Saying You "Know" Something to be True.-- I
One of the benchmarks for measuring someone's ability to think is their ability to recognize what is and what is not a testable empirical hypothesis and an ability to recognize what evidence is relevant to evaluating such hypotheses (i. e., determining whether the hypothesis is true.) Two very general types of claims that pour out of the minds who do not understand these things are wild-ass counterfactual claims, that is claims of the form "If X hadn't happened, then Y wouldn't have happened" and conspiracy theories. These provide uncountably many instances of very wrong-headed assertions of the form, "I know that `P' is true."
A typical "wild-ass" counterfactual would be "The Sept. 11 attacks would not have happened if the State Department had followed its own guidelines and denied visas to the hijackers, two top Republican senators said in a report issued Wednesday." Most people seem to think that all one must do to evaluate a counterfactual like this is imagine a different world from the real world in which the proposition comprising the "if"-clause is true, that is, that the State Department had followed its own guidelines and denied the hijackers visas. According to this argument, there would have been no 9/11 attack of the sort we Americans (and citizens of many other countries) suffered because the hijackers would not have been able to get into the country. This is, of course, an absurd conclusion. Visaless people slip into the country all the time across the Mexican and Canadian borders or even by boat along our various coastlines. It would have been easy enough (according the movies I watch) for the hijackers to slip into the country from Mexico, travel to Florida to the location of a high class forger, and get false documents such as driver's licenses and any other documents needed to fly within the country and take flying lessons. Or, they could have slipped in with all of the documents in hand. Or even come through "legally" using forged visas and other forged documents. As David Lewis noted in his important book, "Counterfactuals," when evaluating a counterfactual, you must imagine a different world from ours with many different things holding true that are presently false. Clearly, Sens. Jon Kyl and Pat Roberts are nitwits.
Conspiracy theories abound in this world. The preposterous ones, which is the vast majority of them, arise because of a natural desire or need to understand events and an inability to think clearly. One doesn't even have to be a very good thinker once one learns a few facts about them. The site referenced early in this paragraph cites a number of conspiracy theories, including one of my favorites, that JFK ordered the hit that resulted in the death of Marilyn Monroe. Another which I heard some years ago is that the Black-on-Black violence was the result of law enforcement leaving a box car full of weapons unguarded in the Black community of LA "knowing" that they would steal the weapons and start killing each other. Another involving Blacks is the allegation that the CIA brought in massive amounts of cocaine into the country "knowing" that either Blacks or other people would learn how to make crack out of it and sell it in the Black communities around the country virtually destroying a generation or more of Black people. These conspiracy theories are so transparently ridiculous I won't bother with them.
The first "respectable" conspiracy theory I ever heard was President Eisenhower's claim that we should be concerned with the military-industrial complex. In using the word "complex," Eisenhower invited people to believe that there was a giant conspiracy of military and business leaders though he didn't use the words "conspiracy" or "collusion." He said
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.Naturally the idea arose that there has been an ongoing conspiracy of sets of military leaders and sets of business leaders who meet together to plan how they can get the President and Congress to continually increase the production of newer and better and more costly weapons. This theory suffers from a fundamental mistake, characteristic of virtually all conspiracy theories, namely a failure to recognize that the behavior that is said to be caused by the conspiracy could be the result of the people involved having quite independent (no collusion and therefore no conspiracy) interests that just happen to converge. The military folks want new toys and arms manufacturers want to make money. We don't need a conspiracy theory to explain the phenomenon. All we need is people acting out of their own perceived best interests which just happen to result in increasing production of weapons. The influence of these quite independent organizations on the larger community results from the fact that the arms manufacturers hire gobs of people and pay (one would hope) lots of taxes and military bases hire lots of locals and pour lots of money in local businesses.
Of course, a number of Colonels involved in guiding the development of arms and in urging them to be purchased may collude with a particular company to make sure they get the contracts and get overpaid for them. The result might a job for this Colonel down the line. There are laws forcing a waiting period, I believe, before such jobs can be taken. But it certainly isn't an accident that lots of former military folks end up with cushy jobs in industry. So we may have lots of tiny conspiracies (instances of collusion) as opposed to a giant conspiracy. I am somewhat comforted by that thought.
Conspiracy theories frequently fail because it is possible to explain the behavior as the independent actions of people which just happen to converge in a result both want. In other cases, they survive, however preposterous, because of the absence of critical relevant information. The Kennedy assassination Conspiracies have resulted from the fact that not everything that one needs to know to understand fully how this assasination arose is, in fact, known. Of course, some will deny that certain alleged facts are facts which opens up the conspiracy to include even more people -- the people involved in the coverup. Going through the history of the investigation of the Watergate break-in provides a perfect case of an every widening conspiracy. In that case, the conspiracy seems to be well-established. Ditto the Iran-Contra Affair. Will the ongoing Iraq war prove to be the result of a similar Republican conspiracy between elements of the White House (including especially Dick Cheney), of elements within the Pentagon, of certain members of the State Department, of certain top Halliburton executives, and some others? Watch this space.