Category Archives: Conspiracism

Respecting Truth

When liars lie people die

As America approaches a million deaths from COVID-19, many thousands of families have been left wondering whether available treatments and vaccines could have saved their loved ones. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 230,000 deaths could have been avoided if individuals had gotten vaccinated.

NPR: Their mom died of COVID. They say conspiracy theories are what really killed her, GEOFF BRUMFIEL

Ignorance is the lack of true knowledge. Willful ignorance is something more. It is ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. In saying this, it is tempting to believe that if one is willfully ignorant then one must know that one is ignorant, thereby revealing a bit of savvy whereby, presumably, one knows that there is some truth out there that one wants to be insulated from. A good example of this might be our suspicion that a vast majority of the people who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 did not actually believe the nonsense that they spouted about global warming, but instead merely pretended to believe it, so that they would appeal to those voters who were actually ignorant. But this is not willful ignorance; this is dishonesty. Instead, to be truly willfully ignorant, one could neither disbelieve in the truth (for, after all, one could simply think that one’s mistaken beliefs were correct), nor affect the mere pretense of disbelieving (for that is to look at the truth with one eye and pretend not to see it). Willful ignorance is instead marked by the conviction to shut both eyes against any further investigation, because one is so firm in one’s belief that any other sources of knowledge are not needed. Here one is not only ignorant but (like Euthyphro) prefers to remain so. One does not in any sense “know” the truth (even with one eye), even though one probably does suspect that there are further sources of contravening information out there. Yet these are rejected, because they might conflict with one’s favored beliefs; if there are other sources of information, they must be ignored. This is why the false beliefs cited in the polling results show more than just ignorance. For when there are such easily available sources of accurate information out there, the only excuse for such stunning ignorance is the desire to remain so; one has actively chosen not to investigate. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects contempt. But why would someone embrace such a hostile attitude toward the truth?

Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age by Lee McIntyre

At what point does “skepticism” become crackpot? How long before the preference for anecdotal over scientific evidence tips the balance toward a conspiracy theory that ranks with AIDS deniers and those who believe that NASA faked the Moon landing? Conspiracy theories are one of the most insidious forms of disrespecting truth for, even while they profess to be guided by the fervent desire to discover a truth that someone else is hiding, they simultaneously undermine the process by which most truths are discovered. Conspiracy theorists are customarily proud to profess the highest standards of skepticism, even while expressing a naïve credulity that the most unlikely correlations are true. This is disrespect, if not outright contempt, for the truth. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 47). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Finally, we turn to the problem of rumor. After the foregoing account, it may seem that belief in rumors has nothing much in common with the set of irrational beliefs that we have dismissed so far as “crackpot.” Yet rumors too can be dangerous and far-fetched. In the absence of reliable sources of information, rumors can tempt us to believe things that in less exigent circumstances we would be highly likely to dismiss. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 47). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The best example in recent years is the list of atrocities that allegedly occurred in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. Armed gangs were beating and raping tourists in the street. Snipers were shooting at rescue workers. Inside the Superdome—which was home to some 25,000 refugees—muzzle flashes were said to portend mass killings with bodies piling up in the basement. Children’s throats were slit. Women were being dragged away from their families and raped. A seven-year-old girl was raped and murdered. Two babies had their throats slit. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (pp. 47-48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The consequences of these reports were dire. When Governor Kathleen Blanco sent the National Guard in to restore order, she did so with a stark message to the perpetrators: “I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” She and Mayor Ray Nagin called off rescue efforts to focus on protecting private property. Helicopters were grounded. The sheriff of one suburb that had a bridge to New Orleans turned back stranded tourists and locals, firing bullets over their heads. New Orleans had become a prison city. A team of paramedics was barred from entering the suburb of Slidell for nearly ten hours based on a state trooper’s report that a mob of armed, marauding men had commandeered boats. An ambulance company was locked down after word came that a firehouse in Covington had been looted by armed robbers. New Orleans police shot and killed several lawbreakers as they attempted to flee across the Danziger Bridge. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The problem is that none of the reported atrocities just described actually occurred. None. Three weeks after the storm, police superintendent Edwin P. Compass III, who had initially provided some of the most graphic reports of violence, said “we have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault.” During the alleged six-day siege inside the Superdome, Lt. David Benelli (head of the New Orleans Police Department’s sex crimes unit) lived with his officers inside the dome and ran down every rumor of rape or atrocity. At the final count, they had made two arrests, both for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other rumored attacks had not happened.44 (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The snipers who were shooting at rescue workers turned out to be a relief valve on a gas tank that popped open every few minutes. The men commandeering boats turned out to be two refugees trying to escape their flooded street. The report of the robbery at the firehouse was simply false. When the giant refrigerated trucks backed up to the Superdome to haul out the bodies, there were only six: four had died of natural causes and one from suicide, with only one dying of gunshot wounds.45 The child who was raped—and indeed each of the rapes in the Superdome—turned out to be untrue. So did the story of the murdered babies. Despite police commitment to investigate, no witnesses, survivors, or survivors’ relatives ever came forward.46 (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

What was very real, however, was the aftermath of the city’s stalled rescue efforts and the crackdown on all those alleged lawbreakers. The people who were shot by police on the Danziger Bridge turned out to include a middle-aged African American mother who had her forearm blown off. The other was a mentally disabled forty-year-old man on his way to his brother’s dental office, who was shot five times and killed. A teenager was also killed.47 And thousands of people suffered with little food, water, or medical attention for days inside the Superdome. Yes, there were confirmed reports of widespread looting after the storm, mostly for food, water, and other necessities. And there was some violence. But how did such small incidents get so wildly exaggerated? How did we all become so easily seduced into believing the worst about the refugees in New Orleans? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (pp. 48-49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

In a city that was two-thirds African American before Katrina hit, and substantially less diverse in the population of refugees who could afford to put thirty gallons of gas in their SUVS and flee the approaching storm, one doesn’t need to take an IAT to understand that racial bias may have had something to do with it. Indeed, many experts now feel that the power of rumor to feed into pre-existing racial stereotypes likely led to one of the most tragic instances of “confirmation bias” ever to play out on the world stage. And the tragedy is that the effect of this bias was borne by the refugees themselves, who had done nothing wrong and were begging for help. They were stranded not merely due to poor federal disaster planning and lack of supplies, but also by the palpable hesitancy of public officials to expose rescue workers to the kind of “animals” who would commit such atrocities. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

What to say about those of us who were nowhere near New Orleans? Are we off the hook? Yet how many of us even to this day knew that the reports of violence in New Orleans were untrue? Although the press bears some responsibility for not reporting the retractions with as much vigor as the alleged atrocities, the corrected stories were out there. Yet how many of us read them? How many of us were sufficiently skeptical of such incredible claims even to look? Will Rogers famously quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Yet if we respect truth, isn’t it important to engage our critical faculties and search out better information? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Rumor has the power to keep us from looking for the truth only if we are willing to suspend our critical faculties. In a life-threatening situation, it is probably understandable to take rumors seriously. If we do not know what is going on and we are scared, we may feel that we cannot afford the risk to be gullible. Survival comes first. But when the danger has passed, or we are far removed from it, don’t we have an obligation to try to replace rumor with fact? (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but respect for truth must survive the conflict. We may not like to think of ourselves among the “Seekers,” “Birthers,” “Truthers,” or other conspiracy theorists, but the fact is that we are all probably capable of believing in crackpot theories if the circumstances are right. We demonstrate respect for truth when we are willing to resist such pressure. (McIntyre, Lee. Respecting Truth (p. 49). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

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[B]ullshit results from the adoption of lame methods of justification, whether intentionally, blamelessly or as a result of self-deception. The function of the term is to emphatically express that a given claim lacks any serious justification, whether or not the speaker realizes it. By calling bullshit, we express our disdain for the speaker’s lack of justification, and indignation for any harm we suffer as a result. 

On Letting it Slide: Bullshit and Philosophy

Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to you that he or she is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing we want to do with them is to get involved in a technical discussion of cavalry tactics at the battle of Austerlitz. If we do that, we’re getting tacitly drawn into the game that he or she is Napoleon. For those who espouse and believe conspiracist theories they would like nothing better than to drag everyone else down the rabbit hole into fruitless discussions of false claims of pseudo-evidence without a shred of fact or truth (real evidence); they are content disrespecting truth by repeating innuendo, outright falsehoods, rumors, and otherwise parroting hearsay and falsehoods they have heard or read on social media. To go down this conspiracist rabbit hole is to tacitly agree with their fundamental assumptions that there is something there to debate when there is nothing but empty falsehoods. Their goal is to draw you too into their bullshit and to distract you away from the scientific and rational methods of finding truth based upon evidence (fact). Thoughtful individuals who respect truth find such conspiratorial claims ludicrous and the most appropriate response is to treat them as ludicrous that is, by laughing at such falsehood mongering so as not to fall into the trap of giving the impression one takes such conspiratorial falsehoods seriously.

The Lady in Red

People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.

—George Orwell

In the summer of 2009, many in the world’s media suddenly became aware of a new conspiracist phenomenon. A video shot by a citizen cameraperson sitting approximately halfway back in the auditorium at a town-hall meeting in Georgetown, Delaware, on June 30 was put on YouTube a week or so later, and within days went viral. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 296). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 8))

The clip begins with the rangy figure of Congressman Mike Castle, Delaware’s sole representative in the U.S. House, face to the camera, choosing a questioner from the audience. “This lady in red . . .” he says. From the back it is hard to make out anything about the woman who now stands up, except that she seems to wear glasses and have her hair in what might be called a Sarah Palin semi-bun. The woman in red is brandishing something. She announces, “I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America, saying I am an American citizen, with a seal on it, signed by a doctor, with a hospital administrator’s name, my parents, my date of birth, the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20, and I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate.” There is a loud cry of “Yeah!!!” and some applause, and a little booing. The woman continues, without specifying whom she is talking about—perhaps because she does not need to. “He is not an American citizen! He is a citizen of Kenya! My father fought in World War Two with the greatest generation in the Pacific theater for this country, and I don’t want this flag to change.” She waves a small American flag and shouts, “I want my country back!”1 And sits back down. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (pp. 296-297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Mr. Castle, a moderate Republican, seemingly taken aback by both the sentiment and the support for it, insists that “if you’re referring to the president there, he is a citizen of the United States.” Some catcalls follow. Apparently emboldened, the questioner rises and shouts out, “I think we should all stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag!” Several people yell, “Pledge allegiance!” and one loudly opines that Castle “probably doesn’t even know it!” Surreally, Castle then leads the people of Georgetown in this enforced act of loyalty, as though there had been a doubt about his patriotism that now needed to be expunged. (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The Lady in Red was many people’s first Birther. But for the next few weeks the question of whether Barack Obama was an American citizen at birth, and the fact that there was a debate about that question, were hotly discussed on mainstream news channels in the United States, and the peculiarity that a significant number of Americans thought that he wasn’t a citizen (and that he was therefore ineligible to be president) was featured widely outside the country. One of the earliest Birthers, the Philadelphia lawyer (and 9/11 Truth activist) Philip J. Berg, observed that until the Delaware eruption, “the coverage has been minuscule” and confined to Internet and marginal radio stations, but that the Georgetown meeting had set off “a vast uptick.” On his radio broadcast, the sonorous CNN host Lou Dobbs, in “only asking” mode, repeatedly suggested that Obama set minds at rest by producing his long-form birth certificate. The more pungent right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh argued that the new president had “yet to prove that he’s a citizen.” (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (p. 297). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

At the same time, a group of mostly Texan Republican congressmen sponsored a measure, drafted by Bill Posey of Florida, “to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to require the principal campaign committee of a candidate for election to the office of President to include with the committee’s statement of organization a copy of the candidate’s birth certificate,” a requirement that had somehow been regarded as superfluous in the previous 230 years of the republic. By mid-August 2009, a quarter of Americans polled were of the opinion that Barack Obama was not an American citizen by birth, and another 14 percent were unsure, with 10 percent naming Indonesia as his place of birth, 7 percent opting for Kenya, and 6 percent agreeing that it was Hawaii, but a Hawaii that, in their opinion, was not part of the United States in 1961 when Obama was born. Twelve percent, when prompted by the mischievous pollsters, pronounced themselves unsure that Obama wasn’t French. There were political, gender, and ethnic disparities. Sixty-two percent of Birthers were Republicans (44 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was not a citizen, compared with 36 percent who thought he was), 57 percent were “conservative,” 56 percent were male, and 86 percent were white.2 (Aaronovitch, David. Voodoo Histories (pp. 297-298). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)