Wednesday, December 15, 2010

FEMA Camps and Ego Death

Conspiracy theories have likely been around for as long as, well, conspiracies themselves.  And there is certainly no sign that they are abating any time soon.  But what drives some people into their clutches, while others merely shrug their shoulders, contented with more practical explanations?

There's a difference between being skeptical and inventing fabulous stories.  Occam's razor says: "selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions (aka postulates, entities) when the hypotheses be equal in other respects."  So while I am distrustful of the CIA, I also don't believe they faked the moon landing, built the pyramids in Egypt, faked 9-11, started AIDS, faked vaccine data, or are setting up FEMA concentration camps.  There are much simpler explanations for all of those events that rely on actual evidence and not wild conspiracy theories filled with fantastical scenarios. 

Wikipedia has a pretty good page on conspiracy theories.  My problem with them is that they always rely on an attack on authority or expertise.  Yet once you go there, the burden is on you to be an expert.  And most of us simply don't have the training.  So for instance, just about every engineer who has looked at 9/11 has said that it was the work of two jets.  The Truthers (9/11 conspiracists) usually say it's all a cover-up and that there were explosives.  Well, unless you are an engineer and understand the physics of skyscrapers, it's going to be pretty hard to have confidence in anyone. 

And that's the general gist of all conspiracy theories - almost by definition they require a massive conspiracy on the part of multiple government agencies, media networks, academic institutions, scientists or corporations.  Except for corporations, the others are just about the only real authorities we have.  And once you throw them out, you can make up anything you want.  Maybe 9/11 was caused by North Korea?  Or maybe Iran?  Or maybe the EU?  Or Pat Robertson?  Or aliens? 

But isn't the obvious answer that it was a group of people from Arab countries who are pissed off at the decadent West interfering in their affairs for the past 100 years, and with a fundamentalist ideology that glorifies violence?  Not only does it make sense, but it is backed up by an insane amount of evidence!

One of my students argued with me today because he watched a show on the history channel which claimed to have evidence that aliens helped all the pyramids get built.  It took me forever to try and debunk this crap that he thought was legitimate because it was on the "History" channel.  The main problem, I think, was that he didn't know how to distinguish legitimate authority from illegitimate authority.  To him, as he is also I think a creationist Christian, magical thinking was a normal part of life.  He had no real concept of what a legitimate authority might look like.  He didn't know that there are thousands of people who have studied this stuff for years, reading and writing papers on every aspect of what we do and do not know.  And that we need to be humble enough to respect the science, and not just rely on our whatever "common-sense" story we might be able to come up with to suit our particular desire for exotic mysticism.

I'm kind of interested in the psychology of pseudoscience and magical thinking.  There are many theories out there.  Evolutionary biologists propose that as a species, it would have made more sense for us to take any threat seriously, and in light of very limited knowledge of the natural world, inventing fabulous narratives would have at least provided a predictable explanation for future events.

Biologists and psychologists might say that as a practical matter, we live on faith and trust everyday, in the sense that because we can't think everything through at every second of the day, we rely on mental shortcuts - the apple I bite into won't be glass, if I jump I'll return to Earth.  And so we are biased toward making sense of the world.  But if something doesn't fit, we are predisposed to come up with an explanation.  In some larger manner, maybe magical thinking is simply a bias towards making sense out of complex or unknown issues. Of course, this could explain a dangerous over-reliance on traditional authorities as well as it could explain a tendency to seek an easier, if more magical or mystical, line of reasoning.

Or maybe the sociologist or political scientist might point to the propensity for people to hew to established ideological narratives, otherwise known as "group think".  Among certain groups, often more radical, this tends to operate within an echo-chamber.  The term "epistemic closure" has been used to further describe this process by which systems of knowledge can become self-limiting.  In interpersonal terms, we refer to this state as denial.  Somehow, the glaringly obvious is avoided, often by great feats of mental engineering.  Freud described denial as a defense mechanism, a way of protecting oneself from an uncomfortable reality.

But what then of the belief in fantastical explanations that do not hide uncomfortable facts so much as invent new ones?  One commonality among these ideas is that they seem to all seem to in some way give support to, or operate in tandem with, a suspicion of some established authority, or political opposition.  The theory provides two separate, yet mutually-reinforcing functions: it is first created by prior ideological assumptions, and then provides evidence to support those same assumptions. 

So for instance, Glenn Beck is paranoid about the government, and so he buys into secret FEMA concentration camps, which then provide evidence justifying his initial paranoia.  This may explain why these beliefs seems so difficult to debunk.  If they can act as assumption-affirming evidence, their destruction can act as the opposite, as to undermine original assumptions.  Of course, this is just as illogical.  Whether or not the government is not doing something is evidence of nothing.  The fact that the government is not operating FEMA camps tells you nothing about whether or not you should be paranoid about the government!

Returning to psychology, the concept of ego and identity might explain why a false-belief is clung to.  If one's identity is dependent upon one's ideological assumptions, then anything perceived as a threat to those assumptions would also be perceived as a threat to one's identity.  So, a false belief built upon identity-bound assumptions becomes a sort of fragile cathedral for the ego.  If the cathedral falls, so to does the identity. 

It's common fear to be afraid of death.  Back to Freud, he felt it one of life's fundamental drives, in direct opposition to that of sexual desire.  Although he also felt one's consciously expressed fear might really be an expression of some deeper repression.  I suppose distancing myself thusly would appear suspect.  But aside from the practical impulse to self-preservation, I've never really worried all that much about dying.  I have always had a difficult time understanding the idea of being motivated in any kind of profound way by something that seems so impossibly distant, or at least unexpected.

But a death I feel I can relate to is loss of identity, which may be as close as one might come this side of actual expiration.  One's identity is one, in many ways.  And the loss of a sense of self, while certainly liberating in some cases, would seem profoundly frightening, generally.  This fear then, would seem a powerful mechanism behind the attachment of identity to ideology.  The more one derives identity from ideology, the more this fear  comes under threat when the ideology is challenged, and the more the fear is assuaged when the ideology is promoted.

But why must identity be barricaded with false beliefs?  Is there some special urgency that inflates illogical or magical thinking, misguided ideas formed out of the deficits of haste?  This would describe the phenomena known as the "knee jerk" reaction, where intellectual response is less intellectual and more intestinal, emerging with valiant force from the misty domains of the unconscious.  While the reaction is rooted in a foundation of deep ideological conviction and logical coherence, the rushed response belies anything but almost Pavlovian reaction.  It may be more than a coincidence that the term "dog whistle" is used to refer to the subtle semiotics employed in political messaging.

Because it is here that the most devious tentacles of propaganda do their work.  With simplistic, cryptic suggestions, the submerged iceberg is resurrected, overwhelming the mind's rational, conscious capacity with that of the vastly more powerful and immediate unconscious response.  And it is here that dwells fear, anger, jealousy, revenge, pride, guilt, and self-doubt.  At any moment, an ideological semiotic trigger can employ each emotion towards a very specific and political end.  The propaganda at once raises the specter of these uncomfortable emotions, but then holds out the promise of deliverance from them via adherence to the ordained narrative.

Yet all of this seems too squishy; the unconscious is a black box and too easy to make up stories for.  While I feel I have made a reasonable case, I'm skeptical that there isn't much more at work as well.  For instance, many conspiracists are otherwise perfectly reasonable.  Some only go off the deep end on one or two issues - often those which they have some personal stake in.  It wouldn't seem they have a much larger ideological axe to grind.  Others are simply very passionate about politics and have somehow managed to worm themselves into a very odd corner. 

Among teenagers, conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen.  Their worlds bursting with imagination and possibility, yet rooted in a virginal ignorance, a sense of conspiracy is a welcome narratory foothold.  There is an excitement here, a feeling rooted in not the least of which a sense of anti-authoritarian discovery - a secret passageway under and out the family fence.  A magical sense of discovery permeates.  Like some holy grail, the gold at the end of the rainbow, the existence of elves - what should not be actually is! 

It is to this feeling, sniffed at as frivolity, that conspiracy debunkers remind us of the boredom of reality.  There is actually a good explanation, and it is dull.  The story involves no vast and elaborate networks, secret meetings or devious schemes.  The edge-of-your-seat thriller is actually a somewhat tedious documentary.  No one is going to buy the rights.  There is no revelatory found-footage.  There are no amazing turns of character.  No secret documents.  No smoking guns or deep throats.

For many this may seem a loss, a forced retreat in a cosmic pilgrimage to the Truth, a giving up on something worth fighting for.  Earlier this year, a man from Colorado went to Afghanistan "carrying a pistol, a 40-inch sword, night-vision equipment" on a private mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.  Clearly not operating reasonably, he nonetheless felt some profound calling to do what countless others and billions of dollars could not.  He was not going to sit around and twiddle his thumbs when there was a simple, clear, and honorable job to do.  No doubt he felt that to sit idly at home while his night-vision goggles and sword collected dust was somehow an acknowledgment of defeat.

For the conspiracy theorist, there is always a simple, straight line solution.  There are no complex individuals operating within complex geopolitical, social and cultural narratives.  There are no gray areas or reasonable disagreements.  There are no difficult problems with no clear answers.  Unfortunately, this just isn't how the world works.  Not only is the world an often times disorienting, confusing and complicated place, but humans are limited not only by simple minds, but by limited information.  If anything, this seems a powerful case for caution and humility.  Because chances are, strapping on your survival gear and going on a personal quest for magical treasures is going to lead to nothing but failure at worse, and greater confusion at best.

But who knows, maybe I was paid to say this...


  1. My issue here is that there's a solenoid approach to conspiracies. Either they exist or they don't. Some exist. Some don't. Or are we to assume there's never been a conspiracy ever? Check this story (with full accreditations at the end). I followed up this story myself when it broke (via Iran's Press TV!) and found the local Minot obituaries proving the case. The conspiracy is why didn't any MSM report this instead of the Britney Spears meltdown that was occurring at the time?

  2. Well, the site seems enormously cranky (WWIII, imminent, NOW!). That doesn't mean the story is necessarily wrong. But I'm highly skeptical of articles littered with ominous, open-ended questions. As for the story not being published in the mainstream press - maybe they just didn't think it important enough. The times ran this: The story also admits there's no evidence connecting the deaths to any supposed conspiracy.

    But look, I'm certainly not arguing that conspiracies don't happen. They have, do and will. But it is how we approach them that matters. At a certain level, this is going to be a judgment call. The hallmark of a conspiracy is starting with a premise and then filling in the blanks. The next step is then to begin connecting dots wildly. I'm skeptical of the government but grand claims about massive organized plots have rarely ever existed. And those that have were of great interest to journalists. CIA involvement in Central America was widely reported on by New York Times reporters. Iran-Contra was a huge deal. There were plenty of reasons why justice ultimately wasn't served, but it wasn't because palms were being greased in editorial rooms. It was politics and the structure of government, not to mention public appetite for pressing the right leaders to do the right thing.

    You ask why the mainstream media didn't report the missing nukes story? Assuming the conspiracy was true and the press knew it, that would be a monumental conspiracy, involving multiple editorial boards and reporters. The more likely scenario is that the reporters just didn't think they had a story.

    I think that's more often the real problem with the "mainstream" media - the reporters don't have the resources or interest to go after the tough stories, shots-in-the-dark, etc. It's about the bottom-line and political entrenchment, not explicit withholding or explicit misinformation. But that's a complex story reflecting structural and cultural issues in contemporary society, not an easy little story about guys in black hats.

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  4. OK - your follow up is a good rebuttal, I'll confess. But those people died nonetheless. The facts of it just seem aaawfully strange.

    Sorry to change tack all of a sudden but one recent quote sticks in my mind (I paraphrase) "70% of Afghanis have never heard of 9-11". And THAT'S the country we invaded? Holy bugeezus. Doesn't that strike anyone as seriously weird? Is there one place on planet earth (not excluding Antarctica) where less people know about 9-11? And THAT'S Ground Zero for the war? Boo-yah! If one ever steps away from all the mindless political intrigue leading up to event XYZ, the standing result looks Kafka-esque. Anyway - don't want to drag you into a raging debate about nothingness so I understand if you leave it off at this point... I just say; keep an open mind as I guess you do anyways.