The Power of Conspiracy Theories

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.

4 Responses to The Power of Conspiracy Theories

  1. S.C. Denney says:

    Where’s the video from the Pentagon, then? Yeap, that confirms it.

  2. JoeyRamone says:

    I’m a skeptic; an atheist; a free thinker. I’m far from a Creationist and yet I am skeptical of the “official” 9/11 story. Why? Because there are too many unanswered questions. Why hasn’t the Pentagon released all of the confiscated home videos taken of the Pentagon attack or the rest of their own security camera footage? Why are none of the hijackers on the airline manifests? Isn’t it strange that hijacker passports were found after the attack but none of the passengers were ever identified by Ids? How did WTC 7 fall down in its own footprint when it wasn’t hit by anything other than flying debris? Isn’t it strange how the twin towers fell straight down and the concrete was instantly turned to fine dust even though the fires weren’t that hot? Although some conspiracy theories seem like lunacy, if you watch and listen tp and read the information you can’t help but wonder if some of them might be on to something. After all, it’s not like it’s unprecedented for the US and other countries to have staged false flag attacks in the past. It has happened before, and that sets the stage for the alternative theories posited by the Truth movement.

  3. globalizati says:

    Hi Joey. Before I respond to your specific questions, I want to ask one: even if you think there are some questions that don’t have answers, is there another, more probable explanation? If one or two facts are disconnected, does it automatically make more sense that the government did it? And if that were true, don’t you think there’d be at least a little direct evidence? There would have to have been hundreds or thousands of people in the know, and some at very high levels, wouldn’t some of them come forward?

    The Pentagon is the Pentagon–they keep lots of secrets, so why would they release anything at all? And for the record, they have released a video, so that kind of works against the whole secrecy idea.

    The idea that the hijackers weren’t on the passengers list if false, and an indication that you’re only getting your information from 9/11 conspiracy sites. Those sites cite lists of victims posted by CNN, which did not include everyone on the planes, because the terrorists weren’t considered victims.

    How do you know none of the passengers were identified by ID? What’s your source?

    The collapse of WTC 7 after extensive fires has been thoroughly documented in such easily accessible sources as Popular Mechanics.

    The twin towers began collapsing from the top (where the damage was sustained) so it’s hard to see how they would fall to the side. A controlled demolition would have been awfully hard to set up and keep hidden. Also, how hot were the fires, and where do you get your data?

    Your post and the questions it contains serves to illustrate another key connection between the “9/11 Truth” movement and Creationism (though you also demonstrate that the two groups are often antagonistic): Both subcultures repeat the same old information that they receive through back channels, such as churches, publications, conferences, and (especially) the Internet and simply ignore information that comes to light through other sources. Basically, once the theory is agreed upon, any information that doesn’t fit into it is disregarded as part of the conspiracy.

  4. S.C. Denney says:

    I was kidding, by the way.

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