Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tinfoil Hats Not Required

A certain portion of the Patriot movement is powered by conspiracy theories, but this isn't unique to the Tea Partiers and III%ers: theories about the assassinations of JFK and MLK were staples of the Left, as global warming is now; Bigfoot aficionados come from all over the political landscape; the Heaven's Gate people were just criminally stupid.

The problem is not the particular subjects of conspiracy theories (Bigfoot, UFOs, chemtrails, etc.) but the conspiracy theorists' methods by which they gain "knowledge" of those subjects (non-observational, non-causal, crowd-sourced, etc.) as well as the consequences of using such magical thinking (division, paralysis, false targets). These will be discussed below.

For any reputable person or organization to be successful, that person's or organization's actions must be based on solid information, not conspiracy theories, not hearsay, not rumors, and certainly not fear mongering. The ultimate standard for solid information is this: is something true or false, and how do you know?

Here's the answer: you have five senses, use them. You have logic and common sense, use them. You feel that that those standards don't leave you too much? Welcome to the real world. That's where training and experience comes in: training and experience are nothing but logic and common sense in action.

Only by these methods do you have knowledge, and along with it that feeling called "certainty". People too often tolerate uncertainty prior to taking action; worse, some people believe that omniscience or infallibility are prerequisites for being certain, so they conclude that certainty (and therefore knowledge) is never possible.

To any person who proclaims that "you can never be certain of anything", ask them: "are you sure?" and watch what happens.

Believers will sometimes try to undermine a skeptic’s position by appealing to a lack of direct experience, e.g. by asking: “how do you know Bigfoot isn’t hiding around the corner...or somewhere in Oregon?” This is where Bertrand Russell and his famous teapot becomes relevant:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

In other words, it isn’t our responsibility as skeptics to either confirm or refute such claims - the burden of proof (and it is a considerable burden) does not lie with the skeptic. Thus, the proper response to the Bigfoot believer is: “It’s not my job to hunt down Bigfoot.”

But the fact remains that we are neither omniscient nor infallible. Sometimes, we attempt to "fill in the facts" - but until proven, these aren't facts, merely guesses. Problems start when we confuse guesses with facts. The best description of this process comes from Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs":

"At the corners of old maps of the world of the 15th century are great vague spaces without shape or name, on which are written these three words: Hic sunt leones. Such a dark corner is there also in man. Passions grow and growl somewhere within us, and we may say of an obscure portion of our souls: 'there are lions here.'"

It is mildly interesting to wonder what these growing and growling passions are that would cause someone to create such lions, to initiate and propagate rumors and conspiracy theories. Some possibilities include:

  • To add drama to one's life
  • To gain the appearance of experience, without actually having experience
  • To press the limits of gullibility, and laugh at the results
  • To garner attention - would anybody ever go to Roswell, New Mexico, if a UFO wasn't rumored to crash there?
  • To fool the opposition
  • To act as a trigger - to start Revolutionary War II based not on intolerable acts but on fictitious deeds

Whatever. Regardless, the end result of rumors and conspiracy theories is to spread FUD - fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The end result of FUD is to paralyze and to divide.

Why paralysis? Conspiracy theories frequently portray vague and shapeless things or events that cannot be sustained by themselves, that appear to be causeless. By being causeless, they must be sustained by some outside magical power. How can we fight something like that? Monsters that live under children's beds have power only because of the child's ignorance. Thus the nonexistent becomes efficacious.

Even if paralysis is NOT achieved, there is the problem of “false targets”. Imagine that someone convinced the Library of Congress to release all documents related to the assassination of JFK. Some people would no doubt hail this as a victory for openness, transparency, and the American Way. No, rumors about a grassy knoll are false targets, and any success against a false target is a false victory, and the American Way has not been advanced. The real acts of a real devil you know have been made acceptable by the fictitious actions of a nonexistent devil that you do not know.

If you can see something, and it is wrong, you can fight it with a reasonable chance of success. Fighting the nonexistent is worse than pointless: Don Quixote tilted at windmills, but at least windmills are real.

Why division? If you’ve ever listened to a conspiracy theorist prattle on for more than a minute, you experience a queasiness, a desire to flee from all the unjustified conclusions, all the leaps of faith, all the bullshit being heaped upon you. And, you would be right to flee, to separate yourself from that person, no matter what else you might share in common.

The advantage to fighting the evils that are in plain sight is the fact that it is quite easy to win-over the "opposition".

A prime example of this is NSA spying. Not too long ago, most people thought that the U.S. government was not spying on its own citizens. Then along came Edward Snowden, and we now have an allegiance between the Tea Party and certain members of the Left on this issue.

Another example is police militarization. Before the Ferguson riots, the receipt of military hardware by civilian police was considered a libertarian issue, ignored by everybody else. Photos and news coverage of the Ferguson riots changed that, so that now the administration seems to be taking steps to curtail this hardware transfer.

A third example happened recently over the non-disclosure by the Obama administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The administration was keeping the TPP secret...why? A bill was introduced with bipartisan sponsorship that requires the TPP’s text be revealed before vote, but at present it appears that we lost this one.

Those issues - NSA surveillance, police militarization, and TPP secrecy - are now three more things that the left and the right have in common. The only way this happened was because we have the evidence of the senses, something that is available to everybody regardless of their political stripe. As for the evil our government does, tinfoil hats are simply not required, and are indeed a detriment. While such allegiances are fragile and fleeting, they make it clear who the real enemy is, and so make victory possible.

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