Monday, May 6, 2013

Prof James Tracey's Questions On Conspiracy Theory: Answered!

Florida Atlantic Professor James Tracey is one of the more public faces of Sandy Hook and Boston Bombing skepticism (or, if you will, truther-ism) claiming that the attacks are the work of the American government for the purposes of getting rid of  our civil liberties. His blog, Memory Hole, is a collection of vague, often visually asked, questions to which he feels the answers can only be that the US government is lying to us.

One of his posts, however, In Search of the Last Liberal Intellectual,  poses somewhat more concrete questions he tried to ask various 'defenders' of the orthodox narrative (such as the High Times editor or one of the Snopes researchers). Snopes may not have been able to talk to Prof James Tracey but we, at The Omnivore have, shall we say, more time on our hands.

So let's do it.

1. Does The Term 'Truther' Hinder The Search For Truth?
Question: The main thrust of John Milton’s Areopagetica is that in a fair exchange an argument based on the truth will triumph over lies and deception. Do you think that the major media’s use of terms such as “truther” or “conspiracy theorist” to designate individuals or groups with ideas and theories that differ from government and/or corporate entities is a productive part of the journey toward truth and enlightenment Milton envisioned?

Short Answer: Is the term Truther making truthful, enlightened discussion harder? No: It does not meet the conditions for being counter-productive to the discussion.

Long Answer: There are a few legitimate reasons to reject a categorizing term:
  1. It is an ethnic or racial slur (example: the n-word).
  2. It is posed as a negative (examples: "anti-abortion" vs. "pro-life"). This is especially true when the issue in question is a political wedge issue as people reputedly dislike voting "against" things and would rather vote "for" them).
  3. It has pre-existing negative connotations (example: describing Branch-Dravidians as 'a cult'). This may be a legitimate use if the negative connotations seem accurate and the term does facilitate clear communication (i.e. Branch Davidian was, in fact, a cult and describing them as simply a "religious group" may be less clear about facts which are not in question--newly minted non-traditional group, very unusual beliefs, single charismatic leader, highly insular, paranoid, etc.)
Disliking a term because "you don't like it" recalls the silliness Hacker vs. Cracker. Now, words do mean things and labels can be important. GOP strategist Frank Luntz has made his career testing words and phrases to see which ones "sell" the best and then instructing the GOP to use those.

Does 'Truther' meet the conditions for any of the above? The answer is no. It is neither ethnic nor racial. It is not phrased as a negative (nor does it impact ballot issues). It does not have any pre-existing etymology.

It is generally clear. If I type it into Google I will get, on my first hit, a solid set of definitions (both pro and con) which all agree on the salient points. 

The term Conspiracy Theorist is questionable under #3--however it does seem to be the case that it facilitates clear communication: a person hearing a Truther described as a Conspiracy Theorist will, in fact, get a very good idea of the dialog and belief structure that person holds.

What is the preferred term by the Truther constituency? I think 'Hoaxer' is out as it generally applies to the person perpetrating the hoax and 'Denier' is too strong (did 9/11 happen at all?). I suspect 'Skeptic' would be welcome--but 'skeptic' is generally held by people refuting extreme claims rather than embracing them: it would, in fact, mislead most listeners.

Edited to Add: If you consider 'Truther' to be negative today, that's fine--but if the term is negative it's because of its own reasons. The #3 point is when a category is used for something and links it to a whole lot of other, historical badness. If 'Truther' had been the term from the American Revolution for "Traitors who felt America should be crushed under British rule" or something and it was being brought back to apply to the 9/11 guys, okay--they'd have a point.

But, today, if you think 'Truther' is a negative word and you are one, you have only yourself to blame for it (unless you do, in fact, have some belief other than that 9/11 was an inside job ...)

2. How Much Responsibility Does the US Government Bear for 9/11?
Question: To what degree do you think citizens and the press should hold government officials accountable for momentous events such as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001?

Short Answer: A little, for missing some intelligence signals.

Long Answer: There is an entire, giant investigation on this (which satisfies exactly no conspiracy theorist anywhere). It shows some warning-signs may have been missed. If I reject the report then I can hold the government accountable for anything I want. I could also hold, for example, the Israelis or even space-aliens accountable.

Should the public hold the government accountable? I think the answer is "no"--the presence of a storm of questions (which is what the 9/11 Truth movement and other Truther-movements boil down to) is not the same as the kind of legal evidence necessary to establish culpability. 

3. What Is A Conspiracy Theory?
Question: What characterizes a conspiracy theory? How can we distinguish between a conspiracy theory and a valid assessment of a specific phenomenon, issue, or event?

Short Answer: A theory which suggests an unlikely conspiracy 'did it.'

Long Answer: Conspiracy Theories (to my take) tend to require these two characteristics:
  1. They fly in the face of sound risk-to-benefit planning.
  2. They require large (sometimes huge) numbers of people keep a deadly secret.
The idea that an administration (or force behind it) wishing to Invade Iraq would go about undertaking a massive operation (demolitions of buildings on a scale never done by mankind--involving moving tons of explosives into very secure installations with no one noticing it, coordinating planes flying into the building, hijacking the planes or otherwise disappearing the personnel, coordinating with Bin Laden who would stand to benefit greatly by selling out Bush, etc.) simply defies Risk-to-Benefit analysis.

If one wanted to invade Iraq, why not have Oliver North sell them WMD undercover and then, once they buy them, invade them for it? No one would ever figure that out.

4. Who Was Behind 9/11?
Question: US political leaders uniformly maintain that Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network were the sole agents behind the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission’s report attributed this set of events to “a lack of imagination” in terms of government agencies’ preparation. In your view, what are the most compelling pieces of evidence to support this official explanation of the 9/11 events?

Short Answer: The most compelling piece of evidence is the video of Osama taking credit for it and the reaction of world intelligence agencies. The official investigation's report is also, to my mind, credible.

Long Answer: Prior to 9/11 I flew with a small knife on my key chain. It never occurred to me that such a device could be used to hijack an airplane. The use of a jet-liner as a terrorist weapon had been discussed before--but the context was usually blowing it up over a city (low) so as to damage the area below it--not to crash it into a large building ... which would take training.

9/11 was devastating out-of-the-box thinking. Even the idea that terror-cells (especially suicide groups) could operate for lengths of time in the US without just walking away was the conventional wisdom. Unfortunately 9/11 proved that wrong--it was a lack of imagination on the part of every security expert I was reading. I think that fits.

What evidence do I have? I have heard stories from relatives of people on the flight that the passengers took down--their phone calls--and so on. This seems to indicate that planes were hijacked by teams of people (as do radio tapes from the planes). Osama took credit for it on video. People saw planes strike the buildings--even the Pentagon--and so on.

But the fact remains: I have not seen most of the evidence--and neither have you. I also haven't investigated every crime committed in my home town--I haven't seen the evidence for anyone in jail in my city--but other people have--and I more or less trust them to do their jobs. I haven't been to Alaska--but I've seen evidence of it--and both I and Professor James Tracey seem to agree it exists.

5. Why No Love For Conspiracy Theorists?
Question: Historian Richard Hofstadter argues in his well-known essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” that regardless of how much evidence the conspiratorially-minded gather and present on a topic or phenomenon they are not worthy of a hearing as their views may endanger rational political discourse and consensus. Does such a position potentially jeopardize effective and honest journalistic practice?

Short Answer: A little. Does your email spam filter sometimes get it wrong? Yeah? Turn that thing off for a few weeks and call me.

Long Answer: Claims that are considered "outrageous" (i.e. "I was late to work because I was abducted by aliens") generally require more proof than those that are not ("I was late because I overslept."). When someone comes up with a humdinger of a proposal (9/11 was an inside job involving scores if not hundreds of people) it will be met with serious question unless there is serious evidence.

Serious evidence is not "pictures with questions I can't answer" when I am not a photographic analyst by trade. The Truther arguments are identical in practice to "I can prove the sun revolves around the earth because ... look at it!!" I'll admit, I've been outside: the sun looks like it's going around the earth ... the earth looks, well, pretty flat. It doesn't feel like it's rotating, does it? Can you disprove this:
Proposed Flat Earth Map
The answer is: you can't--not with personal experience. You may be able to prove the surface of the earth is somewhat curved (use a stick and a well a few miles apart--or watch the masts of a ship come in to port)--but get into a debate with a flat-earther and things get strange fast (I've looked into it). At that point ... do you conclude the earth must be flat because you can't explain exactly how it is that gravity "curves space." Or do you take the word of various physicists and astronomers who you don't know personally.

So the answer is that there are some claims ("I was abducted by aliens this morning, yo" or "the earth is flat, bro") which you can kind of safely ignore. Then there are gray areas ("Nixon is spying on Democrats, yo.") and you have to decide if "9/11 is an inside job" fits into those or not. 

How much evidence will you demand? Will unanswered questions do it? Or will it take something more substantial? When a proposal falls into that gray-zone it may be unfairly dismissed--but that's why investigative journalism exists.

6. Are Conspiracy Theorists Dangerous?
Question: In your estimation, is the tendency to entertain or proffer conspiracy theories a sign of a potential psychiatric condition? Along these lines, are at least some conspiracy theorists inherently dangerous?

Short Answer: No.

Long Answer: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Just holding a conspiracy theory is not evidence of a psychological issue or any evidence of the person being dangerous. I'd use the 'alcoholic test': is holding this theory causing you recurrent on-going problems in your life? If the answer is "yes" you might have a problem. Is it giving you thoughts of harming yourself or others? If "yes" then you might be a danger to such. This has nothing to do with the theory and everything to do with the person holding it.

7. But The CIA Was A Conspiracy Machine!
Question: In 1977 Carl Bernstein reported that through “Operation Mockingbird” and related activities many major news organizations were infiltrated by CIA operatives or consciously aided the CIA in intelligence gathering activities and “planting” stories in the press. CIA document 1035-960 suggests how the agency went about thwarting criticism of the Warren Commission’s examination of President Kennedy’s assassination by utilizing intelligence assets in news outlets to bolster the Warren Commission’s legitimacy and labeling critics “conspiracy theorists.” In your estimation, is the intelligence community’s penetration of the press an ongoing phenomenon? Is it more widespread today or has it subsided to any significant degree?

Short Answer: It has subsided, largely due to the end of the Cold War and things that came after.

Long Answer: First off, Operation Mockingbird was real--it was a CIA operation to influence the media (both the US's networks and other countries' media) to further both American and, allegedly, corporate interests. Whether it was ultimately successful or not is in debate but it did happen--it was covert--and it's allegedly over now ... or is it?

While we don't know for sure, there are a few things we could consider:
  1. The world today is very different than that of the 1950's and the CIA of today is not facing an existential threat* in the form of the Soviet Union as it did when things like Operation Mockingbird or MKUltra were in effect. Today's CIA has a different mission--on the books at least. The budget for clandestine operations was greatly reduced in the 70's and has been reduced even more since.
  2.  The CIA's capacity for HUMINT (Human Intelligence) has declined in favor of SIGINT (Signal Intelligence--electronic data gathering . Whatever the reasons for this, it's generally considered that our on-the-ground intelligence isn't what it used to be. This kind of decline would also probably reduce our capacity for things like Mockingbird.
Secondly, today's "press" (and Tracey uses the term 'press'--but he must really mean media) is a very different animal than that of the 1950's. It is vastly more diverse, often ideologically polarized, and no longer looked upon with the reverence that Walter Cronkite at 11 PM used to be.

It is cut-throat and downsizing: perfect fodder for a legion of whistleblowers to erupt from (if someone who knew about CIA payola got fired what might they do when laid off)? In short, the return on investment would be going way, way down and the investment itself would be getting more expensive every day.

So, no, to answer the question: I think the CIA has dropped that kind of operation in preference of using drones overseas to spy on people and listening to cell phones with the help of the NSA. I don't think trained agents are playing cub-reporter for the New York Times.

I have heard another theory: I don't subscribe to it--but it is interesting. The theory is (take a guess) ...

Did you guess Mormons? No? Gee.

Yes, there's a theory as to why the CIA "cleaned up its act" (and became less effective) and that theory is Mormons. Mormons are over-represented and allegedly highly valued in the CIA and FBI because they are hard to corrupt. Some people think this over-representation of stuffy non-coffee drinking Mormons has led to a decline in the dirty tricks that made the CIA so effective.

Whether or not any of this is true, I know one thing: it is funny.

8. The Declaration of Independence Was A Conspiratorial Document!
Question: Political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith cites The Declaration of Independence as a conspiratorial document and asserts that the ideology of America’s founders was in many ways motivated by paranoia toward British rule. In fact, the notion of conspiracy has been a consistent theme in American politics. With this in mind, what is it about modern forms of governance that render such impulses and worldviews irrational, obsolete, and perhaps even dangerous?

Short Answer: I don't think anyone ever considered the Declaration of Independence a conspiracy document in the say way that the modern term means it so either deHaven-Smith is being taken out of context or he's wrong.

Long Answer: Modern day Conspiracy Theory or "the notion of conspiracy" in the way 9/11-was-an-inside-job means it and various beliefs, even paranoid ones, about the British Crown are very, very different things. The first is a set of questions which are meant to be hard to answer and then lead the subject to the asker's conclusions. Questions about whether or not revolution was necessary are very different.

The people who wrote the DoI were running America. The people posting Loose Change to YouTube aren't running anything. I don't think public understanding of the difference has changed--I think the comparison Prof Tracey is making is faulty.

Conclusion: Category error.

9. Did McVeigh Blow Up The Federal Building In Oklahoma?
Question: The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City brought into public consciousness the notion of “homegrown terrorism.” At the same time the event provided the pretext for laws compromising Americans’ civil liberties and paved the way for the PATRIOT Act that was enacted in the wake of 9/11. Is it reasonable for the public to conclude that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the sole or principal agents in the bombing? Have you examined the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee’s 2001 report on the incident? If so, would you consider its findings to be sound and cause for a new judicial interrogation of the event?

Short Answer: I have not examined the 2001 report--but everything I have heard suggests the official story is correct.

Long Answer: "Have you read ..." is one of the things that makes Conspiracy Theory discussions difficult. One party has 'done the research' and the other party (the skeptic) inevitably hasn't.

Unless they have--like I have with scanners and birth certificates and layers--in which case the discussion falls apart and you just move on.

The question is leading: did the laws "compromising Americans' civil liberties' get the way paved for them? Well, "yes" in some sense--but the question is phrased in such a way that it is easy to assume it is taking it as a given that this is intentional. It isn't.

The NSA used to be able to spy on America--today it isn't. There were several fairly racist initiatives the FBI wanted to launch--they weren't allowed to. Originally we had slavery--not so anymore. Today women can vote: Didn't used to be the case.

The idea that there is a never-ending march against civil liberties is created by looking only at one dimension of events (those that restrict civil liberties) and not by looking at the whole (which is much messier and subject to a lot more interpretation). The assault rifle ban did, in fact, expire without any discussion of Oklahoma.

I'll need more than a leading question and a suggestion to read a report (I read the 9/11 report ... and no one seems happy with that) to do the research.

10. What About Sandy Hook!? No One Investigated That!
Question: The official theory of what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 involves 20-year-old Adam Lanza going on a murderous rampage that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and 7 adults. Major media outlets appear to have unquestioningly gone forward with this scenario. In your estimation, have law enforcement and medical authorities produced evidence sufficient to support this theory of events?

Short Answer: The place was slammed with reporters, FBI, and so on. I'd say there's been a ton of investigation. I see no reason to question the official story.

Long Answer: We still don't have Adam Lanza's death certificate--isn't that weird? Yes--it is. I suppose so. Therefore: I conclude they cut him open and he was determined to be an alien. So they had to cover that up.

Not really--but I'm also not an expert on how death certificates get issued--how long autopsies take--and what events other than a massive and poorly managed conspiracy might be responsible.

The salient point here, however, is not that I have or have not seen "sufficient evidence" to convince me of anything but rather that I have not seen "any evidence at all." I have seen pictures of the school. I have seen talking heads discuss things. I've heard official reports.

This is also the kind of evidence that I have seen for:

  1. The suggestion that nuclear reactors blew up at Fukishima. 
  2. That WWII happened at all (much less the Holocaust).
  3. That the space shuttle actually goes into space (instead of, say, Ohio).
  4. That Alaska exists--and that a person named Sarah Palin comes from it.
Only #4 is actually hard to believe (consider: could we really have bought the nation's largest state for next to nothing!? And would they really elect Palin governor? Sounds fishy--someone should investigate that shit--and I don't mean the billion people who investigated it during 2008--I mean an independent commission). 

Okay, I'm being silly there--but the fact remains that I am not on a jury--I am not an investigator--I am not being "shown" evidence--I'm watching a zillion different people give me the news. I'm also watching a lot of them go "Crap: I got that wrong." That happens. It doesn't take a conspiracy.

11. Why's Alex Jones Less Credible Than Bill O'Reilly!?
Question: There are a variety of public figures and websites that deem themselves as “alternative” sources of political news and analysis, such as Alex Jones and, and Dr. Webster Tarpley of Why do you believe such individuals are frequently held up as promoters of conspiracy theories? In your view, what is it that makes these commentators and sources of analysis less reliable than, say, CNN’s Piers Morgan, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, or the editorial and op-ed pages of a regional or national newspaper?

Short Answer: Because Jones' world makes no sense and O'Reilly isn't proposing a "new world" but rather commentary on this one.

Long Answer: Here's a partial list of things Alex Jones got wrong:

  • Worldwide shortage of rare earth metals – Didn’t happen
  • Food supply disruptions hit western nations – Didn’t happen
  • Deadly superbug mutation goes wild – Didn’t happen
  • New evidence links vaccines and neurological disorders– The opposite happened
  • U.S. power grid suffers catastrophic failure – Didn’t happen
  • Satellite breakdown – Didn’t happen
  • GM crop contamination leads to crisis – Didn’t happen
  • Honeybee population collapse spreads to other species– Didn’t happen
  • Weather patterns become increasingly radicalized – Debatable
  • Nuclear power sees global resurgence – The Fukushima incident discredited this
  • Nuclear weapons unleashed in the Middle East – Didn’t happen

The list goes on-and-on. But the real issue isn't with Jones as prediction is dicey at best--everyone who tries gets a lot of stuff wrong. The problem is that Jones isn't anything like BOR or Rachel Maddow: he's an entirely different product.

Maddow isn't telling you that everyone is lying to you--she, like everyone else there--is giving her opinion on things that presumably happened. Jones is telling you those things didn't happen. BOR might tell you why they happened or what they mean. Jones is telling you that if something did happen it was done by Spec-Ops wet-work guys and that what you heard was all fake anyway. Jones is predicting various disasters, Maddow is predicting that Hillary is gonna run in 2016.

Let's put this another way: if you could bet on Jones' predictions with your own money--real money--would you? The answer of course is (a) no. And (b) If you did, you'd argue forever with whoever you bet with that whatever it was really happened and they covered it up. Satellite breakdown? Those things fell from the sky like rain--remember the Leonid Meteor Shower? That was Van-Star-One coming down!

If you'd hesitate to bet money on GM crop contamination leading to crisis or a catastrophic failure of the US power grid--or new evidence for vaccines and autism? Well, there's a reason for that.

If I were to "follow the money" from the Boston Bombing it would lead to Alex Jones--not Homeland Security.

12. Does Money Influence News And Public Opinion?
Question: Philanthropic foundations contribute large sums to a wide array of non-governmental organizations and media outlets in the United States. What role, if any, do you believe such entities play in shaping public discourse and opinion around controversial issues and events?

Short Answer: Some but not much.

Long Answer: Let's back up--does money influence elections? Yes? Oh Hells yes. Money buys elections ... unless you are Sheldon Adelson in which case it doesn't buy you Gingrich and then it doesn't buy you Romney. The influence of money on the media can't be contested--but most of that is in the form of advertisers paying for television they think will reach women (Lifetime) or 20 year old men (Spike) or 30-somethings (everyone) so they can sell their products.

After that, though, the influence of money becomes questionable. Scientology (rich) has been trying to alter public opinion (bad) for a long time. Recently they took out a big ad in the Atlantic. The Atlantic got all kinds of shit for it and promised they'd never do it again.

Things don't always go so well for big money.

The real question here, though, is this: what NGO is paying money for Sandy Hook--for either a programmed assassin group (Lanza + Shooters 2 and 3) or a big-time hoax ... or both? Procter and Gamble? Bushmaster Arms (doesn't seem likely)? Taser? Hey--if guns are illegal ...

That's the question with no answer: we can't show much (any?) evidence of corporate sponsors for mass killings--we can't name corporations--we don't have faces to put to this or even goals or agendas (other than Agenda 21) as an end-game. I do know that there is discourse around abortion, for example--or immigration (tech companies want more visas!) and I know how that works--but I don't see any conspiracy there ... just some spin.

So I'll answer: I have no idea of the role that any of this money plays in shaping discourse but I suspect that if they're paying a lot? They're not getting their money's worth.

Ask Karl Rove.

Next Post: Conclusions on all this!

* This is when your English Teacher threatens to make you read The Stranger.

No comments:

Post a Comment