Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Apr 04 2014

Answering Conspiracy Theorists

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

We like to categorize and apply labels. This can be helpful in wrapping your mind around complex reality, as long as you avoid the pitfall of allowing labels to become mental straitjackets.

I often discuss various  categories of people who are failing, in one or more important ways, to apply critical thinking. These categories are not meant to be dismissive, but rather to help understand various styles of thinking that lead people astray. For example there are deniers, true-believers, ideologues, and cranks.

Perhaps the most interesting category is the conspiracy theorist. I also find them to be the most consistent in their style of reasoning and argument. I do wonder, however, how much of this consistency is due to and underlying reasoning style and how much is culture. When I get the same fallacious argument over and over again, is that because they are all reading the same source material?

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Feb 21 2014

Pareidolia Watch – Mercury Edition

I only have time for a quick entry today, so here is any easy one - another example of pareidolia unrestrained by reality testing. Pareidolia is the tendency for our brains to match known patterns to random sensory noise, most commonly applied to images. The most familiar image to the human brain is the human face, and so perhaps the most common experience of pareidolia is the seeing of a face in the clouds, in a rust stain, tree bark, tortilla shell, a hillside, or on NASA photos of other worlds.

The Face on Mars is a famous example. Low resolution images of the Cydonia region of Mars showed an apparent face, although the image was lit from the side so half the “face” was missing, and the nostril (which added to the overall illusion) was just data loss from the image. Later higher resolution images showed the face for what it was, just another natural formation.

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Oct 03 2013

Politics, Science Rejection, and Conspiracy Thinking

Even among self-identified skeptics and critical thinkers, there is the full spectrum of political ideology, and this varying world view does seem to color certain opinions. In my experience in the community, most skeptics eventually get to a similar place with regard to politically-charged scientific topics (logic and evidence do hold sway in the end), but they certainly start in different places. There is also the occasional skeptic who, while displaying critical thinking in most areas, retains a sacred cow or two associated with their political world view.

A recent study explores the issue of political worldview, conspiracy thinking, and the acceptance or rejection of certain scientific topics. Stephen Lewandowsky et al published the study in PLOSOne, The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science

The study essentially looks for association between a free market ideology, conservatism, and conspiracy thinking as these world views relate to acceptance or rejection of vaccine safety, global warming, and acceptance of GMO (genetically modified organisms). A number of interesting and not-so-surprising findings emerged.

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Jul 18 2013

Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists

Skeptics have their work cut out for them. We are up against irrational forces that are becoming very savvy at turning the language and superficial tactics of science and skepticism against science and reason. We are not just debating details of evidence and logic, but wrangling with fully-formed alternate views of reality.

An excellent example of this was recently brought to my attention – an article using published psychological studies to argue that conspiracy theorists represent the mainstream rational view while “anti-conspiracy people” are actually the “paranoid cranks.” The article, by Dr. Kevin Barrett (Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist) in my opinion nicely reflects how an ideological world-view can color every piece of information you see.

He starts out reviewing an article by Wood and Douglas which examined the comments to news articles about topics that are the subject of conspiracy theories. Barrett summarizes the study this way:

In short, the new study by Wood and Douglas suggests that the negative stereotype of the conspiracy theorist – a hostile fanatic wedded to the truth of his own fringe theory – accurately describes the people who defend the official account of 9/11, not those who dispute it.

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Jan 17 2013

Sandy Hook and Online Harassment

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I was half expecting that this conspiracy theory, that the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax, would die on the vine, it’s so transparently absurd, but it appears to be gaining traction. I guess I should never underestimate the ability of conspiracy theorists to twist reality.

As I discussed last week – some conspiracy theorists are claiming that the shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook either never happened or is a government hoax, designed to provide public support for gun control. As with all grand conspiracies, this one collapses under its own weight – literally an entire town would need to be involved in this conspiracy.

The conspiracy theorists have nothing to offer but anomaly hunting. For example, in this video it is claimed that one of the shooting victims is seen after the shooting with President Obama – this is offered as “absolute proof” of a hoax. However, the girl in the later video is simply the younger sister of the victim.

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Jan 10 2013

Sandy Hook Conspiracy

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

That’s right – there is already a conspiracy theory alleging that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was actually a conspiracy, that it either did not happen at all, or happened very differently from what is being reported. James Tracey, an associate professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, runs a conspiracy-mongering blog in which he calls into question the official story of what happened at Sandy Hook.

It is the usual conspiracy fare – anomaly hunting combined with the usual logical fallacies. It is interesting, however, to see it applied to an event that, for me, happened right next door and when I personally know some of the people involved. I guess that makes me part of the conspiracy.

Before I delve into his claims, it is interesting to note that Tracy teaches a course called, Culture of Conspiracy. This raised an interesting possibility for me. Does he run such a course because he is a conspiracy theorist, or is his conspiracy theorist persona (including his blog) all part of a radical teaching strategy? What better way to teach about conspiracy theories than to simulate one yourself (a meta-conspiracy)? If the latter, I wonder how long he plans to keep up the charade before revealing what he is doing.

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Sep 27 2012

MS and Lyme Disease

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

The world must be a very scary place for a conspiracy theorist. In their world there is a vast sinister conspiracy that can control entire industries and professions, that supersede governments, and have almost limitless power.  In the mind of a conspiracy theorist the very people who are supposed to help and protect us are instead villains exploiting the public in the most heinous way for their own profit – and not just some individuals, but entire professions.

As experienced as I am examining conspiracy theories I always experience an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when reading a new conspiracy theory – how can someone actually believe this stuff? Their brain must operate under a different set of algorithms from my own.

Recently I was sent a link to this website claiming, without a hint of self-doubt, that there has been a 100 year conspiracy to lie to the world about multiple sclerosis (MS). Scientists and doctors, they assert, know that MS (and many other neurological diseases, like ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease) is really caused by a Borrelia infection of the brain – Lyme disease.

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Aug 27 2012

Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

The Official Version of Events

The NTSB, FBI, FAA, CIA, and even NASA were involved in the investigation of the explosion of flight 800. At first everyone assumed it was a bomb. Jets don’t just spontaneously explode in mid-air. Then eyewitness accounts of a missile strike starting coming in and that became a viable theory (and that is also when the CIA became involved). The FBI interviewed 270 different eyewitnesses, mostly people on Long Island, who had an excellent view of the entire episode from the beach or further inland. There were also eyewitnesses on boats, surfing, and even aboard other airplanes.

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Aug 13 2012

Conspiracy Thinking

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

I remain fascinated with the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. Partly this is because I think we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us – deep within our evolved psyche. There is something very compelling and satisfying about believing that you have peeked behind the curtain and seen the true machinations at work in the world. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are mostly regular people who have fallen into a psychological trap, or perhaps they simply have a greater tendency towards the kinds of thinking that leads to belief in conspiracies. Theirs, however, is a difference in magnitude, not kind.

I recently received an e-mail with an innocent question from someone who appears to fall into the former group – a regular guy whose conspiracy sense has been tickled. The e-mailer’s brother, who is a conspiracy theorist by his account, pointed him to this Youtube video – a short clip from an interview with John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Take a look at the interview before reading further.

McCain is apparently posturing about the debate schedule between him and Obama (typical political fare for a US election), and refers back to the debate planning between Barry Goldwater and JFK before the “Intervention and the tragedy at Dallas.”  The video would probably pass most people by without a thought, or perhaps just the slightest notice of the word choice by McCain. Calling the assassination of JFK an “intervention” at first seems like an odd word choice. Did he say “the intervention and the tragedy at Dallas,” or “the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas,” – meaning that the tragedy intervened in the course of events? It’s probably the latter. It’s also possible that the wrong word came out, or the intended word did not come to mind (although there does not appear to be any delay or stuttering). Either way, this is a non-event.

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Jul 31 2012

Still Flying

Just a quick post today as I am busy covering the inpatient service. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has taken another stunning picture of an Apollo landing site, this one from Apollo 16. The photo shows a clear shadow from the American flag that was planting during that mission. The LRO has taken the highest resolution photos of the lunar surface from moon orbit, showing great detail of the Apollo missions. You can see the foot trails of the astronauts and all the equipment they left behind.

Because there is only extremely slow erosion of the moon’s surface, from micrometeorites, the lunar surface is essentially frozen in time, recording the activities of the astronauts who visited.

The flags have apparently lasted well. The only Apollo flag that is not visible is from Apollo 11, because that flag was knocked over by the exhaust when the lander blasted off the moon’s surface.

Of course I have to point out that these LRO photos are the nail in the coffin of absurd moon landing conspiracy theories (as if that were needed). For years conspiracy theorists asked why telescopes have not pictured the Apollo landing sites. That is a common strategy of conspiracy theorists – throw out questions about evidence that appears to be missing in order to make it seem curious or sinister, and without putting it into proper context or truly searching for an answer to their question. In this case telescopes are not suited to close up images of the moon. We needed to get a probe close to the moon’s surface. Now that we have, the asked for pictures are coming back.

Of course, no evidence will convince a die-hard conspiracy theorists. The evidence just becomes part of the conspiracy.

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