Evaluating Conspiracy

I find conspiracy theories fascinating, and not because I’m a conspiracy theorist. One of my favorite conspiracy theories is the Shakespeare authorship question, but I also use conspiracy theories to discuss source evaluation with my students, and Shakespeare doesn’t generate that much interest among students. (There is a small but dedicated Shakespeare conspiracy theory movement, though, because every few months I get an email from someone trying to persuade me that their candidate “really” wrote Shakespeare’s plays and I should acknowledge such on my website.)

For the past few years, I’ve been using the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 as an exercise in evaluation. I treat the 9/11 Commission Report as the official source, though of course there are others, such as the NIST rebuttal of alternative theories of the WTC buildings collapse. The official story is that airplanes were hijacked and flown into the WTC and the Pentagon, and that the damage done by the airplanes caused the collapse of WTC 1, 2, and & 7 as well as the damage done to the Pentagon.

According to the conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of holes in this story, though the theories don’t always cohere. I’ve been watching a few videos available on the Internet, and the theories usually address alleged flaws in the official story. Often they’ll bring in the related “New World Order” and Illuminati conspiracies as well. When you combine that with other theories placing the origins of the New World Order in space aliens or Atlantis or a reptilian, shape-shifting race that secretly dominates the world (have you taken a close look at George Bush, Tony Blair, or the Queen of England lately?), then you can ultimately piece together a theory that reptilian space aliens secretly engineered human beings and have been trying for centuries to build a one-world totalitarian government and have now used the WTC attacks as a excuse to create a fascist police state, through a process that the conspiracy theorists all like to mention: Problem, Reaction, Solution, which they all claim has something to do with Hegelian dialectic, though I remember Hegel being a bit more complicated than that.

The 9/11 Truth Movement seems to be a gathering storm of questionable sources. I use The World Trade Center Demolition and the So-Called War on Terrorism as a comparison for the 9/11 Commission Report because it’s been out there for a long time, but I could use any number of sources, from the film Loose Change to plenty of blogs and websites and books. (Loose Change seems to be a major voice for the “Truthers,” since it has a hostile blog dedicated specifically to debunking it: Screw Loose Change. (If you’re curious and want to delve into a twilight zone, do some Google Video searches on 9/11 or Illuminati or look for anything about David Icke or Alex Jones.)

From a research perspective, though, these sources provide great examples for evaluating sources. First, there’s a lot of this stuff, especially about 9/11, and now they even have something called Scholars for 9/11 Truth. Also, several of the conspiracy theory sources specifically ask people to question them. I noticed a number of videos, for example, that said, more or less, “hey, don’t believe us, go verify these facts.” Screw Loose Change seems to be taking that call very seriously. So the scholarly imperative to verify sources is explicit in many of these videos and websites, which could make a great research exercise. (On a side note, look up some of these conspiracy theories in the Wikipedia if you want to see examples of Wikipedia credibility warnings all over the place.)

But they’re also useful because of the political overtones of the movement, which lends another perspective to the sources. I mistakenly thought when looking into this that a lot of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists would be anti-Bush, anti-globalization progressives, but there seem to be many conservative evangelical Christians and militia movement-types in the mix as well.

The politicization of the debate is interesting, though. The 9/11 anti-conspiracy theorists don’t necessarily provide a calm, rational voice in this debate. One of the documentaries played a clip of Sean Hannity interviewing a conspiracy theorist from the University of Wisconsin, and I’d have to say from any balanced perspective, the conspiracy theorist came off looking better than one might think. I don’t watch TV, so I’d never seen Fox News, but Hannity shouting at the fellow onscreen could hardly impress anyone but the choir of how he was the sane one and the conspiracy theorist the insane one. (If that’s the norm on his show, I wonder why anyone watches.)

So for the suspicious, there’s not only the alleged questionability of the official story, but there’s also a lot of conservatives extremely hostile to anyone bringing up alternative theories. Add in a general distrust of the Bush administration of most people on the left, and it becomes more difficult to decide the issue. If the question comes down to, “do you trust the government or not,” this adds another dimension to the debate, leading some people to say, “well, I don’t normally trust the government, but in this case I will,” or perhaps, “well, I hate the President, but I don’t think he’s a reptilian shape-shifter who destroyed the WTC to bring about a one-world government to please his pals in Skull and Bones and the Trilateral Commission.”

In addition to the details and the political context, there are also fun large questions. For example, if there really is a secret group of space aliens called the Illuminati that control us all, then why would they let all these videos and websites get out on the Internet? Is it just to make people look crazy, and thus debunk their case even more? And don’t the conspiracy theorists seem rather arrogant? How have they somehow escaped the mind-control of the New World Order while the rest of us are too stupid? And how could anyone control such a large conspiracy? Does anyone think the government is really hyper-competent?

I think teaching a writing seminar on 9/11 conspiracy theories would be great, but I’m starting small. This year I’m planning to develop a quick research evaluation exercise based around this in addition to just using the standard techniques such as examining authorship, because I think it might be entertaining as well as informative. Unless it’s all true, of course, and the Illuminati are really out to get us, in which case it’s just scary, unless they want to let me in on their plans and make me fabulously wealthy, in which case it isn’t.

3 thoughts on “Evaluating Conspiracy

  1. I have reached the conclusion that the “most likely” author of the Shakespeare plays is Mary Sidney Herbert. However, I do not see her making much of a splash on your impressive website. I would be glad to come to Princeton to discuss the matter with you and/or send you some of my original (though not yet published) material which makes the case for Mary Sidney. Specifically, I have analyzed Jonson’s Eulogy to the Author and found that virtually every line can be traced to Mary Sidney (whereas few, if any, of the lines can be linked to any of the other candidates, including Shakspere of Stratford).
    Actually, I am moving back to Princeton next month, so I would not have to travel far to see you.
    Yours,
    Jonathan Star

  2. I don’t the usual sense of what are thought of as conspiracy theories aptly applies to the Shakespeare identity controversies and it seems that the site you link, as well as your own remarks here in the body of your commentary, indicate a similar confusion over the differences.
    Above all, a key characteristic of the usual conception of what qualifies as a conspiracy theory implies, after all, that actual facts of the matter are not only known and, moreover, “in the hands of the conspirators” themselves, but, in addition, that these facts are actively and in a concerted manner, withheld, suppressed, from dissemination to the general public.
    That, it seems clear to me, is emphatically not what the main proponents of alternative identities for the Stratford Shakespeare contend is going on. Rather, and significantly, the fact is that those who maintain the mainstream view are not in possession of anything definitively showing their case to be correct; and it’s all the more strange that you even point that out apparently without grasping its significance for properly labelling the Shakespeare matter a clear case of conspiracy.
    What objectors and those favoring the Oxford case, for example, point out is something that can hardly be denied by any honest and fair-minded observer: namely that, at least until quite recently in relative terms, no one frankly espousing and defending the Oxford (or other) case for the identity of Shakespeare had a prayer of being admitted into the circle of professional academic scholarship on Shakespeare literature.
    To deny that obvious fact is at least sheer folly and perhaps, in other cases, simple and outright dishonesty.
    There’s no such thing as a “conspiracy” to supress some objectively-known facts about the identity of the person who wrote Shakespeare; there is, rather, a frank and fully open professional academic denial of any interpretation of what are the agreed peices of evidence in the matter; a simple denial of, rejection of, as validly made, the opposing interpretations.
    As such, the matter doesn’t fit the conspiracy-theory paradigm. What it fits is something akin the competing theories of the organization of the solar system—the Ptolomaic versus the Copernican, for example.
    Everything found in the site you link,
    e.g. :
    …”The conspiracy theorists sometimes accuse the “Stratfordians” of conspiring against their candidate. That few Shakespeare scholars and readers care one way or the other seems a more likely explanation of the case. And, applying Occam’s Razor to this situation, the best answer to the question seems to be the Stratford candidate. The positive evidence is not entirely compelling, hence the controversy, but there is some good evidence as well as 400 years of tradition behind that answer. The evidence for another candidate, as anyone who reads John Mitchell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare? will discover, all seems very persuasive when presented the right way, until the next candidate’s evidence is presented. Part of the problem is, no one can offer conclusive proof, and those arguing against the Stratford candidate are often of dubious authority. Until someone with authority can offer conclusive proof for another candidate, the safest answer seems to be the the traditional answer. Perhaps the largest unanswered Shakespeare question is why anyone would bother arguing about this at all.” …
    is such a mass of illogical nonsense that it appears clear that the author, had he lived at the time, would be defending the Ptolomaic view of the solar system; after all, that’s the one favored by “tradition”, LOL!!
    It apparently hasn’t occurred to the author of the linked site that, in matters of historical fact, which are susceptible (at least as the realm of possibilities allows) to being objectively demonstrated —-another aspect your own words admit to be the case!— that whatever “tradition” may hold to be the best case, merely because it is “tradition”, is simply irrelevant to whatever the actual truth may be.
    That seems also to have escaped you and in that we are offered a very damning example of how your logical reasoning is deficient in this case. That, it so often happens, separates those who defend the Oxford case from those who stubbornly insist upon “tradition’s” rights and privileges.

  3. to clean-up my faulty composition,
    the text above should read,
    ” I don’t [think] the usual sense of what are thought of as conspiracy theories aptly applies to the Shakespeare identity controversies and it seems that the site you link, as well as your own remarks here in the body of your commentary, indicate a similar confusion over the differences.” …
    and
    … “There’s no such thing as a “conspiracy” to supress some objectively-known facts about the identity of the person who wrote Shakespeare; there is, rather, a frank and fully open professional academic denial of any [other] interpretation of what are the agreed peices of evidence in the matter [than that found acceptable by the supposed leading members of academic profession in Shakespeare literature]; [in other words] it’s a case of a simple denial of, rejection of, the opposing interpretations [as having any validity at all] .” …

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