” bogeyman has been around for decades. In his quintessential essay on the psychology of paranoia in American political life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter describes an episode from 1964:

Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, a great deal of publicity was given to a bill, sponsored chiefly by Senator Thomas E. Dodd of Connecticut, to tighten federal controls over the sale of firearms through the mail. When hearings were being held on the measure, three men drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it. Now there are arguments against the Dodd bill which, however unpersuasive one may find them, have the color of conventional political reasoning. But one of the Arizonans opposed it with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government” and that it threatened to “create chaos” that would help “our enemies” to seize power.

.. Like in the case of the Kennedy assassination, [when] you have a horrible tragedy that seems absurd and it’s hard to account for the fact that a single individual could inflict so much grief on the nation, there’s a natural tendency to believe that there must be more at work,” says Lawrence Wright. “In the case of 9/11 there was a sense of disbelief that a man in a cave in Afghanistan could reach out and humiliate the most powerful nation in the history of the world. How could that happen? It must be that something else was at work and because we are so powerful, we must have done it to ourselves.”

.. When Wright was touring the country with his book, he would regularly be confronted by conspiracy theorists who hadn’t read the book but thought that, through clever questioning, they could demolish a case he had arrived at by five years of research and interviews with 600 sources. “I spent a lot of time trying to reason with various people who had these kinds of perspectives. And it was very frustrating,” he said. “There was absolutely no way to argue with them because they rejected any kind of factual evidence.”

 .. The conversation was similar to others Wright had had with other conspiracy theorists. “What they call facts aren’t typically facts,” Wright said. “They sound like facts. They’re asserted. But basically, at the root of the conspiracies are these unproven theories.”
.. the numbers believing the most radical version of the theory have been fairly steady. In 2006, 16 percent of respondents in a Scripps-Howard poll said it was either somewhat or very likely that the collapse of the Twin Towers was aided by explosives secretly planted in the buildings. That number was virtually unchanged in an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll this month.
.. One likely explanation for this trend may be the record numbers of Democrats and Republicans who say they distrust the government.
.. “One of the things I find particularly sad is that the conspiracy theorists in the U.S. have augmented this tendency in the Middle East to deny any cultural responsibility,”
..  “He thought, ‘well, why should I accept any responsibility. Americans are saying they did it themselves.’ “
.. “Middle Easterners are so susceptible to conspiracy theories, but it seems that Americans aren’t much better.”

Debunked: 9/11 Truth New York Times Billboard Quote

The group Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth (AE911) is devoted to popularizing the theory that the World Trade Center buildings were secretly demolished by explosive devices that were placed in the building ahead of time, somehow survived the plane impacts and an hour of raging fire, and then triggered to make the buildings collapse in a way that fooled most experts into thinking that there were no explosives.

To promote this theory, AE911 likes to rent billboard space in New York’s Times Square (AE911 has a yearly income of around $500,000). In particular they like to rent a billboard opposite the offices of the New York Times, admonishing the NYT for ignoring them. Here’s the billboard in place:

This latest billboard (which will be there for the month of September) is promoting favorite claim of evidence of AE911, that there were multiple reports of explosions on 9/11. The text reads:

Sounds persuasive, if it were actually true. In fact by the very account of the Fire Marshal they quotethe idea that the building exploded was something he very quickly figured out did not happen, and he explains why he initially though it happened. Basically he went into the situation knowing it was a terrorist attack, so was very concerned about secondary explosive devices. Then when the building collapsed, he did not report hearing any explosions, but instead said that the building looked like it had exploded, he continued to think this for several hours, but he later realized (probably after seeing the collapse on TV) that this was just the angle from which he was looking at it.

So did everyone think the buildings were blown up? Who is “everyone”, and how long did they think this for? The key thing here is in what was removed from the quote, and the surrounding context:

Notice what AE911 removed, “… at that point still …”. They removed that because the reality of the marshal’s statement is that the belief he (and others) had in explosions was a brief one (and as he later explains, a mistake). He brought it up to explain why they moved from the “Jewish memorial” (likely the Museum of Jewish Heritage, just west of the Battery Park Underpass), because there was concern it would be a target of a secondary attack using explosives.

.. So the very person that AE911 quoted on their poster basically debunks their theory in the statement from which they cherry picked a quote (and then had to remove part of, because it didn’t fit their story). He didn’t report hearing explosions. He initially got the impression that there had been a single large explosion, but then later realized there had not, and it was just, as he said, perspective.

I encourage people to read the oral histories of 9/11. They provide a visceral view into what really happened that day: the horror, the fear, the chaos, and the bravery. But don’t read them like AE911 did – simply combing through them to find sections that might seem to support their odd theory when taken out of context and edited a bit. Read them in depth. These brave men and women gave their all that day, and they each suffered deeply for it. Don’t use them. Honor them. You want 9/11 truth? It’s in these histories.

Top 5 9/11 Truther Myths You Should Be Prepared to Debunk

Myth No. 2: The “official story” concludes that fires set off by the jet fuel and initial explosions of the aircraft entering the World Trade Center towers caused the steel structure to weaken and eventually fail. But “no large, steel-frame, fire-protected building had ever collapsed before due solely to fire,” is how the book “Debunking 9/11 Myths” restates the idea. Theorists conclude it must have been controlled demolition that led to collapse.

.
Fact: Each plane was carrying thousands of pounds of jet fuel, which burns at 2,190 degrees Fahrenheit, a great deal lower than the temperature required to melt steel (2,750).

Experts and investigations conclude that steel didn’t have to melt to cause collapse. Instead, the planes entering the buildings at 750 feet per second caused significant damage. They were banked at an angle that took out multiple floors upon impact and likely stripped the fireproofing from the core load-bearing structures on those floors. Jet fuel then ignited everything inside the buildings.

Steel weakens at as low as 400 degrees. At 980, it’s at only 10 percent strength, according to industry experts. As the core steel columns weakened, load-bearing was transferred to the building’s shell. As the fires continued to burn, multiple floors weakened, sagged, and pulled on the outside structure causing total collapse.

The jet fuel followed the path of least resistance, incidentally, which means some of it flowed down the elevator shafts from the top of the building, causing explosions and fireballs on lower floors, which conspiracy theorists sometimes cite as evidence of bombs.

Myth No. 3: World Trade Center 7 could not possibly have collapsed due only to collateral damage sustained from the Towers’ collapse. That was controlled demolition, too.

Fact: An early FEMA report puzzled over the collapse of WTC 7 because it appeared to have sustained little structural damage and been brought down by fire alone. Truthers latch onto the early FEMA report as proof, but further investigation has found that one face of the building had damage to 10 lower stories. That damage was obscured by smoke in most photographic evidence.

There are also a number of idiosyncrasies in the building’s design that contributed. It was built over a power substation, which meant the relatively few columns on the lower floors were designed to carry extremely large loads. Taking out just one would have caused serious problems. WTC 7 was designed to stay operational during power outages, so several fuel tanks for generators inside the building are thought to have supplied the fires with fuel for up to seven hours.