Tag: Explanations

Fisking Fisk’s fiskers

So, the world (well, bits of it) are all in a tizzy because Robert Fisk believes that 9/11 was an inside job.People believe silly things all the time. In this case, however, it seems people are believing silly things about Fisk.Sure, Fisk has said a number of things which we might questionable, objectionable or just ridiculous, but he actually said those things. Fisk has not come out and denied the official story of September 11th, 2001. He has not said ‘Al Qaeda did not do it; the American Government did!’ He has not said that the weight of evidence in favour of the official explanation of 9/11 is bunk. He is simply curious as to some of the more puzzling aspects of the official story. What he is suggesting is that the official story-qua-explanation is incomplete.This is a perfectly acceptable move. Imagine if you were a theoretical physicist investigating the nature of positrons; you might broadly accept the theories in your discipline but also be involved in research that questions the particulars of those theories.You don’t have to agree with everything your side says, you know. Certainly, the pursuit of knowledge, whether it be natural or social, has been largely about accepting the general thrust of a theory whilst debating the intimate details.Fisk is doing something along these lines and it is not just fairly evident but explictly so in the piece he wrote. This is what Fisk actually says:

Usually, I have tried to tell the “truth”; that while there are unanswered questions about 9/11, I am the Middle East correspondent of The Independent, not the conspiracy correspondent; that I have quite enough real plots on my hands in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Gulf, etc, to worry about imaginary ones in Manhattan. My final argument – a clincher, in my view – is that the Bush administration has screwed up everything – militarily, politically diplomatically – it has tried to do in the Middle East; so how on earth could it successfully bring off the international crimes against humanity in the United States on 11 September 2001?

and, most importantly, these, among others of a similar ilk, are the questions he raises:

But – here we go. I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11. … I am talking about scientific issues. If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time? (They collapsed in 8.1 and 10 seconds.) What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it? The American National Institute of Standards and Technology was instructed to analyse the cause of the destruction of all three buildings. They have not yet reported on WTC 7. Two prominent American professors of mechanical engineering – very definitely not in the “raver” bracket – are now legally challenging the terms of reference of this final report on the grounds that it could be “fraudulent or deceptive”.

Now, it is true that a lot of the things Fisk finds suspect already have quite plausible answers; he is behind the ball, so to speak, on a fair number of 9/11 issues and seems to see open questions where others have provided very good answers, but still, these were legitimate questions that the official story did not, initially, take account of, and, as is obvious, Fisk isn’t doubting the official story wholesale but asking why it doesn’t/didn’t account for a number of anomalies.Some of the criticisms Fisk seems to be getting on this issue simply smell of a beat-up job; “here’s a(nother) left-wing commentator who is obviously a loony.” Some of it stinks of people simply not bothering to read the article. None of it is justified. Attack Fisk for what he says, not for what you think he might have said.Or, in some cases, what you wished he had said.

Tripartite Division of Labour

Mr. Paul Litterick, of The Fundy Post recently asked:

[A]re there instances of conspiracy theories that turn out to be correct?

To which I answer a resounding ‘Yes,’ but in three parts.

One: Any explanation of an event that references a Conspiracy is a Conspiracy Theory

This answer is simple; the explanation of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar is a Conspiracy Theory because we know that people conspired against the Dictator and that this Conspiracy was a cause of his death (not the cause, however; that was stabbing (well, ultimately, oxygen starvation of the brain; the stabbing caused that and that caused JC the First to die)). Thus there are lots of examples of Conspiracy Theories being true.

I suspect, however, that what Paul really is asking is whether speculative Conspiracy Theories ever turn out to be true. The death of Caesar is a bad example because the co-conspirators admit to their deed fairly quickly and people aren’t left speculating as to what really happened. Thus I rush through History and enter the 20th Century and say, simply, the Trotsky Trials.

Two: Some speculative Conspiracy Theories are explanations

In the early part of the 20th Century Leon Trotsky (and some friends) were put on trial by the Russian State for treason. The Trials were held in public and a big fuss was made of these being good, honest examples of judicial behaviour. The American and British Governments assured the world that justice was, indeed, being served by our friends in Communism and that all was right with the world. Those freaks at the Dewey Commission, with their claim that the trials were a sham and that it was all for show; that Trotsky’s verdict was pre-arranged and that the evidence was trumped up and largely fabricated were just loons, Conspiracy Theorists, if you will.

Except that the Dewey Commission was right (and not just accidentally; they were right on most of the substantive matters). The Trotksy Trials were a sham. It was, indeed, a Conspiracy to render a guilty verdict on Leon Trotsky and his supporters. The Conspiracy Theory was revealed to be true by the Russian State some twenty years later. This Conspiracy Theory referred to an actual case of Conspiracy and was thus an explanation of the event under consideration.

Which leads me on to my third answer, which is to do with History itself.

Three: Every Historical Explanation is a theory and some Historical Explanations will thus be Conspiracy Theories.

One of the problems with the term ‘theory’ is that it means quite different things according to the context in which it is used. When I say ‘the Theory of General Relativity’ I mean theory in a sense that is quite disimilar to when I say ‘the police’s theory that Sione Te Namu was killed by jackals and not by her girlfriend.’ Historical explanations, similarly, are different to those kinds of explanations you find in the Natural Sciences[1]. Thus speculative Conspiracy Theories can turn out to be good explanations. Indeed, in the past, they have been.

[There is a fourth answer, which would go something like: Of course there are true Conspiracy Theories because we have successful prosecutions of Criminal Conspiracies. However, that is a matter I’m not currently touching upon in my thesis, if only because it does seem to be a different case from the more ‘speculative’ Conspiracy Theories we find in History.]

1. This is a tad contentious in both directions; some people think that Social Scientists have the wrong idea of what explanations should look like and some people think that the Natural Scientists are flogging a dead explanatory horse. That, however, is probably anoher matter for another time.



The Worse of Both Worlds

Inbetween reading academic tomes and watching ‘Doctor Who’ I do, on occasion, read spurious Conspiracy Theory literature. As of today I have finished (read that either way) with the whole ‘Bloodline of Christ’ fandango that resulted famously in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (and should have ended more famously with acres of media coverage of the Baigent and Leigh vs. Brown case[1]).Anyway, today I finished reading Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s ‘The Sion Revelation.’ I met both of them in London last year at UnCon06 (although I doubt they remember me) when they gave a precis of their then just-published book. It was a good talk, focussing on the verifiable history of the Priory of Sion (the cornerstone to most of the texts on the supposedly extant bloodline of the Christian messiah) and I only didn’t buy a copy of the book because it was big and bulky and was going to take up space in a suitcase.A year later (maybe to the day) I interloaned the book (which came from Dunedin, presumably the closest source of it in a library within New Zealand). The talk Prince and Picknett made focused heavily on a peculiarly French off-shoot of Freemasonry, Synarchsim (for those of you denying the Freemason conspiracy theories[2] let it be said that whilst Freemasonry might well be benign now that doesn’t mean that a) it has always been so and b) there is also more than one kind of Freemasonry). Synarchism was the polar opposite to anarchism; the rule of the land by those destined to lead, leading those destined to be. It was an ‘everything in its place’ political philosophy that, if you accept Picknett and Prince’s thesis, is arguably one of the factors in the formation of the European Economic Community and is the real explanation of the Priory of Sion. No Templars, no Merovingians and no descent from the messiah; just Freemasons, thugs and the infiltration and subversion of secret societies.Which is all fine and good, but its just another Conspiracy Theory, isn’t it? A more plausible thesis than that of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ but still a Conspiracy Theory, a tentative explanation of events.These ‘more plausible’ Conspiracy Theories seem very persuasive; they, after all, up against quite wacky contenders. Admittedly, ‘The Sion Revelation’ rests upon some fairly good sources and is up front when Picknett and Prince have to make unverifiable claims, so it certainly has a degree of plausibility approaching that of an historical text but it still rests upon certain huge assumptions. It would be a mistake to assume that a ‘more plausible’ Conspiracy Theory is correct in the face of a wacky one.Yet that is a mistake people make.Which is why Conspiracy Theorists find non-Conspiracy Theorists just a little whack.–1. In case you missed it, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh sued Dan Brown for plagiarism, arguing that he took, whole cloth, ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ and made it into ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Now this would have been interesting enough if they were both books intended to be fiction, but ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ was intended to be a history book; it was meant to describe something that really happened. Just how a fiction writer can plagiarise history to write a sub-standard thriller I don’t know. Nothing about that claim makes sense. 2. Which, by and large, I do as well.      

The Old Oil Chestnut

I seem to be delivering content to this blog at the moment and I have the horrible feeling that you (on meagre readership) might think this to be a) a good thing and b) a sign of further good things to come. I had hoped to dissuade you of this today with a filler post followed by a fortnight of silence but, as it happens, I have more content which needs promulgation. In fact, the next post (dateline: Thursday) was meant to be this one, but the next post is ‘timeless’ whilst today’s diatribe is fixed into place by the vagrancies of another’s blog.Anyway, on with the show.Aardvark Daily seems to have joined, albeit tentatively, the Power Corporates Conspiracy. It’s a popular Conspiracy Theory and it has a certain plausibility (just like the claim that the Milk Board runs New Zealand and that the reason why there is so much sugar in British food is that… Well, I think that’s just northern stupidity, really). Some of our largest corporations have a lot invested in their continued existence and some of our politicians recognise that fact and appreciate the monies that come from helping out.Does that mean that such companies will actively seek to suppress a technological revolution in power generation? Maybe, maybe not. It is true that a lot of large corporates engage in activities we consider harmful to the public good (and, like a lot of the population, I don’t think that the free market (whatever that is) will ultimately provide what is best for everyone; I think this assumotion is one of the root causes for conspiracy hypothesising in cases like these); look at Microsoft and the famous antitrust actions against it. Still, that doesn’t mean such companies deliberate set out to cause harm to consumers. Not all things that look like Conspiracies are conspiratorial activities. Sometimes they are just features (and you can read ‘features’ as ambiguously as you like in this case) of the system.Noam Chomsky, philosopher of language and of politics, runs a line of critique called Institutional Analysis (which I am sure I have mentioned before) in which he argues that some conspiratorial activity is actually just the result of, for want of a better term, normal business practice. Take Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is a supporter of a fairly strong extreme-right view and his news corporation certainly treats the Republican Party fair more nicely than the Democrats. Still, has Murdoch, at any point, ever told his news editors and journalists to go soft on Republicans? Possibly not. Instead what you might have is a situation where a cub reporter, knowing that his ultimate boss is a Republican, portrays Republics favourably because they assume that is what Murdoch wants. If a significant number of people in the organisation think that way then you get a noticeable bias towards the Republicans without there ever having been explicit instruction to act in that way.I am fairly sympathetic to this account of conspiratorial-like activity, although I think it is very open to abuse. For example; one of Microsoft’s strategies in the antitrust case was to argue that the company hadn’t deliberately set out to lock out third-party access to the Window’s API set but rather that it was simply symptomatic of the culture at Microsoft that third-party vendors found getting the needed information difficult. If I were a board member I’d be using the exact same excuse to hide my conspiratorial behaviour.So, are Power Companies suppressing clean, green energy? Well, possibly. Is it a Conspiracy? Well, once again, possibly. Or maybe it isn’t. That’s the wonderful thing about Conspiracy Theories. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t and most of the time we only find out the truth of the matter well after the fact.Also. a tip. Energy saving bulbs are a good idea, except in rooms where the light is only on for a short amount of time. In those situations, like bathrooms, the pallid illumination they provide before they really get incandescent is of no use whatsoever to me when I need to go and have a piss.Just saying.

A brief peek into a developing mind

I am currently using what little spare time I have at the moment to work on the coursebooklet for the next Continuing Education lecture series. I have, thus, been ironing out a few of niggling bits of conceptual work, not just for my sake but also for that of my future students. Whilst I have a fairly clear idea of where the thesis is going, and how to pull bits out of it for public consumption, actually turning these ideas into cogent and coherent English sentences is another matter entirely. I mean, I can say such things like: ‘Basically, my PhD dissertation will advance a novel thesis that explains why we find contemporary Conspiracy Theories prima facie implausible (which is not to say that all Conspiracy Theories are implausible but that we can explain why our initial reaction to them is ‘Yeah, right…’) based somewhat around such theories being examples of the ‘Just So’ Fallacy.’

Now that is helpful and I could, therefore, produce a one page handout for the six lectures I will be taking. However, I suspect the students will consider that a little cheap. Anyway, the coursebooklet (is this compound word extant elsewhere?) gives me a chance to start writing up some of the ideas that have been fermenting in the old cranial glands. Such as the following:

It occurred to me (on Thursday) that an important sub-class of Conspiracy Theories are not complete explanations in their own right but rather partial explanations. I’ll let the first draft of the coursebooklet explain further.

One further reason why we might treat the concept ‘Conspiracy Theory’ as perjorative term should also be touched upon. Some Conspiracy Theories focus not on the whole explanatory story of the event under consideration but rather on one particular part of it, a part, it is perceived, that the official explanation either does not account for or does not adequately properly explain. As an example, someone might question the official explanation of the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th by arguing that one aspect of the explanation, the description of how the towers were felled, is implausible. Such an argument might not put forward the existence of a shadowy cabal masterminding the event but simply argue that the official explanation, as it stands, does not withstand scrutiny. These partial explanations are then usually meant to cast doubt on the official explanation as a whole. Of course, one reply to this would be to claim that we agree that in many cases the official explanation is not as complete as it could be but that it does not necessarily show that the official explanation is, in fact, wrong. It might just be inadequate. We might also want to claim that such partial explanations are not, in themselves, Conspiracy Theories because they do not (necessarily) imply the existence of a cabal working towards some goal. It does seem clear, however, that such partial explanations are important to Conspiracy Theorists, as has been seen in the literature dealing with the September 11th attacks and the so-called ‘Magic Bullet Hypothesis’ in respect to the assassination of JFK.

This is very much ‘new ground’ (in that I’m still working out what exactly I mean; others have surely touched on this before) but it certainly seems to be something that should be addressed in the course of the PhD. What role do these partial explanations play? Do they act as defeaters for what are otherwise considered to be justified beliefs? Surely some good critiques of official views are being lumped into the perjorative ‘Conspiracy Theory’ simply by Conspiracy Theorists making use of them.

And, perhaps most importantly, what colour are they?

Enquiring mind(s) want to know.