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.

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Blogger Copernicus Now said...

In short: Occam's razor

9:42 PM

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 uninterlaced said...

this concept that you are addressing was very troublesome for me in my activist days especially in regards to many of the critiques of noam chomsky along the military industrial complex rationale that you mentioned in your post.

i believe it not to be a conspiracy per se however just because this likeminded ceo's dont get together for secret meetings or ever even talk at all bespeaks of something even more sinister that perhaps requires a new word to describe adequately.

its definition might be "a sharing of assumptions held by those in possession of power that are not held by those without it."

a comparison might be made between a chess grandmaster and a novice. the grandmaster is concerned with fixed patterns in the board where all the rules, positions, and subtleties of the game have become almost a priori. where the novice may on occaision have trouble moving his knight to the correct square or accidentally put his own king in check by moving a pinned piece.

the difference of course in the real world is that there are no rules except the ones imposed by those with power to implement and enforce them. this leaves the vast majority of folks who can barely read in comparison to fumble along endulging in their simpler pleasures trusting in those powers that be to serve their best interests. unfortunately this is more often than not, not the case.

3:14 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

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, you forgot a very important conspiracy theory. The one which claims the CIA developed HIV to knock off the Gays. Maybe George Bush did have the New Orleans levies blown up as Louis Farrakhan says.

Halliburton most certainly started the war in Iraq by starting the rumors Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam never possessed any, ever! It was all a big lie. The dead Kurds in Northern Iraq were faking all those dead bodies as were the Iranians on the battlefields to the east. Saddam Hussein avoided having any contact with terrorists too. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi never visited Baghdad and met with Iraqi intelligence officers before we attacked Iraq, honest.

Conspiracies are as real as Marc Anthony and Cleopatra or John Wilkes Booth. Was it a conspiracy to dress up like Indians and throw tea into Boston harbor?

Do you believe a single bullet fired from a sloppy WWII vintage; 6.5mm Italian made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle at a moving vehicle at over 200 hundred yards, having a bullet that weighs 160 grains, a muzzle velocity of 2900 fps (feet per second) with a trajectory of – 8.6 inches @ 200 yds, fired by a single, mediocre skilled marksman killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy? For the Warren Commission Report conclusions to work, we must believe that a bullet could cause 7 wounds, transit 2 humans, possibly fracture a vertebra, destroy 10cm of rib, shatter a wrist, then emerge with virtually no weight loss (1/180 of an ounce) while leaving significant fragments in one of the victims. It is not only unlikely that this happened the way that the Warren Commission Report states but physically impossible. Is this a conspiracy, cover up or coincidence?

Was the 9/11 Commission Report the same type of questionable report when one of its members was involved in a cover up herself as Jamie Garelic was. Jamie Garelic was an assistant Attorney General under the Clinton administration and was extensively involved with the CIA and FBI not sharing information between agencies about terrorists and terrorist organizations. To add to that mystery, the former National Security advisor to President William Jefferson Clinton, Sandy Berger is caught at the Library of Congress stuffing classified documents into his pants during the 9/11 Commission hearings. Is this a cover up, a conspiracy or coincidence?

There are plenty more to site but the point is that ever since the 1960’s and the Warren Commission report with its “magic bullet” theory no one trusts any official reports that come from the Government and this I believe is the rule of “unintended consequences” in full effect. I believe the Warren Commission started out to find the truth but after it became clear what the truth was the Warren Commission went into cover up mode to protect the public and the members of conspiracy because they were most likely high ranking government officials or a foreign government that possessed nuclear weapons. Either way, the public knows the Warren Commission was a farce and since the the majority of thinking Americans no longer trust their government to tell them the truth.

12:58 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correction: the last sentence of above post is to read "Either way, the public knows the Warren Commission Report was a farce and since then the majority of thinking Americans no longer trust their government to tell them the truth."

1:06 PM

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


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