Monday, November 19, 2007

Conspiracy Theorists

As we all know Americans love conspiracy theories. Indeed, they are fascinating to everyone because they confront commonly accepted truths and ask us to consider if we can really be sure that things happened in precisely the way we think they happened. This is always an interesting and appealing project as we are asked to consider the possibility that a small group of people--of which we could be a part--is smarter than everybody else.

Perhaps we should consider first the differences between a healthy suspicion of what we are told by those in authority and conspiracy theories. I would say that I am not going to believe much by Bush and his cohorts concerning the details and interpretation of what happened on 9/11. Everything has clearly been doctored to clear the President and his close colleagues of any blame in the matter. Furthermore, the attack on Iraq was clearly unjustified and this administration twisted what happened on 9/11 to suit their long term strategic aims. In other words, there was a wholly unexpected event that took everybody by surprise and then different groups began to use what had happened for their own purposes. However, the event did take place--just as man did land on the moon and the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor (two other well known events that have been reinterpreted by conspiracy theorists). Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the central event itself in a discourse (using "discourse" in its widest sense to mean an interrelated set of happenings) never happened or happened in a way that is completely different to the way we perceive it having happened. The problem is that in the hours and days after the occurrence of a global catastrophe, everybody has the chance to look at and study what has happened: to talk with the survivors and sift through the evidence (in the case of 9/11). The world is in shock and thousands of views are expressed about the central event. Films are made, photographs taken, experts consulted, emergency services mobilized, articles and books written as the wounded and the empowered try to come to an understanding of what has happened. It is certainly interesting that conspiracy theories usually emerge only later, after the initial shock has worn off, so to speak. An event like 9/11 is as near to a completely naked event as can be realized in the modern world. It happened with thousands of people watching. Friends died together, preferring to jump from the building than face the flames inside: firemen lost their lives battling to save the people trapped in the building. Moreover, everything was watched minutely by millions of people on TV. The idea of such an event being planned by people within the administration really beggars belief. What a can of worms would have been opened! These people would know that the whole world would be watching their own rescue teams die trying to save the people inside the building. Furthermore, the event would be destabilizing in all sorts of political and financial ways. Certainly before the event, one might have thought that such an occurrence would cause a greater financial crisis on the stock exchange. Less traumatic events have led to world wars (think of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that led to the outbreak of WW1). Politicians are mostly conservative in their actions unless they openly support confrontationist policies (like Hitler): the grey suits don't take chances on big events that may have unknown consequences.

If the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are unlikely (and I haven't actually gone into the individual theories, as when one wishes to believe something, the mind is wired to make connections) why do they abound so abundantly? Some critics say that conspiracism has been common throughout history after a traumatic event when mythologisation inevitably takes place. Thomas W. Eagar, an engineering professor at MIT, suggested conspiracists "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." Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, said: "The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking (as well as Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics). All the "evidence" for a 9/11 conspiracy falls under the rubric of this fallacy. Such notions are easily refuted by noting that scientific theories are not built on single facts alone but on a convergence of evidence assembled from multiple lines of inquiry." "We tend to associate major events — a President or princess dying — with major causes," says Patrick Leman, a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London, who has conducted studies on conspiracy belief. "If we think big events like a President being assassinated can happen at the hands of a minor individual, that points to the unpredictability and randomness of life and unsettles us. In that sense, the idea that there is a malevolent controlling force orchestrating global events is, in a perverse way, comforting."


Anonymous Binladen said...


3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Bin Laden would find that 'enlightening' in a perverse obscurantist manner.
It only needs one juror to entertain a reasonable doubt to have a hung jury.
In the case of 9/11, why did building 7 fall in like a pack of cards? it wasn't hit, and it looks like it was demolished.
Once you doubt one aspect of a case, the rest looks shaky too. How did kerosene jet fuel burning at a maximum of 980 degrees centigrade melt the steel of a building all the way down to the ground? I might have believed that the point of impact weakened to the extent that it collapsed there, that the floors above it fell, but not that the whole core support would collapse dramatically as it did.
Am I then a conspiracy nut? Yes, until you can convince me that our military-industrial interests are above reproach, and would never put their long-term profits above the lives of ordinary citizens.

10:56 PM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

"Am I then a conspiracy nut? Yes, until you can convince me that our military-industrial interests are above reproach, and would never put their long-term profits above the lives of ordinary citizens."

As no one can do that, you will always believe in conspiracies. Remember, Saddam was a nasty piece of work, but he wasn't what the Americans said he was (a part of Al-Qaeda).Believing that someone isn't "above reproach" doesn't mean that every conspiracy theory is true.

11:44 PM  
Blogger ely said...

Fascinating ideas!

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a fan of Mel Gibson, I have to mention in passing his nutty conspiracy-nut in "Conspiracy theory" who of course is proved right in the end, the government IS out to get you! i was just watching a re-run of the great BBC series Spooks, which to my mind is better than '24', or at least it is more tuned in to the real issues from a British perspective. Anyhow, this one dealt with the conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Princess Diana. I hadn't thought about it for a while, but while I was living in Saudi, I knew a guy who claimed to have worked for MI6 in the past, and he swore blind that Diana was asassinated.
The story he gave me was pretty much what was suggested in the Spooks episode, but the date on it was MMV, so my retired spook's story antedated that.
The question as before is not "is it possible", but "would they do such a thing?", and I have to say that in my opinion, there is no depth to which these people would not sink if it was in their perceived interests. Call me cynical if you like, but the public believes what it is told to believe, and there are always realities behind the appearances.
Mark H.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since you mention Saddam for no good reason, John, in that there is no real conspiracy theory about him, I'll chime in my thrupence worth. Saddam had to be got rid of, but not for the supposed WMDs. That was just a cover story for the actual unmentionable reason, which is that he was supplying funds to the Palestinians. That is politically unsayable, and no-one in American politics says it, but he was paying the families of suicide bombers 2000 dollars if I remember correctly. That was public knowledge. Of course the yanks cocked it up, with no exit strategy at all, but that was to be expected.

11:59 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

For me Mark the problem is that if I make certain a priori statements like:

1) These people will do anything to protect their interests

2) There are no depths to which they will not sink

am I then to say: "Therefore all conspiracy theories are true?" That is a big step. In the very nature of the cause/effect nexus one will be wrong most of the time if one merely makes deductions from a couple of dearly held beliefs. As statements, by the way, I agree with their truth. I just don't make the next step (therefore all conspiracy theories are true).

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, an implication is different from a statement. If I wanted to be more strongly affirmative I could easily do so, but I make related oblique statements and leave the reader to connect the dots.
If you put me to the rack and ask "Do you believe all conspiracy theories are true?" of course I'll say "No!", but if I suggest the motives of the PTB are not of the highest, I am hoping to insinuate doubt into the readers' view of their [the PTB's ] actions.

2:31 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

An interesting and very Foucauldian point: truth is not necessarily an integral element of a discourse: discourses can be constructed with the sole aim of discrediting an opponent.

2:54 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

I guess Mel Gibson does at least try to make good films--even if he doesn't always succeed. I saw APOCALYPTO. I thought the last scene was the best, with the Spanish ships waiting off shore.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous ronniereagan said...

What about the contras?

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Their work is noninvasive—for the apes, that is . . . "Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.
It's a job that separates the boys from the men, OK, OK, their real job title is usually something like "cryobiologist" or "laboratory technician," but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. "Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be working with semen?' " says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country's largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. Let's start at the beginning. Laboriously prescreened "donors" emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count. Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the "plasma" from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it's off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.
"The hardest part is explaining it to friends," Schillinger says. "But we do have stories." Like what? "Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup."
The smell is just the start of the nastiness. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. That's the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: It's a load of crap. And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else.
Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source.
"We have to wade through a lot of poop," concedes Michael Doyle, the center's director. "If you want to get the manure, you've got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin." Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it's chicken poop's chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers' eyes.
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people's farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each "episode of flatulence," Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.
In the early '80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"
Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal's rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal's penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal's nether regions. "All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe," says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "It's fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking." Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure. The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul's safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull's nose. Alas, this isn't always absolutely effective: Everyone who's wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer "digital pressure" is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure.
Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum's taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there's the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won't touch—an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: "It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us." Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous engels said...

What about the workers?

3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As even Terry Eagleton would by now have to admit, it isn't to the workers that we look for a regeneration of society. The main concern of the working classes is their standard of living, which has increasingly equalled or even surpassed that of the middle-classes in the Uk.
To take instead greater equity in society as a goal, its not the workers we look to, but the liberal middle class of conscience, egalitarian and fair-minded, who are prepared to countenance higher taxes as the price of social safety nets and equality of opportunity.

5:58 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

I doubt that Terry Eagleton would admit that.

8:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home