Monday, October 27, 2008

"That's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that"

I’m watching a BBC documentary about the collapse (and alleged demolition) of World Trade Center tower 7. Conspiracy theories like these are always fascinating examples of the many different biases which people bring to the analysis of evidence.

[I was going to write more on this stuff, and I might at some point, but I’m tired now.]

Firstly there is always the way that most people are far more willing to take didactic statements of truth from figures of authority than they are willing to assess evidence on their own. This creates big problems for people trying to debunk conspiracy theories, because they are often started, or prominently backed up, by people with seemingly solid credentials. What is most effective is when a person with an apparently informed background (in the case of the WTC7 conspiracies he’s an architect*) states—without giving any evidence to support his claim—that the scenario he suggests is ‘obvious’ and that ‘anyone can see it’. I’m sure there’s a name for this effect in the study of rhetoric, but I don’t know what it is, either way it is very effective -- it makes people who go along with his arguments feel superior; everyone else, the subconscious logic goes, are idiotic and easily led. The statement that I thought was particularly interesting in this documentary is when the 911 truthman says ‘even a child can see that that isn’t a natural collapse’

Which is just dumb. It’s like saying ‘any child can tell that lightning is caused by fighting sky monsters’ because you think that meteorologists are a sinister cabal who don’t want anyone to learn how they ‘really’ predict the weather. Hypotheses are not given credibility on a first-come-first-serve basis, they have to make sense, and be possible. Generally underpinning all of these things is the anti-intellectualism that seems to be becoming increasingly common in American society in particular. The fact that those who support the official line are world leading authorities on the subject of demolition and structural collapse is seen as irrelevant. Just as the fact that Sarah Palin doesn't seem to know the first thing about the job she's running for, or the sort of issues she'd be expected to deal with, is seen as irrelevant by many.

Even if you disregard the fact that rigging a building for demolition involves tearing out internal walls, drilling holes in columns, and laying miles and miles of cables everywhere (which is hard to do in a busy office building without anyone noticing), this conspiracy theory is no more possible than any of the other unorthodox theories that have surfaced over the years. The reason for this is fairly simple: with each successive counter to their arguments conspiracy theorists add more people to the list of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy. What this amounts to, in effect, is that these people are accusing thousands of people of being accessories to mass murder. A list that includes all of the structural engineers that testified at the enquiry, the FDNY and NYPD witnesses who testified that they heard no demolition explosions, as well as thousands of ordinary men and women in the area at the time.

When people come up with these theories they generally envisage them as being masterminded by some devilish incarnation of ‘the man’ and don’t seem to realise what it is that they are, in reality, suggesting. Even if you accept the idea that thousands of people who pledged to help their fellow citizens, who have risked their lives in the course of that vocation, lied and conspired to kill thousands of innocent people, there is an insoluble problem with all this: people are shit at keeping secrets.

Just think, Nixon couldn’t keep a break-in at an office in the Watergate building secret – and that only involved a handful of people. Do they really think that of the thousands who would have to be involved in a scheme like this, none of them would sell their stories, or have a crisis of conscience?

I've always felt that Hanlon's Razor is one of the best principles to live by, or, in the words of Sir Bernard Ingham, "cock-up before conspiracy".


*This is a irrelevant anecdotal slur, but I’ve heard my share of ‘dumb architect’ stories: structural engineers like to tell stories of the many architects they have dealt with who displayed ignorance of construction methods, structural tolerances, and even really basic physics.