Friday, March 27, 2015


1. For years, decades, nay, even centuries, the Powers That Be have tried to figure out why "some people" insist on refusing to believe what they're told (you know who you are). Indeed, there exists an entire, rather vigorous publishing genre devoted exclusively to this conundrum, producing tomes that vary in quality on a scale from the empyrean heights of Richard J. Hofstadter, to the frankly embarrassing barrel-bottom scrapings of Gerald Posner. But until recently, nobody has ever managed to come up with a handy, one-size-fits-all, bite-sized explanation as to why "conspiracy theories" continue to hold such stubborn sway. Enter Quassim Cassam. With a little help from intellectual sparring partner "Oliver" - apparently the living embodiment of the Straw Man rhetorical tactic - this pseudo-anonymous denizen of the blogosphere has boiled the entire Debunking Project down to its intoxicatingly simple essence: Believing in the existence of conspiracies shows a "lack of intellectual character". Here, let Quassim explain it to you:
Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn't have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn't they? 
Polling evidence suggests that Oliver’s views about 9/11 are by no means unusual. Indeed, peculiar theories about all manner of things are now widespread. There are conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS, the 1969 Moon landings, UFOs, and the assassination of JFK. Sometimes, conspiracy theories turn out to be right – Watergate really was a conspiracy – but mostly they are bunkum. ... 
I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn't mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.
So there you have it, all neatly tied up with a big red bow on top! According to Quassim, the most certain indicator of someone's "intellectual character" is a strict adherence to rigid ontological orthodoxy, and the surest way to maintain one's mental hygiene is a steadfast refusal to question the status quo! If turning a blind eye to the gushing torrent of lies, propaganda and disinformation The Powers That Be spew into our collective consciousness on a day to day basis sounds like a legitimate information navigation strategy to you, then by all means, continue reading this essay

2.  If there's a better way to spend one's time than creating fake book jackets and sneaking them onto "real" books being sold in the "Self Help" section of your local bookstore, I certainly can't think of it. You can see my favorite one, above, but there are many more to check out and admire, and you certainly won't want to miss the informative inside cover flaps, complete with author photo and biography! Don't let the website's name fool you; this exercise in literary subversion is neither sad, nor useless.

3. I have a quick appendix to... um... "append" to today's first Suggested Reading selection! If Quassim Cassem's "Ode to Officially Sanctioned Thinking" resonated powerfully with your own intellectual vibrations, then you'll probably be relieved to learn that the nation of France is currently moving to make "conspiracy theories" illegal by government decree! Big Brother... what's not to love?!

1 comment: