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Selwynn Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 06:59 PM
Original message
New on the blog: The Conspiracy Quagmire: in pursuit of truth, or...
This is my formal response to the long standing tension here between conspiracy theorists and yours truly. Remember, its not the theory that's the problem, its the method.

The Conspiracy Quagmire: In Pursuit of Truth or Confirmation of Bias?

by Selwynn
It begins with an unexpected, large scale, often tragic event that affects us deeply. It then slowly feeds on the intrinsic human need to understand such experiences and make sense out of them. It continues to grow through the discovery of inconsistencies, discrepancies, unknowns and open questions which stand in the way of our understanding. It takes shape as we exchange the rigorous search for truth with the need for absolute certainty. It evolves further as we surrender critical methodology in our question asking and substitute our own biases in its place. And at last it fully manifests itself in the form of a sensational, fantastic conspiracy theory based primarily on our own psychological need for concrete absolutes.

This is the conspiracy quagmire. And it is a pit of muck and mire that can completely obfuscate genuine truth if we let it. There is a disturbing emergent bent among many who would identify themselves as liberal, progressive or leftist toward what can only be honestly described as severely uncritical thinking. This trend is endangering our credibility.

It is certainly accurate to say that uncovering the truth, particularly in the sphere of politics, is a difficult and complicated process - complete with disinformation, hidden agendas and numerous complexities. However it is also proper to acknowledge internal obstacles to truth. A lack of criticality, wishful thinking, sensationalism, emotionalism, blind inference, can all but insure that the truth will never be found.

My concern therefore, is not specifically with the speculation on or discovery of a particular conspiracy (in the sense of the legal term). My concern is with patterns of poor thinking that incorrectly lead to wrong (and often sensationalistic) conclusions that impede the discovery of the real.

The Flaw of Conspiracology
The most common definition of conspiracy is two or more people secretly planning to commit a crime. In pop culture, the more legalistic definition has been frequently broadened to include groups of people planning to deliberately mislead the public in some way. However, the danger of conspiracy theory is not in the definition of a conspiracy, rather it is in how vidence to substantiate a theory is pursued.

It is certainly true that there have been plans made between two or more people to commit a crime or defraud the public throughout history. Conspiracies do happen. And informed critically reflective, scientifically rigorous investigators can prove conspiracies. However, when one substitutes scientific rigor and strenuous investigation of the evidence with assumptions, gut feelings, intuitions and personal prejudices one ceases to be a truth seeker and becomes a conspriacologist. This invented word seems to suffice as a definition of the phenomenon, representing a faux-science, such as astrology or numerology.

The fundamental flaw of conspiracology lies in assuming a conclusion prior to any concrete evidence, then piecing together circumstantial, speculative, anecdotal evidence to prove a conclusion already assumed. So for example, rather than seriously seeking hard evidence to explain why my coffee cup lies shattered on the floor, I immediately assume that aliens came into my house and broke my coffee cup. From that point on, I begin the search to prove that conclusion true.

Every bit of evidence I seek out is filtered through the interpretive lens of the conclusion I already believe to be true. Now, the slimy substance I find on my front doorstep is from the aliens shape shifting to ooze underneath my door en route to breaking my coffee cup. I dont even entertain the possibility that the slime could have any other cause, because I already believe what I want to believe about why my coffee cup is broken I am not seriously seeking truth.

The Problem of Bias
The basic definition of a bias is a belief held based on something other than credible evidence. To expand that definition slightly, biases are unscientific predispositions inherent in all persons. Biases are created by our interaction with our environment or society as well as by personal emotional/experiential factors and other kinds of conditioning. It is impossible to be unbiased about anything. The best that can be hoped for is to be consciously aware of what biases we have, so that we can counter them with reason.

And this is the basic problem of the conspiracologist: assumed conclusions not based on rational evidence are de facto based on irrational biases. Unrecognized biases are so dangerous because they create gigantic blind spots in thinking. James Bach summarized some of the most common biases for a teaching class for, surprisingly, software testers:

  • Beliefs we tend to persevere in our beliefs. We are often not aware of the beliefs that influence our thinking
  • Prominence we give greater weight to prominent evidence. We treat recent, disturbing or familiar evidence as more prominent
  • Assimilation we assimilate evidence into our preconceived beliefs or explanations. We tend to ignore contrary evidence. We treat things that look alike as if they are alike
  • Self-interest we look harder for conclusions that favor our self-interest. We practice wishful thinking
  • Life we are influenced by our upbringing, language, culture, heritage, talents, weaknesses, etc.

When people of the liberal and progressive community begin to speak with unquestioning certainty about the conspiracy to cause 9/11, or to murder democratic congressmen, or of secret societies who rule the world, the concerns and skepticism expressed toward those claims should not be based on an instinct to reject uncomfortable ideas. Instead, concerns and skepticism should be based on an understanding of biases, and a demand for critical investigation and clear and credible evidence. The conspriacologist is unwilling to even consider the possibility that any explanation other than the most fantastic is possible. However, the critically reflective and honest truth seeker refuses to eliminate any possibility, including those which indicate a conspiracy, until clear evidence makes elimination necessary.

When liberals and progressives become conspiracologists and not honest truth seekers, there are several unfortunate consequences. First, we lose persuasive credibility. We prove true the charges that we are out of touch. Our message evaporates from the public eye and is decreed fringe. Second, we lose our own critical perspective on the issues that matter. Instead of focusing on resisting bad legislation or winning this years elections, we find that our community has a preoccupied fixation with the sensationalism of conspiracology. We focus on the wrong things, we fight the wrong fights, we prioritize what matters in a blind and biased way. Finally, we overlook serious evidence because it does not fit our pre-assumptions. This makes the actual discovery of verifiable truth all but impossible.

Overcoming Bias through Better Thinking
There is of course, a far better alternative to unreflective, biased thinking. One of the goals in the pursuit of truth must be to recognize and overcome the biases in all of us. Another must be to rigorously commit ourselves to the principle that we will not form conclusions without clear and credible evidence. This is called keeping an open mind. But the most important tool for overcoming bias is to resist the propensity of human beings to find or interpret evidence that supports a conclusion already held and ignore or overlook evidence that refutes a conclusion already held. This natural human inclination can be resisted by understanding and utilizing on of the principles of scientific thinking: conjecture and refutation.

The concept of conjecture and refutation is credited to Philosopher Karl Popper, who suggested that the best tool for overcoming the confirmation bias is to active seek out evidence which might disprove rather than prove theories we hold. The more and more we attempt to disprove a theory and fail, the more credible this theory becomes. One of the greatest problems with conspiracologists is that they cannot adequately respond to evidence which conflicts with a given theory, and instead frequently turn back to anecdotal or speculative inferences.

Conspiracologists could be transformed into honest truth seekers by a rigorous investigation of the evidence against a particular point of view. The truly rational person must ask, What evidence or conditions might make this claim false rather than observe, ah here is yet another piece of information that I will interpret to support the conclusion I already hold! The truly rational person must not be defensive about evidence that might not neatly support a particular theory, but rather rigorously investigate every lead. There is nothing wrong with asking critical questions about the possibility of a conspiracy in certain events. However, it is a huge and significant problem with we jump to conspiracy conclusions and seek out only evidence that confirms our assumptions while ignoring or responding defensively to conflicting evidence.

The Myth of Certainty
Finally, as genuine truth seekers we must be ready to accept the reality that certainty is a myth. In many if not all situations in life, absolute unequivocal certainty is not possible. Another trait of a conspiractologist is an inability or refusal to accept that some questions are simply unanswerable, and there are some things we might never know. However, in the real pursuit of truth, we must also understands the limitations on grasping truth for certain. All we can really do is apply the principles of scientific inquiry to our questions, attempt to do our best to overcome our biases with critical thinking, make use of the tools of conjecture and refutation, keep an open mind to other possibilities or contrary evidence, and always hold the best theory which fits the most facts as the most likely, but not certain, explanation.

In doing this, we can avoid many ugly and embarrassing experiences. We can unite together and critically investigate evidence about matters important to society, and we can do so without becoming angry or defensive at each other. As truth seekers, the facts are more important than our own desire to be right, and we should eagerly welcome evidence that disproves a theory we hold. Why? Because it means there is one less untruthful theory out there, and we are one step closer to truth.

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Tansy_Gold Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:17 PM
Response to Original message
1. A different word
I don't like "conspiracology." It suggests more a study of conspiracy theory rather than a belief in conspiracy theory in general or a particular theory. I think "conspiracism" works better: rather like capitalism is a belief in the economic system based on capital. Those who believe in conspiracism are conspiracists, to distinguish the believers from the actors, who are then conspirators.

I'm not a linguist, like Chomsky, but I do believe words need to have distinct meanings. "Conspiracism" also suggests a kinship with belief systems such as monotheism, theism, feminism, and so on, all of which attempt to organize and rationalize events and concepts on a metaphysical level.

I think conspiracism has much in common with religion in that respect. In looking at the way we -- and by we, I mean left/liberals in general, but DUers in particular -- address conspiracy theories that attempt to either explain the actions of the * regime or attach to it the blame for various bad things around us, whether the economy, the war, or even 9/11, I think you also have to keep in mind that the rightwing does the same thing. If you pin conspiracism only on the left as a means of dealing with the right, you lose a lot of credibility.

On the morning of 9/11/01, as I watched the unfolding events on CNN, my very first thought was, gee, I wonder how the Bushies engineered this. And to this day I don't doubt for a moment that at least some of their actions contributed directly and indirectly to those events. But later that morning, when I was in class and we were discussing the events, I was the only one who shouted down the voices insisting that the perpetrators had to be members of a very large, very powerful organization.

No, I insisted, large organizations may have money, but they also have many vulnerabilities. And of course it was eventually revealed that only a handful of people were involved.

But if you look at some of the long-standing "conspiracy" theories, a.k.a. contemporary religions, you'll find a lot of the same biases and denials that are found in conspiracy theories. Religion does not hold up well to scientific examination.

Tansy Gold
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Selwynn Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:41 PM
Response to Reply #1
4. Those were very interesting comments!
I don't have a lot to add, sadly. But I enjoyed your perspective. :)
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Sterling Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:30 PM
Response to Original message
2. All that and not one fact.
Your time would be wiser spent understanding relevant information instead of going to great lengths to avoid the subject.
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Selwynn Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:39 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. And what subject would that be, exactly ?
Edited on Mon Jan-26-04 07:39 PM by Selwynn
Yes, I can see how an essay which stresses critical inquiry, rational thinking, and the scientific method to pursue truth would be really a poor use of time.

You know, as opposed to say, wild hyperbolic speculation, emotionalistic sensationalism, heavily biased and uncritical thinking on issues that really matter...
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JohnyCanuck Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:57 PM
Response to Original message
5. What was the invasion of Iraq if it wasn't a conspiracy.
Edited on Mon Jan-26-04 07:58 PM by JohnyCanuck
We now have it confirmed thanks to O'Neill that Dubya and his puppeteers were raring to go and looking for any excuse at all to invade Iraq from the day of the inauguration. We had the creation of the Office of Special Plans to cherry pick intelligence and feed it to Herr Rumsfeld and his compatriots. See,2763,999737,00.h...

We had fear-mongering speeches verging on the hysterical by house slave Colin, the sockpuppet president and his pet poodle from across the pond implying that evil-doer Saddam had tons of nerve gas, anthrax etc. and was on the verge of producing nukes any day now and could launch WMDs at a moments notice so he had to be taken out immediately - All of which has been proven to be blatant lies, propgaganda and disinformation once Iraq was actually invaded.

Philosophical discussion are fine, but after the above example don't tell me there are no conspiracies.
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Selwynn Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 08:35 PM
Response to Reply #5
8. No one is saying there are no conspiracies.
That's why right in the first post it says conspiracies exist. The problem however, is in the method for investigating the truth. It is a common occurrence on all sides of the political spectrum. People who come to the issue with their minds already made up before looking at one piece of evidence are the problem. People who let biases rule their thinking rather than critical investigation are the problem. That's why my mind isn't made up on many issues. But on others, I'm satisfied with the evidence and feel one can make a justified conclusion based on that evidence. The evidence takes the form of the concrete and not the speculative abstract however, and does not fly in the fact of other credible evidence.
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Tansy_Gold Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 08:48 PM
Response to Reply #8
9. Well, I think this also applies to the question posed in another. . . .
. . . .. thread regarding how we "knew" * was lying, the point being that we had no hard evidence that he was, just our "faith" and, to a certain extent, what we wanted to believe about the whole * regime.

Which is not to say we were wrong -- we acted on trust and were proven correct: there were no WMDs, Iraq is becoming another version of Vietnam, * is a pathological liar operated by more pathological liars.

But we didn't have hard proof, and yet we're excoriating certain Dem candidates because they were "misled" by evidence we've never seen. We were correct, but only after the fact.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 07:59 PM
Response to Original message
6. The problem is currently with conservative bias
Aliens and Angels notwithstanding (both camps have their phantoms)...

News outfits and billionaires cough up money to Right-wing conspiracy theorists and further back that up with the authority of network news. They are not called "conspiracy theories", they are called "links" and "leads" and "investigations". These theories tend to be born a success; the media croons the suspicions of the neocon conspiracists (we have one for a President now) and bothers not at all to provide context for the issue, much less refute the claims; It is all for our collective good, to enhance our security by striking at "them". Much that is unworthy of further investigation is raised to the status of scandal and even war.

The opposite is true for the Left. There is rarely enough money or resources to be had for investigations that coincide with the Left's aims, and a lot of needed truth gets buried in the collective amnesia. Events and evidence that raise crucial questions are not to be trusted to well-financed investigations; that possibility is cut-off with the derogatory "conspiracy theorist" term and an almost scripted ridicule ensues. The issues are gingerly entertained on TV for that purpose alone.

That a conspiracy exists against investigating our failures on 9/11/2001 is a fact.

That the government conspired to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King was proven in a court of law. (Oops!)

These are non-issues in the corporate mass media. Actually, they fear them as surely as they feared the L.A. riots.

The powerful in this country have decided they have simply had enough of being called on their greed, bigotry and neglect and are not willing to deal with any more nosiness from below, right or wrong.

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Tansy_Gold Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 08:09 PM
Response to Reply #6
7. You just proved {sic} what I said
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-26-04 08:52 PM
Response to Reply #7
10. You're welcome. Always glad to supply examples
..especially when they're lacking.

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