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Archive for January, 2009

Let’s establish some common ground first. Conspiracy theory stories can be a lot of fun.

And there’ve been some damn fun stories that have really taken place. For centuries people have been gathering with small groups of trusted allies in shadowy corners, and making plans to cause some sort of havoc, upset some apple-carts, infiltrate some other group in a different shadowy corner, or seize some subtle but far-reaching power. There’s nothing inherently implausible about the idea that secret world domination, or even something a bit less ambitious, might interest some people enough to have a stab at it, or that it might sometimes even work.

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the king and a large chunk of the aristocracy; President Nixon’s staff broke into Watergate, in just one of a series of covered-up scandals; the CIA has even conducted research into mind-control. I’m not going to argue that something conspiratorial and arguably sinister didn’t go on in these cases and many others, or that they don’t make for some pretty awesome stories to read about.

Even more fun than reading about the underhand dealings of subversive groups from decades past, is the idea of actually being involved in, or gaining knowledge of, a similar plot that’s still ongoing. All over the place, in books, movies, and virtually all forms of storytelling, you’ll be invited to walk in the shoes of the one person who learns the Truth about the massive conspiracy, and how its operators have pulled the wool over the world’s eyes. You see this imagined world through the eyes of society’s lone freethinker, up against the impenetrable behemoth which seems to have tentacles every way you turn, and you’ll have to outwit the conspirators’ attempts to capture and silence you, expose their terrible secrets to the world, destroy them utterly, or all of the above.

And man, do you ever feel cool.

As a literary trope, its use has perhaps become popular to the point of cliché, but who doesn’t love the idea of being the only person to know some world-shattering secret, and having to defy the expectations of a short-sighted society to single-handedly expose the conspiracy and bring some malevolent and tyrannical organisation crashing down?

The world is not as it seems, and you alone are special enough to find out how things really are. A good conspiracy theory seems to push all the right buttons of ego and righteousness to really hook people. We can feel like a part of a superior clique, unlike all the sheeple grazing around us, and we can smugly reinforce our disdain and distrust of authority figures, now that we know what evils they’re capable of.

Conspiracy theories, in short, are really fun.

Unfortunately, they’re also usually bollocks.

Well, when you’ve got such a versatile premise for an exciting story, why would you limit yourself to just recounting facts from boring old reality? You can write about fictional conspiracies in fictional worlds that are as exciting as you want them to be, and create an immensely influential, popular, and lucrative television series (along with numerous spin-offs until it’s long since outstayed its welcome), or come up with one of the most-discussed cultural phenomena of the new millennium and not have to worry about convincing dialogue or basic historical research.

But if you’re really into these stories, you may find yourself tempted to believe that Elvis and Tupac really are in Area 51, experimenting on the Grays that crashed at Roswell and killed the Illuminati leader Paul McCartney, to find out why JFK faked his own death then staged 9/11 in the same studio lot where Bigfoot filmed the moon landings. And although that might make a helluva story as well, its narrative charm has no bearing on whether or not any of it actually happened.

Moving away from the easier question of what’s fun to think about, if we’re going to take any conspiracy theory seriously, we should really hold it to the same standards of rigour as we do all scientific theories. If you’re not taking a skeptical approach, then you’re going to be unavoidably prone to believing something no less false than the ridiculous situation in the previous paragraph. We should hold out for a theory that explains things better than the null hypothesis – otherwise we might as well stick with a much less complicated and much more likely scenario, which still ties up all the same loose ends.

You’ll also want your theory to be falsifiable, if you’re not a total crackpot and are holding on to even a shred of credibility, and this is where a lot of conspiracy theories tend to fall down. Evidence that can be seen as supporting the theory is leapt upon and heralded as inevitable and further conclusive proof, but any disconfirming evidence, which runs against what’s expected – the kind of thing which provokes people doing actual science to adapt, amend, update, or even abandon their previous ideas of what’s true – can be instantly dismissed as just being part of the conspiracy itself. If there’s no evidence where you want there to be, then that is evidence, of the cover-up which must go hand-in-hand with the conspiracy itself.

This way, a committed conspiracy theorist never needs to be shaken from their position, or concern themselves with the notion that they might ever have made a single wrong step, and erroneously picked up an untrue idea or two, at any point in their past. Quite what rational reason they have for remaining so entrenched is rarely satisfactorily explained. If they’ve come to the understanding they have because of evidence, then where is it? And is theirs really the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the evidence in question? Or, if all the evidence for the conspiracy is still being covered up, how did some guy outside of the cabal happen upon all this privileged knowledge in the first place? Where do you get this shit, in other words?

A recurring theme seems to be cynicism regarding other people’s motives, morality, and actions, particularly those of the government – they faked the moon landings and assassinated JFK, after all, among countless other nefarious deeds. Often, a part of my natural rebuttal to these kinds of conspiracies is that people just aren’t that bad, and would surely never do anything so terrible. Although this is sometimes a good poke in the skeptical direction (The US president ordered thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks in his own country? Really?), there have obviously been many people in positions of supreme authority who have done some pretty messed-up shit, so this might not be all that convincing. (Yes, I think I may have just lumped in the Holocaust under a general description of “messed-up shit”. This is why I’m not a journalist.)

More pertinent is the question of the cover-up – so necessary to all good conspiracy theories, but often so utterly implausible. The numbers of people who’d have to keep absolutely quiet about it, the amount of correspondence needing to remain entirely secret, and the hordes of co-conspirators sometimes necessary to pull it off, any of whom could bring the whole thing crashing down if they ever breathed a word of it, is just the kind of massive set of assumptions that Occam’s razor loves to slice clean away.

Not only do these large numbers of people have to be malevolent (which some of us may find easier to swallow than others), they also have to be competent, which is even more outlandish. I was no fan of the most recent Bush administration, but even if they were far more despicably immoral than they ever seemed, they couldn’t have pulled off a massive hoax on the scale of 9/11 if they tried. Guy couldn’t even eat a damn pretzel without adult supervision, for frig’s sake. (More on all that in a future article. The 9/11 conspiracy theories, I mean. I have no particular plans to write anything more about pretzels.)

Sometimes there really is evidence which seems to suggest a deeper pattern to events, a guiding hand moving the pieces, and which hides its true existence from us. It’s important to take all this evidence on board, and not simply become denialists, throwing out the possibility of any furtive conversation involving more than two people as being too ridiculous to ever take place. But because they’re so much fun to play with, it’s clearly true that most conspiracy theories aren’t a part of the real world. Crazy ideas must regularly spring from over-active imaginations, and describe situations that don’t exist, and it might not always be obvious that these ideas were never supposed to be any more than someone’s movie pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer.

Conspiracy theories can be really fun to believe. They can provide exciting and narratively satisfying explanations for so many things that seem strange about the world, but they make huge assumptions to do so, and often have to ignore much simpler and more mundane facts, like pareidolia, or an unremarkable but misleading series of coincidences, or that the world is sometimes a scary and chaotic place with no grand scheme behind it, no pattern that makes sense to us, and sometimes buildings are just destroyed by a small and remote bunch of maniacs and that’s all there is to it. Boring answers like that might not occur to us, or fail to interest us, or terrify us, but they’re usually more rational.

So, to summarise. Conspiracy theories: usually bollocks.

Specific examples hopefully to follow.

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Okay, I’m almost ready to call Poe’s law on Stephen Green’s entire life.

Three weeks ago, he reports the “There’s probably no God” Atheist Bus Campaign to the Advertising Standards Authority, and tries to prevent them from being allowed to express this view.

From the National Secular Society today:

It is preposterous for the ASA to think they can outlaw Christian freedom of speech.

… says Stephen Green, in response to being instructed not to repeat a false claim made in advertisements placed by his own organisation. As well as apparently laying the blame for society’s ills on divorce, working mothers, and “the abolition of the death penalty” (feel the Christian love and charity), the ad makes factually untrue and medically groundless claims that a vaccine to stop teenage girls getting cervical cancer will actually make them infertile.

So, proclaiming the divinity of Jesus as fact, and using the side of a bus to plug a website which assures non-believers of their future spending “all eternity in torment in hell”, and making shit up to give false medical information, are all fine, but publicly hedging your bets about the non-existence of God should be illegal.

I’m too lazy for proper sarcasm or incisive commentary. But for fuck’s sake.

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Almost finished with an article of actual substance, but I’m still not finding as much time or energy to get stuff written as I’d like.

When Tim Minchin said he’d be lightening the tone of the evening’s entertainment with a nine-minute beat poem, I thought at first it was a joke.

Nope.

The word “man-crush” kinda makes me uncomfortable, but still.

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Edward Current is still awesome, but the parody’s getting less subtle, and seems harder to mistake for sincerity these days. Ninjas? No actual religion is awesome enough to have conspiracy theories about ninjas.

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I’m lazy again today

This.

That is all.

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After the roaring success of similar campaigns for both Tibet and Willy, it’s now time to discuss Free Energy. (Ha.)

The idea of free energy is pretty much what it sounds like. It doesn’t just work in the “free cable” sense of tapping into someone else’s pipeline, but rather by actually creating new and usable energy, often literally from thin air. It’s like taking candy from a baby, then selling it to another baby, then stealing it back again, and repeating the pattern indefinitely.

These kinds of machines which promise ultimate power at low, low prices are still a recurrent phenomenon, and make for pretty big business. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people regularly claim to have invented or discovered some device, mechanism, or physical process which would render that whole fossil fuel problem moot. It’s an appealing notion, to have something which could power itself and let you siphon off the overflow, storing and using all this new energy as it spills out from… somewhere. Unfortunately – at least, if you’re living under Homer Simpson’s roof and obey the laws of thermodynamics – the Universe places an inconvenient embargo on the whole idea.

Although there might seem to be many ways you can “get” energy where there wasn’t any before, you’re never really conjuring anything out of nowhere. If you light a match, you’ll be releasing heat (thermal energy) that wasn’t around before, but it comes at the cost of the resources you’re burning. The amount of energy released in the flame exactly matches the lost energy that existed in a different form in the chemicals that made up the match.

Calculated in this broader, chemical sense, energy isn’t something that can ever be created or destroyed, but only transferred from one state to another. If you burn some oil for energy, you can’t keep the oil and burn it again. If a system is kicked into action by something falling, like water in a water wheel, then it would take at least as much energy as you got out of it if you wanted to raise the stuff back up to its original height again. (This is why Wikipedia’s gallery of perpetual motion machines are all doomed to failure; a system can’t, by itself, generate more energy than it uses to keep itself going indefinitely.)

Them laws of thermodynamics ain’t no slouch, incidentally. The first one – pretty much the “no conjuring” rule as described above – is among the most solidly convincing theories in modern science. If you throw that out, then a whole lot of really useful physics goes with it. Centuries of sophisticated learning and understanding shouldn’t be scribbled over with the first new and crazy idea to come along with Earth-shattering claims.

However cunningly you try and arrange something with magnets to keep propelling itself around on its own metaphorical steam, it can’t be done.

If a flywheel is spinning, and seems happy to keep on doing so pretty much indefinitely (some are set up with such low friction that their rundown time is measured in years) then that’s all well and good, and may be a useful way of storing energy, such that it can be usefully transferred from one form to another. But to get any energy out so that you can use it, you need to let the flywheel push against something else to power it – and in so doing, you’ll be exerting a similar push against the spin of the flywheel, causing it to slow down from the friction. The energy you get out can never be more than the energy you had to put in to get it spinning that fast in the first place.

If you want to run a car on water, you’re going to have to do something more than Stanley Meyer did, because if all you’re doing is separating water into the oxygen and hydrogen that it’s made of, then burning the hydrogen and oxygen to make water again, you’re never going to get any more out when it burns, than you needed to put in to separate them. You just go round in circles, and no work is being done.

Unless, y’know, you’re throwing out almost all of physics again. That site describes the problem of how do it “economically”, and says that by traditional methods the car “could not recharge from the process quickly enough”, but makes it sound like levels of energy input and output are two separate issues to be improved upon. They don’t seem to mention the thing about needing more than 100% efficiency, which makes recharging from the process “quickly enough” about as likely as being able to run fast enough to overtake your own knees.

Creating energy this way would be like magicking water into existence by taking some water, freezing it, then melting the ice, and experting to find more water than you started with. It’s not going to get you very far. You don’t get something for nothing.

Admittedly, not every device needs to get something from nothing, while still being intended to revolutionise the world of making stuff go. Wikipedia lists several resource-consuming machines which provide apparent perpetual motion, like that little drinking-bird thing that helped Homer keep the power plant safe while he went out to buy a muu-muu. (Huh, lot of Simpsons references in this entry. Well, two.) The way those work is surprisingly sophisticated, and there’s some fascinating science behind subtle sources of energy like ambient temperature gradients, or pressure from photons.

This isn’t any kind of a loophole around the laws of thermodynamics, but maybe you don’t need to circumvent them, if energy can be grabbed from plausible sources, in such quantities that it might seem effectively free to us. I can’t rule that out, but the problem then comes back to the perennial sticking point: if you want to be taken seriously, publish some damn science. If you actually do an experiment, and find something to support your claims, and then tell other people what you did so that they can try it too and see if you’re still right, then vindication surely awaits. But what you’re saying sounds unlikely, and it sounds very similar to some other unlikely-sounding things, which are demonstrable nonsense and which break many well established laws of science. You’re going to have to actually show us something impressive.

Of course, there are always reasons why they can’t do that just now, often relating to the various conspiracy theories in place to suppress the knowledge of this world-changing technology, and preserve the status quo for those who find it profitable. I’m not aware that any significant evidence has ever been presented that this is actually happening – of course, this could mean that it’s all been covered up, but it could more simply mean that it was never there. (More on conspiracy theories in general over here.)

I’m sticking with my “publish some damn science” argument. I don’t see how data from every scientific lab could be kept out of every respectable scientific journal – those scientists and journals would be fascinated to learn anything new that’s well supported (that’s kinda what science is, after all), even if some politicians and oil magnates wanted it kept quiet.

But when established science is so strongly indicative that you’re full of shit, in a field with a history of fraud (and other business practices which should maybe raise a suspicious eyebrow), we’re going to wait for some actual evidence before accepting that you, unlike the conmen and failures who’ve gone before, really have revolutionised everything we understand about the Universe. And while everybody seems cagey as to how these things are supposed to work, and what tests might be done to find out whether they really do, and while Reuters reports credulously on supposed new developments, we’re going to keep doubting that The Man is keeping you down.

Science loves discovering things which it can’t explain, and which shatter old paradigms. Find us some actual evidence, or even just show us what’s going on and let us find it, and the scientific and skeptical community will totally be on your side. Stop holding press conferences and asking for more and more research money. It’s not working.

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Not a bad start

Convicted fraudster and monumental fucknut Kevin Trudeau has been slapped with his biggest fine yet for repeated, continuous, colossal dickishness. (I’m paraphrasing the legalese.) I’m thinking he’ll get a write-up for the Skeptictionary someday, but there’s more about him all over the interwebs, not least at the Skeptic’s Dictionary. (Hey, anyone else notice the similarity in those names? I think that guy must have retroactively plagiarised me. He even published a book using his name, before I’d even thought of mine. Damn cunning.)

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