Monday, January 23, 2006

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.

Tweet This!


Blogger concerned citizen said...

You lost me when you said, "respecable conspiracy theory"

I despise conspiracy theorys in general because they are illogical, based on emotion. Conspiracy & theory should not be used in the same sentence, as I see it. Or should they? They are both elusive words.

2:40 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

P.S. & what is the diff. between alot of collusion & conspiracy?

2:51 AM

Blogger Mimi said...

The people who advance the idea of "conspiracy" are probably akin to those who subscribe illness--often mental--to some external force, when the evidence points to random chance. I know more than one sad soul whose child was born retarded, but who insists that he/she fell out of a chair, had a mastoid operation that went awry, or suffered some other misadventure that resulted in the retardation. I never try to contradict them, and hope they get some comfort from these beliefs.

8:04 AM

Blogger Tracy Lynn said...

Thanks, Mike. I'm passing this on to my theorist friend. Well reasoned, as always.

10:29 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

It's not to far of a stretch from 'believing' in say, the Bible to believing in conspiracy theorys. It's ideas that people want to be the truth. I think most of us are fallible that way.
For instance, I don't like the police very well & have to argue myself out of agreeing w/something someone says about them or thinking up nonsense myself.
I have come close to getting in trouble, because of it.
BTW, they don't like being flipped off.

10:33 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t, there are some real conspiracies, as when Egypt, Jordan, and Syria invaded Israel on the same day. The theory that they conspired is clearly "respeoctable" and there are some respectable ones that fall short of being that clear as well. However, most people seem to conjure up a conspiracy about practically everything that happens they don't like. Pro sports fans, for instance, constantly theorize that the league conspires to get the big market teams into the finals of the playoffs. When facts refute them (the Yankees have missed out on the World Series for some years now), they brush them away like annoying flies. And "collusion" is required to create a "conspiracy."

uninterlaced, I am with you. IMO, it is much better to abandon conspiracy theories, which tend to be broad brush things, in favor of much more detailed accounts of what is going on. I did that a little bit in the discussion of the military-industrial complex notion of Eisenhower. Conspiracy theories are just too easy to conjure up. Any nitwit can create those.

I have really enjoyed reading all the comments -- they come to me first in e-mail form. If I don't reply it doesn't mean anything except that I am tired or distracted or working on the next blog. I had no idea that this blog would take over my life as much as it has. It runs me rather than the reverse.

1:50 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

You know I'm convinced I posted here already... meh. I think the biggest thing about conspiracy theories is the way the creator always says "and everyone was fooled... except for me!". The most major example for me is the moon landings, supposedly faked to fool the Russians, which it apparently did, because of course they didn't know the "facts" given by the theorists....

1:57 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Years ago, there was a movie called "Capricorn One" about a faked space flight that starts off with a voice over "What if man's greatest technological achievement is a fraud?" and concludes with "How do we know this hasn't already happened?....How do we know it won't happen again?" The kicker is the use of "again." Whenever we have a sentence expressing the proposition "P again" this presupposes that "P" is true.

The fraud here was the movie ad. It's possible that this ad helped the conspiracy along.

7:40 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home