The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Annual Fundraising Campaign Underway
Last Chance for 2004 Donations

Last week our annual fundraising letter went out to skeptic supporters around the world. We only ask for funds once each year, and your support helps us keep the vital skeptical viewpoint before the press and before the public all year long.

This year we are also able to accept vitally needed contributions on-line through our website. As the Skeptics Society is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, all contributions are fully tax-deductible. Contributions made by this Saturday, January 31 are deductible from your 2004 taxes. We hope you can help us continue to spread the word this year!

Diamond Lecture Moved to Larger Hall

Jared Diamond Photo

On December 17th in the LA Times ran a feature about Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse, and his upcoming appearance at the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. Ever since, the Skeptic offices have been swamped with calls for information and tickets, with some attendees planning to drive from as far away as Las Vegas.

In response, we have arranged to move the presentation to Beckman Auditorium, which seats 1,100, from Baxter Hall, which seats only 300. To cover the higher fees for this venue, we have had to raise the admission fee for this event only to $8 for member/subscribers and $12 for non-members. Students with ID are still $5, and members of the Caltech community are still free. The Caltech Community includes Caltech faculty, staff and students as well as JPL staff.

Please help spread the word that this very important lecture is now able to accommodate the many fans of this Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist. We very much hope to see you there!

The following is an article on conspiracy theories, by George Case, who has published numerous Op-Ed pieces in the Vancouver Sun daily newspaper, and is also the author of a speculative novel titled Silence Descends: The End of the Information Age 2000-2500 , published in 1997 by Arsenal Pulp Press to positive reviews in the U.S. and Canada.

The Truth is Out There…
Way Out There

by George Case

The peak popularity of the television series The X-Files, and the initial Internet-boosted acceleration of the Information Revolution are behind us, but their legacies live on, in the pervasive familiarity of the conspiracy theory. Indeed, the trust-no-one phenomenon is today so much a part of our culture that it has become an object of suspicion: recent books such as Daniel Pipes’ Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From, Robert Anton Wilson’s Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-Ups, and Devon Jackson’s Conspiranoia! The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories, dissect the history, nature, and function of phobic fantasies in all their sprawling interconnectedness. Yet conspiracy theories—let’s call them CTs—remain almost routine elements of our socio-political discourse, even if few of their exponents would describe them as such, and even if fewer of us recognize one when we see it. Why?

A lot of CTs’ attractiveness, logicians will say, is in their dexterity at skirting the basic rules of deduction and inference. The world is complicated; many arguable factors contribute to events; CTs simplify things enormously and with great flair. Psychologists might add that the sheer randomness of modern life is so distressing that CTs offer a weirdly reassuring “master narrative” no longer provided by religion. No matter how malevolent the alleged String-Pullers are said to be, they are perhaps less scary than the thought of no String-Pullers at all. And rhetoricians may remind us that CTs are a kind of all-purpose argument winner, inevitably shutting down further debate by invoking sinister, shadowy agents whose very elusiveness confirms their existence and influence. Through all of these—supposition, evasion, innuendo—CTs work, in journalism, education, political activism, and ordinary conversation. But they aren’t infallible: studied carefully, they form patterns, fall into categories, and hide errors of reason and common sense. A brief field guide to their habits may help detect them before they turn dangerous.

Hidden Connection CTs

George H. W. Bush and Osama bin Laden have shared interests in a Saudi oil company. Lee Harvey Oswald was seen in his future killer Jack Ruby’s Dallas nightclub. A numerical translation of Bill Gates’ full name adds up to 666. Or, the synchronicities found in any daily newspaper, e.g. “Unexpected Shutdown of Corruption Inquiry” on page one, and “Lawyer’s Death Called Foul Play” on page ten. As Hidden Connections, such links are essentially twisted chains of circumstantial evidence, whereby any tenuous overlaps of time, place, and incident become proof of deliberate collusion. But all of us are never more than a few relationships removed from everyone else (the so-called “six degrees of separation”), and putative causes and effects are always happening around each other, especially in hindsight; a really compelling Hidden Connection would accurately predict a future event, rather than employing the hindsight bias by stringing together a disparate assortment of dots after the fact. Chance, simultaneity, and accidents are never conceded by Hidden Connection spotters, and their only conclusion is the ultimate hanging question, “Coincidence? You be the judge.” In the court of Hidden Connection CTs, a verdict of “Guilty” is never in doubt.

Manipulated Media CTs

At their most sensible these might reflect the view that print and broadcast news and entertainment outlets have an interest in maintaining a stable, none-too-critical audience of pliant consumers. But towards the fringe the Manipulated Media message is less “Don’t believe everything you hear,” and more “Don’t believe anything you hear,” with the straightforward truth—that trivial material can distract people from serious matters—embellished into a scenario where all information is mere propaganda that obscures government or corporate misdeeds. Implicit here is the assumption of a single entity called “the media” that can be wholly hijacked by a single body, giving us deathless slurs like “The Jews control Hollywood” (did they steal it from the Amish?). Thus the inconvenient responsibility of informing oneself through one or many of the thousands of publicly available news and opinion sources is dismissed. Manipulated Media CTs are a favorite of anyone who hasn’t seen their own ideology spelled out in banner headlines or heard it echo back from the six o’clock news. Nowadays given a wide forum in the free-for-all of the Internet, their odd irony is that it’s only ever through the media that we’re told how spun, suppressed, and censored the media is.

They Know Everything CTs

This posits that important figures behind closed doors instigate or are aware of impending disasters, but allow or encourage them to precipitate some broader, beneficial (to them) outcome. The Iraq war (started by the U.S. to guarantee its oil supply), the September 11 attacks (sanctioned by the CIA to kick start an American pipeline project in Afghanistan) are only the latest fodder for such speculation. Oliver Stone’s film JFK may represent its supreme example. The problem with They Know Everything CTs is that these kinds of elaborately murderous schemes are hardly the most effective or predictable means of steering the tides of history. It has been pointed out, for example, that if Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbor but let them proceed because he wanted a pretext for U.S. entry into World War II, why wouldn’t he have prevented the attack at the last minute? Wouldn’t an intercepted “surprise” have produced the same result as a successful one? Similarly, was atomizing several thousand New Yorkers an obvious, practical step to the commercial exploitation of Central Asian gas reserves? And why would the U.S. military shoot down TWA 800 over Long Island, with so many potential witnesses? And would assassinating John F. Kennedy on a sunny afternoon safely ensure his successor’s dragging the U.S. arms industry into a profitable Vietnam War? If They—whoever They are—really Know Everything, would They gamble so big on such catastrophic rolls of the dice? And how good are They at conspiring if Their cover gets blown so easily and so widely?

The blunt truth is that conspiracy theories very seldom make a solid case. Either they play on pre-existing prejudices (how corrupt you already take the government / the media / big business to be), or contradict each other (if the Iraq war is all about Halliburton contracts, then it can’t be about Judeo-Christian millennial fanatics within the Bush administration; if the Mafia killed JFK, then the Freemasons are off the hook), or defy rational dispute (so the more the supposed conspiracy is denied, the more obviously there is one). CTs do not admit the glum, unresolved reality that public and private officials of good will may make single mistakes that spin vast webs of unintended consequences, nor do they allow that the likelihood of a few cynical individuals covertly trumping the infinite variables of human and organizational interaction, and never getting caught at it, is pretty slim. For all their curiously gratifying implications (“We didn’t lose; they cheated,” sums up Daniel Pipes), they permit us to forfeit our rights as engaged, aware citizens by insisting on a permanently skewed, nothing-is-as-it-seems order. If conspirators are running the world, then why bother to read, vote, think, discuss, act, progress? Today, more than ever, we should be demanding straight answers to our questions. Whether or not we think of them as “conspiracy theories,” glib brushoffs about Hidden Connections, about a Manipulated Media, and about how They Know Everything, are no longer good enough.

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