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Posts Tagged ‘9/11’

He really is. He’s the guy whose main schtick is the Illuminati reptilian alien trans-dimensional Freemason conspiracy, of which just about everybody rich or famous is suspected to be a part.

Yeah. That guy. He’s been on this train for years, and sufficiently large crowds of people are… entertained? intrigued? also crazy? …that he regularly lectures to packed-out crowds in large theatres, and sells an impressive number of books.

I saw part of one of his lectures yesterday on an obscure Sky TV channel. He was astounded at how true-to-life the film Monsters, Inc. was. If he were right about even a quarter of the stuff he was saying, he’d basically be a harbinger of the apocalypse in a Clive Barker novel.

A lot of his conspiracy ideas are, on the face of it, rather horrifying notions, if you forfeit your senses long enough to take them seriously for a moment. We’re all being lied to by the people in control, who sit at the top of the pyramid pulling the strings of the presidents and world leaders below. Of course the idea of evil forces acting behind the scenes to further their own power, with no regard for our well-being, is a disturbing one.

And yet, at the same time, I’m far from the first to note that deranged conspiracy theories are often a way of imposing structure and order onto a scary and chaotic world. The horrifying conspiracy actually provides some sort of reassurance.

For instance, Icke believes that the 9/11 attacks were obviously orchestrated by whoever’s really running the show, for their own nefarious ends. But the idea that George Bush – a man who “can’t even tie his own shoelaces” – might have been responsible is something he finds comical. The brilliant minds really behind it all were playing Bush for a fool, just like the rest of us.

As scary as that idea is, here’s another frightening scenario: George Bush, a man no better equipped to command the world’s largest superpower than he appears, actually persuaded people to give him millions of dollars, with which he also persuaded half the population of said superpower that he was the best man to take charge of the country.

Jesus. If I think about that too long, I might start needing a cuddle and some reassurance that the space lizards have got it all under control.

Another point Icke made – which I think was intended as some kind of rarely seen supporting evidence for his overall theory – was about the amount of human suffering in the world that’s caused by people. Or rather, not people people, but secret reptilian people. Because, when you look at the number of children starving to death around the world, or dying of preventable diseases, or being shot and blown up in unnecessary wars, or suffering in any number of ways because of other human activity, it seems clear that these aren’t the actions of real human beings. We have empathy, we care for people, we could never do such dreadful, damaging things. The reptilians lack such compassion, and only they must be responsible for such atrocities.

Except the truth is scarier than that, too. The human mind has evolved an astounding capacity for compartmentalisation, rationalisation, self-deception, and just about everything else necessary for subjugating, dehumanising, and destroying each other, given the right circumstances. All the ghoulish, evil things in which Icke sees the work of malevolent aliens? That’s all human behaviour. And human behaviour is all that we’re capable of.

If David Icke thinks his world of hidden dimension-crossing aliens vying for global domination is a scary place, he needs to open his eyes and take a look at the world he’s really living in.

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When the planes hit the twin towers on…

Actually, you know what? I don’t have anything to say about 9/11 which hasn’t already been said a billion times all over the internet, and which isn’t being repeated another trillion times today in blogs and newspapers and angst-milking TV news shows.

So let’s just listen to theme tunes from NES games with a bunch of lyrics added to them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because fuck terrorism, that’s why.

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The US government’s throwing money at religious symbolism again, and the American Atheists have launched a lawsuit against it.

For once, though, I’m not really on the atheists’ side.

In the rubble left by the destruction of the twin towers by terrorist-hijacked planes on 9/11, a couple of steel beams were found, maybe 15 feet high or so, which had been part of the building, and which roughly formed the shape of a cross. This symbol of Christianity, found at a time when many of that faith were suffering and terrified and in need of something to galvanise their shattered spirits, has become profoundly meaningful to some people.

Let’s not get into the issue of a loving God leaving this cross as a sign of hope for those New Yorkers who’d just seen Him let thousands of their friends and relatives be slaughtered. You’re too smart to need that spelled out for you.

What’s pertinent is the suggested inclusion of this “9/11 cross” in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is being planned to commemorate the lives lost in the attacks.

American Atheists think this is an unconstitutional endorsement of one specific religion by the government.

I’m not convinced. I think it’s just a museum piece going on display.

The museum director, on the memorial’s website, says:

The Museum will be about each of us, about what it means to be a human being, and what it means to live in a complex, global community at the start of the 21st century.

And a big part of that meaning for many people, and of their place in the community, is their religion. To memorialise the events of 9/11 without mentioning both the religious fanaticism that motivated the attacks, and the role that religion played in the way people faced the aftermath, would be to omit a crucial part of the story.

It’s a museum. It’s meant to document historical things. And this cross was a real thing, which really came to mean something important to a number of people, among many other artefacts which will be exhibited there.

The argument’s also been made that a lawsuit like this is terrible PR for atheists in general. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but given how much atheists are already hated by much of the American public, and how rarely many Americans are probably even prompted to think about atheists at all except when they’re hearing some news story about how we’re trying to ban all crosses or make Korans part of all school dinners or some such, it’s a non-trivial point to consider. Maybe even if we’re right, we should just leave this one, because we’re inevitably going to sound like hope-crushing buzzkills and nobody’s going to be on our side.

On the other hand, maybe we should just fight for what’s right and not worry about people disapproving of us every time we open our mouths. Because we’re never going to get anything done if we insist on trying to mollify the hate for atheists that’s already out there by stepping lightly and not doing anything provocative.

That link illustrates just a few of the violent death threats made against atheists on Fox News’s Facebook page after this story was reported. Hundreds of Christians were very publicly suggesting or offering to murder people who think differently from them, as the most simple and obvious solution to the problem that some people think differently from them.

Actually my favourite comment from that list wasn’t just directed at atheists:

I love Jesus, and the cross and if you dont, I hope someone rapes you!

Two people “liked” that one.

This isn’t a reason to back down and not make a fuss. People like that aren’t going to hate any less if they realise that hating works. We absolutely need to keep fighting, but it needs to be a worthwhile fight. And keeping this steel cross from being presented as a significant part of American history doesn’t seem worth it to me.

(h/t PZ, and Stef McGraw at Friendly Atheist)

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Osama bin Laden has been killed by US military forces. I learned about this on Twitter.

I’m not going to wax political at any great length about what this means. There’s already a good deal of opinion out there, of an interestingly diverse range.

There’s the jubilant and perhaps justifiably smug:

And there’s the rather less thrilled:

Now that every good, patriotic liberal believes Barack Obama is personally responsible for the success or failure of every U.S. military action undertaken during his watch, can we call the dude a mass murderer yet?

Some musings on the legality and morality of killing him are worth reading at Heresy Corner and the New Statesman. Also leaping into action is Hitch at Slate.

I’m finding it hard to muster any particularly strong convictions about any of it myself. I’m certainly not going to miss the guy, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much worth celebrating here, except for those in the US political system for whom this was a massive PR coup.

The only thing I’m pretty sure I’m standing firm on is that I’m 100% against anything purely retributive. I don’t think I could ever support increasing the amount of misery in the world for the sake of “fairness”, under any circumstances. Not saying that’s what was done here. Just saying.

There was a quote being tossed back and forth on Twitter earlier, from a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, who refused to revel in bin Laden’s death. In trying to track that down again to mention it here, I actually found a few other reactions from 9/11 survivors and the families of those who were killed, and they seem to be pretty mixed. Some say that bin Laden’s death brings closure, others specifically report that it doesn’t. I’m not sure there are any grand conclusions to be drawn there.

I was about to leave it there when the latest work from the Digital Cuttlefish appeared in my RSS feed. I basically agree with the sentiment, but I think a lot of zir reasoning behind it is actually irrelevant. You don’t need to “understand” why bin Laden and other extremists might think the way they do, thanks to American foreign policy and whatnot, in order to be opposed to sadism. And it can’t be anything other than sadism, however much it might be dressed up as a desire for “justice”, which opposes bin Laden’s killing on the grounds that it gets him “off the hook”.

The harm he did has been done. We might have lost the chance to enact some more thorough, brutal, viscerally satisfying revenge – but unless his abrupt death snatched away the chance to do something good, we shouldn’t mourn that loss.

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One day I will write up an actual conspiracy theory article myself. I’ve made a start on a couple, but with the case of 9/11 in particular, I find myself getting bogged down in some really complex and intricate arguments. For now, I’m just putting this up here as a placeholder.

To summarise, though, my position is that the standard, widely held explanation for the events of September 11th 2001 is by far the most likely scenario. It was an attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda, orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, in which a group of Muslim extremists engaged in suicide missions, forcibly taking control of four commercial airliners mid-flight and attempting to crash them into strategic locations, with the aim of causing terror and destruction. The US government did not know about the plot ahead of time, and was not involved in its execution. The twin towers weren’t lined with explosives. The planes weren’t really missiles in hologram disguises. There is no good reason to suppose the existence of any conspiracy beyond that conducted by bin Laden and a bunch of dedicated religious fanatics in a cave somewhere.

I plan to look at some of the truthers’ arguments in the future. For now, these guys pretty much seem to have it covered:

Debunking 9/11 does exactly what it says on the tin, with crazy thoroughness and rigour and brilliance.
911Myths also answers a lot of supposedly probing questions often asked about many aspects of the attacks.

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You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– Inigo Montoya

This is a staple of pseudoscience. Not quoting The Princess Bride – everyone does that too much, regardless of their scientific credibility. I mean anomaly hunting. But the anomalies that woo-mongers think they’re looking for often aren’t anomalous in any useful, scientific sense of the word.

A scientific anomaly is a fact that is strange or unusual, in that it doesn’t fit into the model suggested by a particular theory. It’s some piece of data which genuinely oughtn’t to be there, if our present understanding is completely correct.

A scientific anomaly is emphatically not any event or occurrence that makes you go, “Oooh, that’s spooky“.

For instance. If biologists ever observed a modern chimpanzee giving birth to human offspring, that would be an anomaly totally irreconcilable with the current theory of evolution. This is true despite the persistently ignorant insistence of some creationists, who think that this is exactly what would be needed to finally prove Darwin right. Similarly, a verifiable discovery of those famous rabbits in the Precambrian would be entirely anomalous, and could not be accounted for within evolution.

If psychics exist, they would presumably be able to demonstrate their powers under controlled experimental conditions. If their rate of success at telling me what number I’m thinking of was sufficiently above what you’d expect from chance guesswork, then this would be an anomalous result, incompatible with the current scientific worldview which does not admit psychic powers. So, we would need to update our picture of the universe to accommodate this. This kind of anomaly can’t simply be left hanging.

One real anomaly, which intruded into astronomy in the mid-19th century, concerned the orbit of the planet Uranus. We had a wonderful theory of how everything in the solar system moved, and could predict where all the known planets would be at future times with fantastic accuracy, using Newton’s law of gravitation. But Uranus wasn’t quite behaving. People had checked and double-checked the numbers, but the seventh planet was definitely wandering very slightly off course, if the information they were plugging into the calculations was right.

So, this anomaly prompted people to start wondering what was going on that we weren’t seeing. For the most part, we had a pretty good theory going, and it turned out that it could be saved if we supposed that there was another planet further out, tugging on Uranus’ orbit a little with its gravitational pull. Then the numbers would all work beautifully again.

Crucially, though, they weren’t just assuming that some other massive body must exist out there, because the theory just had to be true. They were refining the theory, adding new elements to it, and in so doing they made a new prediction, by which they could test whether the new version of the theory was any good. Theories do that. If it can’t predict specific future observations, it ain’t a theory. And in this case, the Newtonian model of the solar system predicted a new planet of a specific mass, in a specific place, with a specific orbit.

They worked out where it should be, aimed their telescopes thataway, and, lo and behold: Neptune.

So, looking for anomalies and ways to account for them can be productive. But if you go chasing after things that aren’t truly anomalies in this sense, you’re not going to be doing anything as awesome as finding new planets. It just becomes pseudoscience.

The kinds of anomalies that some people go hunting for don’t hint at improvements to good scientific theories, but consist simply of any result which stands out in some way. Anything that looks a bit weird can be seen as an “anomaly” – even though weirdness is often a fundamental and entirely expected feature of the universe. Not every theory should be expected to immediately explain every observation. To suggest that a theory needs to be entirely thrown out, and replaced with some entirely new paradigm, is a common overreaction to one small “anomaly” being found.

So, when anomaly hunters approach an idea that’s actually pretty solid and widely accepted – say, that 9/11 was perpetrated by a band of Islamic extremists, or that ghosts don’t exist – they might pick up on some small factors that seem at first glance not to fit perfectly with the established explanation – say, that “fire can’t melt steel”, or that there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – and use these to call the established explanation into question. The very fact that anomalies exist – in this sense of strange-seeming things that can’t be immediately explained – is held up as evidence of the weakness of the prevailing theory.

But it may well easily be shown, with a little more work, that the prevailing theory is entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen – say, by slowly explaining how chemistry works, or by just growing up. These aren’t genuine anomalies, in that they don’t really need any new phenomena to be invoked to explain them. They fit just fine into a description of the world that we already have.

The kinds of anomalies that people latch onto might be things that we really don’t know the answer to, and can’t explain with certainty to everyone’s absolute satisfaction. But y’know, those are actually okay too. The unknown is pretty consistent with a lot of good ideas. Failing to absolutely nail every single detail of everything that’s going on is not scientifically anomalous at all. There’s no problem if it’s just an uncertainty; it’s only when something is truly inexplicable that your theory needs to be re-worked.

Every so often, a person might see some strange-looking lights in the sky which they can’t accurately identify. These reports are exactly the types of anomalies that UFO-enthusiasts go hunting for, but they’re not comparable to the problem with the orbit of Uranus. There’s nothing about a world free from alien visitors which implies that everyone will know exactly what they’re looking at every single time they spot a thing in the air. People occasionally squinting up at the sky and going “Wassat? I dunno… some geese maybe? Helicopter?” doesn’t undermine the skeptical position, because that could easily happen if there weren’t any aliens around. It would take much more than that – a genuine scientific anomaly, entirely lacking in plausible naturalistic explanations – before their case is supported.

This actually relates to Ockham’s razor, which I’ve apparently neglected to provide its own entry yet. These supposed “anomalies” are often held up as being evidence of some new and strange phenomenon, but if that phenomenon is something completely unproven, then a more mundane explanation might be far more reasonable to assume, even if we can’t be sure of all the details. There was no plausible mundane explanation – one that didn’t introduce some new assumption – as to why Uranus’ orbit shouldn’t fit the calculations; but people thinking they see stuff in the sky can easily be explained without bringing aliens into the equation. The Moon confuses some people. We know that boring stuff is often what causes these things. Saying that it might do so again, even without absolute proof, isn’t much of a stretch.

To see someone getting this particular point really wrong, check out Steve Novella‘s blog on this topic, in the section where he mentions Richard Hoagland. The “anomalies” that guy finds have only the flimsiest connection to his pet crazy ideas, and have very easy explanations already that don’t require massive leaps of logic to some totally new concept. When you have to invent vast alien civilisations and sinister, all-encompassing government cover-ups to account for the fact that there’s no other evidence for what you’re saying… at what point do you decide that maybe some mountains just happened to make a kinda interesting shape that one time? It’s a quirk, but not an anomaly.

Exploring the limits of a prevailing scientific theory’s power to explain the available evidence is one thing. But anomaly hunting, tracking down any slightly funny-looking result or interesting quirk of data, and using it to bolster the standing of your alternative hypothesis, however tenuous the connection might be, regardless of whether it matches with any of your own predictions, and without exhaustively checking whether it can be reconciled with the original theory, is not good science. It’s a wander into crazyville.

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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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