The Conspiracy Theory Mind

Alex JonesThis last week I haven’t written as much as usual, because I’ve been helping my father who had surgery last week. As a result of that, I ended up in the emergency room on Wednesday. At that time, I met a very chatty man in the waiting room. He was interesting and intelligent. He seemed like the kind of guy who questioned the official line on things. Soon, however, I found out that he was that and more. He started talking about the 9/11 attack and how it was all a “false flag.”

As I’ve noted before, I have a certain fondness for people who believe conspiracy theories. They are at least open minded. But while talking to this guy, I saw that believing in conspiracy theories can also cause people to close their minds. It’s sad. Because these people clearly have good and agile minds. They should be spending their time on something more edifying than looking for holes in the “official” story.

This man who I met was not just interested in 9/11 and Building 7. We spoke for a half hour and I did my best to move the conversation away from conspiracy theories. Still, he managed to mention:

  • He didn’t believe believe Obama was born in the US.
  • Vaccines cause autism.
  • Chem Trails are poisoning us with Al2O3.
  • Elites are trying to create a one world government.
  • Oklahoma City bombing was a false flag.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy.
  • US government knew about Pearl Harbor and let it happen.
  • Inflation is much higher than the government is letting on.

In his defense, he didn’t mention Roswell, crop circles, or theories about Elvis being alive and well. But it was only a half hour after all.

Here’s the thing: he didn’t seem crazy. In fact, with all the classic conspiracy theories he spouted, it all seemed amazingly normal to me. He was just this guy with a diabetic wife who had traveled 400 miles to come to the VA. If he hadn’t mentioned the conspiracy theories, I never would have known. And if he had only mentioned one, I wouldn’t be writing about this now. But it really struck me that at some point in his life, he traded in belief of the “official line” for belief in the “conspiracy line.” And what’s the point of that?

At one point, I probed him about 9/11. I know a bit about it. I read the report oh so many years ago. And I’ve known enough conspiracy theorists to know about Building 7 and its importance. So I asked a question that had long bothered me, “What is the official reason for the collapse of Building 7?” He really didn’t know. He speculated that it was something to do with debris from the tower collapses. It turns out that it is exactly that, although it greatly understates just how big the destruction was throughout the complex. An article in Structure Magazine argues that a single critical column (pdf) in the building was badly damaged and it caused the whole building to collapse. But what do engineers at Structure Magazine know? They are clearly part of the conspiracy!

But I was struck by the fact that this guy was not all over my question. It came as a surprise, as though the only information he had ever heard about it came from other conspiracy theorists. And that goes right along with belief in all the other theories. At this point, I assume he listens to Alex Jones. Which means he doesn’t much think anymore. Except each night when he watches Jeopardy!

I learned that about him too.

Afterword

This is a whole lot of fun:

David Morse Slaughters All Roles

David MorseOn this day in 1872, the women’s rights activist Emily Davison was born. But it’s not that uncommon for women of that period. In my research for this article every day, I come upon them all them time. Sometimes I mention them and sometimes I don’t. I bring up Davison because she was wonderfully, heroically militant. She got arrested 9 times in her short life. She was force-fed 49 times. And most distinctly, she was killed during a very impressive protest attempt she made for women’s right to vote. She was an amazing woman and certainly deserves to be remembered.

They say behind every great man is a great woman. I think that’s true, because really, men are the weaker sex. There is no better example than with Franklin D. Roosevelt; Eleanor Roosevelt was a great women—far greater than her husband. She was born in 1884, and was the great liberal titan of the 20th century. And she pushed for reform all through her life. She was, for example, the first Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. And behind the scenes she worked her own magic. My understanding is that she withheld her support from John Kennedy because of his lack of action against the McCarthy trials and his hawkish positions. Although it seems fanciful, the movie Guarding Tess certainly seems to have been inspired by her. And that’s how I like to think of her: difficult but right, and a great ally.

Since I didn’t comment on his recent death, I should note that Elmore Leonard was born on 1924. He is about as overrated an author as there has ever been except for Shakespeare. But he still wrote a lot of fun books. And he was a fine, maybe even great writer. But mostly, he was just a pulp writer. He wrote stuff that was very easy on readers and many of those readers went on to think that made his work great. Well, it didn’t. It made it fun—excellent vacation reading. And that’s more than enough.

Other birthdays: the great choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918); musician Daryl Hall (67); comedic film director Charles Shyer (62); and actor Joan Cusack.

The day, however, belongs to one the very best American actors David Morse who is 60 today. Look, he is always great. I’ve never seen him in anything where he wasn’t giving an impeccable performance. But I want to highlight one film that most people have not seen, the 2002 independent film The Slaughter Rule. Morse’s performance in the film is amazing. He plays an extremely complicated character perfectly. It is an amazing thing to watch and I hope you will check out the film. Here’s the trailer:

Happy birthday David Morse!

Josh Barro’s Mean Tweets

Josh BarroYou know what they say: hell hath no fury like a gay man shamed. That man would be Josh Barro. And it is totally great.

Yesterday, Niall Ferguson wrote the third part of his series of articles on why Paul Krugman is a great big meanie and why everyone should ignore the fact that Ferguson is not only a very public asshole, but also wrong about nearly everything he ever talks about. One of my many articles about him was Shame, Shame, Shame. But in this newest article, Ferguson offers a list of economic writers for public shaming: Dean Baker, Josh Barro, Brad DeLong, Matthew O’Brien, Noah Smith, Matthew Yglesias, and Justin Wolfers. It’s funny that this is a list of some of the very best people in the field; the “Ferguson Shame List” could soon be like the Pulitzer Prize for economics reporting.

This morning, Josh Barro responded, Niall Ferguson Is Mad That Paul Krugman ‘Acolytes’ Like Me Are Mean to Him. It’s odd, because he couldn’t find any articles where he had attacked Ferguson. But there were those tweets. It all started after Ferguson made an idiotic and offensive comment claiming that Keynes didn’t care about the long term (not true) because he had no children because he was gay. This caused Barro to tweet out a blizzard of very snarky and wonderful comments. But since Barro felt that he had never properly attacked Ferguson, he listed a large number of the tweets. A good example:

That’s right, he went all Gertrude Stein on him: “Ferguson is a bigot is a bigot is a bigot.” I recommend clicking over, because they make quite a collection. But it made me feel relieved that when Barro got mad at me, he only tweeted:

I guess it helps to only be dumb and not also hateful.

No Contradiction in Genesis Eve Creation

Adam and EveI was thinking about Genesis today. It’s part of my normal thing to think about different parts of the Bible. I think about it because, it’s silly to take it seriously. But it is even more silly when atheists think they’ve found little “gotchas” in places where the Bible contradicts itself. I hate this kind of thing because the Bible is supposed to be a religious book. It isn’t really much of one as far as I’m concerned, but it is meant to answer the ultimate questions that we humans have. And above all, it is meant to answer the ultimate question, “Why does anything exist at all?”

This is an unanswerable question—at least it is for our little brains. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. Even if you follow someone like Lawrence M. Krauss who claims that something exists because “nothing is unstable” you have to ask, “Why does this nothing that is unstable exist?” Or more simply, “Why is nothing unstable?” I think about this stuff far more than is healthy. And my thinking always ends up thinking about a universe that was always and forever will be creating and destroying itself. That, of course, makes no sense at all to us.

What’s the big deal? There are all kinds of things in the universe that make no sense to us. It is almost laughably easy to create logical paradoxes. Consider the Barber Paradox, “The barber is a man in town who shaves all those, and only those, men in town who do not shave themselves.” The problem is that this means the barber does and does not shave himself. This is just two logical bits of data and we have a paradox. The fact that the universe seems always to have existed but can’t have doesn’t seem that big of a problem to me.

That brings us to Genesis. One of the favorite bits of atheist lore (which I have used many times myself) is that in Genesis 1, Eve is made at the same time as Adam and in Genesis 2, Eve is made later from Adam’s rib. I don’t think this is a great observation. Existence itself makes no sense. Logic itself makes no sense. Why should the Bible make any sense? And more important, why does anyone think that a logical inconsistency disprove the Bible? It turns out, it is even worse than this.

If you look at the two verses of Genesis, they don’t really disagree. It is just that Genesis 1 tells the story much more briefly. This is all that it says about the creation of Adam and Eve (Verse 27):

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Okay, so God created them. But did he create them at the exact same instant? I don’t necessarily read it that way. In Genesis 2, it is much more involved. In Verse 18, God notes that it’s bad for Adam to be alone, so he decides to make a “helper” for him. But it isn’t too pressing. God spends the next two verses forcing Adam to name all the animals. Then he makes Adam go to sleep and creates Eve from his Rib and all that. But if you just wanted to tell the story of the creation of man without getting into the animal naming and the rib operation, wouldn’t you write it more or less as it is in Genesis 1:27? I certainly would.

My point is that all this stuff about the Bible being inconsistent just isn’t that useful. In this instance, it doesn’t even seem particularly contradictory. What’s more, most Christians aren’t fundamentalists and so don’t believe the Bible in a way that would be helped by this argument. And the fundamentalists are a lost cause anyway. Bringing up picky arguments like this just make atheists look bad. No one will ever be convinced by such details, even when they are accurate.