For obvious reasons a recurring feature of conspiracy theories is their invoking of earlier, proven conspiracies. The Daily Mail’s Zinoviev Letter is one example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion another. But while it doesn’t do to underestimate human nastiness, there’s a clue in the ‘human’ part – it doesn’t do either to grace our indisputably cynical leaders with superhuman powers. Those proven conspiracies were simple and opportunistic, especially where the motive was to fake a casus belli. The Tonkin Incident, allowing LBJ to throw US forces into Vietnam, springs to mind, as do Saddam’s non existent WMDs.
While we’re linking casus belli with conspiracy, did FDR know in advance of Japan’s tactically brilliant – but strategically inept – attack on Pearl Harbour, and see in it a way of surmounting domestic resistance to America being “dragged into yet another European quarrel”? Available evidence, though greater than that for saying Bush did 9/11, is less conclusive than devotees of a Pearl Harbour conspiracy like to believe. Another recurring feature of conspiracy theories is the overegging of anomalous detail which, in our messy world, can always be found if we look hard enough while studiously disregarding far greater volumes of counter evidence. It goes hand in hand, since the epistemological naivity of even degree educated Brits and Americans is topped only by our species dufferdom at assessing probability, with the elevation of remote possibility to cast iron certainty.
(There’s a clue too in ‘remote possibility’. No one can ever prove that Bush-Cheney did not do 9/ll, that MI6 did not do for Diana or that planet earth is not ruled by those extra-terrestial lizards David Icke – who by the way writes with wit, intelligence and a disarming semblance of sanity – is so worried about. Just as good epistemologists leave room for the outlandish possibility that God not only exists but, with time on his hands after creating the universe, is aware of and aggrieved by your sexual fantasies and mine, so too should we leave a scintella of space for the even more outlandish possibility that Dubya, having for years cunningly passed himself off as a half-wit, did indeed gather round him a thousand or two fellow conspirators to do the dirty on 9/11. Proving a negative is tough.)
9/11 Truthism takes three broad forms. The strongest is that the strikes were textbook false flag, the mildest that official accounts leave unanswered questions. In between, though closer to the ‘strong’ form, is the argument that while Bush did not plan the attacks he had foreknowledge yet allowed them to proceed. The less stubborn of strong-form Truthers tend to shift under well informed challenge to the more easily defended view that Doubts Remain. Indeed, Dylan Avery seems to have made that shift himself. This from an interview based feature of April 2014:
[Avery’s] new film is grounded in fact-based stories, not theories, about people abused by the police. And though questions linger about 9/11, such as why, on Sept. 6, 2001, the daily average for put-options on United Airlines stock quadrupled, he no longer tortures himself with speculation. “In my truly angry times, in 2005 or 2006, if you asked if the Bush admin- istration planned the attacks, I would have said, ‘Fuck yeah’.”
“I don’t think Bush could plan a bowl of cereal.”
As a matter of fact the put-options issue, like WTC 7 freefall and ‘expert’ opinions that Boeing 707s could not have brought down WTC 1 and WTC 2, has been comprehensively addressed. Another recurring feature of conspiracy theories is the coexistence of shrill demands that Our Questions Be Answered with stone-deafness to empirical and logical answers convincing to all but the True Believer.
Again we can draw a theistic parallel. Here’s Richard Dawkins, his inalienable human right not to be tortured by stupid people serially breached by creationist and Formidably Stupid Person, Wendy Wright. Her debating style, undeniably effective, is a step up – but just the one – from finger in each ear and ‘la-la, la-la’ . “I don’t see any evidence for evolution”, she keeps saying, and even as the good professor supplies it in spades she’s still at it. “Where’s the evidence? I just don’t see it.” (Postmodernism has much to answer for. Its useful suspicion of positivism in social science, but frequently half-baked grasp of challenging findings in particle physics, led it to the self contradictory claim that there is no truth and science – history too – is ‘just another narrative’, enlarging the space not only for climate change and holocaust denialism but 9/11 Truthism and Voodoo Studies to boot.) And because she is stupid, Wright does a disservice to an analogy that tightens if we drop our dissonance-driven attachment to the idea that only stupid people hold stupid views. I know Truthers and theists who are highly intelligent and great company – just so long as you steer clear of the elephant in the room.
Indeed, a hallmark of the real adept – as with the clinically paranoid – is the ability to go one better than mere imperviousness to counter-evidence. A 24-carat Truther, in for the long haul, will with consummate ease accommodate such evidence within an expanded version of the theory. One set of 9/ll Truthers concedes that Loose Change is shot through and through with factual and logical howlers, only to argue that that just shows Avery to be himself party to the conspiracy, deliberately making a crap film to discredit their case. Scary, huh? With Dylan Avery and George W. Bush in cahoots we’re looking at super-villainy of fiendish intricacy.
But for all of that, it’s not my aim here to dissect and rebuff 9/11 conspiracy theories. That job’s been done, thoroughly and to my mind decisively, by those better placed than me. (For the unconvinced, this site is as good a start as any.) Nor am I much concerned with psychological traits allegedly predisposing some of us to buy into conspiracy theories. I do, however, have some interest in their epistemological aspects, which tend to include:
- Evidential cherry-picking and egregious ‘quote mining’, hallmarks of evidence seized on or rejected according to how well it supports a priori conclusions.
- Disproportionate emphasis on anomaly. One left critic, to whom I’ll return, of 9/11 Truthism likens this to a death penalty defence team seizing on the anomolies even the best prepared and damning of prosecution cases must – such is life – contain, in order to sow the all important ‘reasonable doubt’. Such narrow tactics can backfire though, blinding the team to the overall strength of the case against its imperilled client.
- Disproportionate attention to maverick voices and ‘outlier’ findings. This minds me of the way books for the lucrative miracle cure market emblazon their covers with references to The Study THEY Don’t Want YOU to Know About! while staying silent – ignorance or mendacity; it’s all the same to me – on the fact their killer study is at odds with every other finding in the field, and lacks peer review status.
- Citing experts in disciplines only superficially connected. Loose Change is full of this: ‘mining experts’ – disquietingly affiliated to far right holocaust deniers – who not only pronounce on matters, like engineering and munitions, outside their fields but have a nasty habit of cross referencing one another in a cosy little circle.
- Faulty logic, like presenting inductive possibility (inference) as deductive fact.
- Failures re Occam’s Razor and the parsimony principle. One consequence of theory-expansion of the kind that draws Dylan Avery into the 9/11 conspiracy is a burgeoning complexity, jerry-built and inelegant, in explanatory power.
I often said at Sheffield Hallam (“Zero Hours”) University that I could hang a semester course on critical thinking around Loose Change. Since it displays every vice known to man and woman of truly bad science, my students would emerge as epistemological titans. But the philosophy of knowledge is not my focus either. So what is? My point – nearly there! – is that 9/11 Truthism is not only seriously crackers but reactionary too. For a cogent and wickedly entertaining setting out of the case for saying so, do read the late Alexander Cockburn’s CounterPunch essay. Meanwhile, here’s the executive summary of his three core arguments.
First, for materialists worthy of the name, 9/11 Truthers sail too close to metaphysics in their attribution of devilish powers to a bunch of greedily sociopathic but otherwise unremarkable people. As Cockburn puts it:
These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.
There’s more than an epistemological spat over idealism and materialism at stake here. Nor is this a demand, worthy though that would be, for critics of neoliberalism to get up to speed on Marx. At issue is the high correlation, intuitive and empirical, between such perverse but real deification of the ruling class on the one hand; tacit acceptance on the other that Nothing Can Be Done. Stands to reason dunnit? These guys are too clever for us. Resistance is futile …
Second, 9/11 Truthism, and conspiracy theories at large, show a disturbing tendency towards antisemitism. With 9/11 the latent racism goes further, a not so subtle implication of Truthism being that Arabs in caves could never pull off such a thing. (But white Christian fundamentalists could do something immeasurably harder, especially with The Jews onboard.)
Third, and most importantly, such deranged accusations distract from very real conspiracies perpetrated on a daily basis. Cockburn again:
Did the Towers fall because they were badly built [due to] corruption, incompetence, regulatory evasions by the Port Authority and because they were struck by huge planes loaded with jet fuel? No, shout the conspiracists, they “pancaked” because Cheney’s agents – scores of them – methodically planted demolition charges in the preceding days, inserting explosives in the relevant floors of three vast buildings (moving day after day among the unsuspecting office workers) then on 9/11 activating the detonators. It was a conspiracy of thousands, all of whom – party to mass murder – have held their tongues ever since …
… What [an investigation cited by Cockburn] brilliantly showed are the actual corrupt conspiracies on Giuliani’s watch: the favoritism to Motorola which saddled the firemen with radios that didn’t work; the ability of the Port Authority to skimp on fire protection, the mayor’s catastrophic failure in the years before 2001 to organize an effective unified emergency command that would have meant cops and firemen could have communicated; that many firemen wouldn’t have unnecessarily entered the Towers; that people in the Towers wouldn’t have been told by 911 emergency operators to stay in place; and that firemen could have heard the helicopter warnings and the final Mayday messages that prompted most of the NYPD men to flee the Towers.
That’s the real … world, in which Giuliani and others have never been held accountable. The conspiracists disdained the real world because they wanted to promote Bush, Cheney and the Neo-Cons to an elevated status as the Arch Demons of American history, instead of being just one more team running the American empire, a team of more than usual stupidity and incompetence …
… What Bush and Cheney never demonstrated was the slightest degree of competence to pull anything like this off. They couldn’t even manufacture weapons of mass destruction after US troops had invaded Iraq, and when any box labeled “WMD” would have been happily photographed by the embedded U.S. press as conclusive testimony. Arch-demon Cheney and his retinue of neo-cons couldn’t even contrive a provocation sufficient to justify his aim of waging war on Iran or giving Israel the green light to do so.
Elsewhere Cockburn speaks of other conspiracies, such as those that see prime American real estate – inexcusably inhabited by poor people – being emptied, without resort to such crudities as armed police and bulldozers, to make room for more lucrative development. To these I’d add bigger conspiracies which, like all the really juicy ones, depend for optimal effect on millions of useful idiots. One such – I’ll dissect its mechanics another time – leaves the majority of Anglo-Saxons (9/11 Truthers not excepted) holding a truly staggering net view, i.e. sardonic carps and nudge-wink fantasies notwithstanding, of the USA as a force for good in this troubled world of ours.
But see how far I’ve digressed! This is a film review. Not of Loose Change but of the recent and more sophisticated, cinematically if not epistomologically, Incontrovertible.