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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. 

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