The New Enlightenment: Horoscopes and 9/11 Conspiracies

Monday, April 20, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Faith & Forteana

People seemingly have a need to believe in stuff. What it is specifically that they are going around “believing in” seems to be of less importance.

It all used to be so simple. In the UK at least, people used to believe in God. Full stop. God, the Bible, Papal infallibility and all that sort of thing. Then the authority of the Pope was questioned by Henry VIII; and increasingly advances in science are showing that it is desperately difficult to take the Bible as entirely literal fact (granted, some people still do believe that the Earth was created in 4004 BC, and that there weren’t any dinosaurs, that evolution is just a ‘theory’ on a par with Intelligent Design and so on, but these are very much in the minority).

And there are less regular churchgoers, and so on, and so forth. Our society is basically a Christian-influenced secular one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the culture is mostly Christian (whether or not people actually follow the religion any more) but we don’t live in a theocracy. That’s fine. I would always encourage people to come up with their own beliefs: to challenge preconceived ideas and look at the evidence (or the arguments) for themselves.

Only despite our ‘enlightened’ scientific state, it still seems that we are believing in a wide variety of different things — 69% of Londoners believe in life after death, 74% of people in the East Midlands believe in the ’soul’, 68% of Northern Irish believe in heaven (oddly, more than believe in life after death), 32% of the Welsh believe in reincarnation, 18% of Scots believe in fortune telling/tarot; 52% of people from Yorkshire/Humberside believe in ghosts, and so on (the raw data is available in PDF).

So why are we believing these things? Is there something in our nature that makes us need to believe in something? A higher purpose?

I suspect so. Some people might classify this as a yearning for God, but I see it more as a yearning for order, for meaning. Because people don’t want things to just happen, they want to feel that there was a higher purpose, and that they understand that purpose. Which is why I think that there are an increasing number of people rejecting the deity/afterlife beliefs of their cultures and instead choosing to assign meaning via the mechanism of various global conspiracies.

Come on, you all know them. There’s loads. That the US intelligence was complicit in 9/11. That Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill John F. Kennedy. That Princess Diana was assassinated. Because people can’t believe that these sorts of things could just happen. In one of these cases, I believe the conspiracy theorists are correct.

But I’m going to look at one specific conspiracy theory around 9/11. That American Airlines flight 77 didn’t crash into the Pentagon; that it was something else, such as a cruise missile. I have heard this story from someone who ought to have known better. Not that at that stage I could refute what he was telling me, but simply because he had sourced all of his information from conspiracy theorists.

Therefore when he said “the photos didn’t show a plane”, what he ought to have been saying was “the photos that the conspiracy theorist (who said that there wasn’t a plane) chose to include with his documentation did not show any evidence of a plane”. This is the equivalent of listening to a party political broadcast and not realising that the information is being ’spun’.

Part of this problem is of course investment. When you have read about a theory (whether conspiracy, scientific or other), when you have studied it (even if you’ve only studied one side of it), then you develop a certain emotional involvement to the time you have invested in it. This makes you instinctually more dismissive of anything which would contradict your theory, and makes you more agreeable to anything which supports your theory. This is called confirmation bias.

As regards the Pentagon plane then. Firstly, if the plane didn’t crash into the Pentagon, you’ve got to explain where American Airlines Flight 77 did actually go. What happened to the passengers? How many thousands of people work in the Pentagon or were on site at this time, and explain why none of them have ever contradicted the ‘official line’?. Why the US would release the security video if it showed something other than what they had said had happened?

Never mind that, though, the good conspiracy theorist would tell you that it is OBVIOUS and IRREFUTABLE that … [insert pet theory]. They generally use the appeal to incredulity here: “I don’t believe it is so, therefore it cannot be so”. This is one of Richard Dawkins’ classic arguments in relation to critics of evolution — just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[Update: upon reflection, this is perhaps a little unfair. Many conspiracy theories are better constructed than this; many conspiracy theorists are capable of forming much better arguments. However, some do use this sort of phrasing without justification...]

If you want to say something is obvious and irrefutable, you need to demonstrate why. Provide evidence, and if someone attempts to refute it, you’ve got to prove them wrong, instead of dismissing them. Well, you don’t have to do this. You only need to do it if you want anyone to take you seriously. If there is a ‘conspiracy theory’ that actually stands up to this sort of scrutiny, particularly one which doesn’t feel the need to contradict eyewitness testimony, then it may be worth a look.

Of course, the fact that like any good conspiracy, you’ve got contradictory theories, and I particularly like the one that suggests:

government shills are working hard to trick web sites into running the claim that a passenger jet did not really hit the Pentagon.

The “Pod People” And The Plane That Crashed Into the Pentagon

…which naturally goes on to provide evidence that the plane did crash — eyewitness testimony, maps of the flightpath, an explanation of why not so much debris was visible and so on.

Of course, with a little bit of research, you can discover that most of these conspiracy myths have been thoroughly debunked anyway. The hole was the expected size at the outer ring (conspiracy theorists normally show a photo of a smaller hole closer in); the ‘intact windows’ near the crash site shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when they had been specifically designed to be blast resistant; more eyewitness testimony; photographs of bits of plane on the Pentagon lawn and so on.

Of course, to many conspiracy theorists, this would be simply what they want you to believe.

Because it appears to me that people feel the need to believe in something. To believe that a higher agency (”the conspiracy”) has been behind it all. To the extent that they will believe what a conspiracy theorist tells them without ever questioning the selection and presentation of the ‘evidence’ handed to them. Now that’s what I call credulous…

But for me the interesting question here is not so much what we choose to believe but rather why we are predisposed to believe in something

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3 Comments to The New Enlightenment: Horoscopes and 9/11 Conspiracies

  1. Mike says:

    April 20th, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Just wondering, do *you* believe LHO killed JFK ?

    I know I’m entering the Troll kingdom when people refer to such theories as ‘conspiracy theories’ rather than just ‘theories’ – which is what they all are…

  2. JackP says:

    April 20th, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Two separate bits to your comment there, the second of which is unfair, associating ‘conspiracy theory’ with troll.

    A conspiracy theory asserts that there was a conspiracy. Simple as. No troll wanted or required. Any theory that JFK was shot because of a covert operation, is a conspiracy theory. If you believed his head simply spontaneously exploded, that’s just a ‘theory’. But it’s a lot more ridiculous.

    And calling something a troll simply because you disagree with it is an ad hominem attack; it doesn’t actually attack the argument put forward. Regardless of which side of the debate someone sits on, we need to question the arguments, not attack the people…

    Do I believe LHO killed JFK? Honest answer: I don’t know. It seems unlikely, given the angle and direction of shot and so on, but I’ve not looked into the detail enough to confidently assert that.

  3. Christophe Strobbe says:

    April 30th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I wonder how long people really believed in papal infallibility. It didn’t become official dogma until the First Vatican Council in the 1860s.

    “68% of Northern Irish believe in heaven (oddly, more than believe in life after death)”
    Maybe some of them believe in reincarnation rather than heaven ;-)

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