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Thread: Why Conspiracy Theories?

  1. #1
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    Default Why Conspiracy Theories?

    Hope this isn't too much flamebait for a first post, but here goes...

    Why bother entertaining 'conspiracy theories'? Besides the obvious stigma attatched to calling something a conspiracy theory (i.e. own over 20 copies of Catcher in the Rye, etc.), what value do these theories really hold? I'm asking this because on the front page of this forum, I see one 9/11 conspiracy theory, one about AIDS, and another rather active post about a nuclear attack against Iran. What good comes of these musings or microanalyses, in terms of a real politics or political stance? Isn't the conspiracy theory simply the consolation of the defeated, who takes comfort in the fact that she knows what 'really happened' or that however horrid a situation is, it's even worse because there's a devious set of masterminds controlling the whole thing? A quote, which I'm sure several here have seen:

    There invariably comes a moment when what matters is to declare in one’s own name that what took place took place, and to do so because what one envisages with regard to the actual possibilities of the situation requires it…We will not ask for proofs and counterproofs. We will not enter into debate with erudite anti-Semites, Nazis under the skin, with their superabundance of “proofs” that no Jew was ever mistreated by Hitler.
    -Badiou, St. Paul

    In both of these cases, doesn't it seem that the conspiracy theory is simple antiquarianism? Isn't the holocaust denier much the same as the person who has collected scrap upon scrap of evidence to try to show that a 757 never hit the pentagon? Perhaps the 9/11 attacks were US government orchestrated for whatever reason, and perhaps the Holocaust was a conspiracy orchestrated by whomever as well. In either case, we lose sight, when we attempt to battle in the tiny minutiae, of any real truth that can be extracted from the situation.

    Zizek has a similar bit in one of his lectures, if I recall, where he says that the moment that you get into a debate with a holocaust denier, you've already lost. You've conceded something at the moment you consider his pathology (pathological even if he's 'right') worth rational debate. This seems to be the difference between 'facts' and truth. What the former may give us is only further ground to argue, more fuel for our fire. However, the important thing would seem to be asserting a truth which explains the situation with regard to its consequences, what now is to be asserted, to be done, so that this sort of thing cannot happen again or so that we can approach the more serious, deeper rooted injustices, no?

    Maybe this is too hasty, too idealistic even, but what virtue is there in approaching these huge situations with a magnifying lens to find out who did what where and what shadow-council of 20 controls the world when the greater injustices, the structural forces in one sense, are really the problem? Granted, even with that recognition there still comes the question of how to enact any meaningful change, but it would seem to me, ultimately, the only relevant means of going about 'doing' politics in any sense.

    Well, pardon the rant and take pity on a first time poster, but that's my two cents, so to speak.
    Last edited by sherief; 14-03-2006 at 06:15 AM. Reason: Grammatical

  2. #2
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    I think that since people stopped believing in faeries and pixies and also mainly stopped believing in God many people have felt a lack of mystery. In some cases this gap is filled by a willingness to believe in UFOs and the like and when this is coupled with a (reasonable?) distrust of and cynicism about government, conspiracy theories are the result.

    "the moment that you get into a debate with a holocaust denier, you've already lost. You've conceded something at the moment you consider his pathology (pathological even if he's 'right') worth rational debate"
    I take your point here but I don't really agree with it. I think 99% who replied to the HIV conspiracy said that it was nonsense and likewise with the 9/11 thread but I don't really think that their replies legitimised it in any way except to someone who viewed it in the most cursory fashion and judged its worth on the number of replies. Someone else on this forum said that he believes that it is necessary when someone says someone stupid and wrong and potentially dangerous then it is necessary to refute it in the strongest possible terms. I'm more inclined to adhere to that viewpoint.

  3. #3
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    Excellent post Sherief.

    I feel pretty much the same way.

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    Yeah pretty much agree. I think conspiracy theories stem from a certain unease that something is not quite right. Which is of course the case, but what is not right is on the macro level rather than the micro level.

    Capitalism is the biggest conspiracy going and most of it is right out in the open.

    A lot of conspiracy theory stuff seems to be outraged that the powerful do not always do things openly and adhere to rules of "fair play". Which is ridiculous.

    After JFK it should be blindingly obvious that this road leads nowhere.

    I'm all for investigative journalism, but conspiracy theories just seem to amount to wallowing in ambiguous trainspottery data for the hell of it and leaping to massive conclusions. Most people who go "wow!" at conspiracy theories do so in an entirely passive way - they consume theories uncritically and by doing so increase their cynicism and passivity.

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    you're right in mentioning the obsessive focussing on details, to lose sight of the whole picture. after dissecting the body into infinite pieces, reassembly gives you a monster. and everyone else is to blame for how ugly it looks!

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by john eden
    I'm all for investigative journalism, but conspiracy theories just seem to amount to wallowing in ambiguous trainspottery data for the hell of it and leaping to massive conclusions.
    Theres a fine line between William Blum and Mike Ruppert, and the line tends to shift, IMO, examintaion of the logic behind the theory rather than the facts provides a quicker indication as to its credibility...

    Most people who go "wow!" at conspiracy theories do so in an entirely passive way - they consume theories uncritically and by doing so increase their cynicism and passivity.
    Necrotisation I think its called. The feeling that something is inevitable, or 'too big' to deal with, leading to apathy and lack of motivation - though I dont think conspiracy theories are unique in engendering that feeling - the entire Western Political system seems to amplify this effect.

    Very good article here about 9/11, and conspracy theorising in general:

    Conspiracies Or Institutions?
    9-11 and Beyond


    By Stephen R. Shalom & Michael Albert

    There has been much frenzied debate on the Internet and in the news recently suggesting that “the government knew beforehand about the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks” and let them happen in order to use these horrible events to pursue their right-wing agendas. In the months since 9-11, conspiracy theories have been multiplying rapidly, gaining, it would seem, popularity in the mainstream, on the right, and even on the left.

    None of the “conspiracies” being talked about strike us as remotely interesting, much less plausible. Neither of us would ordinarily have spent even five minutes exploring conspiracy claims because they fly in the face of our broad understanding of how the world works. But such theories seem to have some popularity among progressives, so they must be addressed.

    * What is a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

    The most common definition of a conspiracy is two or more people secretly planning a criminal act. Examples of conspiracy theories include the belief that: (1) JFK was assassinated by rogue CIA elements attempting to ward off unwanted liberalism; (2) negotiations between the United States government and Iran to release American hostages in then-President Carter’s last year failed because Reagan’s aides secretly struck a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the election; (3) 9-11 was a plot by a rogue CIA/Mossad team cunningly engineering rightward alignments in the United States and/or Israel.

    A broader definition of conspiracy includes misleading, but still legal acts. For example, even if the U.S. president and his top aides could legally perpetrate the secret 9-11 attacks, doing so would still be a conspiracy. Legal assassination disguised as an accident or secretly pinned on someone else might also fit the second definition because it’s not just secret, but actively deceptive. But no definition of conspiracy, however broad, includes everything secret.

    People often secretly get together and use their power to achieve some result. But if this is a conspiracy, then virtually everything is a conspiracy. General Motors executives meeting to decide what kind of car to produce would be a conspiracy. Every business decision, every editorial decision, every university department closed session would be a conspiracy. Conspiracy would be ubiquitous and, therefore, vacuous. Even in the broadest definition, there must be some significant deviation from normal operations. No one would call all the secret acts of national security agencies conspiracies, as they are sufficiently normal and expected.

    We don’t talk of a conspiracy to win an election when the suspect activity includes candidates and their staff working privately to develop strategy. We do talk about a conspiracy, however, if their strategy includes stealing the other party’s plans, spiking their rival’s drinks with LSD, having a campaign worker falsely claim he or she was beaten up by the opposing camp, or other exceptional activity.

    * What characterizes conspiracy theorizing?

    Any conspiracy theory may or may not be true. Auto, oil, and tire companies did conspire to undermine the trolley system in California in the 1930s. Israeli agents did secretly attack Western targets in Egypt in 1954 in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal. The CIA did fake a shipload of North Vietnamese arms to justify U.S. aggression. Conspiracies do happen. But a conspiracy theorist is not someone who simply accepts the truth of some specific conspiracies. Rather, a conspiracy theorist is someone with a certain general methodological approach and set of priorities.

    Conspiracy theorists begin their quest for understanding events by looking for groups acting secretly either in a rogue fashion, or to fool the public. Conspiracy theorists focus on conspirators’ methods, motives, and effects. Personalities, personal timetables, secret meetings, and conspirators’ joint actions claim priority attention. Institutional relations largely drop from view. Thus, rather than seeking a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy, conspiracy theorists ask, “Did Clinton launch missiles at Sudan in 1998 in order to divert attention from his Monica troubles?” Rather than examining the shared policies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, as an examination of institutions would emphasize, they ask, “Did a group within the CIA kill Kennedy to prevent his withdrawing from Vietnam?”


    * What characterizes institutional theorizing?

    An institutional theory emphasizes roles, incentives, and other institutional dynamics that compel important events and have similar effects over and over. Institutional theorists notice individual actions, but don’t elevate them to prime causes. The point is to learn something about society or history, as compared to learning about particular culpable people. The assumption is that if the particular people hadn’t been there to do the events, someone else would have.

    There are, of course, complicating borderline cases. A person trying to discover a possible CIA role in 9-11 could be trying to verify a larger (incorrect) institutional theory—that the U.S. government is run by the CIA. Or a person might be trying to demonstrate that some set of U.S. institutions propels those involved toward conspiring. Someone studying Enron may be doing so not as a conspiracy theorist concerned with condemning the proximate activities of the board of Enron, but rather to make a case (correctly) that U.S. market relations provide a context that make conspiracies against the public by corporate CEOs highly probable. The difference is between trying to understand society by understanding its institutional dynamics versus trying to understand some singular event by understanding the activities of the people involved.

    * Does conspiracy theorizing create a tendency for people to depart from rational analysis?


    In a famous study in the 1950s, researcher Leon Festinger wanted to find out how a religious sect would react when its prophecy that “the Earth was going to come to an end” failed to come true on the predicted date. When the fateful date arrived and nothing happened, did the believers cease to be believers? No. Instead they asserted that God had given humankind one more chance and they maintained the rest of their belief system intact. One is entitled, of course, to hold whatever beliefs one wants, but beliefs like those of the religious sect are not rational or scientific, for it is a basic requirement of scientific beliefs that they be in principle falsifiable. If a scientific hypothsis predicts X and not-X occurs (and recurs repeatedly), then the hypothesis ought to be doubted. If the hypothesis flouts prior knowledge, as well as current evidence, and is accepted nonetheless, then the behavior is often neither scientific, nor rational.

    To the conspiratorial mind, if evidence emerges contradicting a claimed conspiracy, it was planted. If further evidence shows that the first evidence was authentic, then that, too, was planted....

    More: http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/julaug02shalom.html

  7. #7
    droid Guest

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    Also some good stuff on Wiki:

    Perhaps the most contentious aspect of a conspiracy theory is the problem of settling a particular theory's truth to the satisfaction of both its proponents and its opponents. Particular accusations of conspiracy vary widely in their plausibility, but some common standards for assessing their likely truth value may be applied in each case:

    * Occam's razor - is the alternative story more, or less, probable than the mainstream story? Rules of thumb here include the multiplication of entities test.
    * Psychology - does the conspiracy accusation satisfy an identifiable psychological need for its proposer?
    * Falsifiability - are the "proofs" offered for the argument well constructed, ie, using sound methodology?
    * Whistleblowers - how many people–and what kind–have to be loyal conspirators?
    And maybe this is relevant here?

    For relatively rare individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or more of several well-understood psychological conditions, and other hypothetical ones: paranoia, denial, schizophrenia, Mean world syndrome[3].
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory

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    I think that Occam's Razor is very relevant. There is no need to postulate ridiculously complicated alternative ideas when there is already a perfectly satisfactory explanation for something.
    I believe that the Bush administration wanted to attack Iraq (for various reasons including control of oil and to settle scores) and they used 9/11 as an excuse. I don't believe that they manufactured 9/11 or that they were even happy when it happened, they just used their position to take advantage of the facts as they were to the best of their ability. To me that's the simplest and best explanation and it would need something pretty dramatic to change my mind.

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    Come late to this, so pretty much everything I think about conspiracy theories and theorists has already been said. But thought I'd throw this link into the pot:

    Centre for Conspiracy Culture at Winchester Uni (UK).

    If you're interested in the whys-and-wherefores of conspiracy theories, it's a great resource.

    Alasdair Spark is a really interesting chap. I helped organise an event at the Dana Centre in London a couple of years ago, at which he spoke. The keynote speaker was Thierry Meyssen, who was the main source of 9/11 conspiracy theories at the time. Smart guy. Started off with the story about the burning of the Reichstag, and just let in linger in the back of your mind whilst outlining all the inconsistencies in the 'official' 9/11 story.

    Not sure if he really believes the stuff he talks about. Not sure if he knows himself. He likes to play both sides by saying things like: "I'm not saying that what I'm saying is definitely true. But what I am saying is that what they say definitely isn't." What a pro

    Where 9/11 is concerned, I'm not sure I believe each point of the 'official' story. For example, I'm not totally convinced that it was a plane that went into the Pentagon that day.

    BUT

    It's also my opinion that anyone who believes the whole thing was conjoured up by the US Government to legitimise an invasion of Iraq needs to get out more.

    For what it's worth...

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    Thanks for that article, Droid. Nice one.

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    One key element of conspiracy theories (again, whether or not they happen to be true - Chomsky seems to do this quite a bit in evaluating the reliability of evidence, for instance) seems to be a massive discrepancy in levels of scrutiny and rigour depending on whether the official explanation or the conspiracy explanation of events is being considered. So tiny inaccuracies in an official account of what happened (which could probably be explained by someone messing up / being confused / trying to cover up a low level mistake) are taken as evidence that the official account should be entirely rejected, whereas almost no details of the operations of the conspiracy are even suggested, let alone examined.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Slothrop
    [...] So tiny inaccuracies in an official account of what happened (which could probably be explained by someone messing up / being confused / trying to cover up a low level mistake [...]
    This is definitely true. I think the real story behind 9/11, in particular, is one of gross negligence at several different levels - a total lack of awareness at the top, leading to fuck all readiness at the bottom, which in turn exagerrated the confusion on the ground. And much of what follows is designed to deflect attention from this incompetence.

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    Oh. And... wot no Padraig..?!


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    Quote Originally Posted by blunt
    Oh. And... wot no Padraig..?!

    yeah, we've got a perfectly good thread that needs derailing - where is he when you need him?

  15. #15
    droid Guest

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    Quote Originally Posted by blunt
    This is definitely true. I think the real story behind 9/11, in particular, is one of gross negligence at several different levels - a total lack of awareness at the top, leading to fuck all readiness at the bottom, which in turn exagerrated the confusion on the ground. And much of what follows is designed to deflect attention from this incompetence.
    Unfortunately incompetence (even their own) is never an option for conspiracy theorists. No matter how much evidence is produced, even the most obvious fuckups are transformed into 'designs' or 'calculations', and the perpetrators are elevated to the level of Blofeldian evil masterminds...

    If its a choice between conspiracies or institutional causes (and it isnt always so clear cut), then the default position should be institutional IMO... its hard enough trying to convince people that there are well-managed global institutional and systemic abuses of power without throwing the logic of conspiracy theorising into the mix - and in many ways the conspiracists undermine those who are attempting to expose the systemic causes behind the behaviour of power...

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