[Third installment in a series on confirmation bias. Back to Part 2.]
The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking. All the evidence for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy.
Michael Shermer, in Scientific American, October 2006
[Conspiracy theories] use the ‘reverse scientific method’. They determine what happened, throw out all the data that doesn’t fit their conclusion, and then hail their findings as the only possible conclusion.
Thomas Eagar, professor of engineering, MIT
I was cleaning moldy tuppers out of the back of the fridge the other day when Connor (nearly 13) piped up from the computer. “Hey Dad,” he said. “Have you ever heard about these conspiracy theories?”
Oh jeez. “Which ones?”
“All kinds of different ones. You wouldn’t believe what people believe!”
Since people on either side of conspiracy theories use that same sentence to mean opposite things, I asked him what he meant.
“Like some people think we never landed on the moon. But we did!”
I pulled a container of primordial soup from the lower shelf without saying a thing.
I dumped the container down the sink. “Well I certainly think so. What do you think?”
“Of course!” His voice had the slightest unsettled catch. He’d never heard it questioned before.
I used to describe two different and opposite extremes of non-thinking to my critical thinking classes. Complete gullibility is one extreme. Our family spent the 4th of July with several neighbors. At one point, one woman said that people have always teased her for her gullibility. “Well,” I said, “when they say that, just point out that the word ‘gullible’ isn’t even in the dictionary.”
A look of surprise crossed her face. “Really?” she said. “I had no idea.”
But just as bad as extreme suckers are extreme cynics, whose every other sentence is “Don’t be so naive.” The sucker believes without thinking; the cynic disbelieves without thinking. Everything is a scam, a sham, a hoax, a conspiracy. The two are opposite excuses for suspending the hard work of figuring the world out, and both are useless.
“All of these things are pretty crazy,” Connor continued, “but there’s one…well, it’s pretty convincing.”
“Oh yeah? Which one?”
“Well,” he said, his voice dropping to a — well, a conspiratorial whisper, what else– “It looks like the World Trade Center was actually brought down by explosives inside the buildings..not by planes.”
I’ll assume everybody’s heard this idea — that the Bush Administration brought the towers down to justify the invasion of Iraq. I have several extremely rational friends who were convinced of this at some point, though most have now given it up. Some even have Dick Cheney himself controlling the planes by remote, presumably while saying, “Bwahahaha!”
“What reasons do they give, Con?”
“Tons of stuff! One thing is that the buildings wouldn’t fall the way they did if a plane flew into them. They fell straight down. And you can see it in the video — boom boom boom boom, one floor after another, straight down, just like if there were timed explosions on each floor!”
It took me a minute to figure out how to proceed. You don’t want to just step right up to the plate and take his bat away.
“That’s interesting,” I finally said. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Is it true that the buildings wouldn’t fall that way if planes flew into them?”
“Well — I dunno, that’s what this guy said.”
I nodded a bit. “And other people say something different.”
“I guess so.”
And there’s the problem. We talk about critical thinking as if it’s a question of evidence, but we often have no direct access to the evidence that we claim convinces us. What first-hand evidence do I have that the earth orbits the sun? Almost none. First-hand evidence that we’ve walked on the moon? First-hand? None. In both cases I have relied on intermediaries to bring information to me, and I have believed them.
See the problem? A Catholic could say the same about the belief that crackers turn into Christ. They have relied on intermediaries to bring information to them, and they have believed them. Very little of our knowledge today is unmediated, so much of the task is now assessing the messengers and their methodologies rather than the inaccessible facts themselves. In other words, in order to decide whether my confidence is warranted, I use what I do know to ask whether their confidence appears to be warranted.
More on that in druthers 4. Right now, let’s finish with the conspiracy.
I told Connor that conspiracy theorists tend to present at least one “impossibility” about the official version which may or may not actually be impossible, and offer a blizzard of “evidence” that almost never justifies the confidence with which it is asserted. So even if you don’t know anything about structural physics or the melting point of steel, you can take a pretty good stab at a complicated conspiracy theory by stepping back and asking which scenario is more likely. Generally they won’t even be close.
In this case we have two main alternatives:
1. Islamic terrorists struck a blow at the U.S. by hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings.
2. The government of the United States intentionally murdered thousands of its own citizens to justify a war.
I loathe the current administration. It will take two generations at least to recover from the damage done in these eight years, if indeed we can recover at all. The combination of ignorance, arrogance, and dishonesty in this White House will be hard to top. I hope we never try.
In short, the 9/11 conspiracy theory plays right into my biases. And my son’s. But I’m a fan of the real world, so I need to control for those biases.
That Islamic jihadis, fueled by religious and cultural hatred, committed this act against a perceived foreign enemy is plausible. That the Bush White House did the same thing to their own tribe requires positing a cartoonish level of baby-eating evil and duplicitousness that should shame any rationalist who suggests it. Add to this the fact that Americans have never required all that much incentive to support a war or invasion, and the 9/11 conspiracy vanishes into the swamp of ludicrous, bias-fueled fantasy.
So we didn’t have to get into the details of the conspiracy claims or their rebuttals. I simply wanted to give the boy some general food for thought that could come in handy the next time he hears an incredible claim confidently made.