Media

3 Good Reasons (and 1 Bad One) Why I Don't Buy Into Your Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories often pre-empt substantive analysis of the real political structures that shape our society.

Recently, a freelance writer sent a note to our editorial staff: "Perhaps I am stating the obvious," he wrote, "but AlterNet certainly appears quite hostile, in a kind of blanket sense, to any story labeled ‘conspiracy.' I am curious and eager to understand why."  

It's a question that frequently pops up in readers' comments on our stories, and the most common conclusion they draw is that our writers are in on the conspiracy; if they weren't an active part of the cover-up, how could they possibly fail to see the outlines of such an obvious plot as (insert obvious plot here)? 

I can only answer the question for myself, but I imagine it's the same answer many in the progressive media would offer. I've never felt pressure from above to "debunk" any particular theory, and, contrary to popular belief in some circles, am not in the employ of some murky organization that seeks to silence those brave enough to fight for the "truth."  

To the degree that I am hostile towards conspiracism (the reality is that I find it fascinating as a sociological phenomenon -- like other forms of mythology), I can offer four reasons for the skepticism -- three are sound, one is not. The one that is not is, however, a matter of human nature.  

Evidence and 'Evidence'

Conspiracists often suggest that the evidence for their theory is overwhelming, but on critical inspection, it simply doesn't stand up. I've approached conspiracy theories with an open mind and have found them to begin with a conclusion and work backward to "prove" its veracity. 

So, the simplest reason for my own skepticism towards conspiracy theories is that in my experience, the dots their proponents connect and hold up as "proof" have invariably turned out to be as substantial as vapor.  

In his classic 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote: 

… One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. … Respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all-but-obsessively accumulates "evidence." The difference between this "evidence" and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it. 

So it has been with 9/11 conspiracy theories -- those with which I'm most familiar. The supposedly water-tight "evidence" that 9/11 was an "inside job falls into one of  three categories. 

Eyewitness accounts and early press press reports that cast doubt on the sequence of events that day are common, but it's well known that eyewitness testimony during a traumatic event and stories rushed to press in the heat of a huge breaking story are unreliable and often conflicting.

Do I know why a BBC broadcast that announced the collapse of World Trade Center Tower 7 bore a time stamp suggesting it was aired 26 minutes before the building fell? No, I don't, but I don't believe the U.S. government -- or whoever was really behind 9/11 -- would blow its cover by tipping off the BBC. 

There are also pseudoscientific claims about 9/11 that don't hold water. Just one example among many: 9/11 "truthers" often say that the World Trade Center towers couldn't possibly have collapsed as a result of the impact of those jets because the estimated temperatures of the fires that followed weren't hot enough to melt the steel framework of the building.

They point to photographs that show a substance flowing out of the damaged buildings before they collapsed, conclude that the substance was steel and argue that this is definitive proof that a substance other than an incendiary mix of jet fuel and office furnishings had to have been used to cut the steel supports.

These claims -- offered as "proof" -- crumble when examined in detail. As a critical thinker who isn't an expert in the fine points of metallurgy, it would be deeply irresponsible to take them as evidence of anything more than what Hoftstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics."  

It is so with every claim I've looked at. Conspiracist Web sites have counterparts that are equally dedicated to examining the mountains of discrepancies, conflicting accounts and dubious scientific claims advanced by the conspiracists.

The key to maintaining one's belief in farfetched theories is the ability to ignore any claims that contradict one's preferred narrative out of hand and paint any individual or organization that advances those claims as being in on the conspiracy.  

An excellent of the latter is the truthers' reaction to a detailed look at their claims by Popular Mechanics. It was in on the cover-up, according to many people with whom I've spoken, and the proof is that it was edited by Benjamin Chertoff -- a  "propagandist and illuminati disinformation tool" who is "none other than a cousin of Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security."

Only one problem here: Benjamin Chertoff isn't Michael Chertoff's cousin -- he ha's said flatly that no member of his family had ever even met the former head of homeland security or his family (Benjamin did concede that one might find a distant family connection of which he's unaware if one goes back to "19th century Belarus").   

This brings us to a central dividing line between conspiracy theorists and their opponents: either one believes that those refuting claimed evidence of a dark conspiracy are in on the cover-up, or one doesn't. 

I don't, and that's a key reason I don't find the "evidence" backing these theories up terribly impressive. 

Structuralism and Dark Forces 

Central to most conspiracy theories is the notion that the visible institutions of power in our society are merely puppets being pulled by invisible but all-powerful forces working behind the scenes.

The forces vary -- the neocons behind PNAC, international Jewry, the Illuminati, bankers, the New World Order, the Bilderbergers, etc., but the theme is a constant -- someone we can't readily identify is really in charge, and all the visible centers of power right there before are eyes are merely actors on a grand stage. 

That view circumvents any substantive analysis of the real and diverse political and economic structures that shape our society. Instead of varied elites wielding influence in the fields of law, politics and the economy -- with different and often incompatible interests -- most conspiracy theories begin with a monolithic power working behind the scenes to shape events.

An essay on conspiracism by Political Research Associates says: 

Conspiracists sometimes target people who in fact have significant power and culpability in a given conflict-- -- Wall Street power brokers, corporate magnates, banking industry executives, politicians, government officials -- but conspiracists portray these forces in caricature that obscures a rational assessment of their wrongdoing.

It is not individual people who have the actual power, but the roles they occupy in social, political and economic institutions. There are undeniably powerful individuals, but when they die, their power does not evaporate, it redistributes itself to other individuals in similar roles and to individuals that scramble to inherit the role just vacated. 

No single power bloc, company, family or individual in a complex modern society wields absolute control, even though there are always systems of control. Wall Street stock brokers are not outsiders deforming an otherwise happy system.

Holly Sklar argues, "the government is manipulated by various elites, often behind the scenes, but these elites are not a tiny secret cabal with omniscience and omnipotence." There is no secret team ... the elites that exist are anything but secret. The government and the economy are not alien forces superimposed over an otherwise equitable and freedom-loving society. 

To the degree that conspiracism ignores the real centers of power in our society in favor an image of a murky globalist cabal, it doesn't do much to advance our understanding of the world in which we live, and that is itself a major reason not to take the lion's share of these theories seriously.  

Distraction and Marginalization of Serious Questions 

The most harmful effect of conspiracy theories -- which, in my experience are often built on some small kernel of verifiable truth -- is that it pre-empts serious analysis and investigation of the really important issues by marginalizing those performing the analysis and making the questions themselves appear to be based on crazy, fringe propositions. They serve to distract from the real dynamics that more often than not underlie the plots cooked up by overheated imaginations. 

Two examples illustrate this point. While 9/11 "Truth" mainstay David Ray Griffin's rhetorical tactic of accusing those who don't buy into his version of events of "defending the official story" has become popular, the reality, at least in my case, is that I agree there are serious and unanswered questions about why 9/11 happened at all (as I wrote here almost three years ago). 

But asking those questions puts one at risk of being lumped in with a fringe movement, and the result is that we're less likely to get at the truth about what happened that day because of the 9/11 Truth movement, not despite its tireless efforts (a conspiracy theory as good as any other is that the whole 9/11 "Truth" movement is a government operation designed to prevent serious questioning of what led up to the events of that infamous day).

Another example is the North American Union -- which I wrote about here. If you're not familiar with the theory -- it's especially popular in far-right circles -- it holds that there is a "globalist plot" to combine the U.S., Canada and Mexico into one transnational super state and replace our own government with a regional power that presides over all of the citizens of the new union.  

It is, simply, hokum: a "plan" endorsed in an academic white paper (and later a book) and nothing more. But there is a very real, and very dangerous (from progressives' perspective), push toward much closer economic integration in North America, as well as a move toward a "security partnership" among the U.S., Canada and Mexico with equally disturbing ramifications.

I wrote in that article: 

The context … is an important reason why [it's] taken on a sinister air in many people's minds. NAFTA was part of a larger push for legal and regulatory "harmonization" among the three countries of North America. Business groups and other "trade" lobbyists have in fact advocated greater consistency in North America's regulatory environment, and that always means decreasing, not increasing, labor, environmental, workplace and other standards. It is not the highest common denominator that backers want to see spread far and wide. 

Make no mistake, I've shed blood opposing corporate trade deals like NAFTA and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and there are very real and very significant problems with the push toward harmonization and the relentless assault on national sovereignty represented by the arm-twisting that goes into forcing a trade "consensus."

Construction of key parts of the "NAFTA highway" have raised serious environmental concerns. We don't need to expand NAFTA or the other institutions of international commerce; we need a pause in the march toward global (or in this case, regional) economic integration, not more of the same. 

And Canadian activists like Maude Barlow of the Council for Canadians have warned for some time that the [Security and Prosperity Partnership at the heart of the NAU conspiracies] is part of a push, financed by Canadian and U.S. corporate think tanks, to essentially bring an end to Canada's social-welfare state through regional integration. (More detail can be found in this PDF posted by the Council of Canadians.) 

Given that corporate lobbyists' favored tactic of deflecting criticism of their "trade" agenda is to accuse critics of suffering from an irrational "globalphobia," a lot of people screaming about a North American Union that's based on nothing more than an academic discussion is anything but helpful for those of us with deep concerns about corporate-led globalization. 

The Bad Reason 

I'm most familiar with 9/11 conspiracism, and over the years I've interacted with many bright, intelligent and wholly sane members of the 9/11 Truth movement. Some I even consider friends. But those voices are, in my experience, overshadowed by those of people whose paranoia is quite apparent, or whose theories are, on their face, nothing short of insane (not long ago, a reader went on at some length about how utterly brain-dead I must be for failing to see the obvious truth: the World Trade Center towers were brought down by Chinese space lasers, and those planes that appeared to crash into the buildings were obviously just holographic projections). 

Similarly, while conspiracism is by no means limited to the political right, most conspiracy theories are based in an old form of right-wing populism, with fear of the pernicious role of foreign influence on our society at their heart -- the idea of the heroic "ordinary American" trapped under the yoke of an international conspiracy by unseen forces aided by a complicit government.

Many -- like the NAU -- are enthusiastically promoted by far-right publications. Swift Boat veteran Jerome Corsi, for example, has been the most vocal proponent of the idea, warning of an imminent plot to "replace" the United States.

Rejecting arguments based on the characteristics of their proponents is a classic logical fallacy. But it's also human nature, and journalists, writers and editors are only human.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.
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