Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Dec 13 2011

Mercury UFO

The bright light in the center of this NASA photo is the planet Mercury. But what is the smaller light off to the right? This is from a video available to the public on the SECCHI website (Sun Centered Imaging package and Heliosphere Imager). This is an array of imagers studying the space around the sun – the heliosphere. This still is taken from a video showing a coronal mass ejection. Mercury happens to be moving through the field of view.

A short clip from the video was uploaded to YouTube and now has over 4 million hits. The person who uploaded it (pseudonym sinXster) does a voiceover in which he says:

“That is definitely some sort of manufactured object. It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked… There’s really absolutely no explanation for that other than it’s some sort of ship.”

I always worry with things like this that it’s a Poe – that it was created as satire. But because we have voiceover we can at least make a judgement about the sincerity of sinXster – he sounds sincere to me, and there are no red flags of a Poe. So – I acknowledge the possibility that it’s not serious, but will comment further as if it is.

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Nov 08 2011

US Government Says There Is No UFO Conspiracy

While I welcome the disclosure, the fact that the US government has now officially stated that they are not hiding evidence of alien contact is not likely to change any minds.

The Obama White House has created a website called We the People in which anyone can write a petition for information from the administration. The current rules state that a petition has to achieve 150 signatures within 30 days to appear on the publicly searchable database, and then must reach 25,000 signatures within 30 days in order to trigger a response from the administration. This second threshold was just increased from 5,000. The two UFO petitions combined garnered 17,000 signatures, but I guess it beat the increase to the higher threshold.

UFO conspiracy theorists have been claiming for years that the US government has been hiding extensive knowledge of contact with aliens. The alleged crashed saucer at Roswell New Mexico is just one famous example. The conspiracy claims include the claim that the government maintains a secret facility, Area 51, in which they examine recovered alien craft, and that they are attempting (and perhaps even succeeded) to reverse engineer alien technology. Many claim that a shadow organization exists within the government, or perhaps is even transnational, such as the Men in Black, who swoop in and suppress any hard evidence of aliens when encounters occur. Some also claim that the government is in contact with aliens and is collaborating with them.

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Apr 04 2011

The Thorium Conspiracy

One of the defining attributes of scientific skepticism is so-called metacognition – we think about thinking. Psychologists have amassed a large body of evidence about how people think – the most common patterns that we tend to fall into. It’s unfortunate that this knowledge is not put to more frequent use.

Just one nugget of such metacognitive knowledge is the so-called fundamental attribution error – we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors while ignoring or downplaying external or situational factors. At the same time, we happily excuse our own behavior with situational factors. The textbook example is that if we see someone walking down the sidewalk and tripping, we will tend to think that they are clumsy. If we trip, then we blame the crack in the sidewalk.

This mental bias works on every hierarchical level, not just for an individual act by an individual person. In other words – we make the same mistake when thinking about the behavior of groups and organizations, and not just single acts but long term behavior. This attribution error also dovetails effectively with another cognitive bias, the tendency to see conspiracies, even where they do not exist. We tend to assume that organizations and even groups of disconnected people are behaving according to some deliberate internal plan, rather than just responding to situational factors. If we are not aware of those external factors, then we tend to leap to the conspiracy hypothesis as an explanation.

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Mar 08 2011

New 9/11 Footage

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Video footage from a police helicopter circling the Twin Towers on 9/11 has been released through a freedom of information (FOI) request – it was originally given to NIST for their investigation. Some of this footage has now found it’s way onto YouTube. (Here’s a more condensed version.) Even after 10 years watching the footage is a powerful reminders of the emotions of that day.

While having an aerial perspective of the devastation of the first tower to fall is compelling video, the video does not provide any new information that impacts the claims of 9/11 truthers. Unfortunately, the camera was not on the tower at the moment it fell. The helicopter had rotated the window that the camera operator was filming through away from the towers. It appears that when the tower fell the camera operator reacted by pointing the camera back at the towers through a different window. But the tower is already down by that time.

As if often the case, perhaps more interesting than the video itself are the comments to the video. It is filled, not surprisingly, with paranoid conspiracy mongering.

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76 responses so far

Dec 20 2010

Conspiracy Thinking – Skepticism’s Evil Twin

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Last week on SkepticBlog Michael Shermer wrote a nice post about JFK assassination conspiracies, and not surprisingly a couple of conspiracy advocates showed up in the comments. While reading through their arguments I was struck by how consistent the tactics and tone of conspiracy theorists tends to be. They are heavy on sarcasm, ridicule, and condescension, and like to call anyone who disagrees with them “gullible.”

It also struck me that skeptics can often take a similar tone, and certainly conspiracy theorists (as with deniers) think of themselves as being the true skeptics. But they are skeptics’ evil twins – they use a tone that only the harsher skeptics use, and only when dealing with the truly absurd – those topics that we do not wish to legitimize with serious treatment, but don’t wish to ignore either. Some claims deserve ridicule, and anything less falsely elevates them.

It is true that sometimes skeptics do not properly adjust their tone when dealing with topics that range from the truly absurd to the genuinely controversial. I do think it is counterproductive and unfair to attack a well-meaning and generally scientific individual with whom you happen to disagree about a complex and controversial topic, as if they were a homeopath or creationist. This is a minor problem, for example, with the show Bullshit. Penn and Teller have created a premise for their show that does not lend itself to a nuanced discussion of a scientific controversy – and so they end up giving circumcision and second-hand smoke the same treatment as magnet therapy and feng sui.

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25 responses so far

Jul 13 2010

Conspiracy Science

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Maybe it was at a party, a family event, or even at work, but you have probably encountered before a person whom we would call a conspiracy theorist. Were you cornered as they became more and more animated, discussing how the shadow world government is slowly preparing for world domination using chemtrails and vaccines? Perhaps you became progressively sheepish as every logical question was met with an even more absurd bit of circular reasoning, accompanied by accusations of being naive, until physical escape was your only option.

This, of course, is an extreme example while conspiracy thinking occurs on a spectrum – we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us to some degree. Understanding conspiracy thinking in its subtle and extreme forms seems like an important topic of psychological investigation, and yet there is a paucity of good scientific research. Perhaps this is due to the stigma of conspiracies – academics don’t want to get the stench of conspiracy theories on them.

But there is some interesting research, and recently psychologists Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles reviewed this research in their article The Truth is Out There. This is a keeper – one for the skeptical files, if for nothing else than that they provide a handy list of references on conspiracy research.

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32 responses so far

May 11 2010

Dialogue with a 9/11 Truther

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Eric Carlson, a listener of the SGU, is also a self-described 9/11 truther. He has written an extensive, if belated, reply to our discussion of claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists back in September of 2005. For a change of pace I thought I would answer some of his points.

I will start by noting that Eric is quite respectful throughout and does what few people, in my experience, do – he admits legitimate points on the other side, rather than finding some way to dismiss every single point we make, valid or not.  For brevity I will not review the points on which he agrees with us. You can read them for yourself on his blog post. I will simply summarize/quote his points of contention and respond.

His first point has to do with melting steel. We pointed out that, while the temperatures of the fires at the WTC towers were not hot enough to melt steel, they were hot enough to weaken the steel sufficiently to cause the collapse. Eric admits this point, but then counters:

While the Skeptic present a strong argument based on the limited facts they present, they fail to note the existence of Molten Steel in the wreckage.  While the Skeptics may call this point anomaly hunting, the educated Conspiracy Theorists will demand that physical evidence be included in the analysis.

This is an assumed premise followed by a straw man. Eric does something I find extremely common among conspiracy theorists – prematurely assuming facts that have not been established. As they say in court (at least on TV), “Objection, assumes facts not in evidence.”

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Apr 17 2007

Letters from a 9/11 Conspiracy Theorist

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Below is an e-mail exchange I had recently with someone who takes offense that we are not more skeptical of the official version of what happened on 9/11. Their letters to me are in italics, and mine follow. It is a fairly good representation of the typical thought processes employed by the conspiracy theorists.


I find your podcasts really interesting and it’s interesting to hear the “rational” minded folks too. However I was disappointed with your podcast #89 where you trash everything that is not right off what the mainstream-media is telling you.

While you bash these “celebrities” who speak out for 9/11 investigation, you don’t notice that obviously you didn’t research history really. It’s a proven fact that governments have used false-flag operations to get their thing through. Hitler did it with the reichstags-fire and blamed it on “communist-terrorists” and then used it as a pretext to implement the enabling-act (which is basically the patriot-act that Bush-Nazi then created with the 9/11 event) and invaded Poland (where Bush then tried to associate 9/11 with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, WMD’s).

See parallels?

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Jan 24 2007

The AMA Bogeyman

On the SGU boards I was recently asked to comment on some claims made regarding the American Medical Association (AMA). Here is an excerpt:

“In the U.S., science and the American Medical Association (AMA) are not completely congruent in the realm of health care as a result of an effective monopoly with regard to competing practices. This is not to say the AMA recommends non-scientific solutions, but they tend to rule out less profitable ones and they may recommend scientific, but also needlessly dangerous, solutions. Some of that is done by necessity, or at least by the necessity of profit in the private practice of medicine.”

That the AMA exerts a Big Brother degree of control over the practice of medicine is a common misconception. It is especially popular among proponents of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or just critics of established medicine. Such criticism of mainstream science often takes the form of conspiracy mongering, and conspiracies need a villain – the more powerful and cold-hearted the better.
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Jan 12 2007

Conspiracy Theories and the JFK Headshot

Below is an exchange between me and an e-mailer responding to this article I wrote about conspiracy theories. Although the specific topic is about the assassination of JFK, and in particular the head wound, you can see many of the elements common to all conspiracy thinking here. (To help, the e-mailer’s writing is in italics)

Laurie Philips

For a society supposedly formed to promote science and reason, I find your dismissal of the “back and to the left” evidence against Oswald in the JFK assasination astonishing! You seem to refute the idea by suggesting that the “jet” of brain matter coming out of the front would have more momentum than the bullet coming in the back… even though the matter recieves its momentum solely from the bullet! Therefore, the limiting case is no movement at all, where all the bullet’s momentum is transferred to the matter. It certainly could not gain more. What were you smoking when you came up with that one??? Please don’t spread such an obvious falsehood around, somebody might believe you.

There’s all kinds of other evidence, but it’s entirely irrelevant to prove that the official story is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you find a video of Oswald hanging out of the 6th story window with a rifle, firing away… Momentum is always conserved, there must have been a shot from in front of JFK therefore at least another shooter, therefore a conspiracy.
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