Conspiracy Theories, Science, and Intelligent Design
I touched on conspiracy theories in a previous post, noting that they, like theories predicated on counterfactual conditionals (If Hitler hadn't been born, ...) tend to be highly problematic. I made mention of "respectable conspiracy theories" and a commenter wondered how there could be respectable ones. In fact, there have been some pretty nasty conspiracies in my lifetime. There is no question now that Nixon, Haldeman, and Erlichman were up to their ears in the Watergate cover up though none may have been involved in planning of the break in at the Watergate hotel. Nixon's former Attorney General, John Mitchell, on the other hand, was involved. The Kennedy assassination was said to be the work of a single semi-deranged man by the Warren Commission. Almost no one seems to believe that. As a result, a plethora of conspiracy theories have arisen to replace the Warren Commission story. Oliver Stone got his reputation as a major conspiratorialist because of his movie, JFK which is, perhaps, the best known movie on the subject.
What is the difference between the conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary and the conspiracies to kill JFK? In both cases, we have a lot of facts to work with. In the case of the Watergate conspiracy (there were at least two -- the Mitchell-Liddy et al conspiracy to break in to the Watergate and the subsequent cover up which involved a very large number of people including Nixon himself) we have sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee which anyone could tune in to watch and we have the famous White House tapes. We have, in short, direct evidence of the conspiracies. In the case of the JFK killing, we lack the so-called "smoking gun" (maybe I shouldn't have used that expression). We have no tapes linking LBJ to some person X and tapes linking X to the shooter, assuming that LBJ was behind it all. We have no similar hard evidence linking CIA operatives, said to hate JFK, to the shooter. We have no hard evidence linking Castro to the shooter. And we have no hard evidence linking the Mob to the shooter. I have mentioned four different theories I have heard over the years. There are many more and some involve major multiple conspirators (actual or former CIA operatives, members of the Mob, and Oswald or others (see the reference to James Files below).
No one, to my knowledge, proffers new theories of the Watergate break in or of the cover up except perhaps Republicans trying to clean up their image (as manufacturers of multiple conspiracies -- Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the current one involving the outing of Valerie Plame, which isn't to say that Democrats don't have their problems in this area -- see the Gulf of Tonkin incident) . But in contrast with the two Watergate conspiracy theories there are numerous theories of the JFK killing and hosts of web sites devoted to it around the world. One of the more interesting is one that cites where "hard evidence" can be found. Why are there so many theories? I think that the reason is that the Warren Commission theory is just too simple. The idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is not credible to most people. I suppose I don't believe it myself. Clouding the picture is the fact that there have been confessions by persons other than Oswald (check out this Google search page for information on the confession of James Files).
The contrast between the Watergate conspiracies where we do not have gobs of competing theories and the plethora of conspiracies proffered for the JFK killing is instructive. The less that is known about some state of affairs, the more theories of that state of affairs are possible. And, in the case of the JFK killing, differing conspiracy theories may dispute the "facts" cited by the Warren Commission and the "facts" proffered by other conspiracy theories (the Files confession, for instance). The only thing that can reduce the number of such theories is a "smoking gun."
The principle that the less that is known about a state of affairs, the more theories there are likely to be applies across the board of human affairs. There are commonly competing scientific theories that exist because critical facts aren't known. This is inevitable in science and it is not a sign that scientific research is, in general, untrustworthy. Typically, competing scientific theories abound at the cutting edge of the science -- the "wild side" of sciences. Most of what scientists say they know is predicated on hard facts. However, any theory of a subject matter takes a slice of reality and studies that. Chemists once did not concern themselves with matters of interest to physicists. Now we have physical chemistry. Once biology and chemistry were separate fields. Now there is biochemistry. Because scientists work with at least partially arbitrary slices of reality, there will always be things that aren't known because they aren't within the scope of interest of the science.
The existence of the Nontheory of Intelligent Design can exist because there are flaws in the Theory of Evolution. There will always be flaws in that theory so we will probably always be bothered by religious sorts who exploit these flaws to offer Intelligent Design which can live forever since it makes no actual testable empirical claims. To compare a theory that makes testable empirical claims (the Theory of Evolution) with "theories" that do not (Intelligent Design) is purely and simply intellectually dishonest.
I am proud to say the the current governor of Ohio has instructed those responsible for teaching children in Ohio to rid their texts and courses of reference to Intelligent Design. He did it to ward of law suits, so his motives were not pure. However, it is nice to see this otherwise seriously flawed governor doing the right thing even if for the wrong reasons.