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Attacks Remembered

It is the 10th anniversary of the worst attack on the US in history, truly a somber day for this country. Our collective good wills go out to the family and friends of those who died in the attacks.

While the attack was on American buildings, it also was an attack on the American psyche. Trauma levels across the US increased, New York firefighters are retiring earlier, and America became paranoid. As with any event like this, answers were sought to make sense out of the chaos and as a result, a new era of government control, concern for privacy, and conspiracy was born.

Government distrust has always been a part of any governed public, but the 9/11 attacks brought this distrust to the forefront of American culture. The most recognizable of these new conspiracy mongers was the “9/11 Truth Movement”, which became something of a powerhouse. Movies were made, foundations were started, everything became murky and unclear. Although today the “Truth Movement” has lost its steam, mainly relegated to shoddy websites spouting off about claims that already have been debunked, conspiracy-style thinking and distrust of government remains.

How do we deal with such thinking? Is there a way to handle conspiracy theories in a skeptical way? Michael Shermer thinks there is.

Skeptical Principles for Dealing With Conspiracy

[Edited for application to conspiracy theories in general from a blog post by Michael Shermer]

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #1: There must be some means of discriminating between true and false conspiracy theories.

Lincoln was assassinated by a conspiracy; JFK was not. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a conspiracy of Serbian operatives that triggered the outbreak of the First World War; Princess Diana was not murdered by the Royal Family or any other secretive organization, but instead died by the most common form of death on a highway: speeding, drunk driving, and no seat belt.

[SBL] There is such a thing as a real conspiracy, but let’s not confuse it to the point where every conspiracy theory is viewed as standing on equal ground. The conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln has been substantiated, the conspiracy to fake the moon landing has not. The term “conspiracy”, then, does not imply any sort of confirmation.

Skeptic magazine's 9-11 cover

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #2: For conspiracy theorists, Cognitive Dissonance tries to balance the size of the event with the size of the cause.

9/11 “truthers” will say “Do you mean to tell me that 19 guys with box cutters taking orders from a guy in a cave in Afghanistan brought down the most powerful nation on earth?” First of all, America is alive and well, but, yes, as a matter of fact, that is the only way such an event can happen: Sizable cohorts of operatives in prominent positions (Bush, Rumsfeld, Chaney, the CIA, the FBI, et al.) are too noticeable to get away with such a conspiracy. (By the way, 9/11 was a conspiracy: 19 members of Al Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without telling us ahead of time constitutes a conspiracy.) It is the lone nuts living in the nooks and crannies of a free society (think Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinkley, etc.) who become invisible by blending into the background scenery.

[SBL] Our minds find ways to equate things that are not equatable. It may not seem like it to your brain, but it is possible for small bands of rogues to take down much larger and better organized opponents, they don’t have to be taken down by perfect “cover-ups.” Look at most of military history or guerrilla warfare.

This need to equate often overshadows simple explanations in favor of more complex ones and this is without reason. It really is possible that the simple explanation is the correct one. Invoking large governmental conspiracies that in essence would be impossible to prove over a simple explanation for which there is evidence is the hallmark of conspiracy-style thinking. E.g. a group of 19 hijackers flew a plane into a building is the simplest and most supported explanation of the 9/11 attacks.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #3: What else would have to be true if a conspiracy theory is true?

9/11 Truthers claim that the Pentagon was hit by a missile. Their proof? Anecdotes from employees who said they never saw a plane hit it. Hardly anyone working in the Pentagon that day saw anything happen because they were inside the five-sided building and the plane only hit on one side, and even there, presumably (hopefully), people are actually working and not just sitting there staring out the window all day.

But to the skeptical principle: If a missile hit the Pentagon, that means that a plane did not hit it. What happened to the American Airlines plane? It’s not enough to poke holes at the government explanation for 9/11 (a form of negative evidence); you must also present positive evidence for your theory. In this case, tell us what happened to the plane that didn’t hit the Pentagon because there are a lot of grieving families who would like to know what happened to their loved ones (as would several radar operators who tracked the plane from hijacking to suddenly disappearing off the screen in the same place as the Pentagon is located). Take a look at this photograph:

Are we to believe that the U.S. government timed the impact of a missile on the Pentagon with the hijackers who flew the plane into the Pentagon?

[SBL] Anyone can poke holes in a theory, but then must provide evidence that speaks to why those holes should be poked. For most conspiracy theories, so many assumptions, guesses, and unsupported claims must be made that such a theory is actually less likely than the “official story.” Do not let what you want to be true cloud what is actually true.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #4: Your conspiracy theory must be more consistent than the accepted explanation.

9/11 truthers claim that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda did not orchestrate 9/11, and instead it was done by the Bush administration. They then ask why Osama bin Laden has not been indicted for murder by the United States government and why was no one was fired for not acting on the famous memos of the summer of 2001 that warned our government that Al Qaeda was financing operatives in America in flight training schools and that Osama bin Laden would strike on U.S. soil.

Hold on there truthers—first you say that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are innocent of this crime, and then you present evidence in the form of documents that the U.S. government was forewarned that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda would attack us? Sorry sir, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t hold to two contradictory conspiracy theories at the same time and use evidence from each to support the other.

[SBL] A government “cover-up” may explain (or seem to explain) one aspect of a conspiracy better than the official story, but it usually fails to explain most other aspects of the story. For a new theory to be better than the old one, is has to explain and predict all of the same events that the old one did, and more. This is where most conspiracy theories fail.

Let’s use the 9/11 conspiracy theory as an example:

While the conspiracy theory about the 9/11 attacks being an “inside job” may satisfy some people’s thinking on our involvement in the middle east, our secretive nature of government, etc., it does not explain very much that we already have evidence for. If it was an inside job where are the people from the flight that was supposedly a cruise missile? Who are the men that we knew to be terrorists on the planes? Why did not one of 50,000 employees notice the placing of explosive charges in the two buildings? Why is there plane wreckage at the Pentagon if it was a missile? I could go on.

The point is, for a theory to be true, it must explain everything better than another theory, not just the little tid bits that conspiracy theorists pick out and obsess over.

Moving On

Conspiracy theories are hard to argue out of. Any evidence against the conspiracy is just seen as part of the conspiracy. Such thought is almost beyond the skeptic’s reach for intellect retrieval.

However, when we learn how to deal with conspiracy in a proper way, still being skeptical of authority and valuing evidence, we can bring closure to those most affected.