Friday, February 03, 2006

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.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

The idea i'm getting about conspiracy theories is that they are always motivated by an idea outside themselves.
Not only is it a 'theory', the motivation behind the conspiracy theory is self serving in some manner.

To reason out one, you would have to pick it to pieces.
First you'd have to find some facts & logic to base your reasoning on.
What is hersay, what is not? W/is this persons motivation for saying this? etc...

& to top it off we all tend to 'believe' what we want in the end anyway, right?

I can see what is the same about conspiracy theories, but, not what's diff.

Then again, I avoid these types of things. They make me frusturated.

3:59 PM

Blogger Mimi said...

Hmmm... I'm surprised to read you flirting with a JFK murder. I think the situation should be approached this way: COULD Lee Harvey Oswald have pulled off the asassination alone? Answer: yes. Well, in the absence of any other hard facts, I think he did. Keep in mind that at that point in history, presidential assasionations (since I can't spell it, thought I'd try it both ways)seemed impossibly unlikely to almost everybody.
This endless speculation about JFK reminds me of "theories" that Charles Lindbergh was complicent in the kidnap and murder of his son in 1932. Come to think of it, I've read solemn treaties to the effect that Emily Dickenson was a lesbian. Fer cryin' out loud, let this stuff go unless the facts are really there.

6:48 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t, you are right that conspiracies generally don't arise soley out of the facts. People have agendas that prompt them. Republicans see Democratic conspiracies all over the place, and conversely. It would be interesting to go through some conspiracy theories to see if one could detect the underlying agenda.

mimi, you have the right idea. Stick with the facts. I don't believe that Oswald acted alone but there are no hard facts, though there facts surrounding the autopsy of Kennedy and the wound to Connolly that are hard to square with one shooter but there are no hard facts to prove there was a second one.

8:08 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I saw a long documentary on the J.F.K. assasination, the history & ideology of Qswald & the theory that the 'lone gunman' did not act alone. Was fascinating, w/lots of facts, but still.....questions linger in the mind.

Have any conspiracy theories ever been solved to satisfaction? They are like Gordian knots.


10:05 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

LG, I'm really relieved to learn of the governor's action, whatever the motivation.

The behavior of some of the members of the BoE (reading newspapers during one meeting) was disgraceful.

11:28 AM

Blogger Mr K said...

ahhh, now I see, I've been commenting in the wrong place!

As well as a lack of certainty, I think there has to be that feel of improbability that you mention too- about Lee Harvey Oswald managing to kill JFK all by himself. I think there is an element of that in a lot of conspiracy theories- 9/11, the idea of terrorists managing to do such a thing, or the moon landings.

Also, studied ignorance helps- observations such as not seeing any stars in the background in the moon landing photos. This kind of thing will convince someone who does not really understand science (or, even, someone who does but is not espcially acquainted with the field in question), which helps easily spread.

to reproduce myself....

12:00 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

copernicus, I am with you. There is nothing wrong about saying you don't know. That is the usual state of knowlege of people in most cases. What business person can claim knowledge that he/she knows that purchasing such and such a company will be good for the company he/she heads? Acting on imperfect knowlege is what life comes down to most of the time.

7:41 AM

Blogger Eric Dutton said...

Language Guy-
Though I haven't commented here before, I've been reading your blog since it appeared as a "blog of note."
I'm writing from Kansas and I'm often worried about my state. Recent years have been hard on those of us who love this state but also believe in sound science and philosophy. What worries me most is that the "debate" about intelligent design has ceased and that the proponents of ID are simply trying to pry it into the cultre via the political process. If you want to question evolution because you think that the scientific community is sold out to the idea and is protecting it from critique, fantastic! Do it by prducing your own research and publishing it. Then reseach and publish again. If there's any merit to the ID hypothesis or the notion that the scientific community is an atheist propaganda machine, then you'll unearth it to the astonished publish one well-reasoned reaseach paper at a time.
This would, of course, keep ID proponents on a wild goose chase till the end of days, and while I'm comfortable with that, I suspect that they know this too and that is why they're pursuing politics instead.

You may have already touched on much of this, but I felt a need to speak up for reason from Kansas.

2:22 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Eric, you have put the issue in exactly the right way. Nice proposal. It will not be accepted.

Ever wonder why there is no ID science for the origin of the universe? That is, why doesn't ID do battle with physics. It is just as inconsistent with the Bible, read literally, as is the Theory of Evolution.

8:14 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

LG, of course you don't have to go all the way back to the origin of the universe to use physics to attack the IDiots or literalists in general, just back to the origin of Daylight Savings: Joshua at the battle of Gibeon, when he prayed for the sun to stand still to give him more time to rout his enemies. One word: inertia. It's not enough to stop the earth turning, the deity would also have to cancel the rotational inertia of everything on it; otherwise the oceans would slosh out of their basins, assisted in scouring the land clean by 1500 mph winds. (I'm not sure, but friction might result in enough head to melt the crust and boil away the oceans...?) Nice story, though.

By the way, this is a bit off topic here but I wanted to get your opinion on something. I've been engaged recently in a discussion with some Christians in northern Ohio, during the course of which the following statements have been made.

All beliefs are religious beliefs. All laws are religious laws.

What's your take, if any, on these?

5:31 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The two claims you cite, Ibadairon, are easily countered by asking for their empirical evidence. There is no evidence, for instance, that my belief that "my new hearing aids are helping me" is a religious claim. It has no religious content at all. Your debating partner simply cannot provide evidence that this is a religious belief.

The claim that all laws are religious laws sounds like an Islamic belief. In any event, the laws of Islam are inconsitent with the laws of the United States. As him what he makes of that?

One might be able to make a case that some laws have some moral or ethical foundation.

7:20 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

L. Guy, Thanks to you & your post, I have uncovered a conspiracy last week-end, against the most exellent Seattle Seahawks.
It was quite ovbious to us Seahawks fans that the Steeler Fans along w/the city of Detroit & esp. the 'referees', conspired together to keep the superior Seahawks from winning the SuperBowl.
You can be sure one dirty Ref. is driving a new car today & it is even rumoured that they could of used the Superdome, but did not. ( someone was payed off, I heard)

Just ask anyone on the West Coast.

11:44 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t, sports conspiracies are the favored theory of how the righteous are defeated by the evil-doers. However, in this case it did seem that all of the referee decisions that were problematic did go against the Seahawks. Of course, if Stevens had caught the 4 passes he dropped and Hasselback hadn't thrown a key interception, then these calls might not have mattered.

Ben didn't score on the one play; the Seahawk receiver did push off, however. The Steeler defender was pushed back a step, albiet a small step, but that could only have happened if pushed.

12:55 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

j_g, you seem to want to impose your will on people who engage in gay sex in private. How is that any different from those who want to impose smoking bans in public? And it isn't a tiny minority to oppose public smoking. In Columbus, Ohio, after a ban was imposed public smoking the people voted to uphold it. That would be a majority of the voters.

1:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised how little attention this gets, but a bbc documentary in the last few years included a computer analysis of the jfk shooting and concluded that there was certainly one shooter, and he was certainly in the book depository. Which makes it insanely unlikely that it was anything other than oswald acting alone on the day. I was hugely surprised by this result but utterly convinced by the evidence. Check it out.

1:59 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Moon Landing conspiracy theory is the most fascinating one. I haven't studied it too much, but I am thinking of checking it out a bit more. This stuff is entertaining to say the least. JFK is OK, but I think we all pretty much can say that there is no such thing as a magic bullet. Then there was the shots from the grassy knoll. Probably the mob was involved somehow. Now 9/11 is a touchy subject. You start talking about some demolition explosives that went off a few stories below where the planes crashed and pretty soon people start calling you unamerican and unpatriotic. That to me makes up the top three conspiracy theories if you ask me because these are the ones that can have the biggest impact on people. But I've heard of another...I heard that we actually knew about the Japs coming to attack us way before they even got to Pearl Harbor. There's another good one.

2:49 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Actually, pf, that Pearl Harbor conspiracy is a very old one. The premise is that FDR wanted Japan to attack so he could get us in WW2 and thereby save the Euros. I hardly need mention the flaws in it. The largest is that FDR was so confident in ultimately victory over both Japan and Germany that he was willing to have our Pacific fleet destroyed to do it. The fact is that we were not so big a superpower then that victory was a lock. Some argue that had the battle of Midway not gone our way, we could have lost the war in the Pacific. And the invasion of Europe was not a picnic. Germany and Japan were quite formidable enemies considering how we had allowed our military to decline after WW1.

anon, thanks for the tip on the bbc documentary. Here is a bbc web site mentioning the documentary: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4582488.stm
I have run into critiques of this documentary that say it did not actually refute other accounts of the shooting itself nor did it deal with all of the autopsy reports. Basically it relied on sources from US, Cuban, and Russian sources. I don't think I am going to take the latter two too seriously without an enormous amount of vetting. Ditto the US source. You can find practically anyone who will say anything.

4:34 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

LG, thanks for the feedback.

When the laws claim was put forth, I countered with "Like 'No Right On Red'?" I didn't argue the beliefs claim, but considered using my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow (or, more accurately, that the earth will continue rotating so that the sun will appear to rise), which surely is based on my experience of the 16,000+ times this has already occurred in my life. (OK, I don't exactly remember the first two or three thousand all that well.) I suspected that any mention of scientific knowledge or theory in conjunction with personal experience would have resulted in the counterargument that science is my religion.

Instead of arguing the belief claim I went straight to the heart of the matter and confirmed that my discussant was using "religion" to mean the entirety of an individual's basic belief system or world view, an expansion of the word's definition I do not agree with but can understand (in the context of the belief that every facet of human existence reflects Man's relationship with God).

And of course no comment would feel complete without a rejoinder to j_g oneesan (=elder sister): In a diverse (multicultural, multiethnic, multi-denominational/religious) society, for "moral behavior [to be] judged by the community at large" is the only valid secular (=non-religious, political) option. Laws, as instruments of the state, should only impact private behavior where such behavior can affect (harm) other individuals; each individual should be responsible for the consequences of behavior that is harmful only to that individual.

You refer to "public", live sex acts on stage, but I assume the stage is not in an open-air arena. I myself smoke, but support public smoking restrictions based on the current evidence on the effects of second-hand smoke (harm to others besides myself). And as for the man and the horse, what goes on in private between two consenting...animals is nobody's business. (On afterthought, maybe we better throw in a few veggies there, too?) In that it(he) was the penetr...er, perpetrator, it sounds to me like the horse was a willing (albeit probably confused) participant.

(You wouldn't happen to have a link with pix, would you?)

9:55 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...


I always thot it was a woman in Mexico having sex w/a donkey.

Now, it's a man in Oregon having 'some kind of sex' w/a horse!

11:54 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Thanks, lil; one more item for the steadily growing list. Discussions with the other Ohioans, btw, being a Buckeye myself.

l>t, is that "some kind of sex" as in "some kind of wonderful" or "Some kind of fun now!"?

: )

9:55 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Oneechan (affectionate form), have you blogged a list of the other countries you have travelled to or lived in? I'm just curious about the extent of "the rest of what [you]'ve seen throughout the world" with your own eyes.

The Japanese proverb you sort of allude to is

Onna wa damatte sanpo sagatte tsuite koi! "Woman, keep silent and follow three paces behind!"

Sure, there are still men here who believe that, but most of them are sucking off oxygen bottles and can barely walk themselves.

As in another thread, the depth of your knowledge of the society I have lived in for over 18 years leaves me speechless.

1:23 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

ibadairon, I have no idea??? That is what makes it so funny. HA!

Jesus_God woman is 'funny' if nothing else.

1:54 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Uwa, Oneesan, sugoi desu ne!

j_g, that is truly impressive! I had no idea.

That you could go on that long without serious grammatical gaff or typo. One might almost mistake you for one of us "ijicated ijits" you so despise. Thank you for challenging me and forcing me to grow; once again I must revise my opinion of you. As well as dispense with my cherished belief that travel and exposure to other cultures is a broadening experience.

I must admit, I was bit disappointed when I reached the end of your first paragraph without encountering the expected "...but I've never been to me."

(By the way, if you think my way of interacting with you has anything at all to do with your being a woman, you are sadly mistaken. ... Oh, I can't stand it anymore! Enough of this foreplay! When can we expect you over here? I'll be waiting at Narita! XXX)

11:20 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read some of your blogs with great interest. I teach American Culture under the guise of Language Practice in a university in Budapest, Hungary. Many of your articles will be excellent reading for my class who is studying media adverting in print and on television as well as journalism.

Thank you for the thought provoking articles.

Dr. Ryan James

3:22 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

The Language Guy wrote (as one paragraph, individual sentences in quotes here):

"The existence of the Nontheory of Intelligent Design can exist because there are flaws in the Theory of Evolution."

==> To say "the existence of [A] can exist" is to state a tautology or to state a redundancy.

"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."

==> As The Language Guy should know, there is no such thing as a theory of history that presents "testable empirical claims." The theory of evolution makes claims about dinosaurs, for example, that are not testable. Those claims are assertions about history. You might find evidence that tends to support a hypothesis about historical facts, but that is not the same as testing a claim empirically.

"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."

==> What is intellectually dishonest is to assert that evolution makes a lot of testable empirical claims. Most of evolution's claims are about things that happened in the distant past where there were no scientists observing. Those historical events cannot be tested empirically. To say otherwise is, shall we say, "purely and simply," to state a naked falsehood.

7:30 PM


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