Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More on the conspiracy nuts

The BBC programme about 9/11 nonsense and David’s link has introduced me to a horrible, horrible world of conspiracy and double-conspiracy of which I had hitherto had only an inkling.

Why do people need conspiracy theories? These are generally intelligent-seeming human beings: able to operate a computer, string sentences together, clothe and dress themselves and probably even use the toilet unassisted. And yet... such on-the-face-of-it, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face stupidity.

The BBC programme did touch on this wider question about the psychology of conspiracy theorists, with one interviewee suggesting that some people find it hard to grasp that something so appalling could have been committed by a small group of fanatics, so they need something else, something bigger, to blame.

That’s part of it, I’m sure. As is the paranoia created by this age of information-overload, plus real political spin and lies (Lewinsky, Watergate, all that other stuff ending in ‘gate’) and conspiracy-based TV shows like The X-Files.

But another factor is the ‘narrow-thinking’ trap. It’s like the family tree con we were talking about a few weeks ago. We have thousands of ancestors in incredibly bushy trees, yet people can be tricked into focusing on only one of these ‘lines’ of connection, in order to link themselves with a particular famous historical figure (when in reality, nearly everybody can trace a line to him). Likewise, the conspiracy theorist focuses so intensely on a particular series of events, such as the American Air Force’s ineffective response to the hijacks, or the puffs of air that precede the collapse of the WTC towers, that he becomes obsessed with it and is unable to see the wider picture or indeed, obvious explanations.

The other common link between these conspiracy nuts is staggering hubris. Their fragile egos need the boost of seeming smarter than their fellow citizens. They alone can see The Truth, while the rest of the sheep just follow the leaders. Consequently, they are far too far down the road to accept any debunking of their theories.

Dylan Avery, the spotty youth who made the Loose Change film, was pathetically proud of his achievements. Showing the cameraman his bedroom/studio, he boasted: “This is where the magic happens. Yes, sir.” He then went on to tell the tale of how he saved up to buy the laptop that “started the whole thing”. Having created a sick myth about an act of mass murder, he was now busy building a mythology about the Great Dylan Avery.


Peter Burnet said...

Although, just as the definition of an alcoholic is one who drinks more than his doctor, so for many leftists, a "conspiracy nut" is just one whose conspiracy is wilder than theirs.

Down, martpol, I know the extreme right fringe is chock-a-block with conspiatorial fantasists, but if we are discounting the fringes of both sides, I do think the syndrome or tendency is more endemic to leftist thinking. I can't see a conservative counterpart to "it's all about oil" or Haliburton or "the Zionist lobby", etc. I think that, generally speaking, the right is more inclined to give leftists the compliment of just calling them stupid or deluded.

David said...

I find the "Truthers" endlessly fascinating.

You start with the "the government knew" people who believe that the government knew 9/11 was coming and purposely didn't try to stop it in order to have a "new Pearl Harbor" and invade Afghanistan for its oil and agglomerate executive power. These people are even slightly respectable. It can't be disproven, it's more or less what Americans say about all our wars and Michael Moore, who's either in this camp or looking longingly at it from the property line, gets to sit next to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention.

It's even, in a tenuous sense, true, if -- like the 9/11 report -- you consider everything known to every individual who worked for the federal government and focus on the dots that turned out, after the fact, to be significant while ignoring the billions of other dots.

Then you get to the controlled demolition people and you think that, because they endlessly talk about evidence, that you can reason with them. Surely if you carefully explain that George Bush's brother wasn't in charge of security at the Towers; that someone would have noticed teams of men tearing out the walls and installing high explosives; that the NIS report does explain the mechanism of the collapse; that the Towers did not actually fall at the speed of gravity; that the Towers are unlike any other steel frame building and no other steel frame building ever had fully laden airplanes flown into them; that people did manage to melt steel before the invention of thermite, etc., etc., etc., you can convince them.

Then you run across the "no-planers" and the high energy beam weapon people and you realize that the Truth movement has nothing to do with what actually happened in New York, DC and Pennsylvania on September 11th.

[The no-planers, for those who haven't had the pleasure, deny that any planes at all were flown into the Towers and the Pentagon (or, sometimes, just the Pentagon). Instead, missiles equipped with holographic projectors were used, sometimes with internal demolitions and sometimes without. The planes themselves were flown to a secret airbase in Ohio. Three were destroyed while all the passengers and crews were loaded onto flight 93 and killed in the crash -- except for the people who deny that any plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

The beam weapon people believe that the Towers were destroyed by spaced based beam weapons.]

Susan's Husband said...


Because if you have a conspiracy, then you can smash that conspiracy and Evil Will Be Vanquished. It's the standard fantasy novel plot.

If, instead, one accepts having to deal with the banality of evil, that's a rather more daunting prospect.

Peter Burnet said...


I've been working for some time on an argument on why Oroborous should be censored. Thanks.


Though the whole conspiracy mindset is very American. It's true that the rest of the world loves to join in when it is directed against the States, but I wonder whether it is really just another example of their aping your dissidents--much like Nike or MacDonalds. As you say, government conspiracies are the theme of any number of American thrillers and films, but not even the Brits are into them much. Can you imagine anyone writing a book accusing the Mounties of trying to take over the Canadian Government?

If, instead, one accepts having to deal with the banality of evil, that's a rather more daunting prospect.

OTOH, we don't find that daunting at all. We specialize in the banal.

erp said...

Krauthammer said, the right thinks the left are misinformed and the left thinks the right are evil. Sums it up nicely.

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnett;

If you think the conspiracy theory mindset is particularly American, you need to spend some time in Arabia.

Brit said...

David: Really, the mind has given up boggling.

Peter is right that conspiracy theories about the Government are a very American trope. (As is alien abduction, along with the obligatory probe.)

Anyone have an idea (a conspiracy theory, perhaps?) as to why? Did it start with Nixon and Watergate, or with JFK's assasination, or earlier?

British horror/fantasy tends to be about the very mundane, everyday stuff of life suddenly turning on humans. So in Dr Who the most effective monsters are shop mannequins, or domestic cats, or dustbins that come to life. Daphne du Maurier wrote a story about birds that turn nasty, etc.

M Ali said...

There is a paranoid streak in American politics that tends to affect both left and right. The same is much more pronounced in 3rd world societies where the press is severely curtailed, dodgy dealings and corruption are the norm and rumours are how political news spreads.

Peter Burnet said...


Yes, and Russians too, but some paranoias are well-grounded in objective experience.

David said...

Ali is referring to what is considered the classic work on the subject, Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which was also a speech and a magazine article.

Paranoid Style was about the right when the left seemed permanently ascendant, but now it's the left that's paranoid. Jane Galt (aka Megan McCardle) has a saying about American politics: The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnett;

That's a fair cop.

Susan's Husband said...


British horror/fantasy tends to be about the very mundane, everyday stuff of life suddenly turning on humans

You mean like Tolkien's stuff? Wasn't that a classic conspiracy theory?

David said...

Brit has put his finger on one of the more amusing of the Truther dynamics, which is whenever they get pushed they just jump to an even more elaborate conspiracy.

The best example I ever saw was a guy who finally became convinced that you couldn't surreptitiously install explosives in two of the busiest office buildings in the world. Obviously, they must have been installed during construction. Then he started wondering whether the government arranges it so that all major buildings are built with explosives pre-installed.

Harry Eagar said...

'Though the whole conspiracy mindset is very American'

Sure, you could look all over Germany and never find anyone who believed that a Jewish-communist conspiracy was running the world and plotting to pollute the pure Aryan race.

Peter Burnet said...

Yes, Harry, but those are conspiracies about "the other". The thing that fascinates us about the States is your tendency to see conspiracies orchestrated by the guys you voted for.

As Brit says, we simply don't understand why you Americans aren't sophisticated and mature enough to be haunted by rebellious shop mannequins instead.

Oroborous said...

I've been working for some time on an argument on why Oroborous should be censored.

Well, I'm short, balding, and smell bad - that ought to be enough, in any civilized social group.

joe shropshire said...

Well, if it is going to censor him, history should at least first note that Oro has one of the better conspiracy-nut smackdowns under his belt:

Mysterious, unmarked black helos are meant to be noticed, and to intimidate, which has to be a conspiracy theorist's favorite fantasy: That he's SO right, he has to be neutralized, and SO Important that it has to be done by commando team, instead of getting food poisoning at the salad bar.

Hey Skipper said...

The Discovery Channel recently had a program about TWA 800, a 747 that exploded in midair shortly after taking off from JFK.

Pierre Salinger (IIRC), among others, insisted upon a government plot to cover up the fact that the Navy shot it down.

A crucial part of the conspiracy theory is that the official explanation, arcing causing an explosion the the center fuel tank's ullage was impossible: the voltage in the wires was insufficient for ignition.

The program went to the effort of setting up a 737 center fuel tank, replicating the conditions inside the tank, and attempting to detonate the result with gradually increasing electrical energy.

On the fifth attempt, the tank sploded spectacularly.

The ignition energy was roughly what you would get from touching a door knob after shuffling across a carpet.

This obvious contradiction would be the precursor to a serious rethink, no?

No. The resident conspiracy expert, a retired 747 pilot, duly dismissed the results, noting the explosion vented upwards, not down.

Which would require rebuilding the entire test rig to include all the aircraft structure on top of the center tank in order to redundantly prove explosive forces follow the path of least resistance.

Whereupon the conspiracist would simply have invented something else out of thin air.

Reasoning with a sick mind is even a less profitable use of time than directing a pigs' chorus.