What a conspiracy theorist president means Part 2 – Amanda Marcotte interviews me for Salon

Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve enjoyed reading since her days at Pandagon, was curious about what having a CT president might mean. For some crazy reason, she thought she should ask me about it. Briefly, I tried to summarize the patterns of thought conspiracy theorists engage in, their willingness to accept any belief if confirmatory of their guiding ideology, and their tendency to project their own darkest behaviors onto others. Overall, I thought she provided a great summary of the problem. My only critique would be it’s not all doom and gloom.

One thing we talked about that didn’t make it to the article but is worth mentioning is that America has had really, really bad leadership in the past. For those of you who may want a deeper history of stupid, incompetent, small-minded, bigoted and conspiratorial American political, religious and social movements, I recommend Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer for non-fiction, it is an illuminating history of our stupid politics and stupid politicians over the preceding 200 years.

Ultimately, the book is reassuring, our system has sustained significant stresses before (don’t take that to suggest I endorse testing it like this monster surely will). Despite decades of small-minded, ignorant bigots dominating the discourse of our country, the Republic survives; almost as if our founders were clever people who could predict the dangers of demagoguery and illiberal democracy. The history we learn in school is one viewed through rose-tinted glasses, glossing over not just the endless injustices, but also the rank cupidity of our leadership. Most people have the sense that most, if not all of our presidents have been wise, or at least qualified men, with a couple of glaring exceptions. In fact one point Hofstadter makes is that since the founders, our country’s leadership has been in steep intellectual decline, and even the founders themselves were susceptible to attacks of controversy, conspiracy and demagogy. It sounds unbelievable, but even in 1796, people attacked Jefferson for being a wishy-washy intellectual. Hoffstadter quotes a pamphlet released by William Loughton Smith against Jefferson:

The characteristic traits of a philosopher, when he turns politician are timidity, whimsicalness, and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man; a proneness to predicate all his measures on certain abstract theories, things and circumstances; an intertness of mind, as applied to governmental policy, a wavering of disposition when great and sudden emergencies demand promptness of decision and energy of action.

You heard it right. Jefferson was “low energy”. If not for the presence of grammar and coherence, this could have been written by our president elect. Hofstadter describes how shortly after the founding of the country, we fell into the politics all of us recognize and love today:

The shabby campaign against Jefferson, and the the Alien and Sedition Acts, manifested the treason of many wealthy and educated Federalists against the cultural values of tolerance and freedom. Unfortunately, it did not follow that more popular parties under Jeffersonian or Jacksonian leadership could be counted on to espouse these values. The popular parties themselves eventually became the vehicles of a kind of primitivist and anti-intellectualist populism hostile to the specialist, the expert, the gentleman, and the scholar.

The ensuing chapters, a history of political movements and their incessant hostility to intellectualism, education, experience, expertise, and liberal values of equality and tolerance, show that if anything, the president-elect is a more typical of American presidents than he is not. The story is of an endless cycle of smart, forward thinking intellectuals and movements of all political persuasions, being torn down, routinely and predictably, by populists espousing bigotry, hatred of elites, and suspicion of education and intelligence.

My personal belief is that the last 60 or so years were the aberration; what little respect we’ve shown for knowledge, scientific progress and expertise was kickstarted by the national fear of Sputnik, and the sudden implication of national survival being dependent on having a thriving educated and technological class. With the end of the cold-war, and our current greatest enemy an anti-modern movement of antediluvian religious fanatics, the pressure to maintain an intellectual elite has waned.

The anti-intellectual populists are back to their same old games – demonizing experience in government, attacking our universities as dens of liberals feminizing our good young men, and electing to power the bigoted dregs of our business class. Despite the technical nature of our current greatest challenge – that of global climate change – the perceived need for technically-competent, scientifically-literate and intellectually sound governance has disappeared. Partly this is due to the anti-intellectual climate denialist movement, which has convinced our morbidly-incurious president elect that climate science is little more than a political game being played by socialist nerds, possibly at the behest of China. But this is also due to the fact that Democrats failed to make the case the climate change, or really that any science was important during this election, and the media happily ignored such real issues to chase meaningless scandal. One question was asked about climate change during the debates and we spent the next week jubilant because the questioner was wearing a red sweater. We don’t have good science debate because we allow ourselves to be distracted from the issues. The Office of Technology Assessment is no more, meanwhile Al Gore invented the internet, John Kerry is an effete wimp, and misuse of email is the only disqualifying sin for a presidential candidate.

In all the finger-pointing after the election no single reason is satisfactory to explain why we have once again devolved into the populist bigotry which was for so long our normal. It is clear though, the electorate no longer feels the expert class shares their values or their interests. While electing a kakistocracy is not a rational solution to that problem, they felt they had no other choice, they weren’t being listened to, a significant portion of the population is not satisfied with government by a competent, professional intellectual like Obama or the obstinate, do-nothing Republican opposition. This is the most important lesson for those who wish for a government by thoughtful experts to return. We can not make the coming political struggle about the man, the personality, the corruption, or the bigotry. Clearly, these were not obstacles to the president-elect’s success. There is no reason to think that in four years this will be any different. The electorate clearly likes or at least tolerates these personality flaws because they perceive the president elect cares about them. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant.

Luigi Zingales wrote a compelling piece in the NYT laying out the best shot for a successful strategy and it’s based on the long series of failures in stopping Trump’s Italian analogue, Silvio Berlusconi. Repeatedly his opponents tried to make it about the man, and failed, because they couldn’t get past that his supporters just did not care that he was a terrible, terrible person. They still liked him.

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

And an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.

Instead Zingales emphasizes Berlusconi’s only electoral losses came from opponents who made elections about the issues, not the man:

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

We should not forget that the president-elect’s nomination was a rejection of Republicans and their strategy of obstinance just as his election was a rejection of Democrats, and their supposed identity politics. That this election represents rejection of reason, science, tolerance and decency is now moot, Democrats failed to convince enough of the electorate their policies would actually be superior for them personally. They failed to make the case for science, for climate realism, or that solutions to these problems can be of benefit to ordinary people. This should not have been hard. It should not be difficult to convince people their underpaid jobs for dangerous, polluting industries can be replaced with something better, nor should it be challenging to explain why protecting wages, workers, environments and communities is a bad thing, but the Democrats barely tried to make this election a case for economic progress, technological advancement and environmental protection.

The solution will be candidates who effectively make the case that government by the competent, the learned, and the experienced can be of palpable benefit to ordinary voters – not just an expression of right and moral thinking. And should that be so much to ask?

So, you've elected a conspiracy theorist

I’ve not written about this election believing the flaws of the Republican candidate were pretty obvious; further litigating his failures as a candidate is now moot, he is now the president-elect of the United States. However, it is worth discussing what this administration will now bring given what we know about how conspiracy theorists behave and I believe our experience with conspiracy theorists and denialists gives some insight into what we can expect from a conspiracy theorist (CT) politician. There are some questions that may be answered and may help the scientific community develop strategies to respond to unique challenges of the leadership of our country now being dominated by those who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth. So, what can we expect from a CT administration? Have there been previous examples that can guide us on what to expect? What type of impact will this have on funding for various agencies, both scientific and regulatory, that study and implement such policies? How will they operate their administration? What types of mistakes will they make? How can we mitigate, and possibly litigate for the advantage of the sciences and scientific progress?

The most important thing to realize about CTs is that they project their worst impulses onto others. Over the years studying denialists and CTs the pattern that emerges over and over is that they routinely commit the wrongs do what they accuse others of doing. The way the CT believes the world works, and how power is wielded, is how they would wield power if they were in control. Take, for example, Mike Adams, regarded by some skeptics as the internet’s number one crank for his work at Natural News. Adams routinely accuses medical doctors and scientists of crimes against humanity, selling medications which do not work and only make us sicker etc. However, a brief foray into his activities show that he is the one who recommends obviously useless medical therapies for profit and incites violence. After studying CTs for years, one sees this behavior replicated again and again, the projection of the CTs own worst behaviors onto others. Need more examples? Look no further than Mike’s competition for number one internet crank Alex Jones, who shouts to the heavens over unending lying by politicians and the media while peddling in an unending torrent of false stories and lies, including Sandy Hook truthism, 9/11 truth, chemtrails, and whatever other conspiratorial nonsense he can find. No national tragedy can occur without Alex Jones instantly inventing a CT narrative from whole cloth, with no evidence, yet everyone else is the liar. His list of beliefs reads like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and there is ample evidence our president-elect goes to him for news.

So far the empirical evidence assembled by journalists like Kurt Eichenwald suggest the president-elect is no different. Almost every single thing he has claimed about his opponent more accurately described how he ran his business and his life, including crooked business deals, a self-enriching charity, mass deletion of emails in violation of court orders, and an astounding record assembled by fact checkers this year of unending lies for political gain. His opponent’s crimes were actually his crimes. We should not be surprised. The fact that he is conspiracy theorist told us everything we needed to know. It told us he would be promiscuous in his beliefs, unskilled or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, and willing to believe and promote any falsehood if consistent with his ideological bent. That his prevailing ideology seems to only be “I am great” makes me wonder if the secret to his support is just to stroke his ego, and he’ll promote whatever nonsense you like.

What will this mean for the incoming administration? Like most CTs he will be unwilling to tolerate dissent, yet will tolerate almost any kind of madness from those individuals that agree with him. This will be no “Team of Rivals”, this will be a true basket of deplorables. What will be assembled is an administration of similarly factually-deranged crank sycophants who will harbor any number of absurd beliefs consistent with crank magnetism, but who will otherwise be tolerated by their boss no matter what they do, as long as they maintain loyalty to, and stroke the ego of, the president. Evidence suggests this is already happening as he has named a climate denialist to head his EPA transition team from the ideologically deranged Conservative Enterprise Institute – CEI being a bogus “think tank” that presents ideological anti-science as some kind of academic endeavor. These people are the classic example of the fake expert – an agent who has no actual expertise in science or policy but who does share your ideology and a semblance of academic legitimacy with which they can give your BS a patina of truthiness.

Is there any upside to this? Or is this all bad news? What is the upside to hiring criminally-incompetent non-scientists into positions of power? Well for one thing, the spoils system does not change the fundamental institutional structure of these agencies, the hard-working people and scientists who work for the EPA or NIH or NSF will not simply turn around on a dime and accept this nonsense, they will buck against incompetent leadership and still try to accomplish their mission. The bureaucracy is not so easy to replace and only a minority of positions at the top of agencies tend to be political appointments. Second, the people he appoints will truly be criminally-incompetent. I have little doubt that we will find his administration immediately trying to abuse power, criminally, almost the instant they take over. If we are vigilant, and anticipate the type of abuses which will be typical to such actors we should be able to use the institutions of government designed to prevent abuse to limit their damage. I fully expect the same type of self-dealing, self-enriching and fraudulent behavior that have typified his business career to extend directly into the white house. This is the hysterical error that those that want people with “business experience” to run government make. You doom yourself to incompetent leadership because government is not a business and it can’t realistically be turned into one. It is a fool’s errand, and all they will do is run afoul of the built-in protections of our institutions that are designed to prevent people from behaving like petty tyrants.

After all we do have one example in our history of a CT-lead government and that was Richard Nixon. He, however, lived in a time where the loud proclamation of his anti-Semitic conspiratorial beliefs about Jews and the media would actually result in some kind of backlash, while the current candidate ended his campaign with an ad directly alluding to a Jewish banking conspiracy. Instead we know about Nixons behavior from recordings at the time which captured his paranoia and despicable beliefs. Similarly Nixon surrounded himself with loyalists who adhered to the same ideology, and whatever other foibles they had were then forgiven. It was Nixon, after all, who in recordings could be heard suggesting “why don’t we just use the bomb on north Vietnam” and had to be talked down by then secretary of state Kissinger. Conspiracy theorists are not the type of people you want running government. They are quite mad, and dangerous. But they also tend to commit the very crimes they are always accusing others of committing, and indeed, Nixon was ultimately caught in a criminal conspiracy (there’s a difference!) to undermine his political opponents.

So, a piece of advice from another Mark so long ago applies, and we should enter the next 4 years with it in mind at all times. Follow the money.

P.S. It looks like its time for me to start writing more consistently. More to come.

It's Been 50 Years, Time to Drop The Conspiracy Theories

Today, newspapers including the NYT and WaPo are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death both on their front pages and opinion pages I was thinking if it’s finally time to confront one of the most persistent, and widespread conspiracy theories out there – that of a larger conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination.

However, I’m not interested in addressing specific allegations of the conspiracy theorists, as Fred Kaplan does or Vincent Bugliosi in his thorough debunking of JFK conspiracies and Oliver Stone’s absurd JFK.(If you can find it it’s great: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy) While Bugliosi’s book is excellent, I can save your 50 bucks and hours of reading by summing up the central point – Conspiracy theorists have consistently fabricated, misrepresented, or misunderstood the relevant evidence to serve their interests, time and time again. And why should we be surprised? In our years of interacting with conspiracies from 9/11 truth to birtherism, the pattern is always the same. First comes the conclusion, then the evidence is bent, cherry-picked, falsified, or invented from whole cloth to fit that conclusion. Whether it’s changing the position of the occupants of the car to create a bizarre ballistic trajectory, showing the undamaged side of a bullet in a photograph to suggest it was undamaged after its recovery, wrongly suggest Oswald or similarly competent shooter could not make the shot despite replication of the act and even improvement on his time and accuracy by other shooters, or any of the various tenuous links that show ties between Oswald and the CIA or the Soviets or the mafia or whatever, it’s the same problem we’ve always seen with conspiratorial thinking. The only data that are incorporated are those that are convenient to the theory, and, in 50 years, there does not exist a solid, well-proven alternative explanation of the assassination or Oswald’s involvement that explain the data.

We’ve seen 9 presidents since then, the fall of the soviet union, the advent of more modern forensic and technological analysis, and the evidence still overwhelmingly shows that Oswald, a Marxist, failed defector, crackpot and loser, bought a cheap rifle, made a failed attempt to assassinate Edwin Walker, successfully shot the president and wounded Governor John Connally, was seen leaving the scene, while fleeing got in an altercation with a police officer, who he shot in front of multiple witnesses, and was ultimately apprehended within hours by police. While his motivations will never be certain, his links to various governments, spy agencies, or criminal organizations remain unproven.

Despite 50 years, multiple changes of administrations, governments, investigations and re-investigations, there is still no better explanation than that a solitary loser shot a powerful, important man, because he wanted to make a statement, or because he could.

You understand the motivation of the conspiracy theorists in this case. It’s such an unsatisfactory and disturbing revelation. Even small men, men like Oswald, can have a dramatic impact on history. And as we’ve seen in intervening decades various examples of actual government conspiracies, from anti-Castro assassination attempts to Iran-Contra, it seems like such a behavior is within the capacity of our government. Critically, this argument fails for three reasons. One, the government, as demonstrated by the common knowledge of these supposedly secret activities is completely incapable of keeping anything secret for anything but short periods of time, and certainly a secret as big as an internecine assassination by agents of our government would be virtually impossible to conceive, plan, or subsequently cover-up. Second, the physical evidence tying Oswald to the shooting is incontravertible, it was his rifle, his ammunition (also tied to the Walker attempt), his workplace, he was seen entering and fleeing the scene, and even shot a police officer in his attempt to flee. Third, the idea that anyone would rely on Oswald as an assassin is ludicrous. He wasn’t some professional receiving guidance or pay from some well-equipped or funded organization. He bought a cheap rifle from a mail-order catalog, not because it would hide his tracks, but because he couldn’t afford better (and it was tracked right back to him despite his attempt at using an alias). He wasn’t even clever enough to arrange a straw purchase. He was a rabid Marxist and anti-fascist, not the type the CIA would employ to lick stamps, let alone carry out the highest-profile assassination in history.

After 50 years where is the solid data the conspiracy theorists have? Is Oliver Stone’s JFK their best effort? If so then all they have is the story of a loony, homophobic southern prosecutor/media whore, whose failed attempts to link a presidential assassination to an unfortunate, and innocent businessman in New Orleans was glorified by the film-maker rather than condemned for being the worst kind of bigotry and incompetence. Jim Garrison is a dubious character to hang your hat on, with a prosecutorial career only exceptional for accusing dozens of people of various crimes, using dubious witnesses, and with no successful prosecutions (unless you count the one against him for defamation). His conspiracy theory was similarly ludicrous and tied together so many groups and agencies (from Earl Warren to NASA) the idea it could remain secret for 2 hours defies belief.

What else is there? In 50 years, what solid evidence of anyone but Oswald being involved is left? What incontrovertible data has arisen in 5 decades that is more plausible than Oswald as the shooter? Is it time to stop tolerating our nation’s most socially-acceptable, loony conspiracy theory?

What is at the root of denial? A Must Read from Chris Mooney in Mother Jones

Chris Mooney has been exploring the basic underpinnings of denialism lately, with this latest article a good summary of the basic problems:

In a recent study of climate blog readers, Lewandowksy and his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of being a climate change denier is having a libertarian, free market world view. Or as Lewandowsky put it in our interview, “the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their worldview or their ideology.” This naturally lends support to the “motivated reasoning” theory—a conservative view about the efficiency of markets impels rejection of climate science because if climate science were true, markets would very clearly have failed in an very important instance.

But separately, the same study also found a second factor that was a weaker, but still real, predictor of climate change denial—and also of the denial of other scientific findings such as the proven link between HIV and AIDS. And that factor was conspiracy theorizing. Thus, people who think, say, that the Moon landings were staged by Hollywood, or that Lee Harvey Oswald had help, are also more likely to be climate deniers and HIV-AIDS deniers.

This is similar to what we’ve been saying for years. Ideology is at the heart of antiscience, (yes even liberal ideology) and when in conflict with science will render the ideologue incapable of rational evaluation of facts. The more extreme the ideology, the more likely and more severe the divergence from science. Then there is the separate issue of cranks who have a generalized defect in their reasoning abilities, are generally incompetent at recognizing bad ideas, often believing conflicting theories simultaneously, and are given to support any other crank who they feel is showing science is somehow fundamentally wrong. This is the “paranoid style”, it’s well-described, and likely, irreversible. However, more run-of-the-mill denialism should be preventable.

We’ve discussed this extensively in regards to research by Dan Kahan, although I have disagreed with this jargon of motivated reasoning. Chris, however, knows what they’re referring to with their fancified science-speak, ideology is at the root of denial.

Recognizing that the problem of anti-science is not one of a lack of information, or of education, or of framing is of paramount concern. This is a problem with humans. This is the way we think by default. People tend to arrive at their beliefs based on things like their upbringing, their religion, their politics, and other unreliable sources. When opinions are formed based on these deeply-held beliefs or heuristics, all information subsequently encountered is either used to reinforce this belief, or is ignored. This is why studies showing education doesn’t work, the more educated the partisan is on a topic, the more entrenched they become. You can’t inform or argue your way out of this problem, you have to fundamentally change the way people reason before they form these fixed beliefs.

Scientific reasoning and pragmatism is fundamentally unnatural and extremely difficult. Even scientists, when engaged in a particular nasty internal ideological conflict, have been known to deny the science. This is because when one’s ideology is challenged by the facts you are in essence creating an existential crisis. The facts become an assault on the person themselves, their deepest beliefs, and how they perceive and understand the world. What is done in this situation? Does the typical individual suck it up, and change, fundamentally, who they are as a person? Of course not! They invent a conspiracy theory as to why the facts have to be wrong. They cherry pick the evidence that supports them, believe any fake expert that espouses the same nonsense and will always demand more and more evidence, never being satisfied that their core beliefs might be wrong. This is where “motivated reasoning” comes from. It’s a defense of self from the onslaught of uncomfortable facts. Think of the creationist confronted with a fossil record, molecular biology, geology, physics, and half a dozen other scientific fields, are they ever convinced? No, because it’s all an atheist conspiracy to make them lose their religion.

How do we solve this problem?

First we have to recognize it for what it is, as Mooney and others have done here. The problem is one of human nature. Engaging in denialism doesn’t have to mean you’re a bad person, or even being purposefully deceptive (although there are those that have that trait), the comparison to holocaust denial, always a favorite straw man of the denialist, is not apt. Denialism in most people is a defense mechanism that protects their core values from being undermined by reality. And no matter what your ideology, at some point, you will have a conflict with the facts because no ideology perfectly describes or models all of reality. You are going to come into conflict with the facts at some point in your life no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. The question is, what will you do when that conflict arises? Will you entrench behind a barrier of rhetoric, or will you accept that all of us are flawed, and our beliefs at best can only provide an approximation of reality – a handy guide but never an infallible one?

Second, we have to develop strategies towards preventing ideological reaction to science and recognize when people are reacting in an irrational fashion to an ideological conflict with science. One of my commenters pointed me to this paper, which describes an effective method to inoculate people against conspiratorial thinking. Basically, if you warn people ahead of time about conspiratorial craziness, they will be more likely to evaluate the claims of conspiracists with higher skepticism. We should encourage skeptical thinking from an early age, and specifically educate against conspiratorial thinking, which is a defective mode of thinking designed to convince others to act irrationally (and often hatefully). When we do see conspiracy, we shouldn’t dismiss it as harmless, the claims need to be debunked, and the purveyors of conspiracy theories opposed and mocked. Before anyone ever reads a line of Alex Jones, or Mike Adams, a training in skepticism could provide protection, and with time, the paranoid style will hold less and less sway. People primed to expect conspiratorial arguments will be resistant, and more skeptical in general. The Joneses, Moranos, and the Adamses of the world don’t have the answers, they know nothing, and their mode of thought isn’t just wrong, but actively poisonous against rational thought. As skeptical writers we should educate people in a way that protects them from their inevitable encounter with such crankery. This is why writers like Carl Sagan are so important with his (albeit incomplete) Baloney Detection Kit. He knew that you have to prepare people for their encounters with those with an ideological agenda, that others will bend the truth and deny the science for selfish reasons.

This is what is at the heart of true skepticism. First, understanding that you can be wrong, in fact you will often be wrong, and all you can do is follow the best evidence that you have. It’s not about rejecting all evidence, or inaction from the constantly-moved goalposts of the fake skeptics. It’s about pragmatism, thoughtfulness, and above all humility towards the fact that none of us has all the answers. Second, it’s understanding not all evidence is created equal. Judging evidence and arguments requires training and preparation as recognizing high-quality evidence and rational argument is not easy. In fact, most people are woefully under-prepared by their education to do things like read and evaluate scientific papers or even to just judge scientific claims from media sources.

Thus I propose a new tactic. Let’s get Carl Sagan’s Baloney detection kit in every child’s hands by the time they’re ten. Hell, it should be part of the elementary school curriculum. Lets hand out books on skepticism like the Gideons hand out Bibles. Let’s inoculate people against the bullshit they’ll invariably contract by the time they’re adults. We can even do tests to see what type of skeptical inoculation works best at protecting people from anti-science. It’s a way forward to make some progress against the paranoid style, and the nonsense beliefs purveyed by all ideological extremes. There is no simple cure, but we can inoculate the young, and maybe control the spread of the existing disease.

Why we should be concerned Tamerlan Tsaernev read Infowars

I’ve recently written about the relationship between conspiracy theories and hate speech. Too often, conspiracy theories are used to justify irrational hate for one group or another, and to direct anger over lack of control of one’s life onto a group the conspiracist ideologically opposes. Historical examples include the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or blood libel and more modern examples include everything from the racist birther allegations that our president isn’t American, the homosexual agenda, and the rabid anti-government conspiracy theories advanced by lunatics like Alex Jones, and Glenn Beck. Beck, astonishingly, made the assertion that it must be a foreign terrorist behind the Boston bombings because American terrorists only attack the government, they don’t attack streets full of people.

Think about that for a minute. Ignore, for the moment, the obvious factual inaccuracy of the statement given the homegrown terrorists that have bombed abortion clinics, churches, planes, the Olympics, or schools. Think about what Glenn Beck is saying. He’s saying that previous terrorists who have targeted the government, like for instance Timothy McVeigh, weren’t targeting people in their attacks. They were targeting government. Never mind that at OKC Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, including 19 children under 6, and injured 680. Those weren’t people. They were “the government”. This man is sick.

Enter Alex Jones, who has never had a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, from moon-landing conspiracies to constant (and hilariously false) predictions of impending government collapse, government assassinations, terror attacks, monetary collapse, or whatever seems to spring into his mind from moment to moment. A compendium of his hilariously-false predictions is a fascinating watch:

(thanks to Ed Brayton

By their fruits you shall know them.

Why should we be at all surprised that someone as full of hate as Tamerlan Tsaernev was a believer in a host of conspiracy theories:

It’s not particularly surprising that Tsarnaev would be drawn to a wide range of conspiracy theories, as research shows that people prone to believing one conspiracy theory will likely believe many — even if they’re completely contradictory. And he fits a profile of a type of person likely to be drawn to conspiratorial thinking, considering he was allegedly alienated from and disgruntled with society.

On top of Jones and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, we have to add the one that seems to be the most important of all: The kind of anti-American conspiracy theories pushed by Islamists. For instance, the Washington Post reports that the brothers were apparently motivated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers there. As with many conspiracy theories, there is a grain of truth here — American soldiers really have done some horrible things in those countries. But Tsarnaev went beyond the evidence by telling people that “in Afghanistan, most casualties are innocent bystanders killed by American soldiers.” In fact, according to the U.N., the Taliban is responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths — 81 percent in 2012.

Anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are foundational to al-Qaida and other radical groups’ ideologies, according to Matthew Gray, a professor at Australian National University who wrote in his book “Conspiracy Theories in the Arab World,” that ”the speeches of Osama Bin Laden are peppered with conspiracist language and the assumptions that underline conspiracism.”

Indeed, conspiracy theories are hardly unique to the United States and often run rampant in the Muslim world, as Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in the New Republic, and seem to be especially strong among Islamists. A 2011 Pew poll of residents of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and Indonesia found that the vast majority refused to believe that Arabs executed the terrorist attack on 9/11. “There is no Muslim public in which even 30 percent accept that Arabs conducted the attack,” the study found.

From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to 9/11 truth, to Alex Jones Infowars, Tamerlan was a promiscuous-believer in conspiracy theories, and his younger brother, from his Twitter account, appears to also be a CT proponent of 9/11 truth.

While the right would like to blame the behavior of these individuals on radical Islam, I’d like to propose a different source of radical, and hateful behavior. I would suggest we consider that conspiratorial thinking might be behind this type of group violence. As the Salon article mentions, one of the major propaganda elements of groups like Al Qaeda are conspiracies about the US, about Jews, about Israel, about anyone who they believe is their enemy. Conspiracy theories are often a reflection of a feeling of powerlessness, and those who are more likely to believe them are reacting a world which is often disordered, and out-of-control. The conspiracy theory is a simplistic explanation for one’s troubles, and usually incorporate one’s irrational, tribal, or bigoted beliefs about the world.

But while conspiracy theories might make people feel better about an out-of-control world, as it gives them the false perception that they (and no one else) really knows what’s going on, at the same time they feed back on themselves and reinforce that very sense of powerlessness. If democratic government is just a sham, the US is imminently about to round us up and put us in FEMA camps, or kill us with a billion DHS bullets, your supposed grasp of the problem does nothing to solve it. It only further shows how helpless you are to do anything. What are the solutions the conspiracists fall back on? Arming yourself, doomsday prepping, and detachment from society, especially all those stupid sheeple (it’s amazing how often Jones calls his audience stupid!), is the solution. Civil society, voting, community, charity, and collective action aren’t the solution. It’s guns, and isolation.

Should we then be surprised when individuals influenced by these conspiracy theories resort to violence? Should we be surprised that when people are told the political process is a sham, the government is killing us at will, and everyone else who doesn’t believe this is stupid, that they then go out and target government, and other citizens, and cops, indiscriminately? Isn’t this just conspiracy theorists, like Jones, and Al Qaeda for that matter, just reaping what they sow?

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the usual actors came out of the woodwork to ghoulishly use human suffering to advance their agenda, whether it was attacking government, or blaming abortion, people who knew nothing and cared nothing for their fellow citizens sought to use the tragedy to their advantage. The conspiracists, of course, settled on the usual suspects (Beck has his Saudi agent/government conspiracy, Jones and Mike Adams the FBI/government). Not that they had any information that we didn’t. They were pronouncing this nonsense within minutes of the attack. Now that we have some information we know that the two alleged suspects have some pretty damning evidence against them if the timeline is correct. They were both witnessed at the scene with, and then without backpacks. One was filmed dropping a backpack at the scene of the second bomb. Both were filmed coolly-observing the aftermath. They shot one MIT police officer to death, apparently in cold blood. They carjacked an individual who said they identified themselves to him as the Boston Marathon bombers. They had pressure cooker bombs in their apartment. They exploded such a bomb while eluding police, critically injuring another police officer.

This is, to put it mildly, a damning case.

However, the conspiracy theorists have not changed their tune. Beck continues to blame some Saudi national who’s major crime appears to be he happened to be in Boston that day. Jones and infowars continues to blame the FBI, the CIA, anyone, including Sunil Tripathi, the missing student who has been found dead. Likely this will not stop them, they’ll just say that the FBI killed him to keep him quiet, and keep victimizing his poor family, who have suffered enough from the loss of their son. If the analysis reveals he died over a month ago, that won’t stop them either, because who did the analysis? The government! It’s sad, and pathetic, and horrible. They blame the innocent, and further create the impression that in our society there is no justice, the government is the real criminal (and is not composed of living, breathing, human people), anyone who believes otherwise is stupid.

My question is, for those who believe this nonsense, how long until we see another one plant a bomb? For those for who believe they have no political or civil power, isn’t violence the outcome encouraged by this belief?

I think we have to stop just blaming the religious extremism, and start considering the role of conspiratorial extremism in acts of political violence and terror around the world. When you make people feel powerless, and stupid, and excluded from society and participatory democracy, one should not be surprised when they turn to violence and political terrorism. The Tsaernev family insists their children didn’t learn this from them, or in their life abroad, they learned to think this way in America. Maybe they’re right.

Jones’ response that Tamerlan was a fan was typical, another conspiracy as will the responses to whatever I write here I’m sure. I’ll be accused of being paid off, working for the FBI, a shill, whatever. It’s boring, and part of the known self sealing aspect of conspiratorial thinking. Whenever anything conflicts with the predetermined truth, it must be then incorporated into a new, grander conspiracy. One of my commenters joked about this phenomenon:

A group of elderly JFK conspiracy theorists were comparing notes when one of them suddenly had a heart attack. After going through the whole tunnel light scenario he finds himself facing God. He asks “Oh Lord, who really killed JFK?” And God replied “It was Oswald acting alone.” At that point the EMTs were able to jolt him back to life. Later in the hospital with his co-theorists he said in a low voice “The conspiracy is bigger than we thought.”

So on that lighter note, I ask to think about how dismissive we should be of conspiracy theorists. We often treat them as just ridiculous and foolish. But given the historical and modern examples of hatemongering through conspiracy theories, and the conspiratorial beliefs of terrorists from Timothy McVeigh, to Al Qaeda, to the Tsaernevs, maybe we should be looking at the darker side of this behavior. Maybe it’s time to recognize that those who call us stupid, and powerless, and helpless, are the ones encouraging violence as a solution.

Conspiracy Theorists are Just Like the Westboro Baptists

And Alex Jones and Mike Adams are their Fred Phelps. It’s a wonder that Anonymous doesn’t retaliate against these ghouls as well as against Westboro who are planning to picket the Boston Marathon funerals.

Why are the the same thing? Because they’re all ghouls, and they all use any tragic event to bolster their warped, abhorrent world view no matter what the facts are, and no matter how offensive to the victims.

Within minutes, with no one knowing any facts, Jones claims this is a false flag attack. The only appropriate response to an event like this, within the first minutes and hours, is to hope the first responders and emergency personnel can get to and rescue as many as possible. But to the ghoul, every event such as this is another chance to push their agenda of hate. For the Westboro Baptists, similarly not knowing anything, they think this is further evidence that God hates America because we tolerate homosexuality. For the conspiracy theorist, all traumatic events instantly become incorporated into their evidence that the government/FBI/CIA whatever is faking them/planning them to increase their control over us. No matter what the evidence is, or will be, it will just be further sealed into this fixed, false belief. Avicenna at FtB has a good post (warning for graphic images) of examples of how despicable this behavior can be. I think one of the most grotesque acts yet was one of the CTs asking the governor of Massachusetts if this was a false flag. How stupid and awful a person do you have to be to ask that question in the wake of such a tragedy? Here is the governor, trying to address a crisis, and some scumbag is basically asking (1) is the US government randomly murdering innocent US citizens (2) is he in on it? To the governor’s immense credit, he didn’t immediately jump into the crowd and start strangling the questioner. CTs were so awful as to accuse the victims of just being actors, of the whole thing being staged, or the whole thing actually being performed by government (read your fellow US citizens), including Mike Adams’ immediate blaming of the event on government agencies. What is their evidence? They have no evidence. They just hate without reason.

These conspiracy theorists are just another type of hatemonger. This event is just the latest proof. No matter what the reality is, what the facts are, every event just becomes further proof of their warped and hateful world view. Never mind that it casts civil servants and law enforcement as the murderers, the victims as liars, and the rest of us as fools, that’s what they believe. We shouldn’t continue to tolerate this as just fringe wackiness. This is hate mongering, and the worst kind. It’s hate mongering in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, designed to make us hate and fear our fellow citizens, those trying to help us, and those who were hurt the most. It’s hate and divisiveness when we should be pulling together rather than apart. It’s no different from what the Westboro Baptists church does. And Alex Jones and Mike Adams are just like Fred Phelps.

Conspiracy belief prevalence, according to Public Policy Polling is as high as 51%

And it may even be more when one considers that there is likely non-overlap between many of these conspiracies. It really is unfortunate that their isn’t more social pushback against those that express conspiratorial views. Given both the historical and modern tendency of some conspiracy theories being used direct hate towards one group or another (scratch a 9/11 truther and guess what’s underneath), and that they’re basically an admission of one’s own defective reasoning, why is it socially acceptable to espouse conspiracy theories? They add nothing to discussion, and instead hijack legitimate debate because one contributor has abandoned all pretense of using actual evidence. Conspiracy theories are used to explain a belief in the absence of real evidence. Worse, they are so often just a vehicle to direct vitriol and hate. We need less hate and partisanship. We should be able to disagree with a president without saying that he’s part of an agenda21/commoncore/obamacare/nazi/fascist/communist/North Korean conspiracy to make American citizens 3rd world slaves (not an exaggeration). We should be able to disagree with a corporation’s policies without asserting their objective is mass-murder. What is the benefit of this rhetoric? It’s just designed to poison our discourse, and inspire greater partisanship, divisiveness and incivility. Conspiracy theories are often used as a more subtle way to mask vile invective towards whichever group you hate. As you look underneath these theories you see it’s really just irrational hatred for somebody- liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, different races or religions, governments, or even certain professions. This is because at the root of the need for conspiratorial thinking is some irrational, overvalued idea, and often the open expression of the belief would result in social scorn.

I’ve found in my experience, almost everyone carries one really cranky belief that they can’t seem to shake, no matter how evidence-based their other positions are (probably because we are all capable of carrying some overvalued ideas). But it’s worth peering through PPP’s full results to see the nature of some of these associations.

For one, some of these associations I think are spurious, poorly questioned, or just reflect misinformation, rather than conspiracy. For instance:

44% of voters believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War, while 45% disagree. 72% of Democrats believed the statement while 73% of Republicans did not. 22% of Democrats, 33% of Republicans and 28% of independents believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many have questioned the inclusion of this question because, in reality, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq. So the question of whether we were “misled” or “intentionally-misled” puts us in the murky position at having to guess at the motivations of individuals like Bush and Cheney. Mind-reading is a dubious activity, and I tend to ascribe to the Napoleonic belief that you shouldn’t ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence (also known as Hanlon’s razor). Is it conspiratorial to think maybe they were more malicious than incompetent? While I think that administration really were “true believers”, of course I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t think it’s fair to describe such as conspiratorial reasoning. Instead it’s just the dubious but common practice of guessing at the intentions of others. The generally-similar numbers on the Saddam Hussein/9/11 connection, I believe, just suggests ignorance, rather than necessitating active belief in a conspiratorial framework (keeping in mind the margin of error is about 3% these aren’t huge partisan differences like over WMD).

One of the most disappointing numbers was on belief in a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination:

51% of Americans believe there was a larger conspiracy at work in the JFK assassination, while 25% think Lee Harvey Oswald
acted alone.

That’s 51% conspiratorial belief, 24% probably showing ignorance of one of the most important events of the last century, and 25% actually informed. This is pretty sad. The movements of Oswald were so thoroughly-investigated and known, the hard evidence for his planning and involvement are so clear, the conspirators so unlikely (the mob/CIA/LBJ/KGB hiring crackpot loser communists for assassinations?), and the fabrications of the conspiracists so plain (asserting the shots couldn’t be made despite it being easily replicated by everyone from the Warren Commission to the Discovery Channel and even improved on, the disparaging of his marksmanship when LHO was a marine sharpshooter, altering the positions of the occupants of the car to make the bullet path from JFK to Connelly appear unlikely, etc.) it’s sad that so many have bought into this nonsense. The historically-bogus picture JFK, by Oliver Stone, may also play a large part in this, and is an example why Oliver Stone is really a terrible person. People that misrepresent history are the worst. If anyone wants to read a good book about the actual evidence that of what happened that day, as well as destroys the conspiracy position, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi is my favorite, as well as the most thorough.

But there is one redeeming feature of conspiracy about the JFK assassination. For the most part, conspiratorial ideas on the subject aren’t due to some dark part in people’s souls, as for many other conspiracies, but rather the very human need to ascribe more to such earth-shattering events as the assassination of a president than just the madness of a pitiable loser. The imbalance between the magnitude of the event, and the banal crank that accomplished it, is simply too much. There’s no way that a 24-year-old, violent, wife-beating, Marxist roustabout could be responsible for the death of a man like JFK right? Sadly no. The evidence shows even a man that pathetic can destroy the life of a much greater man with a cheap rifle and a simple plan.

The conspiracy theories embedded within this poll that really disturb me because I think they demonstrate the effect of irrational hate are ones such as for whether President Obama is the antichrist (although is that even really a conspiracy?). 13% of respondents believed this, 5% of those that voted for him still answered this question in the affirmative (really? you voted for the antichrist) as opposed to 22% of those that voted for Romney. Do we really need to elevate political disagreement to the level of labeling people the antichrist? Around 9% thought government adds fluoride for “sinister” reasons, and 11% believe in the LIHOP 9/11 conspiracy theory. They clearly think very little of their fellow Americans, and believe some really demonic things about our government. Our government is neither competent enough, or evil enough, to engage in then successfully cover up either of these things. Our top spy couldn’t even hide a tawdry affair.

Other conspiracy theories seem to indicate their is a baseline number of people, at about 15%, who will believe in just about anything from the moon landing being hoaxed to bigfoot. I would have actually pegged this number higher, given my pessimism about rational thought, but that seems to be what we can read from this. However, without being able to see whether or not it was the same people answering yes to each individual absurd conspiracy from reptilians to “government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals”, it’s possible this number is actually much larger. I would be curious to see the data on the overlap between these questions, as the phenomenon of crank magnetism is well known.

Ultimately, I read this data as saying that Americans have a big problem with conspiracy theories entering our political discourse. We should be embarrassed that as many as 37% of us believe that global warming is a “hoax”. That requires a belief is a grand conspiracy of scientists, policy-makers, journals, editors, etc., all acting together to somehow fabricate data for a single objective – often described as world-government control conspiracy to cede our sovereignty to the UN. Somehow, every single national scientific body, all those national academies, all those journals, and all those scientists, all those governments, all working in perfect secrecy according to some master plan (which I’m often accused of being a part of but I’m sure I’m missing the memo), and this is plausible how? The answer is, it’s not, unless you remain steadfastly ignorant of how science actually works and progresses.

Everyone, of any political persuasion, should be embarrassed by the conspiracy-theorists in their ranks. This isn’t healthy thinking, it isn’t rational discourse, and it only serves to divide us and make us hate. Enough of this already.

What happens when you study conspiracy theories? The conspiracy theorists make up conspiracy theories about you!

I’ve known about this effect for a while as I’ve been variously accused of being in the pocket of big pharma, big ag, big science, democrats and republicans etc. Now Stephan Lewandowsky, in follow up to his “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax.” paper, has used these conspiratorial responses to study how conspiracy theorists respond to being studied! It’s called “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation“.

Here’s the abstract:

Conspiracist ideation has been repeatedly implicated in the rejection of scientific propositions, although empirical evidence to date has been sparse. A recent study involving visitors to climate blogs found that conspiracist ideation was associated with the rejection of climate science and the rejection of other scienti c propositions such as the link between lung cancer and smoking, and between HIV and AIDS (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, in press; LOG12 from here on). This article analyzes the response of the climate blogosphere to the publication of LOG12. We identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking. For example, whereas hypotheses were initially narrowly focused on LOG12, some ultimately grew in scope to include actors beyond the authors of LOG12, such as university executives, a media organization, and the Australian government. The overall pattern of the blogosphere’s response to LOG12 illustrates the possible role of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science, although alternative scholarly interpretations may be advanced in the future.

Awesome. It’s actually a great paper, from the introduction discussing Diethelm and Mckee’s work on conspiratorial ideation (who cited us in their original paper), to the comparisons between censorship accusations by diverse anti-science movements from the tobacco/cancer denial to HIV/AIDS denial, Lewandowsky et al., lay the groundwork for understanding this problem as a fundamental characteristic of all anti-science. They even cite a book chapter in which the authors make the link that conspiracies are specifically used to rhetorically challenge science when one lacks adequate data (Lahsen, M. (1999). The detection and attribution of conspiracies: the controversy over Chapter 8. In G. Marcus (Ed.), Paranoia within reason: a casebook on conspiracy as explanation (pp. 111{136). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) I’ll have to look that one up, as that was our primary conclusion about denialism when we started writing about it in 2007.

The authors then go on to the conspiracist reaction to their original paper:

When the article by Lewandowsky et al. became available for download in July-August 2012, the climate denialist blogosphere responded with considerable intensity along several prongs: Complaints were made to the rst author’s university alleging academic misconduct; several freedom-of-information requests were submitted to the author’s university for emails and documents relating to LOG12; multiple re-analyses of the LOG12 data were posted on blogs which purported to show that the e ects reported Recursive fury 8 by LOG12 did not exist; and a number of hypotheses were disseminated on the internet with arguably conspiracist content. This response is not altogether surprising in light of research which has shown that threats – in particular to people’s sense of control – can trigger targeted small-scale conspiracy theories (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008), especially those involving a speci c opponent (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010).

So what does any good scientist who is interested in the empirical study of conspiracy theories do in such a situation? Mine it for data!

The remainder of this article reports a content analysis of the hypotheses generated by the blogosphere to counter LOG12. The extent and vehemence of contrarian activity provided a particularly informative testbed for an analysis of how conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science among web denizens. Unlike previous analyses of web content, the present project was conducted in real time” as the response to LOG12 unfolded, thus permitting a fi ne-grained temporal analysis of the emerging global conversation.

Using google alerts and other strategies they tracked the response to their paper throughout the denialsphere, then evaluated them using 6 criteria to judge whether the author used conspiracist tendencies independent of actual content. These criteria were great, and as I read them I couldn’t help thinking it is really a beautiful summary of the aberrant thought processes of the conspiracist. They were (1) assuming nefarious intent (NI) on the part of their opponent, (2) delusions of persecution including Galileo comparisons (persecution/victimization or PV) -awesome-, (3) a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”/paranoid ideation (NS), (4) an inability to believe in coincidence or “not an accident” (NoA) thinking, (5) toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version (or Must-Be-Wrong MbW), and (6) the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis (SS). This is a really brilliant break down of the behavior if you ask me in particular number 6 which they even provide the perfect example of:

Concerning climate denial, a case in point is the response to events surrounding the illegal hacking of personal emails by climate scientists, mainly at the University of East Anglia, in 2009. Selected content of those emails was used to support the theory that climate scientists conspired to conceal evidence against climate change or manipulated the data (see, e.g., Montford, 2010; Sussman, 2010). After the scientists in question were exonerated by 9 investigations in 2 countries, including various parliamentary and government committees in the U.S. and U. K., those exonerations were re-branded as a whitewash” (see, e.g., U.S. Representative Rohrabacher’s speech in Congress on 8 December 2011), thereby broadening the presumed involvement of people and institutions in the alleged conspiracy. We refer to this “self-sealing” criterion by the short label SS.

At denialism blog we’ve been describing these tactics for years, in particular I feel like the Crank Howto seems to incorporate most of these denialist tactics. In particular, that the authors recognized the persecution complex of the conspiracist is heart warming.

For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there. One of the most fascinating aspects of the evolution of the response was how, predictably, as more information was made available, rather than quashing conspiracies, the conspiracy theorists would just broaden the nefarious actors to larger and larger circles of foes:

Second, self-sealing reasoning also became apparent in the broadening of the scope of presumed malfeasance on several occasions. When ethics approvals became public in response to an FOI request, the presumption of malfeasance was broadened from the authors of LOG12 to include university executives and the university’s ethics committee. Similarly, the response of the blogosphere evolved from an initial tight focus on LOG12 into an increasingly broader scope. Ultimately, the LOG12 authors were associated with global activism, a $6 million media initiative, and government censorship of dissent, thereby arguably connecting the response to LOG12 to the grand over-arching theory that “climate change is a hoax.” Notably, even that grand “hoax” theory is occasionally thought to be subordinate to an even grander theory: one of the bloggers involved in the response to LOG12 (cf. Table 1) considers climate change to be only the second biggest scam in history. The top-ranking scam is seen to be modern currency, dismissed as “government money” because it is not linked to the gold standard

And doesn’t that bring this back beautifully, full-circle, to the author’s original hypothesis in the first paper that free-market extremism is behind global warming denialism?

Finally the authors discuss implications for science communication, and, unlike most people, I think they actually understand the problem. That is, you can’t fix this problem with more communication, and more data. The nature of the conspiracy theorist is that all additional data and all contradictory data will only be used to demonstrate further evidence of conspiracy, that the conspiracy is even larger, or that the data are fraudulent. The “self-sealing” nature of the conspiracy theory, as the authors describe it, makes it fundamentally immune to penetration by logic, reason, or additional information.

Implications for science communication. A de fining attribute of conspiracist ideation is its resistance to contrary evidence (e.g., Bale, 2007; Keeley, 1999; Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009). This attribute is particularly troubling for science communicators, because providing additional scientifi c information may only serve to reinforce the rejection of the evidence, rather than foster its acceptance. A number of such “back fire” e ffects have been identi fied, and they are beginning to be reasonably well understood (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Recursive fury 37 et al., 2012). Although suggestions exist about how to rebut conspiracist ideations|e.g., by indirect means, such as affirmation of the competence and character of proponents of conspiracy theories, or affirmation of their other beliefs (e.g., Sunstein & Vermeule, 2009) we argue against direct engagement for two principal reasons.
First, much of science denial takes place in an epistemically closed system that is immune to falsifying evidence and counterarguments (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012; Kalichman, 2009). We therefore consider it highly unlikely that outreach e fforts to those groups could be met with success. Second, and more important, despite the amount of attention and scrutiny directed towards LOG12 over several months, the publication of recursive hypotheses was limited to posts on only 24 websites, with only 13 blogs featuring more than one post (see Table 1). This indicates that the recursive theories, while intensely promoted by certain bloggers and commenters, were largely contained to the “echo chamber” of climate denial. Although LOG12 received considerable media coverage when it first appeared, the response by the blogosphere was ignored by the mainstream media. This confinement of recursive hypotheses to a small “echo chamber” reflects the wider phenomenon of radical climate denial, whose ability to generate the appearance of a widely held opinion on the internet is disproportionate to the smaller number of people who actually hold those views (e.g., Leviston, Walker, & Morwinski, 2012). This discrepancy is greatest for the small group of people who deny that the climate is changing (around 6% of respondents; Leviston et al., 2012). Members of this small group believe that their denial is shared by roughly half the population. Thus, although an understanding of science denial is essential given the importance of climate change and the demonstrable role of the blogosphere in delaying mitigative action, it is arguably best met by underscoring the breadth of consensus among scientists (Ding, Maibach, Zhao, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2012) rather than by direct engagement.

Don’t argue with cranks. I can’t agree more. And historically this is what has worked with denialist groups. You don’t debate them as if they’re honest brokers, you treat them as the defective brains that they are, and eventually, their influence dwindles, and they’ll be reduced to a small community of losers sharing their delusions of grandeur and righteous indignation in some tiny corner of the internet.

The key to preventing denialism isn’t in arguing with those that have already formed fixed, irrational ideas. It can only happen with prevention – early education that emphasizes logic, scientific methods, rational thought and non-ideological, pragmatic approaches to problem solving.

Did I call this or What? Mike Adams blames medicine for school shooting.

Crazy Luddite Libertarian Mike Adams is following his usual script, ghoulishly using the school shooting in Newton to pillory his usual bogeymen he blames for anything. True to form he is blaming psychiatry and medications for the school shooting. What was it I said yesterday?

At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.

Did I call this or what?

What is really stunning is how the cranks have continuously, and incorrectly flogged the IOM’s “to err is human” study for the last decade. Depending on the crank, they claim the study shows that either doctors or drugs are responsible for 100k deaths a year, but I’m pretty sure no one has actually ever read it. The study actually suggests that medical mistakes may have contributed to between 44-98k deaths a year (they always cite the high end), but, you have to actually look at what the mistakes are. Drug related mistakes or “adverse drug events” were estimated by the IOM to be responsible for 10% of these preventable errors. A large portion of the errors are the failure to intervene or failure in timely diagnosis. Which means, the IOM on review of a hospitalization felt that a death may have been caused by a failure to intervene. In other words, it’s very strange that the cranks use a study to call doctors a killer, when the study actually shows one of the most common medical errors was the failure to medically intervene. For example, such a mistake may be not recognizing a stroke and providing the appropriate medication in time.

The IOM study was meant to show how doctors could do better, that we could implement systems to prevent mistakes that were too common in medical practice. But the cranks wave it around to say, “medicine doesn’t work!” when the study frequently blames the failure to provide an appropriate medical intervention for the deaths. Anyone else see the problem with their logic?

Doctors just can’t win with these people, but that’s ok. We’ll be fine. We have the medications and technology that actually work, and as studies like the IOM’s show, we’re also willing to admit we can do better.

Mike Adams couldn't go 6 hours without promoting an insane conspiracy theory about this school shooting

As anyone who reads my blog or Orac’s knows, Mike Adams, the “health ranger”, is a deranged individual who denies HIV causes AIDS, promotes some of the most absurd quackery in the world, and also is such an all around crank you can rely on him to wax conspiratorial about almost any dramatic news story. He’s done it again, already alleging a conspiracy and coverup in this most recent school shooting, and citing his bizarre conspiracy theories about Aurora as further evidence of these shootings being “staged” by the US government. I wouldn’t suggest clicking the link unless you want to lose several IQ points, and I am not interested in a full repetition of Adams claims here.

Aside from the ghoulish nature of using events such as these to promote one’s bizarre anti-government conspiracy theories, I think this is a case-study on the formation of new conspiracy theories. It is true, in the early attempts at understanding what was happening many different accounts were offered. Watching these horrible events unfold I noticed how at first the media was confused but gradually began to report a more consistent, and terrible picture.

To a sane person, one sees this as the general confusion that results from a “fog of war”. We know that the press is desperately seeking any information that adds to this story, because people are desperate to know what happened? How many were hurt? Is the suspect loose or apprehended? Is this going to keep happening? Will this be the event that finally convinces people to do something about this problem? They also are relying on eye witness reports of individuals who probably only experience a narrow portion of the same events. Eventually the pieces are stitched together, an investigation takes information from all the witnesses and tries to make all the differing accounts mesh. And we know when people are frightened, anything out of the ordinary can and should be reported to make sure every possible lead is followed to its conclusion.

A conspiracist, however, sees this confusion, and rather than seeing a general pattern of natural disorder surrounding such events, sees the hand of whatever bogeyman they truly fear. In this case, Adams pins this on the government, because hey, we all know the government is in control of everything, is completely competent at keeping all secrets, and is apparently is full of people that secretly train madmen to shoot schoolchildren. At some point it is likely he’ll find a way to blame his other favorite bogeymen, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, doctors (especially psychiatrists), and scientists.

I hate writing about events like these before we know all the details, but I also can’t stand just how repugnant a person Mike Adams is, and how objectionable his conspiracy theories are. His hatred of government is so extreme that within hours of any tragedy he’s there, pinning the blame on those who likely are trying to work the hardest to provide aid, help the victims, and identify the culprit. Our government isn’t perfect, but the idea that there’s some agency (Adams suggests it’s the FBI) that routinely, and with no leaks or evidence of its activities, is planning mass murders of American citizens is simply a revolting accusation to pin without overwhelming evidence. And what’s his evidence? The pretty ordinary and expected confusion surrounding a mass shooting. With that, he accuses the government of staging this mass murder. Maybe a second gunman will be found, maybe the witnesses were right, but what evidence would that be that the FBI kills schoolchildren? Plenty of these school shootings in the pasts have been committed with accomplices, and plenty have been done by solo nutjobs.

It’s amazing that anyone reads his site, but then, there will never be a shortage of defective brains that will happily consume Adams’ writing, and give no thought to the total absurdity of the accusations, or the frankly despicable nature of someone who would level them without evidence. Government is not perfect, we shouldn’t really love it, or hate it. Government in the end is just people, just other Americans like us. I have many family members and friends that work in government, many that are part of agencies conspiracy theorists have accused of this and that, and it amazes me that they think that their fellow citizens so frequently, even routinely, kill, poison, or otherwise harm other Americans. That events like these could be staged, and the secrets behind all of our government’s machinations against us kept so perfectly secret is absurd. Our top spy couldn’t even keep where he put his penis a secret, and people think that government can just go around shooting schoolchildren without someone objecting, someone telling the press, someone coming out against it?

I think if anything these interpretations events say a lot more about the people making them than they do about the events themselves. Conspiracy is often, if not exclusively, an expression of hatred, and throughout history we’ve seen them used to direct hate towards one group or another (a lot of them have been directed at one group of people in particular). I suspect it’s actually the conspiracists that are capable of anything, any crime, any despicable act, and their routinely unethical behavior in pushing their nonsense is just the beginning of it. For one, the conspiracist is clearly consumed with hate, so much so, that every event is viewed through the blinders of their rage. No party can be at fault except whoever is the object of their hatred. And maybe, just maybe, if they were in charge this is how they would use their power. This is how they think the world works. This is how they think others think and act. And this is why they are so scary.