On the Origin of Conspiracy Theories By Means of Natural Stupidity
Happy 9/11 anniversary everyone! This year is going to be extra special because we have ten fingers and we’ve set up our numerical system based on that arbitrary amount. The news media is going to capitalize on this hard: Fox News has a special on it about how George W. Bush killed Osama bin Laden on September 12 with only night-vision goggles and a sword. MSNBC has one about how we antagonized the Muslim world by locking up “suspected terrorists” indefinitely without charges and invading a few Middle Eastern countries. And the most outrageous of the tragedy opportunists are planning a march in Manhattan to mark the 10 year anniversary of everyone’s favorite act of mass murder.
Well, there’s no way we at The BEAST are going to pass on this moneymaking opportunity, so here are some ways in which everyone’s favorite paranoid conspiracy nuts are like a different group of paranoid conspiracy nuts. Enjoy!
Science via internet petitions
There are a lot of petitions on the internet tubes. It’s rare that they accomplish anything, but usually they at least have a clear purpose. And then you’ve got groups like the Discovery Institute and Patriots Question 9/11.
Back in 2001 the Discovery Institute released a statement titled A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism. It was signed by over 700 scientists (as of 2007) who claimed to be “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”
Patriots Question 9/11 has also been compiling signatures, except each person who signs is supposed to write their own statement. This might be more democratic, but it also kind of defeats the purpose of having a petition in the first place. Everyone’s signing their name to different positions. So we’re talking about a spectrum of beliefs ranging from the somewhat reasonable, “I have significant criticism of the 9/11 Commission Report,” all the way over to collecting-your-piss-in-jars insane, “There were no planes, those were holographs.” They’ve only appeared to have gathered around 3500 signatures worldwide. On the internet.
The first problem with this approach is that you can’t successfully promote a scientific hypothesis by collecting signatures. You win these kinds of arguments by using evidence. And while it’s worthwhile to note when there’s an overwhelming consensus of relevant experts on a matter, these internet petitions use the widest possible definition of “scientist” or “engineer” conceivable. Are you a college freshman who happened to check off Engineering as a major on your admissions paperwork? Great! You qualify as an expert and your crackpot opinions about how George W. Bush done did that there 9/11 and a magical being created itself and then created all life on Earth somehow matters, according to the morons at Patriots Question 9/11 and the DI.
Even if the petition gatherers limited themselves to the relevant experts and emphasized the point that their petitions do not qualify as evidence, they would still fail. According to Denis Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers in their book Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins, the 700 signatures gathered by the DI only represents 0.023% of scientists in the world. That means that 99.977% of scientists either have no problem with “Darwinism” or are too embarrassed to associate themselves with the clowns at the Discovery Institute.
Science via Mystery-mongering
Another logical fallacy both groups enjoy using is the appeal to ignorance. Here is how the retarded man-child Ann Coulter reiterates the same creationist PRATT she read in one of Michael Behe’s books:
It is a mathematical impossibility, for example, that all 30 to 40 parts of the cell’s flagellum — forget the 200 parts of the cilium! — could all arise at once by random mutation.
Once you get past the lie (i.e. that it really is mathematically impossible for the bacterial flagellum to evolve), we’re left with a standard God of the Gaps argument: If scientists can’t demonstrate exactly how it evolved, it must have been created. If evolutionary theory fails, then creationist beliefs win by default. It’s a shame that it never seems to work the other way around; that whenever creationist arguments fail, evolution is automatically vindicated.
But what makes this an even worse argument is the fact that empirical experiments have shown how the flagellum and the cilium (!) evolved. As I understand it, what gives these structures the illusion of design is something called interlocking complexity. Interlocking complexity means that you have several components of a structure, each of which appear to be useless on its own relative to the function of the overall structure. But — and this is the important part creationists can’t seem to comprehend — each of the components had a function on its own which was completely divorced from what it would do as a part of a greater whole.
Ken Miller made this point in a much better way than I could in his expert testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. The creationist Michael Behe used a mousetrap as an analogy for his beliefs about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, claiming that each part of a mousetrap would be useless on its own and therefore the mousetrap must have been designed by an intelligent agent. Miller pointed out several uses for each part of a mousetrap, including by using a partial mousetrap as a clip for his tie during the proceedings. Even in the world of metaphor the creationists’ arguments end up turning on themselves.
But now I’ve strayed far from the original point, which was that demonstrating that we don’t know something, even if done successfully, can’t possibly prove anything beyond the fact that we don’t know something. It shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it does. You can’t go directly from “I don’t know X” to “I can explain X with Y theory,” unless you have some evidence to support Y.
My favorite way the appeal to ignorance is used in 9/11 Troofer lore has to do with WTC Building 7 (nevar forget!). Truthers love to point out that the BBC reported its collapse 20 minutes before it actually happened. Even worse, the BBC report in question actually shows the building in the background standing upright and totally not collapsed. So how did the BBC know it was going to happen?
Again, troofers don’t seem to know. It’s a mystery! But obviously the conspiracy must have told the BBC that this was all part of the plan, because, well, whatever. It’s not like they could have discovered the building collapsed without being involved in the conspiracy.
And like the flagellum and cillia, this is yet another supposed mystery conspiracy nuts are trying to exploit which isn’t really much of a mystery at all. Even in the Alex Jones article linked to above, a hint is given as to how things actually went down:
As we have documented before, firefighters, police and first responders were all told to get back from the building because it was about to be brought down.
If you change the last three words to “collapse,” you get a perfect explanation for the BBC’s blunder in this one sentence. There was already significant damage to Building 7. The word of its probable collapse was making the rounds. Chaos and confusion ruled the day. Add in an overzealous BBC news team playing the odds poorly and you get a seemingly prophetic news report.
I know, it’s so sinister, isn’t it?
Whether you’re talking about our genes or our politics, nobody likes the idea of being subject to random forces. We like to be a part of a narrative. It’s comforting to think that we’re part of a deity’s plan. It’s also kind of comforting to think that evil plans are afoot, and we’re part of a team of underdogs who will thwart them. As Michael Shermer likes to point out, we are “story-telling animals.” But the reality of our situation isn’t dependent on those desires and sometimes not knowing something just means that we don’t know.
You don’t have to be racist to be a creationist or a truther, but it can’t hurt
A few years back I went to the Answers in Genesis Creationist “Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky. We kind of rushed through the actual exhibits because we had other priorities, but I do recall looking over this one, which PZ Myers later elaborated upon:
So Babel refers to the famous Tower of Babel story from Genesis where God got butthurt by a giant phallic tower so he divided humanity by language and, apparently, race. Hilariously enough, Ham plans on building a replica of the tower next to his fake museum. And this graphic is supposed to explain the origin of real-life human races based on that mythology.
If you click to embiggen the image above, you’ll see that the “Descendants of Ham” end up in Africa. Ham is one of Noah’s sons who, in Genesis 9, saw his father drunk and naked and so he dealt with the resultant trauma by cursing his own son. I’m sure it all made perfect sense in those days.
The idea that Ham’s descendants were then cursed, where they then traveled to Africa has been used to justify all kinds of awful treatment of those of African descent, including slavery. It was especially common in the 18th and 19th centuries, and remains so among the Mormons. To be fair, Ken Ham and AiG claim to oppose racism. But they still can’t bring themselves to denounce the myths which supported it so strongly for so many centuries.
The racism you can sometimes find in the 9/11 “truth” movement focuses more on Teh J00z. I’d really rather not link to it, but if you do a Google search for “9/11 truth Jews,” one of the results you’ll get on the first page is a YouTube video series called “Lies from the Jews in the 9/11 Truth Movement.” Apparently that refers to the supposed disinformation agents among the Troofers — government agents paid to spread lies about what Troofers believe with the intention of discrediting them. That’s a brand of anti-Semitic paranoia that goes beyond even the beliefs about 9/11 being a “Zionist plot” of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety.
In that same Google search you’ll find on the front page a blogspot website which in my opinion is just too detailed to be a Poe, despite the 4chan-ish title, “Jews did 9/11.” It repeats all kinds of hateful lies about how Jews working in the WTC buildings were warned not to come to work and were then seen driving around in a van with decals on it celebrating the attacks. One of the articles is a McCarthyite list called “Jews in High Places,” as if being Jewish were like being a convicted child molester or something.
I could easily go on, but you get the picture. And this isn’t to say that every single person who shares these weird beliefs about the origin of species and 9/11 also need to have weird beliefs about race. But when you open the floodgates of irrationality, there’s not much to stop one from accepting all of that garbage.
Phony ‘peer reviewed’ journals
One of the easiest and most effective way of demonstrating the failures of both 9/11 conspiracy theories and evolution denialism is to point out that neither group seems willing to submit their “research” to peer review in a serious publication the way every real scientist does. Here is how U.S. District Court Judge William R. Overton described this tendency among creationists in the decision for McLean v Arkansas Board of Education (emphasis mine):
The scientific community consists of individuals and groups, nationally and internationally, who work independently in such varied fields as biology, paleontology, geology, and astronomy. Their work is published and subject to review and testing by their peers. The journals for publication are both numerous and varied. There is, however, not one recognized scientific journal which has published an article espousing the creation science theory described in Section 4(a). Some of the State’s witnesses suggested that the scientific community was “close-minded” on the subject of creationism and that explained the lack of acceptance of the creation science arguments. Yet no witness produced a scientific article for which publication has been refused. Perhaps some members of the scientific community are resistant to new ideas. It is, however, inconceivable that such a loose knit group of independent thinkers in all the varied fields of science could, or would, so effectively censor new scientific thought.
Notice the Judge doesn’t say that the submitted papers to relevant journals have been rejected for good reasons, or that creationists have simply failed to respond to the reasons for which their studies were rejected. Creationists just hadn’t been turning in any studies at all, presumably because they just assume that the peer reviewers really are as close-minded as they themselves are. And not only have they not been turning in their homework, they expect to get an A+ for the assignment. And if they don’t get it, well, they’ll go to court to try to make sure they do.
As you might guess based on the above quote, the creationists lost the McLean case. And they keep on losing, just like truthers keep losing in the court of public opinion. Since both groups are scared to death of scrutiny and claim to believe that the scientific community is conspiring against them, they make their own fake peer reviewed journals.
The reason I’m calling these “peer reviewed journals” fake is because both of them are devoted to covering research which comes to a certain conclusion, instead of covering research within a certain field. The creationist one even says as much in the subtitle: “Building the creation model.” It’s not “Discovering the creation model” or “Studying the creation model.” They have to build the creation model on the pages of their little newsletters because the only thing you find in nature is the evolution model.
When ignorance, petitions, and racism fail to convince people of your weird beliefs, you can always just lie to try to make your point. My favorite creationist lie is an extreme example of quote-mining. Here is a selection from On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin creationists love to cite:
“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”
Wow, so Darwin thought the eye couldn’t have evolved… Sounds pretty amazing, right? And it’s right there in his most famous book. If that’s all you know of what Darwin thought about the evolution of the eye, it should be pretty telling. Those evolutionists must be pretty stupid to read that in their science book and still believe in evolution.
You might think something like that unless you read what immediately follows:
Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.
As you can see, the earlier Darwin quote was taken out of its context. Darwin was originally commenting on the superficial appearance of absurdity in his claim that all complex organs evolved from simpler ones. I have this pet peeve – and religious people seem most guilty of this – claiming that a quote they don’t happen to like was taken “out of context.” Whenever you hear that claim being made, you should ask the person making it what context they are talking about. Because 99 times out of 100, you’ll find that they don’t even know what it means to take a quote out of context. It’s just a kneejerk reaction. Go ahead – tell your religious friend about your favorite cruel and inhumane passage from the Bible or the Koran and ask them what they think about it, and chances are they’ll claim it’s taken out of context. And yet many will have no problem with actually taking Darwin out of context.
My favorite 9/11 Troofer lie is that 7 of the 9/11 hijackers are still alive. The BBC actually reported this on September 23, 2001. It really would be a serious blow to the “official story” if it were actually true. I remember hearing about it and having suspicions of my own.
But if you read to the end of the article, you’ll find a link to an editorial retraction of this story. The BBC cites “confusion” as the reason for their initial error and they denounce the conspiracy theories surrounding their report.
“The confusion over names and identities we reported back in 2001 may have arisen because these were common Arabic and Islamic names.”
Back when I was silly enough to argue with these people on internet forums, this issue was brought up. The person I was discussing it with said that the BBC’s later response was a “mainstream media opinion blog,” while her citation – the same one which linked to the correction – was objective reportage. So according to this Troofer, the BBC was totally credible when they were reporting something she happened to like, but suddenly became a part of the world gubbamint’s conspiracy machine of false flag terrorist oppression when they changed their position due to gathering more evidence. And when they say the hijackers were alive, that’s a fact; but when they say they’re dead, that’s just their opinion.
And that wasn’t an isolated incident. When I was searching for those citations, the first result on the Google Machine was for the popular Troofer website WhatReallyHappened.com, which repeats the exact same lie about 7 of the hijackers being alive without any information on the relevant updates from the BBC.
Everyone makes mistakes. Just twice in this very article we’ve got two big mistakes from a news organization as esteemed as the BBC. It happens. But when it does, the right thing to do, the adult thing to do, is to admit it and change your mind accordingly. That’s why people mock creationists and Troofers. They’d rather break than bend. They care more about coming to a conclusion which matches their ideology than one which matches the evidence. So if you’re a member of one of these groups and resent being lumped in with the other, you should remember that you did it to yourself.