by John Reese
A few months ago, I penned an article on conspiracy theorists in general, and Allan Wood and Paul Thompson in particular. I used Wood’s and Thompson’s article about the September 11th attacks, An Interesting Day, to illustrate the hazards of taking conspiracy theorists at face value, particularly when their alarmist writings are carefully crafted to appear professional and well researched. Such writings are dangerous because they not only spread misinformation (or outright lies), but they train readers to accept what information they take in without applying critical thought.
Besides articulate writing, ample references, and flashy graphics, conspiracy theorists (or any other type of extremist, for that matter) sometimes employ an even more insidious tool of the trade: to find a fellow extremist even crazier than they are, then attempt to portray themselves as being moderate by comparison. By distancing themselves from the true wackos, they send a message to the world that says: “See how reasonable I am? Doesn’t this prove that what I have to say is legitimate and worthwhile?”
They can say this all they want. It doesn’t make it true.
Critical thinking is blind to the relative insanity of the logical fallacies under scrutiny. The rules of reason and logic do not grade on a curve. They are absolutes, and everyone, no matter how important, well educated, or well spoken, is subject to them. Misinformation from a learned authority is still misinformation. A cleverly worded non-sequitur is still a non-sequitur. A preconceived notion is still a preconceived notion. And no matter how effectively a straw man argument is refuted, it is still a straw man.
All this brings us to Mike Ward, a columnist for PopMatters and (as we shall see) a conspiracy theorist in sheep’s clothing. His article, Coincidence Theory, is far better written and, on the surface, more balanced than An Interesting Day. In the article, he critiques both my article from SkepticReport and the original article by Wood and Thompson. Employing the “crafty moderate” technique, Ward attacks An Interesting Day for its reliance on ad hominem attacks, although he confesses to sharing the same acrimony towards the Bush administration. At the same time, he represents my article as the opposite extreme, a sort of Bush love-fest that naively assumes the “inherent nobility” of the President and his administration. In the middle he puts Mindy Kleinberg, the widow of a September 11th victim, as a neutral (!?!) commentator with keen insights into the reality of the events of that day.
Does Ward’s analysis have merit, or is he just another conspiracy theorist? To answer this question, let’s review some of the tricks of the trade often employed when shoveling this particular type of manure:
- …begin with an unfounded belief, then create a complex tapestry of ad hoc hypotheses to support this belief.
- …see evidence against their belief as proof of a massive conspiracy to cover up the truth, rather than a hint that their belief might be wrong.
- …use the words of others, often taken out of context, to make their arguments. This insulates them from criticism if they are proven spectacularly wrong.
- …draw unwarranted conclusions from these outside sources.
- …attempt to draw connections between completely unrelated events.
- …often describe certain situations as being “strange and mysterious”, particularly the failure of others to behave they way they do.
- …make an impassioned plea for others to look into these “strange and mysterious” situations, since they are unwilling or unable to find evidence supporting their beliefs (perhaps because it doesn’t exist…?).
So is Ward an impartial commentator, or a conspiracy theorist himself?
Let’s dive into his article and find out
“JUSTLY OR OTHERWISE
by Mike Ward
PopMatters Columnist and Film Critic
In her testimony to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Mindy Kleinberg talks about the freak serendipity of September 11. After recounting that day’s appalling events, Kleinberg spells out the elaborate path the 19 hijackers followed to the cockpits of four airliners, and from there, to the World Trade Center office where her husband worked.”
I read this article several times before I realized the significance of this last phrase. Kleinberg is the widow of a terrorist attack victim! It is clear that Ward sought to minimize the significance of this, since he was trying to establish Kleinberg as a neutral and unbiased commentator.
“As a preface, Kleinberg throws out a sentence fragment, unconnected: “The theory of luck,” she says.
In the months leading up to September 11, Kleinberg explains, the good fortune of the hijackers knew no bounds. They were the beneficiaries of small charms, such as receiving visas despite incomplete applications, and great, mystifying spells of fortuity, such as the one that held FAA entranced for 20 minutes after Flight 11 was known to have been hijacked. Even the mechanisms of financial windfall mystically arranged themselves to register the hijackers’ luck. An investor or investors who were fortunate enough to place an unusual number of put options on American and United airlines “netted a profit of several million dollars after the September 11 attacks,” Kleinberg explains.”
The author seems to be saying that these strange coincidences could have been the result of a conspiracy. However, he is misrepresenting the words of Mindy Kleinberg. When she spoke of “luck” and “coincidence”, it was a facetious reference to the claim that “intelligence agencies have to be right 100% of the time and the terrorists only have to get lucky once”. Her statements that the hijackers were “lucky” had nothing to do with the laws of chance; she was simply making a point about the absurdity of the claim that “luck” was to blame for the security failures.
“Naturally, the owners of these put options never came forward to collect their dividends. But neither have these strange transactions been investigated, at least so far as anyone knows. That the options were purchased is strange enough. That the purchase is acknowledged in the mainstream press, but treated as though it were not a story but a mere fluke, is stranger still.”
Here we find the standard “strange and mysterious” claim of the conspiracy theorist. In fact, if the mainstream press believed there was a story here, there can be no doubt they would have pounced on it gleefully. What dark, malevolent force could persuade them to do otherwise? The mainstream press has never been shy about taking on powerful men, from Boss Tweed to President Nixon. However, they do not, unlike conspiracy theorists, take such action based on innuendo.
“Regarding the hijackers’ treatment at the hands of the INS, Mindy Kleinberg cites a handful of figures to underscore how astronomically unlikely the September 11 attacks were. “The terrorists got lucky 15 individual times,” she says, “Because 15 of the 19 hijackers’ visas should have been unquestionably denied.” All of their forms were stunningly incorrect – with “hotel”, “California”, or “no” provided as destinations, for instance – but were approved nonetheless.”
This would be significant only if it could be shown that the INS was normally very consistent in ensuring proper completion of visa forms. It would also have to be demonstrated that, had the visas been denied on the grounds of the forms being “stunningly incorrect”, the hijackers would be forever barred from entering the country. In truth, it was not “luck” that allowed the hijackers to slip into the country and past airport security. In planning the attack, al Qaeda strategists knew that a powerful country such as the US could not be attacked head-on. They no doubt asked themselves: What are our enemy’s weaknesses, and how can they be exploited? A general complacency about security, both in the INS and the FAA, was certainly near the top of the list.
“With each additional issued visa the long odds got exponentially, incalculably longer, like a flipped coin that comes up heads not once or twice, but 15 times.”
This is a very poor analogy that reveals the author’s ignorance of probability. A flipped coin has a 50/50 chance of coming up either heads or tails. An INS form does not have a 50/50 chance of being accepted in spite of errors. A better analogy would be a batter in baseball striking out 15 times in a row. It is more a question of performance than chance.
Remember, the hijackers put a lot of time and effort into their plans. It is a safe bet that, had they experienced any difficulties with incorrect visa applications on previous occasions, they would have found a more reliable way to enter the country.
“Conspiracy websites have been making these points for months. But Kleinberg, in citing them on the floor of Congress, studiously avoids the word “conspiracy”.”
There is a very good reason she avoids this word. It is clear from reading a transcript of her testimony that she did not believe a conspiracy existed. Instead, she wanted to know, as a grieving widow of a victim of the September 11 attacks, how the safety net surrounding the country could have so utterly failed to protect it. Clearly, she believes that monumental incompetence, not a conspiracy, were to blame for the ease in which the hijackers entered the country.
“This is what creates the sense that the events she relates are astonishingly improbable. September 11 seems a proverbial tin full of gears and springs that, when dumped to the ground, fall into the configuration of a watch entirely by chance. All the stranger, then, that such a nearly supernatural, ordered convergence could lead to so much chaos, disorder, and death.”
Another poor analogy. In September, 2001, the conditions were ideal for the terrorists to strike. US borders were extremely porous and airport security was lax. When and where would the conditions be right to dump out gears and springs and end up with a watch? Certainly, chance did play a part. According to the laws of probability, the chances that humans in general would evolve and that I in particular would be born are vanishingly small, and yet it happened. The conditions were right, just as they were right on September 11.
“Mindy Kleinberg’s tone enables her to sidestep the stigma that almost inevitably results when one talks about September 11 without following a broad set of generally agreed-upon rules. For the most part, these rules are put in place to enforce a dominant narrative about the attacks, a conventional wisdom orchestrated by the Bush administration and its compatriots among the right wing, and also supported by the mainstream of the Democratic party. The rules are so stridently imposed – violate them and Ann Coulter accuses you of treason, or Joe Lieberman calls you cowardly, “soft on terrorism” – because the narrative they protect is so contradictory and incomplete. “
I doubt many people would be deterred by the prospect of being called a traitor by Ann Coulter. Couldn’t the administration think of a better way to “impose” these rules? Notice also that he implicates the Bush administration, the right wing, and the mainstream Democratic party. This means that almost everyone in politics, save a few individuals on the fringe, agrees on this “dominant narrative”. If almost everyone is in agreement, then why does the narrative have to be “enforced”?
The next statement made by the author is apparently intended to support his claim that the September 11 narrative is “contradictory and incomplete”. Perhaps you, the reader, can see the connection – I cannot.
“We are to believe, apparently, that Osama bin Laden attacked the United States essentially on his own, because he “hates our freedom”. Yet we are also told that launching a massive invasion of Iraq, irrelevant both to bin Laden and to whatever forces designed and carried out September 11, is an appropriate response.”
Was the invasion of Iraq a “response” to the terror attacks? Was Iraq truly irrelevant to the schemes of Bin Laden? On a superficial level, perhaps these statements are true. Unfortunately, the political world is not nearly as simple as conspiracy theorists would like it to be. Consider this:
- One of bin Laden’s major beefs against the US has long been the presence of its infidel troops in Saudi Arabia.
- The troops were needed in Saudi Arabia to ward off the threat of Saddam Hussein to the north.
- Removing Saddam Hussein would allow US troops to pull out of Saudi Arabia, thus removing a key source of animosity that has bred anti-US sentiment.
There were, of course, other reasons for attacking Iraq. Ever since the first Gulf War ended, there has been a feeling that Iraq represented unfinished business to the United States. The terror attacks just provided what the Bush administration saw as a suitable political climate to go ahead with the invasion, and finish what was started a decade earlier. Whether or not this strategy is justified is irrelevant to the administration’s tactical response to September 11.
“So is the enemy a series of lone wolves, inscrutable freedom-haters and “rogue” actors, or a well-organized, Borg-like conspiracy defined mainly by a perceived race?
It depends on what’s at issue. If you’re wondering how a comparatively ill-funded terrorist organization, stationed in a poverty-stricken country and located in another hemisphere managed to trump the most powerful military and intelligence service the world has ever known, rest assured that the mystical zeal of bin Laden and his followers is, on its own, enough to weave such dark magic.”
I agree whole-heartedly with this statement. There is no reason to believe that bin Laden needed the help of Saddam Hussein, or any other Middle East “boogieman” to carry out his plan. By the same token, there is no reason to believe that a conspiracy existed in the US government. Bin Laden didn’t need such a conspiracy for his plan to succeed.
“If, on the other hand, you’re not sure why the US responded to September 11 by attacking Iraq, the explanation appears to be that al Qaeda, far from acting alone, is a component in a vast cabal of Arab villains, part of an evil web connecting with Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, as well as, for example, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Iranians, and the Palestinians.”
There is, in fact, a connection between these groups: The very real danger existed that they could all be emboldened by al Qaeda’s successful attacks, which sent a message into the world that the US homeland was far more vulnerable than anyone had dreamed. They do not have to work together to constitute a cumulative threat to America.
“Often – as with the Iranians and the Iraqis, or Hussein and bin Laden – these groups have a record of mutual hostility, but no matter. To point out the clear pattern of US military expansion in the Middle East is to evoke from its defenders the narrative that these disparate groups are linked by race, and by an incomprehensible and unprovoked hatred of the United States.
Basing an evidently interminable military campaign on such offensive and asinine preconceptions invites a torrent of questions from the skeptical. Thus, words like “treason” are slung about to jealously defend the status quo: a set of policies so flagrantly irrational that they collapse almost instantly when inspected and for this reason, reasoned discussion about them must not be allowed to take place.”
Here, we get to the meat of the issue. It can certainly be intelligently argued that certain policies of the Bush administration are irrational (although the author doesn’t say which ones he means, nor does he defend his argument in any way). However, the success of the September 11 attacks had little to do with policy. It is important to draw a distinction between tactics and strategy. The word “tactics” describes short-term, immediate response to changing circumstances, while “strategy” refers to a long-term plan of action that seeks to mold circumstances in the strategist’s favor. Tactics are reactive, while strategy is proactive. While President Bush’s strategy (the war on terror) may be suspect, my argument is that the President’s tactical handling of the events of September 11, 2001, cannot be reasonably faulted.
Perhaps the author is suggesting that the tactics employed on September 11 were, in fact, part of a larger strategy. If that were true, then the administration had to have had prior knowledge of the attacks, and therefore there would be good reason to posit a conspiracy. However, the author would be going a perilous distance onto a limb if he made this accusation directly, instead of merely suggesting it. It would require him to produce evidence of such a larger strategy-and neither he nor anyone else has seen such evidence.
“Curiously, such aversion to objectivity can also be found in discourses that interrogate the status quo. Take as an example “An Interesting Day”, a parapolitical chronology of September 11 that breaks down the Bush administration’s actions during the attacks to argue that the administration actively participated in September 11, in order to rescue the Bush presidency and pave the way for the endless war currently unfolding in the Middle East.”
I am amazed that Ward was able to decipher this argument from An Interesting Day. The authors of that piece appear to have worked overtime to ensure that the central thrust of the article was not marred by clarity, and to create the impression that they had no idea what the article was supposed to be about. Thus, they kept themselves safe from being accused of jumping to wildly irresponsible conclusions.
“This hypothesis accounts for many of the coincidences and oddities that plague the mainstream explanation for the attacks, but “An Interesting Day”‘s authors, Allan Wood and Paul Thompson, are unable to present their argument without repeatedly resorting to ad hominem attacks on George W. Bush and his cabinet. Although I share many of their antipathies, objectivity requires that such feelings be set aside in the interest of making a more reasoned argument.”
“More reasoned” is a relative term. It is not difficult to eclipse the rationality of Wood and Thompson’s article.
“Such is the position of John Reese, a self-described conspiracy-theory skeptic who attempts to debunk “An Interesting Day” and in so doing reveals a converse bias, presuming the administration’s inherent nobility and its simple, selfless desire to do only what is best for the American people.”
Aside from the fact that I have never described myself as a conspiracy-theory skeptic, the author is taking great liberties with his interpretation of my words. Nowhere have I stated, or even implied, that the Bush administration has a “simple, selfless desire to do only what is best for the American people”. In my previous article, I discussed whether Bush’s tactical response to the situation on September 11 was appropriate to the circumstances. Motivation is largely irrelevant in a tactical response. As argued previously, to imply that this response was part of a larger strategy is begging the question. It presupposes that Bush and his aides knew about the attack and displayed strategic incompetence in order to allow it to go forward.
“The argument that Wood and Thompson present, and that Reese attempts to refute, is founded on tracking Bush’s movements throughout September 11, from his security briefing at around 8 a.m. to his return to Washington D.C. and his address to the nation that evening. Over and over, Wood and Thompson maintain that Bush’s response to the hijackings suggested not a commander in chief taken by surprise, but a conspirator: one anxious to appear engaged in protecting the nation’s security, while in reality he and his cabinet deliberately maneuvered to avoid taking actions that would prevent the hijacked planes from reaching their targets.”
Is that what they were maintaining? Kudos to the author for deciphering Wood and Thompson’s ramblings!
“This was done, Wood and Thompson contend, in a variety of ways. George Bush and his cabinet members, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and acting Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers being the most frequently mentioned, were held in situations, such as public photo opportunities and private meetings, where they would be less able or expected to make quick decisions. When fighters were launched, they did so from air force bases far from the off-course planes they were intended to intercept. And this lethargic response was accounted for later, when on September 16 Dick Cheney mischaracterized FAA procedures on “Meet the Press” by claiming that the Air Force needed George W. Bush’s explicit order to send Air Force jets after the airliners that had gone off-course, when in fact such interceptions are routine and require no such orders.”
This depends on what is meant by “send Air Force jets after the airliners”. FAA/NORAD procedures allow for fighters to be sent as an escort. This does not require the President’s authorization. However, shooting down a domestic airliner does. Perhaps this is the source of the confusion.
The following section is significant because it demonstrates the clever ways in which statements can be manipulated without being blatantly misquoted or taken out of context. This is an essential tool of the skilled conspiracy theorist.
“Concerning Bush’s 8a.m. security briefing on September 11, Wood and Thompson mention a similar briefing on August 6th entitled “Bin Laden to Strike in U.S.”, which warned about the possibility of al Qaeda hijacking multiple planes. Wood and Thompson seize on this previous briefing as evidence that, were we to take the Bush administration at its word that it knew nothing about the attacks, it would surely have at least speculated on this possibility at some point not long after 8:45a.m.
John Reese tries to account for the administration’s curious lack of response considering the August 6 briefing by asserting that “the President is a busy man. He is briefed on many, many things.” (Source: SkepticReport.com)”
The author quoted me correctly. I did say that the President is a busy man who is briefed on many things. Unfortunately, this glib statement is taken out of context because it is represented as being the entire argument. It creates the impression that I dismissed the possibility of the administration’s foreknowledge of the threat out of hand, without giving it much thought. Those who actually read my piece will find otherwise.
“The thrust of this counterargument is that the first Trade Tower crash looked for a time as much like an accident as it did a terrorist attack. Therefore, there was no reason to assume that the administration would believe an attack was underway until 9:03a.m. – when the second crash established that the first was a deliberate act. Further, there was no reason to believe the attack was ongoing until about 9:40a.m., when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
One potential problem with this argument: local authorities would presumably handle an accidental crash – and no executive act would immediately be needed – but any possibility that the crashes were terrorist attacks would call for immediate executive response. The absence of any such response means not only that the administration had not determined that the crashes were deliberate, but that the possibility had not even occurred to them until around 9:30a.m., when the Bush administration’s first official 9/11-related act, Bush’s brief television address from the Emma Booker school, took place.”
The author makes a perilous cognitive leap here. The fact that the President was briefed on the possibility of multiple hijackings by al Qaeda does not mean that news of a plane crash should have raised suspicions that these speculative hijackings were to blame. Also, how does the author know that no one in the administration suspected hijacking after the first crash? Suspicion is not always grounds for immediate action. After all, if someone does not have all the facts, only a suspicion, how does he know what action to take?
“There’s every good reason to think that the administration would consider the mere possibility of terrorist attack well before 9:00a.m., and certainly by 9:03, when it became plainly obvious to the entire world. Here, Reese’s argument is weakest; he would have us believe that Bush remained in the Booker school classroom because he did not want to scare the schoolchildren, or the nation’s television viewers, by walking out to learn more about the situation.”
This is a non-sequitur. It attempts to link ignorance of a terrorist plot before 9:00 AM to the President’s failure to leave the classroom after he knew it was a terrorist attack.
Here, the author brings up the question of whether the President should have immediately left the classroom after hearing the news of the second attack. He correctly states my argument that the President did not want to scare the children. However, he misrepresents it by implying that I believed this was the only reason he did not leave immediately. I actually stated several possibilities, such as a desire to maintain an image of calm in front of the cameras, or that the President needed a moment to collect his thoughts. My position on this has always been: So what? If the President had left five, ten, or fifteen minutes earlier – would it have made any difference? What actions could he have taken that would have prevented loss of life, given the chaotic nature of events that day? At best, it would have reassured the nation by projecting an image of the President as a Man of Action (although some would have seen it as a foolhardy, panic-stricken, and insensitive reaction, like George Kostanza pushing children out of the way to escape a fire). Instead, he projected the image of a man who does not panic in times of crisis (although some argue that his actions were not aggressive enough). You can’t please everyone, even if you are the President of the United States.
“The language Reese uses to describe the general level of alarm after Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower on live television: it was “the first sign of a coordinated attack, requiring involvement of the President at the earliest convenience.” (Source: SkepticReport.com) Those who recall this moment likely remember it being somewhat more urgent than that.”
This passage reveals once again the author’s skill at taking quotes out of context with great subtlety. Indeed, the statement is quoted word-for-word from my article. Indeed, this was the language that I used. However, the author fails to mention that this was a hypothetical scenario. I was describing how the President and his aides might have reasonably interpreted the events as they unfolded, given the fact that nothing like this had ever happened before. Although he may be correct that my statement does not adequately describe the level of alarm at that moment, it attacks a straw man, a hypothetical conjecture used to illustrate my central point, rather than the point itself.
“On both sides, these complicated arguments in their essence rely on what the reader thinks about the Bush administration and the office of the presidency. To Wood and Thompson, the administration’s lack of response amounts to direct evidence of complicity, where for Reese, the response sets the standard for likely response time to an event that had never been witnessed before.”
This is mostly accurate, except that I did not argue that Bush’s actions set any kind of standard. How can a standard be set for tactical response to unforeseen events? I merely said that the response, warts and all, was appropriate given the circumstances.
“Time and again Reese correctly points out instances where Wood and Thompson resolve ambiguous evidence in ways that suppose the worst about the Bush administration. But then he himself goes on to praise the Bush administration in ways that presume the point he is trying to establish. For example, Wood and Thompson quote a local reporter, who characterizes Bush as “clueless” for staying at the Booker school for 25 minutes after White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed him that America was under attack.
Reese responds to this: “I am sure the local reporter to whom the authors are referring is a fine journalist, but this does not necessarily qualify him to question the judgment of the President of the United States.” (Source: SkepticReport.com) When Reese continues by objecting that “the word ‘clueless’ implies incompetence when such a judgment is unwarranted,” his friendly disposition toward George Bush leads him to make an unsubstantiated claim that nonetheless summarizes the problem pretty well. “
I actually said “second-guess the actions of the President”, rather than the more inflammatory “question the judgment of the President”, but I’ll let that pass. However, I stand by my argument that it is more appropriate for a journalist to use the word “ignorant” rather than “clueless”. The latter means nearly the same thing as the former, but it is essentially a personal attack.
In my mind, a personal attack on someone is tantamount to making an extraordinary claim about that person. Therefore, I do not believe the burden of proof is on me to demonstrate that the President was not “clueless”, nor does my failure to accept this judgment constitute “praise” of the President.
“After all, this is the issue: whether the government’s response to September 11 was basically reasonable considering that day’s unprecedented events, or whether they indicate incompetence, as the unnamed local journalist asserts, or even government complicity, as Wood and Thompson more seriously allege. Wood, Thompson, and Reese’s polemics are understandable enough, considering that the Bush administration is undoubtedly the most divisive and controversial since, well, since the administration that preceded it. Still, the fact that none of these authors can make his case without resorting to personal invective demonstrates how hard it is to be impartial when September 11 is at issue.”
“Polemics”? “Personal invective”? Again, the author is reading something that isn’t there. My personal feelings or political leanings are irrelevant to the argument. It is a matter of applying the rules of logic and reason to determine whether accusations of treachery or incompetence have been made justly or unjustly. In this case, the picture can be somewhat murky. However, as far as his actions on September 11 goes, I have a tendency to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Why? It has nothing to do with my personal feeling towards the President. I believe that it is an injustice to criticize anyone, in any situation, for not being able to instantly come up with the perfect solution to a complex, unanticipated problem. Certainly, the standard is higher for the President. However, he is a human being, as we all are. If he had managed to make decisions that prevented further loss of life after the initial attack, that would have been great. It also would have been mostly luck that he happened to choose the correct decisions, given the fact that it took hours for the best minds in the country to put all the pieces together.
“In the meantime, somewhere outside all of this acrimony those like Mindy Kleinberg, who are attempting in earnest to understand September 11, struggle with its array of strange coincidences.”
The author seems to be characterizing “An Interesting Day” and my response to it as opposite extremes; one anti-Bush and one pro-Bush. Mindy Kleinberg’s testimony is represented as being impartial and free of acrimony. However, the author is clearly seeing all this through his own set of preconceptions. My defense of Bush had nothing to do with a bias in favor of the President, it was a response to the ad hominem attacks employed in the original article. Such attacks are a poor substitute for rational discussion, and are doubly irrational in this case because they were often groundless.
Also, Mindy Kleinberg’s testimony was neither free of acrimony nor impartial. This woman was clearly angry because of the loss of her husband, especially since his death need not have happened if government agencies had followed proper procedure.
“So too, in their odd way, do some in the Defense department. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seems aware of the problems Kleinberg hints at when it refers to the immense complexity involved in making effective predictions and testing speculative claims.”
Again, the author is confusing tactics with strategy. The security problems that allowed the hijackers into the country, and the delays in putting fighters into the air, were tactical issues. DARPA, on the other hand, is concerned with strategic issues.
“In a report describing its Terrorism Information Awareness program, DARPA cites an assortment of obstacles to effective information processing and prediction. Among them: “mistaking absence of evidence for evidence of absence; confusing unfamiliar with improbable; having too many unknown unknowns . . .” and “generating a single hypothesis versus competing hypotheses.”
Thompson, Wood, and Reese would seem to have fallen victim to this last hypothesis.”
The author was presenting his case with lucidity up until this point. Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart fairly quickly. First, it would take an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics to draw a connection between Kleinberg’s accusations of tactical incompetence and DARPA’s analysis of strategic information gathering. Second, he begins to use the word “hypothesis” when he evidently meant “obstacle”. I believe he meant to imply that both the original article and my response focused on a single hypothesis without taking other possibilities into account. If so, I am not sure what hypothesis he is referring to. The purpose of my response was not to posit anything, but to demonstrate the dangers of taking conspiracy theorists at face value by enumerating the many breaches of critical thinking in Thompson and Wood’s article.
“The other hypothesis, particularly “confusing unfamiliar with improbable”, can be used to support either Reese or Thompson and Wood. They enable the argument that the Bush administration, in not responding quickly to September 11, assumed that they were witnessing something familiar, an accident. But in adopting a friendly posture toward counter-intuitive speculation – consider the hearty endorsement of conjecture and circumstantial argumentation implied in the “absence of evidence” line – the folks at DARPA, by their own thinking, would hardly dispose of Thompson and Wood’s government-complicity hypothesis out of hand.”
Of course, a government conspiracy is a possibility. It is also possible that aliens have landed on Earth and that people can bend spoons with their minds. However, the probability is extremely remote. In such cases, it is prudent to apply most of the available resources to investigating the more likely scenarios, unless there is a reason to do otherwise. If the more likely scenarios do not fit all the evidence, then less likely avenues need to be explored.
“The point DARPA’s report most often comes back to is that things have gotten awfully hard for people to understand – or, as DARPA puts it, “In today’s world, the amount of information that needs to be considered far exceeds the capacity of the unaided humans in the system.” The report suggests several technologies for aiding humans in considering information – the most recent and notorious being FutureMAP, a plan for creating a financial market in, among other things, the probability of upcoming terrorist attacks. If this report can be taken at face value (which is hardly safe to presume), then those in government have considered the problem and come to a conclusion much like Mindy Kleinberg’s: the theory of luck.”
Actually, the author’s interpretation of the DARPA report yields a conclusion much like the author’s interpretation of Mindy Kleinberg’s “theory of luck”. This is not at all surprising. However, it has already been noted that the author’s interpretations are somewhat…creative.
“Then again, it would be naive to assume that Kleinberg is being on the level any more than DARPA is. If she isn’t, her motives, unlike DARPA’s, are fairly easy to guess. The way in which her testimony aligns with the research of parapolitical writers like Thompson and Wood, skipping only the explicit accusation of government complicity, leaves open the possibility that she hoped to lead the committee to consider arguments like Thompson and Wood’s without making the allegation outright and taking the risk of being called “traitor”. It would be better – for her, for us, and for the country – if these questions were brought into the open.”
Here we have a defense of what is perhaps the most ubiquitous tool of the conspiracy theorist – the “fuzzy assertion”. The conspiracy theorist suggests, infers, tantalizes, and quotes others out of context, but refuses to commit to a solid, defensible hypothesis supported by evidence. He leaves that up to other, more respectable parties. The author claims this is because he does not want to be branded a traitor. I say it is because the argument is so weak, it must be presented much like a veiled insult, in such a way that the person making the argument can deny that he ever did such a thing.
In his book, “Coping with Difficult People”, Robert Bramson described a type of person called the “Complainer”. Complainers, he says, are not interested in finding solutions to concrete problems. Instead, they feel a need to “sound the alarm” so that others may intervene on their behalf. Bramson writes, “From the inside, complaining is an effort, however foredoomed, to warn about a thing gone wrong that someone else must fix.” Complainers feel powerless, but have strong beliefs about the way things should be, as well as strong convictions that things are not this way, and so must be changed. At the same time, they have a strong desire to remain blameless themselves, so they refuse to take responsibility for their own complaints.
Complainers with delusions of grandeur?
If conspiracy theorists can be viewed as complainers with delusions of grandeur, then perhaps Bramson’s advice on how to cope with the more garden-variety complainers can be useful here. Bramson’s solution to coping with such people (not fixing them) is to get them to take a more problem-solving approach to life, rather than remaining in a rut of bitterness and whining. If this fails, he says, the last resort is to ask the complainer point blank: What is it you want to accomplish here? How will we know when everything has been fixed to your satisfaction? What will that look like?
On the other hand, since Bramson focuses on coping, and not fixing, then a third option would be just to ignore them. Unfortunately, to do so in the case of conspiracy theorists, we run the risk of allowing other, more gullible readers, to fall into their trap.
If conspiracy theorists wish to be taken seriously, this is what they must do: They must come up with a clearly stated hypothesis that can be tested for truth or falsehood. They must test their hypothesis by looking at all the evidence. They must examine this evidence in a rational and lucid manner, preferably with the help of others who do not necessarily share their political views. If they cannot think like scientists, then they can at least think like journalists. No more taking quotes out of context, no more drawing questionable conclusions based on personal biases, no more placing the burden of proof on others. They are making the extraordinary claims, they can do the work required to support these claims.
Until then, my advice to conspiracy theorists everywhere is…put up or shut up.