Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn’t more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what’s underneath), and that they’re basically an admission of one’s own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he’s part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation’s policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It’s just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it’s really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.
I’ve found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can’t seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it’s worth peering through PPP’s full results to see the nature of some of these associations.
For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were “misled” or “intentionally-misled” puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon’s razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were “true believers”, of course I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it’s just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren’t huge partisan differences like over WMD).
One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That’s 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn’t be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it’s sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.
But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There’s no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.
The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for “sinister” reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn’t even hide a tawdry affair.
Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to “government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals”, it’s possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.
Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a “hoax”. That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective – often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I’m often accused of being a part of but I’m sure I’m missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it’s not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.
Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn’t healthy thinking, it isn’t rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.

Skeptics’ Circle 102 at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes

Please check out this week’s skeptics’ circle at Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes.

Of note, I liked Dr Austs’ post on the human toll of HIV/AIDS denialism, it is stirring. I also found the Skeptic’s field guide particularly interesting. I would have two suggestions. One would be to prioritize by frequency of use or rhetorical appeal rather than alphabetical, and second would be to include a section on conspiracy (like the ones the Lay Scientist and Dubito Ergo Sum describe in this issue ), which I believe is the hallmark of all denialist arguments. If you need a non-parsimonious conspiracy theory to explain your beliefs, well, you should re-think your beliefs.

And speaking of conspiracies, I forgot to blog the hysterical interchange between Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi – author of The Great Derangement, and David Ray Griffin, 9/11 truther crank. The whole thing is instructive in the lesson of not arguing with cranks, but it doesn’t get interesting until part II when Taibbi starts to figure this out for himself.

As you’ve noticed, I struggled for quite some time with the question of how to answer your responses. Mainly this was because I was unsure of whether to treat this exercise like a comedy (because it’s certainly hard to take seriously any “debate” with a person who believes that Rudy Giuliani would conspire to blow up the densest slice of taxpaying real estate in the world, the New York City financial district, in order to save his city the cost of an asbestos cleanup) or whether to aim higher and treat it like a serious political argument. I tried it both ways and neither way seemed to fit. Treating this like an absurdist comedy, I realized, I’m making it hard for readers to see how monstrous and offensive your arguments are — but then again, when I take you seriously, spending paragraph after crazed paragraph grandstanding against you and your book, suddenly I’m the one who looks ridiculous.

Then it hit me, and probably far too late: the correct play here is to ignore you and your arguments entirely. There are many things about your work that are outrageous and offensive, but the very worst thing about you and other 9/11 conspiracists — and, I guess, lately anyway, me — is that you’re/we’re a distraction from the real problem.

It gets better. Taibbi really nails the fundamental problem with all of the false-flag arguments the truthers always lay out against reality:

This same public — the same public that stood meekly by when its manufacturing economy was exported overseas, that cheered when our government pledged to “get tough” with China by demanding that it allow us to weaken our currency vis a vis the Yuan, that twiddled its thumbs when Wall Street played Keno with the nation’s homeowner savings, that has consistently voted overwhelmingly to deprive itself of its right to litigate against powerful companies — this is the public you think George Bush and Dick Cheney needed to blow up downtown Manhattan for, in order to get them on board with a war against Iraq, the Patriot Act, and whatever else.

All of this 9/11 Truther stuff, it’s a silly distraction. A country whose economy is about to go down the shitter, to the brink of depression, thanks to three-plus decades of routinely-ignored Wall Street deregulation just can’t afford to be wasting its time arguing about thermite reactions and “morphing technology.” Captivated by the comic possibilities of Truther literature, I realized this too late. As you’ll see below, I even spent a lot of time pulling what’s left of my hair out over your answers to questions that even I admit now go beyond inane. I admit in advance to looking silly for doing so, and hereby make a promise to God that I won’t do it again, at least not as long as we have other things to worry about. All the same, some of the stuff you came up with, Professor sheesh! And I thought I was loony!

Freaking awesome. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it when it came out. His final diagnosis of Griffin’s writing was beautiful:

In the end it all comes down to what you believe. If you believe that events in life tend to have simple explanations, then you’re not going to be very impressed by Griffin’s arguments. If on the other hand you think that the people running this country spend their days plotting to create phantom civilian jet-liner flights, disappearing whole fuselages full of passengers, and then shooting missiles into the Pentagon in broad daylight in order to cover up embezzlement schemes if you think, in other words, that our government is run by the same people who cook up second-rate French spy movies or your mind instantly produces the word “crossbow” when asked to produce A MURDER WEAPON by a Mad Libs script well, then, you’re probably going to enjoy Griffin’s books.


Al Qaeda is apparently irritated by 9/11 conspiracy cranks too

Here’s one of the more amusing news stories I’ve seen. Apparently Al Qaeda is irritated with Ahmadinejad’s 9/11 conspiracy theories. It turns out the people who committed the atrocity are quite proud of it, and don’t want people to forget it.

Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader issued a new audiotape Tuesday accusing Shiite Iran of spreading a conspiracy theory about who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks to discredit the power of the Sunni terrorist network.

Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, has stepped up his denunciations of Iran in recent messages in part to depict al-Qaida as the Arabs’ top defense against the Persian nation’s rising power in the Middle East.

The increasing enmity toward Iran is a notable change of rhetoric from al-Zawahri, who in the past rarely mentioned the country — apparently in a hopes he would be able to forge some sort of understanding with Tehran based on their common rivalry with the United States. Iran has long sought to distance itself from al-Qaida.

One questioner asked about the theory that has circulated in the Middle East and elsewhere that Israel was behind the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Al-Zawahri accused Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television of starting the rumor. “The purpose of this lie is clear — (to suggest) that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it,” he said.

“Iran’s aim here is also clear — to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he added. Iran cooperated with the United States in the 2001 U.S. assault on Afghanistan that toppled al-Qaida’s allies, the Taliban.

Al-Qaida has previously claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Maybe next time we can ask them about what they think of the 9/11 troofer movement.

Update – Life imitates parody:

9/11 Conspiracy Theories ‘Ridiculous,’ Al Qaeda Says

My favorite line is “Talking to you is like talking to a goat!”

Thank’s SIS

The latest example of crank magnetism – Ahmadinejad becomes a Troofer!

Yes, that’s right, the Holocaust denier who brought us the international meeting of Holocaust deniers has slipped naturally into trooferism.

Earlier Wednesday, Ahmadinejad called the 9/11 attacks a “suspect event” in a speech at a public rally in the holy city of Qom.

“Four or five years ago a suspect event took place in New York,” Ahmadinejad said, in an address carried live on state television.

“A building collapsed and they said that 3,000 people had been killed, whose names were never published.”

“Under this pretext they (the United States) attacked Afghanistan and Iraq and since then a million people have been killed,” said the Iranian president.

This was the third time in just over a week that Ahmadinejad has publicly raised doubts about the September 11 airborne attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Al-Qaeda militants which killed nearly 3,000 people.

In this you see the natural thought process of the denialist. Ahmadinejad ideologically opposes the state of Israel. He believes the state came to exist and has its allies because of sympathy generated by the Holocaust. Therefore, he must deny the Holocaust, or at least create enough doubt to help rile the people up against the Jews.

Now Ahmadinejad ideologically opposes the United States and its invasion of Iraq (as do many of us). He believes 9/11 was used as an excuse to invade these countries (it was a poor excuse for Iraq, certainly). Therefore he must create a conspiracy to deny the reality of the terrorist attack (now he’s lost me).

This is the mindset of the denialist. Reality is secondary to ideology. 9/11 created the political impetus for our invasions of other countries, and rather than just attacking these acts for obvious and legitimate reasons instead he must attack reality itself. Why am I not surprised? A Holocaust denier will believe any nonsense.

How not to be taken seriously

I think I’m going to have to add a new behavior to the crank HOWTO based on the latest campaign by troofers to get attention by disruption.

First it was Bill Maher:

Who I think handled it right.

Now Bill Clin-ton.Bill also does a pretty good job with the kooks. But it has me thinking that part of the crank HOWTO is going to have to be go to talks and shows that have nothing to do with your topic and start screaming. If you get tased, congratulations, you’ve been persecuted. Act like it was a victory too, and complain about being manhandled after you’ve disrupted a live television show.

Do we need better proof of their irrelevance? Their idea of getting their message out is yelling at TV hosts? Now that is some crankery.

Quote Mining from the 9/11 Loons – NIST needs to learn to anticipate this crap

Pat at Screw loose change brings us the latest dishonesty (or carefully reinforced self-delusion) from the 9/11 troofers.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released this letter (PDF) in response to the troofers, but failed to realize that the troofers will stoop to pretty pathetic lows to misrepresent what they say.

I’ll present this as a quiz. Here’s the full section from letter, guess which sentence the troofers quoted out of context to suggest that NIST failed to explain the collapse of the buildings.

The final section of your request asserts that the WTC Report’s stated goal and overal analysis violates the Data Quality Act and OMB/NIST Information Quality Standards. The basis given for this assertion is that NIST did not fulfill its responsibilities under the NCST Act because the focus of the investigation was on the sequence of events from the instant of aircraft impact to the initiation of collapse for each tower. The NCST Act, as you note in your letter, requires NIST to “establish the likely technical cause or causes of the building failure.” In the case of the WTC Towers, NIST has established that the failures initiated in the floors affected by the aircraft impact damage and the ensuing fires resulted in the collapse of the towers. This conclusion is supported by a large body of visual evidence collected by NIST. Your letter suggests that NIST should have used computer models to analyze the collapse of the towers. NIST carried its analysis to the point where the buildings reached global instability. At this point, because of the magnitude of the deflections and the number of failures occuring, the computer models are not able to converge on a solution.

Your letter contends that NIST’s report violates the Information Quality Standard of “utility.” NIST believes that the report has utility. In fact, the codes and standards bodies are already taking actions to improve building and fire codes and standards based on the findings of the WTC Investigation. As we mentioned previously, we are unable to provide a full explanation- of the total collapse.

See for yourself their read of the letter.

It’s amazing that they can read a letter that is essentially a laundry-list of reasons why their crank nonsense is being summarily dismissed as the product of diseased minds, and they read it as a victory because they were able to select a single sentence that out of context that suggests NIST doesn’t have an explanation for the collapse. Further, this non-admission then logically (ha ha) points to controlled demolition. I think their tinfoil hats are too tight.

9/11 cranks sure are paranoid – of each other

One of the latest discussions going on at the 9/11 conspiracy sites is the big question of who are the 9/11 disinformation agents being paid by the government to spread lies and confusion about the events of 9/11. George Washington gives the simple 5 d’s of disinformation to help you figure out who the splitters are:

* Distracting, disrupting, or derailing 9/11 truth efforts;

* Dividing the truth movement; or

* Discrediting leading 9/11 activists

What inflated egos they have to tihnk the government is actually afraid of them or cares enough about their crankery to pay money to influence their silly debates. I can’t help be amused at watching all the infighting between those who are embarrassed by holographic plane theories, to controlled demolition nonsense, to no-plane at the Pentagon etc. The whole discussion reminds me of this clip from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”:


Skeptics’ Circle Number 69 – Unscrewing the Inscrutable

At Unscrewing the Inscrutable Brent Rasmussen brings us the 69th skeptics circle with a fun, old west feel.

One of the first entries was particularly interesting to me as an example of crank magnetism. The Socratic Gadfly found Lynn Marguilis embracing 9/11 conspiracies, which shouldn’t be surprising given her HIV/AIDS denial – also requiring a conspiratorial world view.

It would be interesting to study this problem systematically, and see how many times a crank adopts more than one crank belief. I suspect given that it takes a certain kind of broken mind to believe this nonsense that they are susceptible to multiple crank theories as a default, and it will actually be rare to find someone that is irrational on one issue, and not irrational on most issues.

I think it’s also a bad sign for the 9/11 cranks, between Marguilis and their super-secret inside man declaring himself the messiah, it just goes to show just what kind of nuts get attracted to this nonsense.

If you’re going to pull the Galileo Gambit – try to remember who Galileo was

From the “my god these people are dumb files” is this clip from last night’s History Channel documentary 9/11 conspiracies.

Ha! Good stuff. Don’t worry, they’re replaying it Saturday night in case you missed it, but it apparently has the troofers up in arms.

In more 9/11 troof news, Popular mechanics has an update to their original 9/11 debunking piece. Between the two, it’s a good summary of 9/11 debunking and well-researched as always.