conspiracy theories

I love reading conspiracy books. I love conspiracy theories.
And I also rather love the pained choking sound made by the demystifiers of conspiracy theories. It is in their rhetoric that one can find all the things that characterize our 21st century capitalist society: the identification of seriousness with credentials, the logical inconsistencies that accompany examining social phenomena with an abridged set that excludes members that should be included, and the higher rationality of the technocrat that mystifies the processes of narration.. All of these features are on gorgeous display in the Aeon article about conspiracy theories written by a philosopher (who else?), Quassim Cassam. We already know where Cassam is going when he begins his article by exhibiting a loony: 

“Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Notice the flow of that paragraph. Notice how Oliver is a conspiracy theorist, but the government – it is a judge. What is elided here is what the government, or the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, offered as its explanation for 9/11 – a conspiracy theory. That is, a theory about a conspiracy that made an event happen. What is elided, as well, or put under the sign of smugness, is expertise. What did the committee do? It hired people who spent much of their time going to websites, for instance, of jihadists. They consulted “experts” on Al Qaeda. They rarely, it should be noted, interviewed anybody from Al qaeda. Nor did they interview, as far as I know, anybody from the Saudi government. And when they interviewed certain persons, as for instance the President, they gave those persons enormous leeway in their testimony. Finally, the government report was redacted and censored.

This is how you form a theory about conspiracy. There is no other viable theory about 9/11. 19 persons didn’t spontaneously hijack four planes.

All theories about 9/11 are conspiracy theories.

However, the conspiracy theory debunker never begins from the construction of “authorized” conspiracies. In a sense, ideology in Marx’s image – the inversion of the world – is exactly what they are engaged in.

When we see such inversions, what we should expect is a certain class aggression. The construct of Oliver, who will then be battered left and right in Cassam’s essay, is the construct of an “amateur”.

The war between the academic and the amateur, especially as academia filled the spaces of expertise after WWII, is fierce and unrelenting. An amateur is part time, for one thing – he works in his “spare time”. The researcher, by contrast,, is ideally full time. Anybody who has contact with academic research can tell you that this is a pretty distorted picture – administration, teaching, managing grad students, all of these take away from research time proper. The researcher understands credentialing. Cassam’s goal in his article is to say that conspiracy theorizing arises from a character flaw in the theorizer. And to credential his theory, he opposes it to another credentialed theory, which is that conspiracy theories mistakenly find patterns in random events.

“A different objection to character-based explanations is that it’s just not true that people have questionable beliefs because they are stupid or gullible. In How We Know What Isn’t So (1991), the US social psychologist Thomas Gilovich argues that many such beliefs have ‘purely cognitive origins’, by which he means that they are caused by imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. Yet the example he gives of a cognitive explanation takes us right back to character explanations. His example is the ‘hot hand’ in basketball. The idea is that when a player makes a couple of shots he is more likely to make subsequent shots. Success breeds success.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.
And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation.”

Actually, as a recent statistical study that impressed Gilovich shows, the basketball coaches seemed to be on to something. In 2014, Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz, and Carolyn Stein presented a paper, The Hot Hand: A New Approach to an Old “Fallacy” that targetted an assumption in Gilovich and Tversky’s classic paper:

“Each player has an ensemble of shots that vary in difficulty (depending, for example, on the distance from the basket and on defensive pressure), and each shot is randomly selected from this ensemble”

Bocskocsky et al. reasoned that if basketball players did believe in the hot hand, there would be a skewing in the ensemble of shots – they would make the shots more difficult for the person with the so called hot hand. Thus, there would be a pattern – a pattern “caused” by belief in a pattern – among the players. Basketball coaches knew this, although of course they don’t speak in statistical terms – or at least they used not to, before data analysis became an essential part of the basketball toolkit. So they used “a novel dataset of over 83,000 shots from the 2012-2013 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, combined with optical tracking data of both the players and the ball.” And they did find a hot hand effect: “Our estimates of the Hot Hand effect range from 1.2 to 2.4 percentage points in increased likelihood of making a shot.”

Now, why would B, et. al., have started this research? Perhaps because the people who played basketball, rather than studied it statistically, were sure that the statisticians were wrong. In other words, the amateurs were right to question “who is this guy?”

Cassam’s paper is part of a recent rightward turn in ethics towards “moral facts” and “character” – a turn that is executed by operating in that inverted ideological way, and viewing conspiracy not as a social construct, but as a culpable piece of rebellion against official narratives – even as those official narratives themselves encompass conspiracy theories.

Which brings us back to the government ‘s function in Cassam's first paragraph. The government 'blames'. This, too, elides a very important fact. The most important screwball conspiracy theory about 9/11 was not Oliver’s, but Dick Cheney’s, and it was that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and that officers from Iraq had met with Mohammed Atta. Dick Cheney happened to be vice president.

In other words, the “government” in Cassam’s presentation - that deus ex machina - is as much a fiction as “Oliver” –  since in reality the government has multiple aspects. The government, for instance, includes the House Committee on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy that concluded in 1976 that Oswald did not act alone – or, in other words, that there was a conspiracy.

Here we have two aspects of the government that disagree, since the Warren Commission, the previous official government response, was to blame Oswald alone. This became the official narrative. All others, then, became relatively loony.  As we know, when some part of the government acts naughty and doesn’t agree with an official narrative that has been agreed to by the experts, we ignore it. This principle - that only authorized conspiracies, which cease to be conspiracy theories, are allowed - was shown by the way the  NYT, Washington Post and LA Times all felt comfortable with dissing the character of “conspiracy theorist”  Gary Webb, who reported that the CIA knowingly collaborated with drug dealers in the Contra war - the recent subject of the movie "Kill the Messenger". The journalists who attacked him were very open about the fact that  Webb didn’t give enough space to the  CIA response to the accusation – that it was false – even though, theoretically, the journalists would all probably pretend that the role of the press is not to accept the word of government agencies at face value. But in this case,  given that "drugs" at the time Webb was writing were being used to create a massive flow of persons into penitentiaries, the government agency just couldn't have done what Webb said. It would question more than the integrity of the CIA, it would also question the meme that drugs - especially cocaine - were the evilest evil ever known. Given these interlinked elements, the conclusion had to be that we must believe the CIA. As one defender of the agency in the press put it, extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof - a perfect nonsequitor. There is no such thing as extraordinary proof.  What Webb was actually doing was following up on the Kerry commission report that the CIA had used people who used the CIA to smuggle drugs. But this part of the narrative was buried by the press. We didn't need to be hearing this.

However, not to end on a sour note, the wonderful thing about conspiracy books is not the truth of the conspiracies they uncover – I’ll admit it, most of them are whacky – but the way in which, by using degrees of separation to slice into our everyday history, they uncover the extraordinary weirdness of the everyday. Anybody who reads about the New Orleans of Oswald’s day, as uncovered by Jim Garrison, has to be impressed by the totally oddball character of it: the hairless pedophile part spy airline pilot, or the private detectives shaking down strip clubs, or the daily work of Mafiosi guys – this is what I love. It is a rather beautiful narrative method, because it destabilizes the social weighting we accord to major and minor players – instead, the bit parts have a tendency to swallow the story. The necessity that there be bit parts in any narrative produces an unconscious effect on the spectator of making it seem like there are bit parts in the world. But bit parts are only in stories about the world, and those stories can be radically shifted. This is what the amateur knows, and the expert forgets.