Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is My Dismissal of Conspiracism Unscientific?

A blogger writing under the name of Erasmo makes an interesting point, here, about my original post on Conspiracism. My view, which I admit is an extreme one, is this: conspiracism is actually qualitatively different from legitimate scientific and scholarly work. It is in some ways closer to magical and religious thinking than to scientific thought.

Erasmo points out, in effect, that I am using a priori reasoning to justify ignoring empirical evidence. This is itself a very unscientific thing to do. So I am the one who is being unscientific and not (necessarily) the conspiracy "theorist."

He is quite right that by implication I am saying that scientists and scholars are right to ignore the latest conspiracy theory, without even looking at the evidence for that theory. But I would add that a priori reasoning, of this sort, is not alien to science at all.

Suppose I am an astronomer, specializing in the study of planets. I am deluged with new findings about extrasolar planets, more than I can keep up with. One fine day I get a self-published monograph in the mail, detailing "new evidence" that planet earth is flat. You know what I am going to do. I'm going to toss the book, and without looking at the new evidence. Is this unscientific? Is this irrational?

I think the answer to both questions is "no." We have many different methods for determining the truth, and they vary widely in quality. The highest-quality procedures -- such as (in science) a controlled experiment or a (in the legal realm) a trial with elaborate rules of evidence -- are difficult and expensive, and consequently are reserved for resolving a special category of issues. There are, however, many questions we answer every day of our lives, and as rational beings we generally apply lower-quality truth-determining procedures to them. An astronomer who tosses a flat-earth treatise is acting, with barely a moment's conscious thought, on a lifetime of experience that tells him or her that the earth is not flat at all. This almost instantaneous reaction is a very very low-grade truth-determining procedure, admittedly. It is barely a procedure at all! But I would point out that it is not anti-empirical. It is a priori only in the sense that it does not collect any new evidence.

Now you've probably guessed where I am going with this analogy. I probably will not go out and investigate all the web sites that Erasmo recommends to me. (I also, though this will take a lot of will power on my part, am planning to never read another book on the Kennedy assassination.) There are a number of reasons for this, but one, and a sufficient one, is just this: these theories basically posit the existence of super-brilliant human beings with amazing superpowers, who can bring off wildly complicated, all-but-perfect deceptions. If I did believe that such beings are possible, I certainly would not think that they work for the federal government. And if I did believe that, I certainly, certainly would not identify them with the Bush administration. I admit that having such a thought and acting on it constitutes a very low-grade truth-determining procedure. Like I say, it barely qualifies as a procedure at all. But it does not consist in ignoring empirical evidence. To the contrary! If I were to waste a lot of time reading 9/11 conspiracist websites I would be ignoring empirical evidence: six decades of experience with my fellow-humans, which convinces me that this is just not the way the world works.

That is one pretty good reason for rejecting conspiracism, lock, stock and kaboodle, without looking at the details of each theory. Here is another: Conspiracism, like religion, is an obvious case of motivated belief. It's obvious why Christians believe they have immortal souls, and it has nothing to do with evidence. If the belief is true, then the world is the sort of world they want to live in. Therefore, they believe it. In a similar way, it is obvious that 9/11 conspiracists have reasons, political or religious or both, to believe that 9/11 was not brought off by nineteen hate-crazed religious wack-jobs from the Middle East. A world in which this is true is more their kind of world. Ergo, they believe in it. This, in fact, is painfully obvious to everyone but the conspiracists themselves. Conspiracism is a kind of thinking that, in general and as a kind of thinking, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Mark Twain's defense of lying -- "The truth is the most valuable thing we have: let us economize it!" -- can also be applied to empiricism, in the sense of examining new empirical evidence. We have to economize it, and that means investing it on hypotheses that deserve that high-quality sort of attention. Conspiracism, I am afraid, just does not make the grade.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Anniversary: The Hungarian Revolution

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Here you can read the moving story of journalist Kati Marton's memories of those terrible events. Reading it is a good way to commemorate the many people who were imprisoned or shot down in cold blood because they stood up for freedom.

Added later: Another great article on the Revolotion can be found on blogger Nick Szabo's site. You youngsters out there who only know of Communists as those imaginary people who were the object of hysterical witch-hunts back in the bad old days of the fifties should take a look at this article to find out what Communism was actually all about. Let us never forget those who have died resisting tyranny!


Friday, October 20, 2006

Borat, Transgressor of Boundaries

The anthropologist Grant McCracken has a fascinating post comparing Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character and television's Mr. Monk as cultural symptons. Monk is obsessed with maintaining and preserving boundaries (especially, I would say, the boundary between himself and contamination of all sorts) while Borat raises the disturbing question of whether there are really any boundaries left. McCracken also tweaks those who praise Cohen for his "courage": I'll praise his courage, he says, when he makes fun of Western liberals like himself. Make fun of your own, and there is no place to hide! Make fun of The Other and there is generally no need to hide.

You can read his post here.

Here is a comment I just posted on McCracken's blog:


A very interesting post! I have two comments:

First, you may be right in saying that making fun of Kazakhstan is not an act of courage, but I think it does have some social and political value. Kazakhstan is one of those little countries left in that part of the world by collapse of the Soviet Union (sometimes called "the 'stans") that have mostly become police states, characterized by "flawed elections" and "human rights abuses" (two phrases that have always sounded like chilling euphemisms to me). It would be a good thing if the people in that part of the world (both victims and perpetrators) feel that the rest of the world is watching them and that, despite the pieties of cultural relativism, is willing to judge and disapprove.

Second, saying that the significance of Borat is that there are few or no boundaries left for many of us is, again, a very interesting claim, but I wonder what a "boundary" is in that case. My friends and I do not steal each others' wallets: that is, we respect the boundary between "mine" and "thine," quite independently of any threat of its being enforced. So one sort of boundary is still very much in place. On the other hand, most of us are quite willing to step into a voting booth and vote that friend's property shall henceforth be ours. So it is also true that another sort of boundary (or the same boundary in another context) has become "porous."
Clearly, once all boundaries have ceased to exist (by the way, would this be the same thing as "becoming porous"?) then we will no longer be able to live together in peace. We will be in the Hobbesean war of all against all.

Bottom line: Borat is about violating certain kinds of boundaries, not all of them. But which kinds?


Having said that, it occurs to me that McCracken makes one comment that I think is revealing about what sorts of "boundaries" he is talking about:

"Well, in certain social circles (both conservative and radical), there will always be boundaries left. (It is interesting to see how often these groups devote themselves almost entirely to what the boundaries are. ...)"

A sample left-wing boundary would be: "Thou shalt treat the ethnicities and national origins of others as if there were always deserving of admiration." A sample right-wing boundary: "Thou shalt treat every human fetus as if it had the same rights as an adult human being." These sorts of boundaries do not protect us from falling back into the Hobbesean jungle. Indeed, they may just be excuses for bossing other people around. They are the sorts of boundaries that John Stuart Mill was arguing against in On Liberty. If Borat is about demolishing boundaries like those, maybe he should be welcomed!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Weirdest Campus Censorship Case Yet!

... and it happened this semester, in a philosophy department right here in Wisconsin. It makes me proud to be a cheesehead.

A graduate student at Marquette University posted this quote from Dave Barry on his office door:

"As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government."

The department chair, one James South, summarily removed it, explaining after the fact that he had received "several complaints" about it and that it is "patently offensive."

Sheesh! What the heck am I missing? Why is this patently (which I believe means obviously) offensive? After all, it is very close to being literally true! It barely even counts as satire, which requires that the truth be exaggerated. I guess some people, including this Professor South (damn, there's got to be a pun there somewhere), literally worship the state as a god.

Clearly, there is simply no telling when someone, somewhere is going to be offended. If you are thinking of spending your life trying not to offend anyone, give up! That's one battle you can only lose!

By the way, South's email justifying his action, which you can find at the above link, is a remarkable document. It is effusive about how he's in favor of academic freedom and free speech -- but he adds that the halls of the philosophy department are not "a free speech zone." In other words: I'm all for free speech, but you don't have it here!

This is something that will never cease to amaze me: in our culture, censorship rules and acts of censorship are generally clothed in endorsements of free speech and denials that we are censoring anything. If you want to know whether someone is for freedom, pay no attention to what they say about it. Look at what they do. If you know how to read their actions, they will tell you the whole story.

Which Economic System is Distributively Just?

Edmund S. Phelps just won the Nobel Prize for economics, so we're all more likely to pay attention to what he says (is that the point of the prize, do you think?). Fortunately, he's a pretty interesting guy. Unlike a lot of economists (and academic philosophers) nowadays, he still talks about the Big Questions. Anyway, he has a very interesting op ed piece on economics and distributive justice in The Wall Street Journal. (Okay okay, I know, the WSJ is a capitalist tool. Just shut up and read the article.)

Phelps believes in John Rawls' difference principle: to be economically just, a system has to allow (all and?) only those inequalities that are in the interest of the least advantaged group of people. It may be that the only way to get good enough brain surgeons is to pay them a lot more than we pay the people whose lives they save, but that will be just because it's good for those who are least well off (such as, maybe, sick people).

Phelps asks which of the two major Western economic systems is just, according to the Difference Principle. The European Model is obviously designed to conform to the Difference Principle. The Anglo-American model obviously is not. The answer will probably surprise you, at least if you haven't read Hayek.

Gordon Baldwin, RIP

I was devastated to learn this week of the death from cancer of Gordon Baldwin, long time law prof here at UW.

Gordon described himself to me (accurately, I think) as a "moderate Republican." This made him an oddball, extremist, and weirdo in the context of the UW, where political opinion generally ranges from three centimeters to three light years left of center. Gordon was a gentleman of the old school, and his affable manners were not always reciprocated by faculty who disagreed with him, but that never deterred him from requiting evil with good.

Back in the early 1990s, when I started going around, trying to convince people that we had a faculty speech code and ought to get rid of it, Gordon was the very first person I talked to. It was, I said, part of the University's harassment rule. He said he didn't think the current harassment rule contained a speech code because -- he was one of the people who wrote it! However, he was glad to listen to an argument to the contrary. He agreed to meet me at a luncheon meeting at the Madison Club. As I recall, the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- the whole damn thing -- was dining at the table next to ours. I showed him the troublesome sections and what I thought the problems with them were. He was an easy convert, my first.

He was a person of clear convictions. Solid as a rock, or as Emerson would say, a man you can't pass your hand through. I will miss him.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Happy Birthday Friedrich!

Today is October 15th, the 162nd aniversary of Friedrich Nietzsche's birth, a day that will recur infinitely many times (already has!), each one as perfect in eternal joy as all the others.

The amazing thing about this is, not the Eternal Recurrence thing, but the fact that after 162 years, we are still reading him. Indeed, interest in him shows no signs of fading. If anything, it's on the rise! Why?

Surely there are many reasons. But one is that he is one of the very few major philosophers who is just plain out-and-out fun to read. The only ones who even come close in this respect, in the whole history of philosophy, are Robert Nozick and Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Then there are the substantive reasons. Ortega says somewhere that, for most of us, the pleasure of reading is simply the pleasure of agreeing with someone. This is clearly not true of Friedrich. Whatever your views are, you will eventually see Nietzsche not merely disagreeing with you but actually ridiculing things you hold sacred. And making you laugh in spite of yourself.

Partly for that reason, I think that reading Nietzsche is actually good for your character. It's hard to imagine someone who has studied Nietzsche getting all shocked and huffy because someone disagrees with them. (You know, the way Madison lefties get when you tell them you are for gun-owners' rights.) Students of Nietzsche are used to it. And more than that, they understand that it is actually good that there are radically different views out there. It means we can grow.

Come to think of it, it's hard to imagine somebody who has read Nietzsche coming up with something as nauseatingly pious as the UW Office of the Dean of Students Think Respect Program. I don't know who came up with that monstrosity, but they really ought to sit down and read Nietzsche. Now! (And joyously partake of a hotdog on Friday.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Nietzsche Family Circus

The Nietzsche Family Circus is a web page (tip of the sombrero to Paul Hsieh here) that juxtaposes a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Nietzsche quote.

The illusion of quote-to-picture relevance is laugh-out-loud funny. This illusion, I think, is closely related to a classic idea from film theory, the Kuleshov Effect, in which a given shot is interpreted, sometimes with startling results, in terms of neighboring shots. This is one of the many illusions that, according to my favorite theory, are always going on when one is watching a film. An even more closely related one is the illusion in virtue of which we hear various sounds in the sound track as if they were coming from various areas on the screen, and not out of a mesh-covered box next to it.

And this, my young friends, shows how powerful a meaning-finder the mind is, so powerful indeed that it often finds meaning where there is none. And thank God for that! Also, I suppose, thank that for God. That could be one of the origins of religious experience, after all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kevin Barrett: Why, Believe it or Not, I Still Support this Guy

Last July, when the University community was debating whether to fire Kevin Barrett (see immediately below) there were two questions that absorbed our attention. There was (1) the substantive question of whether he should have been hired. And (2) there was the procedural question of whether this is the right process by which to answer question (1). A politcian hears a professor on talk radio and finds his/her views offensive. Should this result in the professor being fired? That is question (2).

My position was, and is, that it is very, very important, for the sake of academic freedom, that questions like (2) should trump questions like (1). In other words, if this is not the right process, then (1) becomes merely academic. Interesting, maybe even fascinating, but not a reason for taking action at this time.

It's obvious what my answer to (2) is: As a member of the UW community, I ought to hold my nose and fall into formation behind this guy. If we were to make the fateful decision that offended politicians can get professors fired, we would be buying no end of problems. I'm sure that I have views that would be offensive to some people at the other end of State Street: if not Steve Nass, then maybe somebody else who doesn't quite understand what freedom is all about. It's true of many others as well, no doubt about it. As tempting as it might be to throw Barrett to the wolves, one of us might be on the wolves' menu as well.

In addition, however, it is becoming obvious what the answer to question (1) is. It's not just Barrett's conspiracy "theories." It's his errors of judgment, his egregiously bad taste, his lame and nasty attempts at humor, his Michael-Jackson-like inability to appreciate how weird he seems to others. Now it can be said: This guy is a jerk.

But the tiny number of people (if any) who have been following this blog will know that, with respect to question (1), I think the situation is actually much worse than that. By itself, the mere matter of being a jerk is not decisive. There are a number of brilliant professors who happen to be jerks. Hell, some of my best friends have been jerks! What is much more decisive, for me, is that I believe that conspiracism is to history as astrology is to astronomy, as alchemy is to chemistry, as magic and religion are to science and scholarship. Well, you might ask, what would I do if the UW Astronomy Department hired a part-time instructor to teach a course in which, as it turns out, he will spend a week discussing astrology as an interesting, alternative type of astronomy. Would I just stand by and do nothing?

Before I answer that, let me remind you that, somethimes, doing nothing is the best course of action. It can also be a difficult one.

Second, let me give the question a bit of a context. Over the years, the idea of academic freedom has evolved, and part of this process was the development of various traditions and practices that support it or spell out, in institutional detail, exactly what it is. One of these practices is the tradition of departmental autonomy. Suppose I were to complain to the Dean that the Philosophy Department is not paying me enough. There are strict limits to what he can do about that. If he tells them to correct the situation, it cannot be because he has made a substantive judgment about the merits of my work in academic philosophy. Any orders coming from him would have to be made on procedural grounds; the idea would have to be that there is some unfairness in the process by which they have decided on my pay. The substantive issue of my actual merits is owned, free and clear, by the Philosophy Department. Within the confines of their academic discipline, they govern themselves: which is what "autonomy" means.

There are a number of reasons for departmental autonomy, but the most obvious and important one is the fact that it enables people in the university to pursue inquiry in their fields with a minumum of second-guessing and pressure from people outside the discipline.

Now consider what we would be doing to the Astronomy Department if we moved in and fired the astrology buff. We would be telling them that they have made such a totally dumb-ass decision on the substantive question that people who know nothing about the field are qualified to second-quess them and, more than that, breach departmental autonomy and to take control of their personnel decisions out of their hands and give it to outsiders. This would be to put the relationship between their department and the rest of the University on an entirely new footing. This would be a very significant institutional change, and we would be dealing with the fallout from it for some time to come.

Is the Barrett case egregious enough to justify such radical move? My answer is: of course not. Not even close. Just live with it. If that seems hard to do, you have this consolation: His fifteen minutes of fame, that gift lavished upon him by the Wisconsin Republicans, will soon be over.

Comparing Bush to Hitler Would be Insult to Hitler, Declares Conspiracy "Theorist"

Ever since certain Dr. Frankensteins in the Wisconsin state legislature decided to give conspiracy "theorist" Kevin Barret tons of priceless free publicity by demaning that UW fire him, there seems no stopping the embarrassing public relations monster they have created. Since I was one of those who publicly opposed firing this guy, I guess I'd better say something about it. Here, in case you have been sojourning at the bottom of the proverbial mineshaft, is the latest cringe-worthy devolopment:

UW Instructor Compares Bush to Hitler


The Associated PressWednesday, October 11, 2006; 5:38 AM MILWAUKEE --

A university instructor who came under scrutiny for arguing that the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks likens President Bush to Adolf Hitler in an essay his students are being required to buy for his course. The essay by Kevin Barrett, "Interpreting the Unspeakable: The Myth of 9/11," is part of a $20 book of essays by 15 authors, according to an unedited copy first obtained by WKOW-TV in Madison and later by The Associated Press.

The book's title is "9/11 and American Empire: Muslims, Jews, and Christians Speak Out." It is on the syllabus for Barrett's course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Islam: Religion and Culture," but only three of the essays are required reading, not including Barrett's essay. Barrett, a part-time instructor who holds a doctorate in African languages and literature and folklore from UW-Madison, is active in a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth. The group's members say U.S. officials, not al-Qaida terrorists, were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Like Bush and the neocons, Hitler and the Nazis inaugurated their new era by destroying an architectural monument and blaming its destruction on their designated enemies," he wrote. Barrett said Tuesday he was comparing the attacks to the burning of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in 1933, a key event in the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship.

"That's not comparing them as people, that's comparing the Reichstag fire to the demolition of the World Trade Center, and that's an accurate comparison that I would stand by," he said. He added: "Hitler had a good 20 to 30 IQ points on Bush, so comparing Bush to Hitler would in many ways be an insult to Hitler."

Moira Megargee, publicity director for the Northampton, Mass., publisher Interlink, said the book is due out at the end of November and the editing isn't finished. "It is not final and for all we know that essay may not be in the book or may be edited," she said. The university's decision to allow Barrett to teach the course touched off a controversy over the summer once his views became widely known. Sixty-one state legislators denounced the move.

One county board cut its funding for the UW-Extension by $8,247 _ the amount Barrett will earn for teaching the course _ in a symbolic protest, even though the course is unrelated to that branch of the UW System. Democratic
Gov. Jim Doyle and his Republican challenger, Mark Green, have both said they believe Barrett should be fired.

One essay Barrett is requiring students to read is entitled: "A Clash Between Justice and Greed," and argues that conflicts between Islam and the western world were made up after the "collapse of the Soviet Union to justify U.S. 'defense' spending, and to provide a pretext of controlling the world's resources." The author of another essay, "Interpreting Terrorism: Muslim Problem or Covert Operations Nightmare?," contends some western intelligence agencies are commiting acts of terrorism to make them look like the work of radical Islamics.

The university's chief academic officer, Provost Patrick Farrell, decided to retain Barrett for the course after reviewing his plans and qualifications. He said Barrett could present his ideas during one week of the course as long as students were allowed to challenge them.

He later warned Barrett to stop seeking publicity for his personal political views. Farrell said he has not seen the essay, but faculty can assign readings that may not be popular to everyone. "I think part of the role of any challenging course here is going to encourage students to think of things from a variety of perspectives," he said.

I will try to post on this later today.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Religion versus Family Values?

A study from the Barna Research Group, based on interviews with 3,854 adults in the lower 48 states, with a margin of error of 1 or 2%, finds the following:

Variation in divorce rates by religion:
Religion % have been divorced
Jews 30%
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21%

As an atheist who has been married to the same fellow-unbeliever for 29 years, I shouldn't be surprized at this, but I am. Like everyone else, I tend to believe what I am told, rather than what I see with my own eyes. I'll have to work on that...

By the way, notice what some church leaders are saying about this study: flat declarations that they will not believe it. In other words, for some people, the idea that religion has a positive effect on moral behavior ... is itself a religious tenet, insulated from scientific evidence.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Conspiracies Real and Imaginary

A Finnish individual, writing as "Nordic," posted an interesting comment on my original positing on conspiracy theories. Nordic points out that there have been many real conspiracies throughout history. This is undeniably true -- though I would deny one of Nordic's examples, the conspiracy that killed JFK. But many examples of perfectly real conspiracies come to mind. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, not by a lone gunman, but by a conspiracy that was aimed at several members of his administration. The Watergate break-in and coverup was a real conspiracy. Heck, the 9/11 attacks themselves were the work of a conspiracy -- not a conpiracy of Israeli and American military organizations by of 19 religious nutcases. So conspiracies are real.

But given that my account of conspiracism holds that there is a sharp discontinuity between that sort of thinking and real theories, I probably have to find a difference between the conspiracies that conspiracists obsess about, and the conspiracies that exist in the real world that you and I actually live in. The alternative would be to say that conspiracism only differs from legitimate theoretical work in terms of it its methodology, and that might end up blurring my supposedly sharp distinction. The difference might then be at most a difference of degree: they are being less rigorous, etc., but they are really in the same business as the social scientist.

Note that a similar issue arises in the case of cryptozoology, the belief in creatures like yetti, sasquatch, and the Loch Ness monster. If cryptozoology is bunk, how is it that scientists find find new species, or ones thought extinct, all the time? What about the ceolocanth ("the living fossil") and the giant squid? Isn't the cryptozoologist just doing what the legitimate zoologist is doing all the time?

How, indeed, is the coelocanth different from Bigfoot? Answer: verifiable physical traces. They reeled in the coelocanth. They netted the giant squid. But they've never found a dead sasquatch, nor any traces from which dna can be extracted. No skeletons. No hair. No poop. Unlike bears, sasquatches do not shit in the woods. (Tip of the hat here to the wonderful "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" episode on cryptozoology.)

What is the similar sharp difference between the infinitude of real conspiracies, and those that are products of conspiracist fantasy? I can think of several, but they all rest on a single one. Real conspirators are, like you and me, fallible. For that reason, real conspiracies tend to be, if they are successful, rather small and short-lived. The successful ones also tend to be very simple, in terms of the number and difficulty of the individual actions required to bring them off. The Reichstag fire, for instance was very simple indeed: just start a fire when nobody is looking. Real conspiracies in general have a marked tendency to come unraveled. The ones that are large and long-lasting are extremely well-known (the CIA, the Communist Party, etc.).

By contrast, the phony conpiracies of conspiracists have God-like powers, including an almost supernatural capacity to stay (unlike the CIA and the CP) virtually invisible to anyone but the conspiracy theorist. Just think how many hundreds of people would have to be involved in order to fake a moon landing or the 9/11 attacks. With no mistakes made by any, any of them, and no defectors, never a death-bed confession, etc. Truly, these were organizations of supermen! The conspiracy that killed JFK was a very, very different sort of thing from the one that killed Lincoln. The latter began to fall apart almost immediately. The former has remained airtight and without a single flaw or weakness for over 4 decades. Pretty interesting, don't you think?

Real conspiracies, I would claim, inhabit the world as it is understood by modern science or by common sense. This is a world of finite beings with finite powers. It is a world where ever gain has its cost, and every strength its Achilles' heel. It is a world of probabilities and degrees of rational certitude. The world of the conspiracist is not like this. It is a world inhabitied by fabulous superbeings with amazing superpowers. A world of absolutes and infallibilities. It is basically the world as apprehended by magical and religious ways of thinking. It is the world of faith, of what Eric Hoffer called the "True Believer."

That is I suppose its greatest attraction.

Are Conspiracists Really Enemies of Authority as Such?

I've been thinking about Edward Feser's conservative take on conspiracy theories: that they are really a case of the Enlightenment spirit taken to its logical limit, with the individualistic "theorist" rejecting tradition and authority in favor of the judgement of his (it always is a "he") own mind. It's an application, he says, of the "skim milk principle," so named after the Sir Arthur Sullivan lines "Things are seldom what they seem/Skim milk maskerades as cream."

I should probably point out first of all that my own account and Feser's have something in common. They are both basically epistemological accounts of cospiracism. That is, they both interpret it as a knowledge claim and assess it in terms of whether its methodology is competent to (or seriously meant to) support claims to knowledge.

However, within the wide parameters of epistemological accounts of conspiracism, my view is virtually opposite of Feser's. Connspiracy "theories" are not really theories at all. They are, as Plato would say, not logos but mythos, stories that deliver the subjective satisfaction (the drug-like high) of theories without the difficulty, discipline, or rigor of doing actual theoretical work.

As I said below, Feser's account does admittedly explain something that my own account seemingly cannot: namely, that conspiracists tend to be individualists who are "agin the guvmint." I should add something to my account. But what?

I guess what I am inclined to add is a denial that the explanandum phenomenon, the thing to be explained, exists. True, we do think of the typical conspiracist as some weird guy who lives in his mom's garage and has a web site that reveals the key to human history. But that is a sort of illusion of perspective we get by looking only at the conspiracists immediately around us. Step back and look at the big picture.

Historically, conspiracism has often been a very nasty tool in the hands of authority, the worst and most authoritarian authorities. What was Nazi antisemitism but a giant conspiracy theory? Soviet Communism was rife with conspiracy theories. At the time he died (and it was just in time) Stalin was obsessed with The Doctors' Plot, a conspiracy theory that was to have served as the basis for massive arrests and killings. Just the other day, the dictator of Sudan used a conspiracy theory to deny responsibility for mass murder in the Darfur region and blame it all on Israel.

Again, Medieval witchraft hysteria had the most salient traits of conpiracism, inasmuch as it opposed a foe that was a) very powerful, b) very, very bad, and c) invisible (undetectable by ordinary common sense thinking).

Conspiracism is a wonderful excuse for doing terrible things to innocent people. A conspiracy theory would, if true, justify taking extraordinary means against people who look innocent because, don't you know, THEY are about to do terrible things to us, and they are very good at looking innocent. It's what they do!

As a non-conservative, I maintain that beating up on people in just this way is one thing that authority, throughout history, has shown a certain tendency to do. Lord Acton said it: Power corrupts.

Exploding Bycicles Explained

My friend Valeria Ottonelli at the University of Genoa (I'll be seeing her at a conference in November, when she will teach me how to pronounce my blog's name) has explained to me the Critical Mass bycicle event (see below).

It's a worldwide network of people who stage events at which they try to get enough cyclists together in one place (hence the critical mass theme) to call attention to cycling as an alternative means of transportation.

I happen to agree that it is a good idea to avoid burning dinosaur fossils whenever you can, so here is a tiny increment of free publicity for them.

(I actually don't even own a bycicle, but I am a big walker, both with and without a backpack, with and without trekking poles, both town and country, etc. I guess that makes me even more of a Luddite in a way than these cycling advocates.)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

My New Name

Well, when I started this little blog in February I called it Critical Mass. I liked the idea of announcing up front that I would be offering some critical thinking, and I liked the suggestion that critique can be explosive. I was being teddibly clevah.

Or maybe not. There are now two or three other blogs with the same name -- on the Blogger server alone! One of them is a blog for book reviewers (get it? critical). There is also (and I really do not get this) some kind of bycicle race called Critical Mass. (What the Hell?) Anyway, the idea must have been pretty obvious.

I trust that my new name is sufficiently obscure to protect it against becoming popular. But of course only time will tell.

What the heck does it mean, you ask? Ayn Rand says somewhere that she thought that Galileo was right to lie to the Inquisition. Indeed, she thought his delibarate lie to these pious thugs was a noble symbol of the fact that though you can force a body, you cannot force a mind. I've always thought she was right about this. The story is also a perfect symbol of the objectivity of the truth: how no amount of talking, opining, browbeating, or bullying is going to change it. We might as well try to find out what it is, before we trip over it in the night. Such are the thoughts behind my new name.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Why Conspiracism Persists: Another Take

There is a very interesting article on why conspiracism is so pervasive and popular, despite its obvious stupidity, here at TCS Daily

Interestingly, the author, Edward Feser, a conservative professor of philosophy, gives an explanation that is virtually the opposite of mine. I see these "theories" (which aren't real theories at all, as I've said) as offering all the comforts and advantages of irrationality, while he seems to see them as the product of an over-reliance on -- reason! He points out the the intellectual posture of the conspiracist is inevitably that of the lone skeptic, casting aside "the official story" and thus overthrowing the power of authority, to which the masses have uncritically submitted. The governing myth, in his view, is that of the Enlightenment: truth is on the side of the lone intellect, while custom, tradition, and authority represent nothing but illusion.

As a matter of history, I think Feser's Enlightenment-run-amok theory is plainly wrong. Modern conspiracism begins with the Abbe Agustin Baruel's writings about the Bavarian Illuminati. The Illuminati -- the bad guys in this conspiracist yarn -- are Enlightenment extremists, free-thinking foes of both king and church who sought to establish a new regime of freedom and reason on the ruins of all traditional institutions. The first thing the Illuminati did, according to Baruel, was to cause the French Revolution. (How? I guess they pulled some of those "strings" you've heard about.) The arch conspiracy theorist of my own lifetime, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, believed the the Illuminati were the ones at the bottom of all the other conspiracies. The Commies were just one part of it.

Anyway, Baruel's conspiracy "theories" were apparently the product of a profoundly reactionary hatred of the Enlightenment, not the reverse.

I have to admit, though, that Feser's view does explain something that mine so far does not: that conspiracism tends to have an anti-authoritarian slant. The conspiracist is usually, like Huck Finn's Pap, "agin the guvmint." Or in some cases, the Church. (Da Vinci Code, anyone?)

So I have to add something to my explanation. But what? I'll have to think about that.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Yet Another Conspiracy Theory: Lower Gas Prices

The day before yesterday I wrote the posting immediately below. One of the examples of conspiracy theories I cited was the "capitalist plot" explanation of rising oil prices. Since the middle of the summer, as you probably know, gas prices have been sliding downward. And what do we see in the press and on the net but a conspiracist explanation of dropping oil prices. There is simply no end and no limit!

There is an interesting piece on this by one Dan Gainor at Human Events. Okay, Human Events is a right wing publication and Gainor's charming essay is an attack some talking head at CNN (which unlike him I do not watch) who has been purveying this particular "theory." As a matter of fact, as a recent USA Today and Gallup poll shows, some 42% of Americans believe some form of this idea, so unfortunately we can't blame it all on those pointy-headed liberals at CNN. The appeal of conspiracism is very, very broad. This is the one thing that makes it, in all its irrational stupidity, worth thinking about. Something is going on there that tells us a lot about what makes most people tick.

On thing that just amazes me about this is how little responsibilty conspiracists feel to explain how THEY are supposed to be able to bring off the spectacular effects that conspiracists attribute to THEM. What is the source and nature of their mysterious super-powers? USA reports, from a knucklead-on-the-street interview, some guy in LA saying "I'm sure there's some sort of string-pulling going on." That's it. THEY are doing this to us. How? Somehow. End of story.