Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

Continue Reading »

Share

185 responses so far

Nov 04 2014

The Primeval Code

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific belief systems, and urban legends are fascinating in that they provide a window into culture and the human psyche. Essentially these are stories that are disconnected from reality, and therefore represent common narratives, beliefs, and fears in the culture.

I recently came across a conspiracy theory I had not heard of before, the Primeval Code, popularized in 2007 by a Swiss journalist, Luc Bürgin. Here’s the story:

Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch, scientists working at the time for the pharmaceutical company, Ciba, discovered that if you expose seeds to an electrostatic field their ancient DNA will be awakened. Corn, wheat, even salmon will revert to a more primitive form, as if remembering their prior evolutionary states.

Continue Reading »

Share

31 responses so far

Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

Continue Reading »

Share

31 responses so far

Sep 25 2014

Newtown and FBI Crime Statistics

On December 14, 2012, a disturbed shooter killed 20 children and 6 adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was a horrific event, and the community is still recovering.

Almost immediately after the shooting, and continuing to this day, conspiracy theorists have been shoe-horning this tragic event into their preferred narrative, calling the event a “false flag” operation. In other words, they believe that no children were killed on that day. The entire event was staged by the powers that be as a pretext to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens.

The claim is absurd on its face, but does provide an interesting window into how people can come to believe something that seems so “bat shit crazy.” It provides a lesson into the iron grip that a compelling narrative can have on someone’s mind.

The preferred narrative of the conspiracy theorist is that you cannot believe anything anyone in authority says. The government lies and only seeks to oppress us, so if the government says something it cannot be true. Anyone who believes the government is hopelessly naive.

So if “corporate media” is saying children were killed at Sandy Hook it must not be true, no matter how implausible the alternative might be.

Continue Reading »

Share

15 responses so far

Aug 05 2014

Persistent Anti-GMO Myths

One persistent theme in my writing about scientific topics is that, to optimally serve our own interests, public discourse and decision-making on issues that are highly scientific should be informed by the best evidence and scientific analysis available, not on lies, myths, misconceptions, or raw ideology. I am therefore attracted to topics where I think the myth to fact ratio is particularly high.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) is one such issue. The propaganda machine seems to be way out in front of the more sober voices trying to correct the record and focus the discussion on reality. I also see GMO as the ideological flip side to global warming denial.  In the latter case we seen industry and free-market ideologues sowing confusion and misinformation. They also do the ideology shuffle – a dance in which, whenever they are nailed by the facts on one point, they state that their objection is really based on some other point. They never really acknowledge the point, just side-step it.

Anti-GMO activists, in my experience, operate the same way. They have marshaled every possible point they can against GMO, whether or not they are true or valid. When one such point is exposed as a myth, they simply slide over to some other point as their “real” motivation for opposition, but never give any ground.

Continue Reading »

Share

202 responses so far

Jul 25 2014

Mike Adams is a Dangerous Loon

Where do I even begin? Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “healthranger” who runs the crank alt-med site naturalnews, has sunk to a new low, even though he was already scraping bottom.

Adams combines the worst CAM propaganda with a blend of conspiracy theories from across the spectrum, while selling supplements and other nonsense. He portrays himself as someone who is engaged in a righteous battle against the forces of evil – so hardly someone who is engaged in rational discourse.

In a recent rant, however, he has become a parody even of himself. This time he is raving about Monsanto and GMOs, writing:

Monsanto is widely recognize (sic) as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto’s orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.

Continue Reading »

Share

271 responses so far

Jul 21 2014

Moon Hoax Anomaly Hunting

Yesterday, July 20th, was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first and second humans to walk on the surface of another world. This is, to be sure, one of the greatest achievements of the human species.

There are those, however, who claim that we never sent astronauts to the moon, that the entire thing was an elaborate hoax by the US, meant to intimidate our rivals with our spacefaring prowess. As is typical of most grand conspiracy theories, they have no actual evidence to support their claim. None of the many people who would have to have been involved have come forward to confess their involvement. No government documents have come to light, no secret studios have been revealed. There is no footage accidentally revealing stage equipment.

What the moon hoax theorists have is anomaly hunting. This is the process of looking for something – anything – that does not seem to fit or that defies easy explanation, and then declaring it evidence that the standard story if false. Conspiracy theorists then slip in their preferred conspiracy narrative to take its place. Sometimes they are more coy, claiming to be “just asking questions” (also known as jaqing off), but their agenda is clear.

Genuine anomalies are of significant interest to science and any investigation, no question. For an apparent anomaly to be useful, however, mundane explanations need to be vigorously ruled out (conspiracy theorists tend to skip that part). Only when genuine attempts to explain apparent anomalies have failed to provide any plausible explanation should it be considered a true anomaly deserving of attention.

At that point the answer to the anomaly is, “we currently don’t know,” not “it’s a conspiracy.”

Continue Reading »

Share

28 responses so far

Jul 07 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part IV

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

This is the final installment of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. My first response is here. Michael’s rebuttal is here.

_____

Part IV: Rebuttal to Michael Fullerton

by Steven Novella

I was disappointed to read Michael’s rebuttal last week, as we had agreed to a respectful exchange, but Michael apparently felt the need for juvenile insults of not only me but my readers. I also found it difficult to follow his logic, and specifically to understand what his position actually is.

In this rebuttal I must speculate to some extent about what it is, exactly, that Michael claims happened to the WTC 1 and 2 on 9/11. Other than that controlled demolition was used, he has not presented a coherent narrative for what took place.

He has also completely failed to address my actual position. Instead he has relied upon trumped up fallacies and attacking straw men of his own imaginings.

I will first lay out again my position and the supporting evidence. I will then address what I infer to be Michael’s position, or address his possible positions. He is welcome to correct any errors in the comments by clarifying what it is he claims occurred.

There are two components to the collapse of the towers that we can discuss: the first is the initiation of each collapse, and the second is the subsequent complete collapse of the towers down to the ground. At no point does Michael directly address the initiation of collapse, but neither does he explicitly concede my position. What is incontestable is that commercial jets fully loaded with fuel struck each of the towers in a deliberate act of terrorism. The jets damaged outer supports at the site of impact, the jet fuel exploded, and the buildings caught fire.

There is compelling evidence that the initial damage combined with weakening of the steel columns from the heat of the fires caused the floors at that level to sag, pulling in the outer walls until they were no longer able to bear the load, initiating collapse. It is most obvious in the South Tower that the outer columns failed on one side, causing the top portion of the building to fall to that side, distributing extra load to the remaining columns until they failed, resulting in the collapse of that level.

Continue Reading »

Share

521 responses so far

Jun 30 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part III

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

This is the third of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. My first response is here. Next week I will give my final rebuttal.
_________

Part III: Rebuttal to Steven Novella

by Michael Fullerton

Dr. Novella’s response to my initial arguments consists mainly of the weak arguments I had already dispensed with in Part I. He claims an initial event is evidence for a following event (post hoc ergo propter hoc); he claims I provided no evidence for controlled demolition (CD); he claims CD requires explosions and he claims that I claimed that a scientific explanation requires precedence. It’s as if he completely ignored parts of my writing that conflicted with his beliefs. He keeps repeating these false arguments because he has nothing else of any significance to offer.

Novella states that he accepts “the consensus of expert opinion that the collapse of the towers was due to the structural damage and weakening of the steel supports caused by the impact of the jets, the burning of the jet fuel, and the subsequent fires that burned through the buildings.” In science, a consensus opinion means that the majority of people in the field agree with a particular explanation for a phenomena. How has Novella determined consensus? He provided no evidence of consensus just the NIST report and a statement from 25 ASCE civil engineers. No poll has been conducted to provide evidence to support this statement. The fact that 2200+ architects and engineers question the official 9/11 story[1] seems to throw cold water on this “consensus”.

Note that Novella’s consensus argument is precariously close to committing two fallacies here: appeal to the masses (AKA appeal to consensus) and appeal to authority. The appeal to the masses fallacy occurs whenever a conclusion is deemed true because the majority of a particular group believe it is true. The appeal to authority occurs whenever a conclusion is deemed true simply because one or more experts believe it is true. Claiming therefore that something is true because a majority of experts in the field believe it is true is a false argument. In fact, even using a consensus argument to claim one explanation is more likely than another is baseless. We know this because countless times in the history of science, the consensus has often been very wrong. Since Novella is hinting that the explanation is more likely rather than that it is true, I’m not going to call it fallacious even though it could easily be argued as such.

Novella falsely claims that I dismiss the official story evidence for collapse initiation. I don’t dismiss it. I am merely saying it does not in any way constitute evidence for the rest of the collapse. Bizarrely, Novella actually claims that evidence for collapse initiation of the Twin Towers is evidence of how they fell. As I stated in Part I, arguing that a preceding event caused a following event involves the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. He does not deny that it is a logical fallacy or explain how a fallacy could in any way constitute evidence. Let me give an example. Suppose an airline pilot describes icing conditions on the wings and windshield. Shortly thereafter the plane crashes killing all on board. Without investigating further, experts proclaim that these icing conditions resulted in the crash. Later, eyewitnesses come forward reporting that they saw an explosion right before the plane came down. This evidence was rejected because it went against the expert consensus. After much pressure by the victim’s family members, the eyewitnesses and other concerned people, an investigation was finally conducted which found a missile strike actually caused the fall. As we see, evidence of a preceding event is not necessarily evidence for a following event. Novella would be one of those that believed the icing was evidence for the crash. So once again, no evidence whatsoever is provided for the actual falls of the towers. The only “evidence” he has for the official story is a logical fallacy, a false argument! The official story believers and CD denialists really need to wrap their heads around this.

Continue Reading »

Share

384 responses so far

Jun 23 2014

9/11 Conspiracy Debate – Part II

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

This is the second of a four part written debate between myself and Michael Fullerton, who believes that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was not due to the official story of damage from the impact of commercial jets, but rather the result of a controlled demolition. His initial post is here. This is my first response. Another round will follow in the next two weeks.
_________
Part II – The Collapse of the Twin Towers was the Result of the Commercial Jet Impacts

by Steven Novella

When Michael first contacted me he challenged me (as he apparently has other skeptics before me) to a live debate on the topic of the collapse of WTC1 and WTC2 on Septermber 11, 2001. I offered instead this written debate, as I feel the written format is better suited to a technical debate, where references and facts can be checked.

Let me begin my first response by reviewing what appears to be the common ground between our two positions. Michael and I both agree that commercial airliners struck each of the Twin Towers on 9/11, resulting in explosions, burning jet fuel, and structural damage to the towers. We also agree that some time following these impacts, each tower collapsed.

We disagree on the best scientific explanation for these collapses. Michael supports the controlled demolition hypothesis. I accept the consensus of expert opinion that the collapse of the towers was due to the structural damage and weakening of the steel supports caused by the impact of the jets, the burning of the jet fuel, and the subsequent fires that burned through the buildings.

Continue Reading »

Share

196 responses so far

Next »