On conspiracy theories

2006-09-01

in Bombs and rockets, Daily updates, Politics, Science, Security

Kasbar, Cowley Road, Oxford

Partly prompted by a Penn and Teller episode, and partly by a post written by my friend Tristan, I have been thinking about conspiracy theories today. On what basis can we as individuals accept or refute them? Let’s take some examples that Penn and Teller raise: the reality of the moon landings, the nature of the JFK assassination, and the nature of the September 11th attacks. It should be noted that this is the worst episode of theirs I have ever seen. It relies largely upon arguments based on emotion, backed by the testimony of people to whom Penn and Teller accord expert status, rather than a logical or empirical demonstration of why these theories should be considered false.

Normally, our understanding of such phenomena is mediated through experts. When someone credible makes a statement about the nature of what took place, it provides some evidence for believing it. Penn and Teller amply demonstrate that there are lots of crazy and disreputable people who believe that the moon landing was faked, some strange conspiracy led to the death of JFK, and CIA controlled drones and explosives were used to carry out the September 11th attacks. That said, it hardly disproves those things. Plenty of certifiably insane people believe that the universe is expanding, that humans and viruses have a common biological ancestor, and that any whole number can be generated by adding powers of two (365 = 2^8 + 2^6 + 2^5 + 2^3 +2^2 + 2^0). That doesn’t make any of those things false.

We really have three mechanisms to work with:

  1. Empirical evidence
  2. Logical reasoning
  3. Heuristic methods

As individuals confronted with questions like those above, we almost always use the third. While those with a powerful telescope and the right coordinates could pick out all the junk we left on the moon, most people lack the means. Likewise, those with a rifle, a melon, and some time can learn the physics behind why Kennedy moved the way he did when he was shot, despite Oliver Stone‘s theories to the contrary. Finally, someone with some steel beams, jet fuel, and mathematical and engineering knowledge can model the collapse of the twin towers as induced by heat related weakening of steel to their heart’s content. Normally, however, we must rely upon experts to make these kinds of judgements for us, whether on the basis of sound technique or not.

Logical reasoning is great, but when applied strictly cannot get us very far. Most of what people call ‘logic’ is actually probabalistic reasoning. Strict logic can tell us about things that are necessary and things that are impossible. If every senior member of the American administration is controlled by an alien slug entity, and all alien slug entitites compel their hosts to sing “Irish Eyes are Smiling” once a day, we can logically conclude that all members of the American administration sing “Irish Eyes are Smiling” every day. Likewise, if all bats are bugs, all non-bugs must be non-bats. Entirely logically valid, but not too useful.

A heuristic reasoning device says something along the lines of: “In the more forty years or so since the moon landing, nobody has brought forward credible evidence that they were faked. As such, it is likely that they were not.” Occam’s razor works on the same kind of principle. This is often the best kind of analysis we can manage as individuals, and it is exactly this that makes conspiracy theories so difficult to dislodge. Once you adopt a different logic of probability, for instance one where certain people will stop at nothing to keep the truth hidden, your probabilistic reasoning gets thrown out of whack.

How, then, should we deal with competing testimony from ‘experts’ of various sorts, and with the fallout of our imperfect ability to access and understand the world as individuals? If there was a pat and easy answer to this question, it would be enormously valuable. Alas, there is not, and we are left to try and reach judgments on the basis of our own, imperfect, capabilities.

PS. For the record, I believe that the moon was almost certainly walked upon by humans, that Oswald quite probably shot John F. Kennedy on his own initiative, and that the airplanes listed in the 9/11 report as having crashed where they did actually did so. My reasons for believing these things are almost entirely heuristic.

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{ 118 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan September 1, 2006 at 11:56 pm

A whole collection of Penn and Teller episodes is online. Most are much better than the one linked in this post.

I was informed of this collection through comments left on this blog earlier.

B September 2, 2006 at 12:16 am

You say tolerance is good. How can you be tolerant, but still be able to tell people when they are totally out to lunch on something? I remember you wrote ages ago about disproving how magnets can impove the taste of wine…

Anonymous September 2, 2006 at 12:19 am

This P&T episode is especially full of easily disprovable stupid ideas: ie, fung shway.

Jerry September 2, 2006 at 1:48 am

Man, there’s no dealing with this stuff. When there’s no real proof, there is no real answer for people.

Lee September 2, 2006 at 4:09 pm

I started writing a comment and it turned into a mini-essay, so see my own blog for my thoughts..

Anonymous September 2, 2006 at 4:34 pm
Anon April 15, 2007 at 12:01 pm

9/11 conspiracism is dragging activists away from the real issues

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th February 2007

nasreddin April 15, 2007 at 7:19 pm

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

By Richard Hofstadter
Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86.

Anonymous April 16, 2007 at 5:46 pm

The Penn and Teller episode is on YouTube.

Milan May 7, 2007 at 11:56 am
Anon August 14, 2007 at 9:38 am

Schneier just posted on this.

Anon August 14, 2007 at 9:39 am

“To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.”

Milan September 3, 2007 at 2:03 am

The Conspiracy Files 911

An interesting documentary dedicated to debunking the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks on New-York and Washington DC. … all » Exposes just how ludicrous these myths are, but unfortunately, true to the BBC’s tradition of Political correctness and leftist bias, fails to connect the dots between their views and their Political affiliation.

Ranging from the outright insane “inside job” theory of the so called “9/11 Truth movement” (talk about the height of irony), to the proposterous and racist anti-jewish conspiracies, this charade has all the characteristics of a mental disease.

I hope you enjoy this, and strongly advise you to also take a look at the desperate follow ups by this crazy bunch to get a better idea of what we’re dealing here with.

Milan September 25, 2007 at 12:50 am
. July 8, 2008 at 1:51 pm

Impossible conspiracies

By Mike Rudin (BBC News) on Mike Rudin

President Bush’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on 9/11, Richard Clarke, told The Conspiracy Files that there are two key reasons he thought the conspiracy theories about 9/11 are not possible – first competency, the alternative theories suggested are hugely complex and would have required a huge number of people; secondly, the difficulty of keeping secrets.

. March 6, 2009 at 5:15 pm

San Francisco Historians Condemn 1906 Earthquake Deniers

March 6, 2009 | Issue 45•10

“If an earthquake of that size really did strike downtown San Francisco, then where is all the rubble?” read one pamphlet, entitled “After$hock$: Truth, Lies, And The Business Of Earthquakes,” obtained by reporters. “Where are these alleged 3,000 dead? And why does the mayor refuse to answer questions about the fires that mysteriously started moments after the supposed ‘earthquake’ occurred? Ask yourself: Who is he protecting?”

. April 9, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Heated Controversy
Do firefighters believe 9/11 conspiracy theories?
By Christopher Beam
Posted Wednesday, April 8, 2009, at 5:18 PM ET

Do any firefighters believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories?

Yes. There’s no evidence that firefighters buy into 9/11 conspiracy theories at higher rates than the rest of the population. (A 2007 Zogby poll found that 26 percent of Americans believe the government “let it happen.” A 2006 Scripps-Howard poll found it was more than a third.) But some firemen do believe the government was behind 9/11 and use their status as first responders to draw attention to their statements.

. April 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Questions and Answers about the NIST WTC 7 Investigation (Updated 12/18/2008)

What was WTC 7?
The original World Trade Center Building 7 (WTC 7) was a 47-story office building located immediately to the north of the main World Trade Center (WTC) complex. Completed in 1987, it was built on top of an existing Con Edison substation and located on land owned by The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

When did WTC 7 collapse?
On Sept. 11, 2001, WTC 7 endured fires for almost seven hours, from the time of the collapse of the north WTC tower (WTC 1) at 10:28:22 a.m. until 5:20:52 p.m., when WTC 7 collapsed.

What caused the fires in WTC 7?
Debris from the collapse of WTC 1, which was 370 feet to the south, ignited fires on at least 10 floors in the building at its south and west faces. However, only the fires on some of the lower floors—7 through 9 and 11 through 13—burned out of control. These lower-floor fires—which spread and grew because the water supply to the automatic sprinkler system for these floors had failed—were similar to building fires experienced in other tall buildings. The primary and backup water supply to the sprinkler systems for the lower floors relied on the city’s water supply, whose lines were damaged by the collapse of WTC 1 and WTC 2. These uncontrolled lower-floor fires eventually spread to the northeast part of WTC 7, where the building’s collapse began.

Tristan April 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm

“conspiracy theories” is a bad idea. When you call a theory a conspiracy theory, you immediately remove all credibility from it. All conspiracy theories which are true are no longer called conspiracy theories. We should call the 9/11 truth movement not a conspiracy theory – this is an a priori dismissal of its possibility of being true (which is unscientific). We should just call it a theory, and evaluate it on its merits.

This is the same for Holocaust deniers. We shouldn’t call their theories “conspiracy” theories, we should just call them theories, and prove why they are wrong. Lots of theories that are true are theories which infer a conspiracy. For example, even something as mundane as price-fixing in gasoline pricing is a “conspiracy theory” in this technical sense.

If we want to be scientific about evaluating claims, and not presume them false because of perceived intentions in those who put them forward, we should never use the term “conspiracy theory” at all.

Tristan April 9, 2009 at 1:40 pm

The real conspiracy in 9/11 is simple and not challenged by anyone seriously – that the Bush Administration and the “terrorists” always had the same interests – the reduction of civil liberties and freedom for US citizens. Making sure democracy does not function, making sure people hate the government and are isolated – these are preconditions both for the perpetuation of the existing American state and also for the possibility of a return to religious fundamentalism.

It makes no difference whether the towers were destroyed by dynamite or by a place, or whether the terrorists were hired by the U.S. or acted entirely independently, or whether they were intentionally not stopped, or even whether the Bush Admin’s incompetence in dealing with the threats in advance was purposeful or not. 9/11 was good for all states interested in committing state-terrorism in the name of a war-on-terror. That’s what is interesting, not how it was caused.

. June 2, 2009 at 7:31 pm

NASA UFOs explained

By Phil Plait on Skepticism

Some UFO stories are sillier than others. Among the very silliest are claims that NASA not only has evidence that the Space Shuttle is buzzed by flying saucers, but that they have video of it and this video is commonly released by NASA.

OK, can we first screw our heads on straight here? If you’re claiming that astronauts routinely take video of alien spacecraft, and that NASA is desperately trying to cover them up, why in the frak would they release the video?

Hello, McFly? I mean, seriously?

Anyway, the videos usually makes me laugh, because the “UFOs” in question are just ice particles on the Shuttle dislodged when they fire the maneuvering jets. And when they fire the jets again, the expanding plume of gas makes the particles change direction and accelerate away. It’s really that simple, yet there are elaborate conspiracy theories created to say these are alien spacecraft, and lots of people buy into it.

Milan June 5, 2009 at 3:45 pm

This thread has involved some discussion of the nature of conspiracy theories in general: Who Killed the Electric Car?.

Milan June 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Tristan,

Regarding this, does it not trouble you especially to think that most conspiracy theories are probably false? When all you have is conjecture based on plausibility, you will very often be wrong.

Milan June 5, 2009 at 4:06 pm

As Matt pointed out, conspiracy theories are very asymmetrical when it comes to effort – they are easy to create and hard to disprove. Indeed, they are so easy to create that those who have the information necessary to debunk them cannot justify the time required to do so – especially when their statement is likely to be dismissed out of hand by people already emotionally committed to the conspiracy theory. Just look at all the people who continue to reject the quality work done on the WTC collapse by engineers and metallurgists.

Tristan June 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

That a conspiracy is “probably” false isn’t a very scientific claim. The issue is the availability of evidence. When information is hidden we can only say that we can’t say of a theory whether it is true or not, and we can conjecture political reasons behind the absence of evidence. Theorizing as to why information is not available is not scientific, but it is not “unscientific” anymore than political analysis is “unscientific”. Perhaps conspiracy theories are characterized by the way they deal both with natural scientific issues (e.g. nano thermite), and human science issues (e.g. political motivation, power structures, etc…).

Milan June 5, 2009 at 6:15 pm

That isn’t a very satisfying response.

The fact remains that if you believe any plausible-sounding conspiracy theory, with little or no evidence, you will end up believing a lot of things that are untrue. This, in turn, is likely to make you think, speak, and act in inappropriate ways.

Dealing with conspiracy theories challenges us both to consider the means by which hypotheses should be evaluated, in an ideal circumstance, as well as what limitations in human psychology obstruct us from doing so well in reality.

Milan June 5, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Just scroll through Wikipedia’s list of conspiracy theories and think what an unhinged whacko you would be if you believed in all of them.

Matt June 5, 2009 at 6:22 pm

It would be more advantageous to think “is this likely” as opposed to think “is this plausible.”

R.K. June 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Some of those are clearly absurd. A Guatemalan coup orchestrated by the CIA? What rubbish.

But the shape-shifting alien reptiles are the real deal, man!

R.K. June 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Apparently, “tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the star system Alpha Draconis are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy directed at humanity.” They “maintain their control through the generation of fear and negative emotion, which is food to these entities, by manufacturing conflicts, primarily wars.” Also, “most of the world’s leaders are in fact related to these reptilians.”

Stephen Harper certainly is.

R.K. June 5, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Time Cube is the other 100% legit conspiracy theory:

“The 12 hour or 1/2 Day clock is an intended EVIL against humanity –
indicting every human on Earth as Dumb, Educated Stupid and Evil –
for imaginary Cubed Earth has 4
Days within simultaneous rotation.
One God would equal a God Dunce
as Humans evolve from Children.”

Matt June 5, 2009 at 8:01 pm

The problem with a typical conspiracy theory [CT from now on] is how they’re generally so sensational. You never, for example, hear a conspiracy theory about stolen Kleenex technology. Rather, the good ones all have really cool words in them, for example ‘spy,’ ‘assassination,’ ‘dynamite,’ ‘stealth,’ and ‘thermite.’ (As someone who’s actually made thermite I hate this one. Thermite, being only powdered rust and aluminum, is pretty boring. The aluminum simply reduces the rust in a very exothermic reaction giving you molten iron and aluminum oxide.)

I find most CTs focus on the sexy topics because it gives the teller a sense of importance, like they’re ‘in the know’. They can call dissenters “sheeple” and spout off with a half-baked understanding of science. No one would listen to them if they were telling stories about the above mentioned Kleenex.

I would normally classify a conspiracy theory as a theory that goes against a more likely, or in fact scientifically accepted answer. Unfortunately, with the internet, there is so much information readily available to anyone, that bad information makes it out as easily as the good stuff. If I want to log into a website that tells me the Earth is flat, and gives ‘scientifc’ reasons, I could! Just as I can log into a website that tells me god designed bananas to fit perfectly into the human hand on our young Earth.

Tristan June 6, 2009 at 3:09 am

The issue is between whether you should reject conspiracy theories outhand, or reserve judgement. Setting the question up this way:

“The fact remains that if you believe any plausible-sounding conspiracy theory, with little or no evidence, you will end up believing a lot of things that are untrue.”

ignores the possibility of reserving judgment. Thinking something is possible is different from thinking it is definitely true. There is a difference between people who do some youtube and wikipedia research on the Nazi Bell project and all of a sudden unilaterally believe that UFOs are a way of covering up futuristic technology, and those who find the possibility interesting enough to look for more serious research on the same topics. I don’t think one is a “conspiracy theorist” in the deplorable sense if one fails to deny the possibility that interesting technologies may exist which were never made public. The fact that oil companies were able to kill off the electric car, despite its obvious promise, makes it easy to believe that better energy alternatives might be kept in hiding to maintain the status quo of oil profitability.

Milan June 7, 2009 at 11:16 pm

In terms of behaviour, what does it mean ‘to reserve judgment?’

When you are having a conversation and someone brings up their ardent belief that the CIA blew up the World Trade Centre, vaccines cause autism, and the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the planet, how do you respond? Using what is ‘possible’ as your yardstick requires you to continually entertain the possibility that the sun orbits the Earth, we never landed on the moon, spinal fluxions cause tuberculosis, etc.

To me, it seems important to actively reject hypotheses that (a) don’t have a strong basis in evidence and (b) cause you to behave in inappropriate ways, if you take them to heart. There is a personal and societal cost that accompanies people being unwilling to reject very dubious hypotheses.

Tristan June 7, 2009 at 11:48 pm

I often find myself in conversational situations where people are asserting claims I don’t think are well based in fact, claims which I would not affirm as my own beliefs. I find the right thing to do usually is to express doubt rather than assert the falseness of their claims. If I happen to be privy to the information which refutes their position, then sure, I’ll tell them they are wrong – but usually I don’t know enough about the issue to take a position.

Reserving judgement is a technical notion which means what it sounds like – choosing not to make a judgement rather than possibly making a false one. It’s certainly not appropriate in every case, but nothing ever is.

It certainly is possible that the new collider will destroy the planet. The technical debate is about whether the change is microscopic or infinitesimal, if I remember correctly.

The sun does “orbit” the earth by any reasonable notion of the word “orbit”. If you assume the earth is not moving, then the sun circles it. If you assume the sun is not moving, then the earth moves around the sun. Every model of orbits since the late Ptolemaic one is equally simple mathematically and provides equally good predictions to an amateur astronomer.

The CIA might have blown up lots of things. As for the 911 inside job theories, I think its just too unlikely – if you wanted to pull an inside job terrorist spoof, you’d do something simple, this scenario has too many contingencies. But, there is no principled reason to think the CIA would never attempt something like that, with adequate technology. The CIA is just a wing of the executive branch, they just do things told to them. What’s interesting, however, is not who blew up what, but who profited and how, and the disparity between claimed interests and interests acted on. The CIA is no stranger to committing acts of terror – certainly the CIA killed a lot of people on September 11th 1973.

. June 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm
Tristan June 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm

A good video animation about closed and open mindedness, evidence, and the difference between not accepting a claim and believing that a claim is false.

http://www.dailymotion.com/user/totocacapouet/video/x8uei4_openmindedness_tech

Milan June 12, 2009 at 5:53 pm

I am not saying we should be closed to new information. If Obama pulls his face off on national television, revealing his horrible Reptilian form, pretty much everyone would start taking that particular conspiracy theory more seriously.

What worries me about entertaining the possibility that conspiracy theories are true is that the simple fact of doing so can make us behave in ways we would consider inappropriate, if we knew for certain the theory was false. For instance, people who believe that vaccines are a western plot to sterilize people in the third world cause a lot of harm. Similarly, I think unfounded beliefs about the JFK assassination probably cause people to have a harmful attitude towards various elements of the American government.

When it comes to beliefs which have no practical impact on behaviour, there is no harm in reserving judgment. In situations where your belief does affect the choices you make, you need to choose a position to act on the basis of, even if you are open to changing it in the face of new evidence.

Milan June 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm

To take a practical example, I was once sitting on a Greyhound bus to Toronto beside a stranger who claimed that vaccines are harmful and unnecessary for children.

In this situation, I could have ignored her, or given a weak response along the lines of “I am willing to reserve judgment on that.” I think doing so would have been wrong. Even if I will not be able to convince this particular woman that there is no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism – and there is a strong link between vaccines and children not dying of tetanus, diphtheria, measles, etc – I have a chance of influencing the thinking of people sitting within hearing range, but not participating in the conversation.

In situations where people’s beliefs have important consequences (such as whether they vaccinate their children or encourage others to do so), I think we have an obligation to try to dispel weak arguments and provide strong counterarguments that make reference to good methodology and available evidence. That’s the only hope we have for rejecting damaging superstitions and encouraging behaviours that are well-informed.

I have been in similar situations with people arguing that climate change is not real or not a problem, people arguing that the World Trade Centre was obviously destroyed using planted explosives, people arguing that the pharmaceutical industry provides no benefits to people, and other things. In each of these cases, I think the position the other person held was not only wrong, but harmful. As such, responding in as fair and convincing a way as possible is at least morally laudable and quite possibly morally required.

Tristan June 13, 2009 at 8:51 am

…which is effectively just what the video says. Except it does it with an animation!

Milan June 13, 2009 at 10:33 am

I watched the video, generally agree with it, and like the accent.

What the video doesn’t mention is third parties. One of the most important reasons for questioning those who assert the accuracy of conspiracy theories is for the benefit of others who are listening.

Matt June 14, 2009 at 2:08 am

I liked the video.

Here’s an example of how much effort someone has put into dispelling a fairly frequently heard theory that a 757 did not strike the Pentagon. With pictures from the scene, it correlates debris characteristics with known characteristics of the Rolls Royce engine that powered the aircraft in question.

I think that’s a good illustration of just how much time can be wasted on addressing things like that.

R.K. June 14, 2009 at 2:16 am

It is good that someone took all the trouble to write that. It is sad that ‘a cruise missile hit the Pentagon’ theories endure, regardless.

Tristan June 14, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Why is it sad that people keep questioning some explanation of some event? Irritating, bothersome, misleading, but I don’t see how sadness comes into it. Sadness is something with which to label another’s approach when you feel yourself to be qualitatively above them, i.e. “Those chemists who kept studying flogiston after the discovery of oxygen. It’s so sad for them”.

Patronize much?

Milan June 14, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I think it can be sad, because people can be driven by a psychological need served by the conspiracy theory, rather than a genuine desire to know the truth.

They are like parents who desperately want their child to not be gay, and who keep inventing outlandish explanations for why they are not, even though all the evidence is on the other side.

People who understand that climate change undermines libertarian ethics seem to fall into this group.

Tristan June 15, 2009 at 10:32 am

“people can be driven by a psychological need served by the conspiracy theory, rather than a genuine desire to know the truth.”

So, either people can be driven by an autonomous, rational desire for something good (truth), or a chemically, irrational, appetitive desire, which has no moral value?

Milan June 15, 2009 at 10:47 am

Saying that it is ok to believe things just because they make you feel good is a far stretch from your original argument about keeping an open mind.

Certainly, people hold views for emotionally-motivated reasons. I don’t think it is preferable (or even acceptable) to hold views about things like the efficacy of vaccines or the reality of climate change for those reasons, however. The consequences of such beliefs are serious enough that truth must take precedence over feelings.

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 3:13 am

“The consequences of such beliefs are serious enough that truth must take precedence over feelings.”

Only “feelings” make you despise the “consequences” which make acting on “feelings” un-acceptable. “Truth” is just a special class of derivative feelings which take precedence over others by being a condition.

Unless you have some way of evaluating the goodness of consequences which doesn’t reduce to how people feel about some outcome compaerd to some other one, you are only talking about being more or less rational about feelings – not about “truth” on the one side and “feelings” on the other.

Milan June 16, 2009 at 5:09 am

This feels like a philosophical evasion. Vaccines either work or they don’t. Feelings have nothing to do with it.

Milan June 16, 2009 at 5:26 am

I think the ‘he can’t be gay‘ analogy is a useful one.

“Sure, he has had a succession of buff male roommates, and he subscribes to gay periodicals, and he moved to the Castro district of San Francisco, and he awkwardly tried coming out to me several times (he’s confused!), but he can’t be gay, because it would devastate me. No grandchildren!”

This is not a sound line of reasoning. It is a mode of thinking based on deep denial, and I think many conspiracy theorists are driven by something similar.

Tristan June 16, 2009 at 8:32 am

“Vaccines either work or they don’t. Feelings have nothing to do with it.”

Correct. Feelings have nothing to do with whether vaccines work or do not work. Similarly, feelings have nothing to do with whether some program to sterilize the poor or the people of colour works or does not work independently of how anyone feels about the program. However, the desirability of some factual event is a feeling – even if such desirability is based on “consequences” because the consequence must be “evaluated”, i.e. discerned to be more or less desirable.

In the “gay” analogy, all that’s being shown is that truth itself is something about which we have feelings. Truth in this case is something about which the speaker can not stand, because it would “devastate” them. Truth is being evaluated as non-desirable.

So, maybe the truth itself is not a feeling, but any situation in which we are to prefer truth over falsity, that decision is based on feeling in some sense.

Milan June 17, 2009 at 8:14 am

What I am saying is: since we are beings with feelings that can interfere destructively with sound reasoning, it is broadly accurate to consider emotionally-sustained conspiracy theories as a kind of ‘bug’ in the human thought process – as alluded to in a cartoon linked previously.

It seems clear that we would be better off if such theories and distorted forms of reasoning could be effectively dispelled.

Milan June 26, 2009 at 10:50 am

Greatest non-alien explanation for a phenomenon sometimes attributed to aliens: ‘Stoned wallabies make crop circles’

. June 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm

In this Richard Dawkins Foundation video, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer explains the ten criteria we can use when confronted with claims about how the world works that serve as a “baloney detection kit.”

. June 30, 2009 at 10:39 am

I can see the fnords!

By empath on robertantonwilson

Before 9/11, the center of the conspiracy theorist’s universe was the Kennedy Assassination. And probably the definitive statement on the ridiculousness of the conspiracy theories of that era was the Illuminatus! Trilogy[warning, the entire several hundred page novel in PDF], published in 1975 and written by two Playboy editors at the height of the era of flower power. It drew on many sources, but most distinctively, it drew from a little public domain pamphlet called The Principia Discordia. Many people know the catch phrases (Fnord! Hail Eris!), but not many people know the authors’ very real connections to the Kennedy Assassination.

Malaclypse the Younger (Greg Hill) worked in Jim Garrison’s office in New Orleans and the very first copy of the Principia was run off of Garrison’s copy machine. There’s a copy of the first edition in the official House JFK assassination records. Kerry Thornley served in the Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote a novel based on Oswald before he assassinated Kennedy. He testified to the Warren Commission about his friendship with Oswald and later was accused of being part of the conspiracy by Jim Garrison, who ended up charging him with perjury. Garrison’s theory was so convincing that Thornley actually came to believe that he may have been unknowingly involved in the conspiracy.

. July 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Fox TV and the Apollo Moon Hoax
(February 13, 2001)

On Thursday, February 15th 2001 (and replayed on March 19), the Fox TV network aired a program called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?”, hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi. The program was an hour long, and featured interviews with a series of people who believe that NASA faked the Apollo Moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s. The biggest voice in this is Bill Kaysing, who claims to have all sorts of hoax evidence, including pictures taken by the astronauts, engineering details, discussions of physics and even some testimony by astronauts themselves. The program’s conclusion was that the whole thing was faked in the Nevada desert (in Area 51, of course!). According to them, NASA did not have the technical capability of going to the Moon, but pressure due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union forced them to fake it.

So let’s take a look at the “evidence” brought out by the show. To make this easier, below is a table with links to the specific arguments.

. July 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm
. July 14, 2009 at 10:26 pm

The Grey Lady takes on the Moon hoax
By Phil Plait on Antiscience

Yesterday, the New York Times published a short piece on the Moon Hoax. It’s a decent write-up of the situation; I’ve read about a million others just like it at this point so nothing really leaps out at me… except they quoted me in it! That was cool. Now the Fox network has two reasons to hate me.

Actually, there were a couple of things that made me smile (besides also quoting My Close Personal Friend Adam Savage™). They talked to one conspiracy theorist from Argentina:

… he said that the political corruption during the years of dictatorship in his country shaped his thinking: “I started to realize how political corruption operates and how it is the interests of a few in power that really governs our world.”

Yes, paranoid conspiracy thinking is a good thing to extrapolate from one venue to everything else in the world. [Insert rolleyes icon here if you will.] Look: that sort of thing is not a worldview; it’s an excuse. If you use it as a way to live your life, then everything is a conspiracy. The light runs red when you get to it? Zionists! It rains when you want to take a walk? Illuminati! Your cat pukes up hairballs after cleaning herself? Big Pharma!

. July 19, 2009 at 5:00 pm

New images of Moon landing sites

A US spacecraft has captured images of Apollo landing sites on the Moon, revealing hardware and a trail of footprints left on the lunar surface.

The release of the images coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the Moon.

. July 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Neil, Buzz, Al & Other Conspiracies

July 20, 2009 by XUP

Are any of you old enough to remember that moon-landing back in 1969? It’s definitely one of those long-ago things that does NOT seem like it happened just yesterday. That one seems like a least two lifetimes ago.

If it really happened!

Ya, the big Moon Landing is one of the all-time favourites among conspiracy theorists. They’ve done elaborate research on the film footage and stills and reckoned the photographic technology just wasn’t there in 1969 to produce that calibre of film. Not to mention that the technology to land on the moon apparantly wasn’t quite within grasp yet either. But the Americans were afraid the Russians were going to beat them, so they faked the whole thing.

Other great conspiracies include the one that believes the US was behind 9/11. There was a documentary about it called Loose Change that proved why and how. America needed oil and needed a really good reason to invade some oil rich country.

. September 1, 2009 at 10:03 am

Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked|

August 31, 2009 | Issue 45•36

LEBANON, OHIO—Apollo 11 mission commander and famed astronaut Neil Armstrong shocked reporters at a press conference Monday, announcing he had been convinced that his historic first step on the moon was part of an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the United States government.

According to Armstrong, he was forced to reconsider every single detail of the monumental journey after watching a few persuasive YouTube videos, and reading several blog posts on conspiracy theorist Ralph Coleman’s website, OmissionControl.org.

“It only took a few hastily written paragraphs published by this passionate denier of mankind’s so-called ‘greatest technological achievement’ for me to realize I had been living a lie, ” said a visibly emotional Armstrong, addressing reporters at his home. “It has become painfully clear to me that on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module under the control of my crew did not in fact travel 250,000 miles over eight days, touch down on the moon, and perform various experiments, ushering in a new era for humanity. Instead, the entire thing was filmed on a soundstage, most likely in New Mexico.”

“This is the only logical interpretation of the numerous inconsistencies in the grainy, 40-year-old footage,” Armstrong added.

. September 1, 2009 at 11:30 am

Lexington
Still crazy after all these years

Aug 20th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The perils of losing one’s grip on reality

“Some of Barack Obama’s detractors content themselves with arguing that he is a bad president. Others go further. “Birthers” insist that he was not born in the United States and is therefore constitutionally barred from being president. Yet Mr Obama’s birth certificate says he was born in Hawaii, and there is not a shred of evidence to the contrary. There is even an announcement of his birth in the archive of the Honolulu Advertiser, a local newspaper. Yet the internet crackles with theories as to how all this was faked so that, 48 years later, Mr Obama could impose a socialist state on America. And a YouGov poll for The Economist found that 26% of Republicans think Mr Obama is probably foreign-born.

But the left is hardly immune to such fantasies. Some people, including Mr Obama’s own former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, believe that AIDS was cooked up by the government to kill blacks. A staggering 18% of Americans think that the government of George Bush probably knew in advance about the attacks of September 11th 2001 but allowed them to proceed anyway. Some even contend that Mr Bush orchestrated the attacks himself, to create an excuse for invading Iraq. To believe this, you have to believe that the Bushies were both wicked enough to murder thousands of Americans and brilliant enough to execute such a mind-bogglingly sophisticated plot without a single leak—in a culture where Richard Nixon could not even hush up a burglary.”

. September 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm
. October 5, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Deceptive Deceptions

Open your eyes, people: Dan Meth’s latest video was an inside job.

. October 6, 2009 at 12:50 pm

When sceptics fight back

By Arran Frood

Conspiracy theorists have used the internet to co-ordinate increasingly slick attacks on the accepted versions of events, but now a group of scientists and sceptics has decided it’s time to organise and fight back.

Conspiracy theories are pervasive and popular.

A poll for the Scripps Howard media organisation in 2006 suggested 36% of Americans suspected government involvement or deliberate inaction in the 9/11 attacks, and belief in a Kennedy conspiracy ran at 40% in the same poll.

A decade after Princess Diana’s death, one survey found a fifth of Britons believed she was murdered. And to millions across the world, 2009’s Apollo Moon landing 40th anniversary was a hollow sham because we have never been there.

Conspiracy theories predate the internet but the web has provided a fast, accessible platform for groups to unite, gather research and disseminate information without even meeting or leaving their houses.

While many people find them harmless fun, others believe there is a darker truth – that conspiracy theories are rewriting history, warping the present and altering the future. Enough is enough they say – it’s time to fight back.

. October 22, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money
Anti-Obama paranoia is good for at least one business.
By Daniel Gross
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009, at 1:52 PM ET

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “the paranoid style in American politics.” To believe the Glenn Becks of the world, the Democrats and their Commie, tree-hugging comrades are going to take away Americans’ guns, confiscate private property, enslave free thinkers, and generally destroy the nation. Of course, most sophisticates don’t give much currency to such arguments. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying to monetize the phenomenon. Fox News Channel has boosted audiences by narrowcasting to birthers and tea partiers, and it has seen an increase in ads from gold companies (the metal is thought to be a good hedge against Obama destroying the dollar). HarperCollins, another New York-based component of the Murdoch empire, has ordered up a huge printing of Sarah Palin’s memoir Going Rogue. On Tuesday, Peter Lattman, the Wall Street Journal’s sharp private equity reporter, unearthed (subscription required) a more interesting example: the pending initial public offering of gun manufacturer Freedom Group.

Ironically, Freedom Group is a creation of Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm founded and controlled by Stephen Feinberg, a hard-core Republican. It’s been a rough few years for the firm, which bought controlling stakes in Chrysler and GMAC (General Motors’ former lending arm) at the top of the market. In the wake of the financial meltdown, Cerberus’ stake in Chrysler was wiped out as part of the car company’s recapitalization, and its holding in GMAC was trimmed after GMAC was forced to turn to the government for funds. Cerberus didn’t get any special dispensation from the Bush or Obama administrations. But now it seems that Obama’s election has provided Feinberg with an opportunity to recoup some of his recent losses.

. October 30, 2009 at 10:04 am

The Lunar Reconnassance Orbiter, currently orbiting the Moon just 50 km off the surface, has taken more shots of the Apollo 17 landing site… and has seen the actual U.S. flag!

. November 10, 2009 at 10:00 am

9/11 Truth and the Paranoid Style

By Arthur Goldwag on News

Forty-five years ago, Harpers magazine published Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The occasion for the piece was the revenant conservatism that had driven Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign (the magazine hit the newsstands the month of the Johnson/Goldwater election), but it remains astonishingly apt. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who wants to understand the mentalités of fringe political movements in the United States–from the Anti-Masons and Know Nothings in the first half of the 1800s, to McCarthyism, the Nation of Islam, and the Weathermen in the last century, to the Birthers and Truthers today.

I hesitate to bring up 9/11 Truth again after the firestorm of commentary I unleashed last week, but read Hofstadter on the pedantry of paranoid literature and tell me that he doesn’t nail some of the most contentious of the posters (most of whom were probably not even born when the piece was written) with a psychoanalyst’s precision and a novelist’s sympathy:

“One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed…..Respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it….”

. January 18, 2010 at 2:02 pm
. January 29, 2010 at 8:58 pm

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601039&sid=aaIuE.W8RAuU

“Commentary by David Reilly

Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) — The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter. After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.”

. March 24, 2010 at 8:24 am
. May 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

“I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

Richard Feynman

. June 13, 2010 at 10:17 pm

“Seth Kalichman, a social psychologist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, understands this better than most: he spent a year infiltrating HIV denialist groups. Many of the people he met were ordinary and sincere. “Denialism fills some need,” he says. “For people with HIV, it is a coping strategy,” albeit a maladaptive one.

Kalichman, however, feels that everyday reasoning alone is not enough to make someone a denialist. “There is some fragility in their thinking that draws them to believe people who are easily exposed as frauds,” he says. “Most of us don’t believe what they say, even if we want to. Understanding why some do may help us find solutions.”

He believes the instigators of denialist movements have more serious psychological problems than most of their followers. “They display all the features of paranoid personality disorder”, he says, including anger, intolerance of criticism, and what psychiatrists call a grandiose sense of their own importance. “Ultimately, their denialism is a mental health problem. That is why these movements all have the same features, especially the underlying conspiracy theory.”

Neither the ringleaders nor rank-and-file denialists are lying in the conventional sense, Kalichman says: they are trapped in what classic studies of neurosis call “suspicious thinking”. “The cognitive style of the denialist represents a warped sense of reality, which is why arguing with them gets you nowhere,” he says. “All people fit the world into their own sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality with uncommon rigidity.””

. August 9, 2010 at 12:15 pm

How A Wired Magazine Story Morphed Into “Brain Eating Vaccine” In 3 Easy Steps

Occasionally, though, Google Trends is an interesting window into what the paranoid crazies of the world are paranoidly crazy about, and today was one of those days, with “brain eating vaccine” shooting to the top of the chart. What is a brain eating vaccine and where did this trending topic come from? Let’s take a quick look at the making of a trending conspiracy out of a reasonably benign magazine profile in just three steps

. September 2, 2010 at 11:07 am

Videos that prove the elites are really reptilian humanoids

I’m with my friend and senior editor of bOING bOING (the zine) Gareth Branwyn and he is showing me funny videos posted by people who think the world is ruled by reptilian humanoid shapeshifters (basically, the nonsense that David Icke perpetuates). The videos show politicians and other powerful people’s tongue flicks, hisses, strange head tilting, and membrane eyelids that move sideways.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 11:17 am
Tristan September 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

“We really have three mechanisms to work with:

Empirical evidence
Logical reasoning
Heuristic methods”

You mean – the methods used by the Soviet scientists who took non-thermal effects of microwave radiation seriously?

The fact is, you are ignoring perhaps the most important scientific method: funding restrictions, and the covering up of studies whose results do not please the funders. That is not “outlandish conspiracy theory”, this is everyday life in medical and oil sands research.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Given the systematic way in which cell phones and WiFi have been rolled out, I think someone would have noticed if they caused acute medium-term health problems.

It is certainly possible that they cause some very subtle or long-term harm, and people should feel encouraged to research that. At the same time, the claims people make about EM radiation often strike me as similar in tone to claims made by conspiracy theorists.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Invisible cell phone and computer networks are also prime candidates for causing mass hysteria. Someone gets the idea that the radiation is harming them and then begins attributing every problem they experience to that cause. It reminds me a bit of an Onion article:

Despite such ringing endorsements, some members of the medical community have spoken out against placebo’s approval, saying that the drug’s wide range of side effects is a cause for concern.

“Yes, placebo has benefits, but studies link it to a hundred different side effects, from lower-back pain to erectile dysfunction to nausea,” drug researcher Patrick Wheeler said. “Placebo wreaked havoc all over the body, with no rhyme or reason. Basically, whichever side effects were included on the questionnaire, we found in research subjects.”

Such psychological factors would make it easier to see a correlation between cellular towers and illness, though the causal link might be absent.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 2:35 pm

“I think someone would have noticed if they caused acute medium-term health problems.”

Well, aren’t an increased number of parents “noticing”? If your child exhibited strange health effects when at school, but not at home, what would you do? All the concerned parents are currently asking for, and as a result are currently being ridiculed by Health Canada, is to shut down the wifi for a time to see if the health effects disappear – isn’t that, to them, a kind of study?

And when would we be expected to “notice” if 3% of children exhibited strange health effects to prolonged exposure to wifi? It seems to me the only area of life in which there is a high concentration of younglings who are moved between wifi heavy environments and wifi light environments are elementary schools in areas where not every single private house has a wifi transmitter.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm

All the concerned parents are currently asking for, and as a result are currently being ridiculed by Health Canada, is to shut down the wifi for a time to see if the health effects disappear – isn’t that, to them, a kind of study?

This is a poor experimental design, because it isn’t blind. The parents are already concerned, and their anxiety will affect the kids.

If you want a real experiment, take a school where nobody has complained and turn off the WiFi without telling anyone why. Ideally, you would want to do so in an undetectable way, but saying that you are performing an upgrade probably wouldn’t skew the effects too much.

I really doubt you would see any effects.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm

If you want to play the ad-hominem attack game, where you dismiss dissenting opinions because they “sound like” (is that an emotional varient of argument by analogy?) things said by crack pots, don’t play it with me – play it with all the decorated scholars and scientists who Health Canada dismiss as outside the consensus:

“Section 17: Key Scientific Evidence and Public Health Policy Recommendations

“Mobile phone-free and Wi-Fi free public areas should be established in areas where the public congregates and can have a reasonable expectation of safety……..”

“Health agencies and school districts should strongly discourage or prohibit cell towers on or near (within 1000’ of) school properties, should delay any new WLAN installations in school classrooms, pre-schools and day-care facilities; and should either remove or disable existing wireless facilities, or be required to offer classrooms with no RF exposure to those families who choose not to have their children involuntarily exposed.””

List of BioInitiative Participants

Organizing Committee Members
Carl F. Blackman*, Ph.D.
Founder, Former President and
Full Member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society
Raleigh, NC USA
*opinions expressed are not necessarily those of his employer,
the US Environmental Protection Agency

Martin Blank, PhD, Associate Professor
Former President and Full Member of Bioelectromagnetics Society
Dept. of Physiology. College of Physicians and Surgeons
Columbia University
New York, NY USA

Prof. Michael Kundi, PhD
Full Member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society
Institute of Environmental Health, Medical University of Vienna
Vienna, Austria

Cindy Sage, MA, Owner
Full Member. Bioelectromagnetics Society
Sage Associates
Santa Barbara, CA USA

Participants
David O. Carpenter, MD
Director, Institute for Health and the Environment
University at Albany East Campus
Rensselaer, NY USA

Zoreh Davanipour, DVM, PhD
Friends Research Institute
Los Angeles, CA USA

David Gee
Coordinator Emerging Issues and Scientific Liaison
Strategic Knowledge and Innovation
European Environmental Agency
Copenhagen, Denmark

Lennart Hardell, MD, PhD, Prof.
Department of Oncology
University Hospital
Orebro, Sweden

Olle Johansson, PhD, Associate Professor
The Experimental Dermatology Unit.
Department of Neuroscience
Karolinska Institute
Stockholm, Sweden

Henry Lai, PhD
Department of Bioengineering
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington USA

Kjell Hansson Mild, PhD, Prof.
Former President and Full Member of Bioelectromagnetics Society
Board Member, European Bioelectromagnetics Society (EBEA)
Umea University, Department of Radiation Physics
Umeå, Sweden

Amy Sage, Research Associate
Sage Associates
Santa Barbara, CA USA

Eugene L. Sobel, PhD
Friends Research Institute
Los Angeles, CA USA

Zhengping Xu, PhD
Guangdi Chen, PhD
Bioelectromagnetics Laboratory,
Zhejiang University School of Medicine
Hangzhou . People’s Republic of China

Reviewers (partial)
James B. Burch, PhD
Arnold School of Public Health
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC USA

Nancy Evans, BS
Health Science Consultant
San Francisco, CA USA

Stanton Glanz, PhD
University of California, San Francisco
Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education
Cardiovascular Research Institute, Institute for Health Policy Studies
San Francisco, CA USA

Denis Henshaw, PhD
Professor of Physics
Human Radiation Effects Group
Wills Physics Laboratory
Bristol University, Bristol, UK

Samuel Milham, MD
Washington State Department of Health (retired)
Olympia, Washington

Louis Slesin, PhD
Microwave News
New York, NY USA

http://www.citizensforsafetechnology.org/bioinitiativereport.html

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

“I take your ad hominem attack and raise you an argument from authority!”

The latter can be equally invalid. People with degrees, and even fancy prizes, can still be wrong about things.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I think the point about placebo effects stands, as does the one about there being good reason to expect clear evidence of harm (if the harm is significant and occurs on the timescale of years or decades). The precautionary principle can be taken too far; at the exteme, it would forbid anybody from trying anything new, since it is always possible to doubt whether tests that have shown something to be ‘safe’ overlooked some hidden danger.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I think a better experiment design would be to turn off the wifi at the schools where parents and students complain about it without telling them. If they continue to complain and experience the health effects, you can be sure that placebo is playing a large, if not determining, role in the effects. Or, at least, the direct cause is not the wifi.

Turning off the wifi at a school where no one has noticed any health effects from the wifi will produce no result – even if the wifi is causing health problems. If people do not connect the health problems to wifi, they likely connect them to other things. So, they will assume those other things changed when their health effects disappear. L

ook at the kind of effects described as first stage results of centimeter microwave radiation as described by F. A. Drogochina and M. N. Sadchikova in “Clinical Syndromes Arising under the effects of Various radio frequency bands” (Labor Hygiene and Occupational Diseases. Vol 9, No 1, 1965 P17-21)

“The initial symptoms usually appear within three to five years of exposure. Most characteristic is the asthenic syndrome which develops because of the exhausting action of the radio frequencies on the central nervous system, and results in increased fatigue, headaches, and sleepiness during work hours.”

These symptoms, especially if they arrive in low amounts, are likely to be dismissed as subjective.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 3:03 pm

“The precautionary principle can be taken too far; at the exteme, it would forbid anybody from trying anything new”

Do you think the bio-initiative reports recommendations are outrageous?

. September 9, 2010 at 3:05 pm

“At the meeting Van Zyl agreed to turn off the tower with immediate effect to assess whether the health problems described by some of the residents subsided. What Craigavon residents were unaware of is that the tower had already been switched off in early October – six weeks before the November meeting where residents confirmed the continued ailments they experienced.

MyBroadband was furnished with technical reports which confirmed that the Fourways Memorial Park iBurst tower was turned off in early October and that it did not provide any services over the next few weeks.

Van Zyl argues that this clearly proves that the iBurst tower could not be the cause of the health symptoms described by some of the residents. Van Zyl reiterated that residents said that the symptoms typically subsided in hours or days after leaving the Craigavon area, and since it still prevailed in mid-November it means that it could not have been related to the iBurst tower radiation.

“At the meeting in mid-November residents claimed that full recovery of skin conditions could take as long as 6 weeks. Yet, the tower was switched off for more than 6 weeks by this time,” said Van Zyl. “At this point it became apparent that the tower can, in no way, be the cause of the symptoms, as it was already switched off for many weeks, yet the residents still saw symptoms that come and go according to their proximity to the area.”

Van Zyl added that “whatever caused their symptoms, it was now a fact that it could not be attributed to the iBurst tower and the tower was switched back on in the 2nd week of December.” The iBurst CEO added that residents failed to show up for subsequent meetings scheduled for the 30th of November and the 2nd of December.”

Milan September 9, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Just an anecdote, I admit, but it does lend a bit of credence to the idea that these supposedly EM radiation caused health problems are tricks of the mind.

. September 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Mobile phone radiation and health
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The effect mobile phone radiation has on human health is the subject of recent interest and study, as a result of the enormous increase in mobile phone usage throughout the world (as of June 2009, there were more than 4.3 billion users worldwide). Mobile phones use electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range, which some believe may be harmful to human health. A large body of research exists, both epidemiological and experimental, in non-human animals and in humans, that shows overall no evidence for harmful effects. Other digital wireless systems, such as data communication networks, produce similar radiation.

The World Health Organization, based upon the consensus view of the scientific and medical communities, has stated that cancer is unlikely to be caused by cellular phones or their base stations and that reviews have found no convincing evidence for other health effects. The WHO expects to make recommendations about mobile phones in 2010. Some national radiation advisory authorities have recommended measures to minimize exposure to their citizens as a precautionary approach.

Wireless electronic devices and health
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The World Health Organization has acknowledged that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are influencing the environment (but not people), and that some people are worried about possible effects. In response to public concern, the World Health Organization established the International EMF Project in 1996 to assess the scientific evidence of possible health effects of EMF in the frequency range from 0 to 300 GHz. They have stated that although extensive research has been conducted into possible health effects of exposure to many parts of the frequency spectrum, all reviews conducted so far have indicated that exposures are below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP (1998) EMF guidelines, covering the full frequency range from 0–300 GHz, and do not produce any known adverse health effect.

International guidelines on exposure levels to microwave frequency EMFs such as ICNIRP limit the power levels of wireless devices and it is uncommon for wireless devices to exceed the guidelines. These guidelines only take into account thermal effects, as nonthermal effects have not been conclusively demonstrated. The official stance of the Health Protection Agency is that “[T]here is no consistent evidence to date that WiFi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population.” And also that “…it is a sensible precautionary approach…to keep the situation under ongoing review…”

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm

There are lots of health effects which manifest long-term, and which are not immediately visible. Something does not have to be the immediate cause of an event to be a substantial contributing cause, especially a cause of the preconditions required for an event to take place.

If the cell phone tower has been, in Drogochina and Sadchikova’s terms, “exhausting” the central nervous system – perhaps recovery from this irritation is not immediate?

Milan September 9, 2010 at 3:14 pm

And it is impossible to prove that a teacup isn’t orbiting Mars.

The question is: what constitutes a sensible risk management approach? I would argue that people should continue to undertake studies, but that there is no evidence at this point to justify restrictions on wireless devices that communicate by radio.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Undertaking studies is not free, and neither would be implementing the regulations suggested by the Bio-initiative report. The point is the same as always – we should act reasonably given the relative dangers and benefits in a context of uncertainty.

What worries me is the relative dangers and benefits seem to be perceived in a radically different way in Canada as they are in Russia, and this seems to be connected to a history of researching different aspects of radiation’s effects. What if Canada had been at the forefront of non-ionizing radiation research – might we have ended up with the much stricter microwave regulations which the Soviets implemented? And how much poorer would we be – what is the real social cost of precaution in this case?

It seems to me that the costs of precaution are negligible. We should be switching away from the microwave band anyway – can’t cell phones and wifi operate much more energy-efficiently at lower frequencies?

Milan September 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm

It seems to me that the costs of precaution are negligible. We should be switching away from the microwave band anyway – can’t cell phones and wifi operate much more energy-efficiently at lower frequencies?

The cost of replacing cell phone and WiFi hardware is far from ‘negligible.’ As for whether other frequencies are more energy efficient, that is an empirical question beyond my expertise. Heuristically, I can think of some reasons for doubting whether changing frequencies makes sense. For one, the spectrum is already assigned and there are barriers to changing things around (the band you switch too will need to have its current devices shut down or moved somewhere else). You would also need to make a compelling case that other frequencies are safer, at a time when a compelling case cannot be made that microwave frequencies are even dangerous.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Also, if the Russian research is convincing, I would have expected the World Health Organization to reach different conclusions.

Milan September 9, 2010 at 3:41 pm

And how much poorer would we be – what is the real social cost of precaution in this case?

This isn’t a very practical yardstick for evaluation. We have already spent the money to build this infrastructure, and we do not have the option to go back to the beginning and do it a bit differently. The practical question is whether what we know or realistically fear about the risks justifies the costs of making a change. Not all those costs are financial or related to replacing hardware, incidentally. There is also the cost associated with having less access to wireless networks. A number of economic analyses recently have highlighted how cell phones can help alleviate poverty: for instance, by helping farmers and fishers get better prices, or by allowing for distributed microbanking.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Fine – but are the changes called for by the BioInitiative report too expensive?

As for my outlandish statement that the costs of switchover would be “negligible” – it isn’t completely false. For instance, if long wave bandwidth were allotted for internet devices, and if these devices were more effective, the free market would drive out high frequency wifi devices over time. Who owns a wifi transmitter more than 5 years old?

Milan September 9, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Who owns a wifi transmitter more than 5 years old?

Millions of people do, and the cost of replacing them would be especially problematic for poorer people. It doesn’t make sense to replace a massive amount of infrastructure based on unsubstantiated claims of risk.

For instance, if long wave bandwidth were allotted for internet devices, and if these devices were more effective, the free market would drive out high frequency wifi devices over time.

Radio frequencies are subject to strong regulation. The free market plays a very limited role. Governments allocate most spectrum by decree, and sometimes auction a bit off – as they did for 3G cell networks.

There are also big lock-in effects. When everybody else uses WiFi gear on a set range of frequencies, a manufacturer that suddenly switched would be selling routers that no laptops can communicate with, or laptops that you can only use with their routers.Who would buy either?

Milan September 9, 2010 at 4:19 pm

are the changes called for by the BioInitiative report too expensive?

They are too expensive both in terms of cost and in terms of lost opportunity. If “mobile phone-free and Wi-Fi free public areas” don’t actually eliminate a significant risk, they nonetheless deny people the use of wireless devices in those spaces. That is inconvenient, and could also cause more serious problems if people who need help cannot communicate.

Disabling cell phone and WiFi systems near schools wastes money, because equipment has already been put in place, and similarly curtails valuable opportunities to communicate. Building “classrooms with no RF exposure” would certainly cost money (in addition to being impossible). In addition to the cost of the rooms, you would need to provide special staff for the kids there. Would you have a shielded room for each grade? What about when another group of parents demands special protected classrooms in response to some other unconfirmed danger?

Milan September 9, 2010 at 4:30 pm

On the basis of limited internet research, it seems like nobody has even been able to prove that non-thermal effects of microwave radiation even exist, much less that they cause harm. Does it make sense to replace billions of dollars worth of equipment in response to a danger that might be completely imaginary? Also, if you are just switching to different frequences, what guarantee is there that those are safer?

Going back to the question of whether other frequencies are more energy efficient, a very preliminary examination suggests that the issue is very complex.

. September 9, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: A Systematic Review of Provocation Studies
G. James Rubin, PhD, Jayati Das Munshi, MBBS and Simon Wessely, MD

Results: Thirty-one experiments testing 725 “electromagnetically hypersensitive” participants were identified. Twenty-four of these found no evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity, whereas 7 reported some supporting evidence. For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results. Our metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in “hypersensitive” participants.

Radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure and non-specific symptoms of ill health: A systematic review
Martin Röösli

This article is a systematic review of whether everyday exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic field (RF-EMF) causes symptoms, and whether some individuals are able to detect low-level RF-EMF (below the ICNIRP [International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection] guidelines). Peer-reviewed articles published before August 2007 were identified by means of a systematic literature search. Meta-analytic techniques were used to pool the results from studies investigating the ability to discriminate active from sham RF-EMF exposure. RF-EMF discrimination was investigated in seven studies including a total of 182 self-declared electromagnetic hypersensitive (EHS) individuals and 332 non-EHS individuals. The pooled correct field detection rate was 4.2% better than expected by chance (95% CI: −2.1 to 10.5). There was no evidence that EHS individuals could detect presence or absence of RF-EMF better than other persons. There was little evidence that short-term exposure to a mobile phone or base station causes symptoms based on the results of eight randomized trials investigating 194 EHS and 346 non-EHS individuals in a laboratory. Some of the trials provided evidence for the occurrence of nocebo effects. In population based studies an association between symptoms and exposure to RF-EMF in the everyday environment was repeatedly observed. This review showed that the large majority of individuals who claims to be able to detect low level RF-EMF are not able to do so under double-blind conditions. If such individuals exist, they represent a small minority and have not been identified yet. The available observational studies do not allow differentiating between biophysical from EMF and nocebo effects.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 6:49 pm

“it seems like nobody has even been able to prove that non-thermal effects of microwave radiation even exist, much less that they cause harm.”

I admit I have not been able to find or understand relevant studies that dispute the findings you cited above – but Yuri G. Grigoriev does not seem like a qwack, and he is awfully concerned, so I am going to continue to search through the literature.

Statement by the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection – signed by its president Yuri Grigoriev:

For the first time in history, we face a situation when most children and teenagers in the world are
continuously exposed to the potentially adverse influence of the electromagnetic fields (EMF) from mobile
phones.
Electromagnetic field is an important biotropic factor, affecting not just a human health in general,
but also the processes of the higher nervous activity, including behavior and thinking. Radiation directly
affects human brain when people use mobile phones.
Despite the recommendations, listed in the Sanitary Rules of the Ministry of Health, which insist that
persons under 18 years should not use mobile phones (SanPiN 2.1.8/2.2.4.1190-03 point 6.9), children and
teenagers became the target group for the marketing the mobile communications.
The current safety standards for exposure to microwaves from the mobile phones have been
developed for the adults and don’t consider the characteristic features of the children’s organism. The WHO
considers the protection of the children’s health from possible negative influence of the EMF of the mobile
phones as a highest priority task. This problem has also been confirmed by the Scientific Committee of the
European Commission, by national authorities of the European and Asian countries, by participants of the
International scientific conferences on biological effects of the EMF.”

“Professor Yuri G. Grigoriev (Russia), Professor, Dr. of Med Sci., Chairman of the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, member of the Russian Academy of Electrical Engineering Sciences, member of the International Advisory Committee on WHO’s EMF Project, IEEE member and a permanent member of the US Bioelectromagnetic Society (BEMS). He is Deputy Chairman of the Radiobiology Scientific Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Academic of the Academy of Electrotechnical sciences of Russia, and a member of the board of the Journal of Radiation Biology and Ecology. He is a Major Researcher of the Federal Medical Biophysical Centre, FMBA, in Moscow. Since 1949, his scientific interests have been in the field of biological effects of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. His work has involved EMF RF exposure on the nervous system and the brain, using modern vestibular stimulation techniques. He has developed standards for RF exposure, and studied the influence on organisms of magnetic deprivation for more than 15 years. Professor Grigoriev has published more than 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals, and 15 books on biological effects of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, and extreme environmental physiology. More than 67 dissertations have been worked out and defended under his guidance. He was awarded the USSR State Scientific Prize in 1976.”

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm

In this power point presentation, Henry Lai presents 4 arguments for the existence and relevance of non-thermal effects, all backed by studies on rats. (http://depts.washington.edu/bioe/people/core/lai.html)

“Arguments for non-thermal effects:

(1)Effects at low intensity
(2)Heating effects different from EMF effects
(3)Modulations produce different effects at
same exposure conditions
(4)ELF EMF has biological effects”

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBYQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.icems.eu%2Fdocs%2Fbrazil%2FLai_talk.ppt&rct=j&q=Henry%20Lai%20non-thermal&ei=92SJTPuqAYz2tgPWxtDQBA&usg=AFQjCNGNM6OIlAo3vVeM82hE0db52-CXIQ

. September 9, 2010 at 7:04 pm

“”Industry doesn’t like the data,” said Slesin, who has quoted some scientists who say the study clearly shows increased cancer rates among cell phone users. “The problem is that we still don’t know and the science has been heavily politicized. Henry (Lai) was never alarmist. He just presented his findings and refused to budge from them.”

That was in the mid-1990s. Lai and Singh published their findings of DNA damage in rats exposed to relatively low levels of the kind of radiation cell phone users get. At the time, the UW researchers had been working with Motorola, sharing findings and meeting the company’s scientists.

“We thought they were collaborating and interested in the science,” Singh said.

“We were naive,” Lai said.

As they later discovered when an industry memo was leaked to Slesin, and published in 1997 in Microwave News, Motorola had secretly drafted a “war games” memo that aimed to use media relations, industry-paid scientists and any other means possible to discredit and suppress the scientists’ findings.

One industry-sponsored scientist even wrote a letter to then-UW President Richard McCormick asking that Lai and Singh be fired, according to a UW spokesperson.”

http://www.seattlepi.com/local/373306_cellfonoma02.html

Milan September 9, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Doesn’t that seem like an awfully unspecified risk on which to spend large amounts of money? Particularly given that it is unknown whether the risk exists, what the nature of the risk is if it does exist, or what measures would reduce the risk?

Tristan September 10, 2010 at 4:55 am

I sure hope you’re right. I also hope that, if there really are significant adverse health effects, cell phone companies are not able to cover them up – because it won’t be for lack of trying.

. September 13, 2010 at 11:25 am

“If you look at a map of the United States with dots assigned to where cancer rates are highest, you will notice areas of clumping. It looks like you have a pretty good indication of where the groundwater must be poisoned, or high-voltage power lines are bombarding people with damaging energy fields, or where cell phone towers are frying people’s organs, or where nuclear bombs must have been tested.

A map like that is a lot like the side of the sharpshooter’s barn, and presuming there must be a cause for cancer clusters is the same as drawing bullseyes around them.

More often than not, cancer clusters have no scary environmental cause.

“A community that is afflicted with an unusual number of cancers quite naturally looks for a cause in the environment – in the ground, the water, the air. And the correlations are sometimes found: the cluster may arise after, say, contamination of the water supply by a possible carcinogen. The problem is that when scientists have tried to confirm such causes, they haven’t been able to. Raymond Richard Neutra, California’s chief environmental health investigator and an expert on cancer clusters, points out that among hundreds of exhaustive, published investigations of residential clusters in the United States, not one has convincingly identified an underlying environmental cause. Abroad, in only a handful of cases has a neighborhood cancer cluster been shown to arise from an environmental cause. And only one of these cases ended with the discovery of an unrecognized carcinogen.”

The Cancer Cluster Myth, The New Yorker, Feb. 1999

There are many agents at work. People who are related tend to live near each other. Old people tend to retire in the same areas. Eating, smoking and exercise habits tend to be similar region to region. And, after all, one in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime.

To accept something like residential cancer clusters are often just coincidence is deeply unsatisfying. The powerlessness, the feeling you are defenseless to the whims of chance, can be assuaged by singling out an antagonist. Sometimes you need a bad guy, and The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is one way you can create one.”

Gail September 13, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Is anyone studying whether cell phone radiation interacts with VOC’s, as UV radiation does, to create or intensify ozone?

Ozone, by the way, causes cancer, emphysema, asthma, and diabetes. Some of those clusters are in areas of high levels of ozone. Like the whole state of New Jersey!

R.K. September 15, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Indirectly, the cell phone issue shows why it is important to have impartial, publicly-funded organizations doing basic research: whether they are government labs run without political or corporate interference, or universities run in the same way.

. September 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Evolving Madness
Posted September 21, 2010

Why does a crazy set of beliefs in one field seem to migrate into unrelated subjects?

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 21st September 2010

I’ve often been struck by the way in which people who subscribe to one set of baseless beliefs are susceptible to others, in fields that are not obviously related. The internet is awash with sites that explain how the US government destroyed the twin towers – and how alien landings have been covered up by the authorities. Many of those who insist that Barack Obama is a Muslim also believe that sex education raises the incidence of unwanted pregnancies.

A rich collection of unfounded beliefs is a common characteristic of those who deny – despite the overwhelming scientific evidence – that manmade global warming is taking place. I’ve listed a few examples before, but I’ll jog your memories.

Lord Monckton, whose lecture asserting that manmade climate change is nonsense has been watched by 4 million people, also maintains that he has invented a cure for HIV, multiple sclerosis, influenza and other incurable diseases.

Nils-Axel Morner, whose claims that sea levels are falling are widely cited in the Telegraph and elsewhere, also insists that he possesses paranormal abilities to find water and metal using a dowsing rod, and that he has discovered “the Hong Kong of the [ancient] Greeks” in Sweden.

Peter Taylor, the Daily Express’s favourite climate change denier, has claimed that a Masonic conspiracy has sent a “kook, a ninja freak, some throwback from past lives” to kill him, and insisted that plutonium may “possess healing powers, borne of Plutonic dimension, a preparation for rebirth, an awakener to higher consciousness”.

. November 12, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Wikileaks Founder “Annoyed” At 9/11 Theories

Conspiracy theorists have begun developing their own ideas about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange after he said in a recent interview that he is “annoyed” at “false” conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11, when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud,” Assange told The Belfast Telegraph in an interview published July 19.

When asked about whether he believes in conspiracy theories, Assange said, “I believe in facts about conspiracies. Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news.”

Last November, Wikileaks released several thousand pager and text messages that were sent on September 11, 2001.

That move was widely applauded by most within the so-called “9/11 Truth Movement.” Assange’s latest comments, however, have gotten another reaction.

“Very disappointed with Mr. Assange lately,” wrote citizenx on Alex Jones’ Prison Planet forum. “Beginning to think the people who say he is/was CIA are right. Not just the 911 thing.”

“This casts further doubt on that whole ‘I cracked AES 256bit encryption and was able to walk into a marine base with a writable CD-ROM in hand, walk up to the CD-RW writer and burn a copy of all the files’ excursion….,” wrote another “Truther,” squarepusher.

911Blogger.com, one of the most established websites on the subject, wrote that “Mr.Assange seems to have conveniently forgotten that 9/11 may be, in a very concrete sense, a ‘conspiracy for war’, leading directly to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the permanent “War on Terror”.”

Another established 9/11 conspiracy website, cryptogon.com, which has been highly skeptical of Assange for some time now, wrote that the Wikileaks founder is either “profoundly ignorant” of the evidence, picking his battles, or running a honeypot operation.

Assange has not responded to the reaction to his statements.

http://www.therightperspective.org/2010/08/04/wikileaks-founder-annoyed-at-911-theories/

Milan November 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

This New York Times article discusses potential risks from cell phones: Should You Be Snuggling With Your Cellphone?

. March 3, 2011 at 12:18 am

IF YOU Google the phrase “Middle East rumours”, the first link that pops up is not, as you might expect, a website propagating conspiracy theories. It is Coca-Cola’s website. For several years now the company has struggled to rebut ridiculous rumours about its products.

For example, some people believe that if you read Coke’s Arabic logo backwards, it says: “No Muhammad, No Mecca”. Others insist that the company is owned by Jews, or that it bankrolls Israel. These rumours are one reason why Coke does worse than Pepsi in Arab countries. Yet they are all false, as Coke’s website explains in painstaking detail.

Such rebuttals are unwise, argue Derek Rucker and David Dubois, of the Kellogg School of Management, and Zakary Tormala, of Stanford business school, three psychologists. By restating the rumours, Coke helps to propagate them. Its web page is a magnet for search engines. And people who read rebuttals tend to forget the denial and remember only the rumour, says Mr Rucker.

As information is passed around, important qualifiers are lost. A rumour may start as “I’m not sure if this is true, but I heard that…” Then it evolves into: “I heard that…” Finally it becomes: “Did you know that…?” Even when no one intends to spread falsehoods, they spread.

In several experiments, Mr Rucker and Mr Dubois planted rumours among undergraduates. They found that with each repetition, scepticism diminished. The rumours themselves did not change; only the likelihood that the students would believe them. These findings were published in a report called “The Failure to Transmit Certainty”.

. May 19, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Most French people believe Strauss-Kahn is victim of a plot
Agence France-Presse

A majority of French people believe IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is “the victim of a plot,” an opinion poll said Wednesday.

Asked if was Strauss-Kahn was “the victim of a plot,” 57 per cent of respondents said yes.

. September 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm

The Theory vs. the Facts

9/11 conspiracy theorists responded to refutations by alleging more cover-ups.

By Jeremy Stahl

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, at 7:31 AM ET

It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when the popularity of the 9/11 conspiracy theory peaked, though it was probably sometime in 2006. In tracking its decline, however, three dates stand out: July 22, 2004, when the 9/11 Commission released its final report; Feb. 3, 2005, when Popular Mechanics published its 5,500-word article dismantling the movement’s claims; and Aug. 21, 2008, when the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued the final portion of a $16 million study investigating the cause of the collapse of the Twin Towers and a third World Trade Center skyscraper that was not hit by a plane.

Facts alone are insufficient to destroy a conspiracy theory, of course, and in many ways a theory’s appeal has more to do with the receptiveness of its audience than the accuracy of its details. The popularity of the 9/11 conspiracy theory would continue to ebb and flow after each of these reports. But their responses to these challenges show how followers of the 9/11 conspiracy theory changed their emphases and arguments—or, more often, did not—when presented with new information.

. September 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Al-Qaeda has not just poisoned relations between countries. It has poisoned minds as well. In all of the Muslim countries polled recently by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities still refuse to believe that the perpetrators of September 11th were Arabs. Pew finds that the Muslim world and the West still see the other as fanatical and violent. Muslims are liable to add that Westerners are also immoral and greedy—and largely to blame for keeping Muslims poor. An American-made peace in Palestine might have assuaged some bitter hearts, but Mr Bush never pushed for peace hard enough, and, for all his fine speeches, Mr Obama’s inept diplomacy ended in humiliation. A poll for the Arab American Institute reported this summer that America’s standing across the Arab world is now lower than it was at the end of Mr Bush’s term.

. June 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

. March 29, 2016 at 4:38 pm

People who feel out of control of their lives are more likely to believe in conspiracies

A study by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky from the University of Texas found a correlation between a belief in superstitions and conspiracies and a sense of helplessness about your own life and your ability to steer it. Their clever experiment goes a long way toward explaining the rise of conspiracies like birtherism and the co-occurrence of the collapse of industry and good waged work for the people who embraced it.

. August 8, 2017 at 7:43 pm

How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

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