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Conspiracy Central

Who believes in conspiracy theories—and why
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President Barack Obama has been a busy man while in office: he concocted a fake birth certificate to hide his true identity as a foreigner, created “death panels” to determine who would live and who would die under his health care plan, conspired to destroy religious liberty by mandating contraceptives for religious institutions, blew up the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig to garner support for his environmental agenda, masterminded Syrian gas attacks as a pretext to war, orchestrated the shooting of a tsa agent to strengthen that agency’s powers, ordered the Sandy Hook school massacre to push through gun-control legislation, and built concentration camps in which to place Americans who resist.

Do people really believe such conspiracy theories? They do, and in disturbingly high numbers, according to recent empirical research collected by University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent and presented in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford University Press). About a third of Americans, for example, believe the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is a foreigner. About as many believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration.

The idea that such beliefs are held only by a bunch of nerdy white guys living in their parents’ basements is a myth. Surveys by Uscinski and Parent show that believers in conspiracies “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” People on both the political left and right, for example, believe in conspiracies roughly equally, although each finds different cabals. Liberals are more likely to suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives tend to believe that academics and liberal elites control these same institutions. GMO conspiracy theories are embraced primarily by those on the left (who accuse, for example, Monsanto of conspiring to destroy small farmers), whereas climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the right (who inculpate, for example, academic climate scientists for manipulating data to destroy the American economy).

Group identity is also a factor. African-Americans are more likely to believe that the cia planted crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. White Americans are more likely to believe that the government is conspiring to tax the rich to support welfare queens and turn the country into a socialist utopia.

Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent found that education makes a difference in reducing conspiratorial thinking: 42 percent of those without a high school diploma are high in conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 23 percent with postgraduate degrees. Even so, that means more than one in five Americans with postgraduate degrees show a high predisposition for conspiratorial belief. As an educator, I find this disturbing.

Other factors are at work in creating a conspiratorial mind. Uscinski and Parent note that in laboratory experiments “researchers have found that inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations” and that in the real world “there is evidence that disasters (e.g., earthquakes) and other high-stress situations (e.g., job uncertainty) prompt people to concoct, embrace, and repeat conspiracy theories.”

A conspiracy theory, Uscinski and Parent explain, is defined by four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.” A content analysis of more than 100,000 letters to the New York Times in 121 years turned up three pages’ worth of such conspirators, from Adolf Hitler and the African National Congress to the World Health Organization and Zionist villagers, catalogued into eight types: Left, Right, Communist, Capitalist, Government, Media, Foreign and Other (Freemasons, the AMA and even scientists). The common theme throughout is power—who has it and who wants it—and so the authors conclude their inquiry with an observation translated by Parent from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (a conspiracy manual of sorts), for “the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”

To those who so conspire, recall the motto of revolutionaries everywhere: sic semper tyrannis —thus always to tyrants.

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Conspiracy Contradictions

Why people who believe in one conspiracy
are prone to believe others
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ON WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, I spent several hours on a hot bus in a neon desert called Las Vegas with a merry band of British conspiracists during their journey around the Southwest in search of UFOs, aliens, Area 51 and government cover-ups, all for a BBC documentary. One woman regaled me with a tale about orange balls of energy hovering around her car on Interstate 405 in California, which were subsequently chased away by black ops helicopters. A man challenged me to explain the source of a green laser beam that followed him around the English countryside one evening.

Conspiracies are a perennial favorite for television producers because there is always a receptive audience. A recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary that I participated in called Conspiracy Rising, for example, featured theories behind the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana, UFOs, Area 51 and 9/11, as if there were a common thread running throughout. According to radio host and conspiracy monger Alex Jones, also appearing in the film, “The military-industrial complex killed John F. Kennedy” and “I can prove that there’s a private banking cartel setting up a world government because they admit they are” and “No matter how you look at 9/11 there was no Islamic terrorist connection—the hijackers were clearly U.S. government assets who were set up as patsies like Lee Harvey Oswald.” (continue reading…)

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Jesse “The Body” Ventura versus Michael “The Mind” Shermer

Jesse Ventura

Jesse Ventura (photo by Cory Barnes, used under CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Monday afternoon, April 11, I appeared on Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Patt Morrison show to briefly debate (dare I saw wrestle?) the former Navy Seal, Minnesota Governor, professional wrestler, television host, and author Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who was on a book tour swing through Los Angeles promoting his latest conspiracy fictions he believes are facts entitled The 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You To Read. (The figure of 63 was chosen, Jesse says, because that was the year JFK was assassinated.) Presented in breathtaking revelatory tones that within lies the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, what the reader actually finds between the covers are documents obtained through standard Freedom of Information Act requests that can also be easily downloaded from the Internet.

No matter, with bigger-than-life Jesse Ventura at the conspiratorial helm everything is larger than it seems, especially when his unmistakable booming voice pronounces them as truths. I had only a few hours to read the book, but that turned out to be more than adequate since most of the documents are familiar to us conspiracy watchers and what little added commentary is provided to introduce them appears to be mostly written by Ventura’s co-author Dick Russell, the pen behind the mouth for many of Jesse’s books. (Since he is no longer wrestling perhaps he should change his moniker to Jesse “The Mouth” Ventura.)

Surprisingly, given his background in the military and government, Ventura seems surprised to learn that governments lie to their citizens. Shockingly true, yes, but just because politicians and their appointed cabinet assigns and their staffers sometimes lie (mostly in the interest of national security but occasionally to cover up their own incompetence and moral misdeeds), doesn’t mean that every pronouncement made in the name of a government action is a lie. After all, as in the old logical chestnut—“This statement is untrue” (if it’s true it’s untrue and vice versa)—if everything is a lie then nothing is a lie. Likewise, I noted up front on the show, if everything is a conspiracy then nothing is a conspiracy.

Given the helter skelter nature of talk radio and Jesse’s propensity to interrupt through his booming voice any dissenters from his POV, I tried to make just four points. Let’s call them Conspiracy Skeptical Principles.

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.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #2: Cognitive Dissonance and the need to balance the size of the event with the size of the cause. Jesse Ventura said: “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, thank you, even though Ventura has since moved to Mexico. 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.

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #3: What else would have to be true if your conspiracy theory is true? Jesse proclaimed on the show that the Pentagon was hit by a missile. His proof? He interviewed a woman on his conspiracy TV show who said she worked inside the Pentagon and never saw a plane hit it. Well, first of all, earlier in the show when I brought up Jesse’s conspiracy television series he discounted it, saying “that’s pure entertainment.” But now he wants to use an interview from that same show not as entertainment but as proof. As well, 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: As I said on the show, “If a missile hit the Pentagon, Jesse, that means that a plane did not hit it. What happened to the American Airlines plane?” Jesse’s answer: “I don’t know.” Sorry Jesse, not good enough. 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). Finally, I directed Jesse and our listeners to www.skeptic.com to view the photograph of the American Airlines plane debris on the lawn in front of the Pentagon, below. 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?

Flight 77 wreckage at Pentagon

010911-N-6157F-001 Arlington, Va. (Sep. 11, 2001) — Wreckage from the hijacked American Airlines FLT 77 sits on the west lawn of the Pentagon minutes after terrorists crashed the aircraft into the southwest corner of the building. The Boeing 757 was bound for Los Angeles with 58 passengers and 6 crew. All aboard the aircraft were killed, along with 125 people in the Pentagon. (Photo by U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Mark D. Faram) (RELEASED)

Conspiracy Skeptical Principle #4: Your conspiracy theory must be more consistent than the accepted explanation. Jesse says that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda did not orchestrate 9/11, and instead it was done by the Bush administration (or, he says, at least by Chaney and his covert operatives). As evidence, Jesse wants to know why Osama bin Laden has not been indicted for murder by the United States government. As well, he says, why was no one 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 Jesse—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. (Well, you can, but that would be a splendid example of logic-tight compartments in your head keeping separate contradictory ideas.)

Finally, in frustration I presume, Jesse accused me of being a mouthpiece of the government, just parroting whatever my overlords command me to say to keep the truth hidden. That conspiracy theory happens to be true, except for the part about the mouthpiece, the government, the parrot, and the truth.

Material from Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth
wombat reading Skeptic magazine

P.S. During my recent lecture tour swing through Wisconsin I was confronted at a restaurant by three 9/11 Truthers who were unable to attend my talk that night or even join the local skeptics group meeting that afternoon with me, and instead handed me a pile of literature and a DVD to watch touting the merits of the group known as Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, who appear to hold fast to the belief that the WTC buildings were intentionally demolished by explosive devices AND that the hijackers (whoever they really were) somehow managed to fly the planes into the WTC buildings at precisely where the demolition experts planted the explosive devices—at the exact correct floors, at the exact angle at which the wings were tilted, because that is where the collapse of both buildings began. Check it out yourself below, along with our issue of Skeptic on 9/11 conspiracy theories, which was being read in Wisconsin by the little Wombat given to me by my hosts at the University of Wisconsin.

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Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

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On Saturday, February 5, 2011, my audio book producer John Wagner and I took a break from endless hours of my reading aloud (with John editing out my countless mistakes) my next book, The Believing Brain, which ironically includes chapters on UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Ironic because for this break John and I took what we thought would be an uneventful tour of the beautiful new National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This is definitely a museum well worth visiting for a comprehensive tour of all things atomic. It was originally opened in 1969 as the Sandia Atomic Museum, but then changed in 1973 to the National Atomic Museum to include a broader history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and finally morphed into the new building that now houses the collection, which includes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs (see photograph), along with a B-29, a B-52, an F-105, an A-7, an Atomic Cannon, a Titan II Rocket, a Minuteman Missile, a Jupiter Missile, a Thor Missile, and hundreds more smaller items inside the museum building itself, including these two amusing early uses of atomic energy for “health” purposes:

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1. The Spectro-Chrome Device, “invented around 1911, was used in the practice of Spectro-Chrome therapy. The inventors believed that every element exhibits a certain color. Ninety-seven percent of a human body is made up of four main elements: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon. The color waves of these elements were thought to be blue, red, green, and yellow respectively. Illness was thought to occur when one or more of these colors became out of balance, either too dim or too brilliant. The Spectro-Chrome Device treated the afflicted part of the body with the proper amount of color and light to restore balance in the body. Once balance occurred, the patient should recover.” The operative word here is “should”.

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2. The Revigator: “This large pottery crock was lined with Radium ore. Instructions on the jar suggest that you fill it every night with water and drink an average of six or more glasses daily. After its discovery by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898, Radium was considered a ‘cure-all’ until the early 1920s.” The operative word here is “crock”.

We were also quite impressed with the array of nuclear-tipped missiles, including these two (see below), one of which had been in space and survived the reentry. Can you tell which one?

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Then something really weird happened. As John and I were strolling along the exhibits talking about this and that, I wondered out loud if they had any examples of the sand that was turned into glass in the Trinity atomic bomb test explosion on July 16, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico. Just then the museum docent who had kindly joined us to offer more detailed narratives to accompany the printed plaques, explained that they did, indeed, have a display of said sand-to-glass fusion, and there it was, beautiful in its horrific creation. We chatted it up with the docent for a time, at which point I asked if it is possible to go to White Sands and see the glass in situ. She said, “no, it has all been taken away.” I said, “who took it away, and where is it?” She responded rhetorically: “Right, who took it, where, and why?” I repeated the question and she repeated the rhetorical answer.

“Uh, what are you saying? Someone secreted it away?” “Yes, right, it’s gone and no one knows where,” she explained unhelpfully. “But someone must know,” I pleaded.

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At this point she hinted that there are many government secrets still surrounding nuclear weapons. Of this I am quite certain, since governments do keep secrets in the interests of national security, but she seemed to be speaking of a different sort of secret. I probed for more examples of such secrets. “When you go outside,” she offered, “you will see a B-29 bomber, like the one that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Look at the serial number on the tail. It says 451748. But if you go inside the cockpit and look behind the pilot seat you will find another serial number for that plane: 451749.”

“Okay, so someone messed up,” I suggested. “After all, the people who spray paint numbers on planes are probably not the engineers who design and build planes for Boeing. So what?”

“Well, I looked into that matter myself when I was restoring the plane,” she continued breathlessly, “and it turns out that plane number 451749 disappeared over the South China Sea in a mysterious explosion in the early 1950s. Supposedly one of the bombs armed itself inside the B-29 and then detonated itself.”

“Is that possible?” I queried, wondering just where this story was going but suspecting it was about to take a dramatic turn into conspiratorial waters.

“Have you ever heard of a bomb arming itself and then detonating itself?” she queried. I had to admit that I hadn’t, but I also signaled to her that I didn’t know much at all about bombs and what they are capable of doing, but then suggested that I could certainly imagine how the same people who spray paint the wrong serial number on the tail of a plane could easily screw up while arming a bomb and cause it to explode. Human error happens not infrequently in operating complex machinery.

“Well, I’ll tell you—that doesn’t happen,” she countered my feeble objections. “That plane was shot down or intentionally destroyed.” Okay, shot down. Intentionally destroyed. By whom, enemy fighter planes or an anti-aircraft missile over enemy territory? “No, it was destroyed by our own government.” Why? “Because the crew saw something.” What? What did they see? “Remember, this was not long after Roswell….”

Okay, here we go, we’re on my turf now! Aliens, UFOs, Roswell, New Mexico. The alien encounter in 1947. The crew, she said, probably had a UFO encounter of some sort, and they were silenced. “Wow, that’s incredible,” I enthused. “How can I look into this further?” At this point my erstwhile conspiratorialist grew quiet, warning me in a voice too fervent by half: “You can try but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I made some calls myself and finally got a hold of a two-star general, who told me ‘I don’t know what happened and you don’t either.’”

“What did you take that to mean?,” I pushed. “He was telling me that if I didn’t drop my investigation of what really happened to plane number 451749, that Men-In-Black would come pay me a visit,” she explained unhesitatingly and with enough dramatis that I would get the message myself.

So…there it is. That’s all I know from my brief visit and having conducted no further investigations. If anyone reading this knows, or knows someone who knows…or who has a Friend-of-a-Friend who knows someone who knows what happened to B-29 plane number 451749, I would really like to know myself. And if there are any M.I.B. out there planning to come visit me, bring an extra pair of those cool black sunglasses for me.

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Murder, Mass Die Offs, and the Meaning of Randomness

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday January 11, 2011 (under a different title and slightly shorter).

The media once again scrambled this past week to find the deep underlying causes of shocking events. We saw it in the rush to explain the tragic murder of six people in a shopping center in Tucson. And we saw it in the rush of stories about mass die offs of birds and fish around the country.

In the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center in Tucson, attention has turned to the motives of the shooter, 22-year old Jared Loughner, whose political ramblings about returning to the gold standard and about excessive control by the government have sent the media searching for answers in the vitriol of right-wing talk radio, the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, and the bellicose divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

The mass die offs of fish and birds has spurred a number of deep causal theories, including suggestions that the apocalypse is near and that secret government experiments were to blame, such as HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska that studies the ionosophere that is run by DARPA, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which admittedly does sound like something concocted by the writers for the television series X-Files.

We live in a causal universe, so all effects do have causes, but before we turn to grand overarching causal theories such as political rhetoric or government experiments, we must always remember the clustering effect of randomness and how our brains tend to look for and find deeper meaningful patterns even where none exist. Toss a handful of pennies into the air and you will notice that they do not land randomly on the ground. They cluster into apparently nonrandom patterns in which some are closer and others are farther apart. There is nothing inherently hidden in such a clustering effect—no concealed forces under the ground causes the pennies to fall as they do. It’s just chance. But our brains abhor randomness and always seek meaning.

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, and that more than 25% of us have some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. As well, psychologists estimate that 1–3 percent of the U.S. population suffers from psychopathy, or the inability to feel empathy and an almost complete lack of moral conduct. Using the conservative figure of 1% and a U.S. population of 300 million people, this means that some 3 million people with either psychosis or psychopathy are walking among us, as well as tens of millions more whose mental health is askew in some way. And many of those who need it aren’t receiving treatment. Given these statistics, events such as the shooting in Tucson are bound to happen, no matter how nicely politicians talk to one another on the campaign trail or in Congress, no matter how extreme Tea Party slogans are about killing government programs, and no matter how stiff or loose gun controls laws are in this or that state. By chance—and nothing more—there will always be people such as Jared Loughner who do the unthinkable.

According to Audubon Society biologist Melanie Driscoll, about 5 billion birds die each year in the United States from a variety of causes. Because of the clustering effect of randomness it is inevitable that some of those billions of birds will die in apparent nonrandom clusters. The 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that died in Arkansas, for example, looks like an ominous cluster when scattered about the ground, but there are over 200 million red-winged blackbirds in the U.S., and according to Driscoll they fly in flocks of 100,000 to 2 million. Although 5,000 birds falling dead out of the sky sounds positively apocalyptic, it represents a scant 0.0025% of the total population.

Of course there are specific causes for specific events. We will, in time, learn of the particular personal and social conditions behind Jared Loughner’s heinous act. And biologists are already identifying the causes of each fish and bird die off. The Arkansas blackbirds, for example, died during a New Year’s eve fireworks display, which may have been a contributing factor. Biologist Driscoll notes that “they cannot see well in the dark and we know they were seen crashing into buildings and cars and poles. Necropsies show blunt force trauma to brain and breast.” Others died near power lines that are thin and hard to see at night. The American Bird Conservancy notes that of the 5 billion annual bird deaths, about 1 billion birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings, communication towers, windmills, and other human-made structures. We just never hear about them unless such deaths happen in clusters and are reported in the media, thereby triggering a type of mass hysteria that leads to conspiratorial thinking and what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Patternicity is what our brains do. We can’t help it. We see those clusters of events and naturally seek out deep causal meaning in some grand overarching theory. But as often as not events in life turn on chance, randomness, and statistical probabilities that are largely beyond our control. So calls for “an end to all overt and implied appeals to violence in American politics”—such as that just issued by MoveOn.org—may make us feel better but they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.

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