Some random thoughts on alien, shape-shifting reptiles

There are certain claims that we think are either prima facie false, or so unlikely to consider taking seriously. Note that the former claim (even if it turns out we are wrong) gives us grounds to reject some claim. The unlikeliness claim, however, gives us grounds for suspicion, but not sufficient reason to reject a claim outright.

Take the idea that the real rulers of the Earth are alien, shapeshifting lizards who exist at a different vibrational frequency from the rest of us. Is this idea something we think to be prima facie false, or just something we think is unlikely? I would say that it is unlikely. Like debates about the existence of the gods, there is either evidence of their existence, or little reason to believe in them, but no evidence that they do not exist. In the same way, we might be sceptical of Icke’s lizards, but that does not tell us that they do not exist. Rather, we think it highly unlikely. We are sceptical because of our other beliefs about the world, but we cannot definitively rule them out.

But let’s modify the theory. According to the primary proponent of the shapeshifting lizard hypothesis, the material world is entirely illusory, and what we take to be the physical is really only the perceptual. Note that this view is not obviously false. For one thing, philosophers have seriously entertained this view (see Berkley, for example), and even physicists have toyed with the idea. None of this is to say that Icke’s view is either the philosophical thesis of Immaterialism or the scientific theory of the hologrammatic universe. Yet if we are to be charitable in our reading, then we should accept that Icke is not making claims which are prima facie false.

So, why are we sceptical of Icke’s metaphysics? Here are some suggestions:

  1. His epistemology: Icke gets his information about the world via intuitions and what he considers to be synchronic moments. This might make us sceptical about his metaphysical proclamations. But note, most people don’t know how Icke’s epistemology works. Indeed, my suspicion is most of you reading this can’t confirm what I’ve just written is even true. We think his epistemology must be weird, but that doesn’t tell us it is. It just tells us that as we think his conclusions are wrong, his method of co ing to them must be wrong as well. But that gets things back-to-front.
  2. His evidence: Icke’s evidence for these views is consistent with a number of different hypotheses. The fact Icke decides upon one view might be taken to suspicious. [More…] Yet grappling with the evidence here is hard, because Icke claims to have so much of it. It is hard to know from the sum total of it which interpretation is the best, and the worry here is that we think Icke has come to the wrong one without realising we are assuming there must be better interpretations.
  3. His politics: We might think Icke’s conclusions are a reaction to views, rather than the product of research. Icke is deeply anti-intellectual, and anti-authoritarian. Certainly, elements of his rhetoric trade upon these features, but while politics can colour a view, it does not tell us the view is wrong.
  4. He starts from the end: Maybe we think Icke came to his conclusion, and only then looked for evidence of it. That is to say, he’s not really engaged in a research project, but found evidence which merely fits pre-existing views. But why think that? No matter what we think about Icke, his views have shifted over time, and he has rejected theories; he certainly looks to be someone developing a theory, not merely finding evidence to support his view.
  5. He’s inauthentic: Does Icke believe the theory he promotes, or is he simply making money off of the gullible? Whilst people claim this (and Icke disputes it, claiming that he makes little money off of his tours once costs have been accounted for), claiming ‘X doesn’t really believe p’ is a problematic move, given it requires evidence, rather than just mere suspicion.
  6. Other theories like his have turned out to be less good than their rivals: This, I guess, is the best bet for justifying our scepticism of Icke’s views. Icke and his theories fit into a spectrum of largely discredited theories, and so his views seem implausible because they are not necessarily new nor novel.

My worry is that we assume Icke is wrong, and then backport that into our considerations as to how he came to his conclusions. Option 6 seems our best bet, but note that the cognitive work here to establish it is tricky. Other views like Icke’s have been discredited, but we now need to assess a) the similarity of these views to Ickes, b) the dismissal of those theories, and c) the dismissers themselves (since Icke addresses b and c in his own work, to argue that his work can withstand criticisms levelled against similar works.

Paper review: Conspiracy Formation Is in the Detail: On the Interaction of Conspiratorial Predispositions and Semantic Cues

Fabian Gebauer, Marius H. Raab, and Claus-Christian Carbon

Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2016

DOI: 10.1002/acp.3279

Abstract: Significant events are frequently followed by discussions about the event’s ‘true nature’. Yet, there is only little evidence whether the conspiratorial reasoning of conspiracy believers and sceptics is a priori determined, or if certain characteristics of information are responsible for provoking a polarization. We investigated how depicted causation (direct vs. indirect; Study 1) and intention (strong vs. weak purposeful; Study 2) might invoke a bias in believers and sceptics regarding conspiratorial reasoning about an ongoing event, namely, whether US investigations against FIFA were more or less likely to be seen as a conspiracy against Russia to sabotage the football World Cup in 2018. We revealed that judgments of conspiracy believers and sceptics about the event’s ‘true nature’ are not a priori divided—in fact, conspiracy formation is only affected when direct causation or strong purposeful intentions were obvious. Results point to the relevance of conspiratorial predispositions and semantic cues in conspiracy formation.

This paper examines the thesis that people with high conspiratorial predispositions (i.e. people who think conspiracies are common) are more likely to accept statements about directly caused or intended conspiracies than those with a low conspiratorial predisposition. I basically have two issues with the paper.

The first is the way in which they get to their talk of people with low or high conspiratorial predispositions. This talk of conspiratorial predispositions is phrased in psychological terms, and it’s clear from the literature they cite, that people with high conspiratorial predispositions suffer from a variety of psychological ills. As such, we’re not talking here about people who might have a considered epistemic judgement about the conspired or unconspired nature of our world. This, I think, is a problem, because it seems to be the automatic assumption in the social science literature that being prone to suspect conspiracies is a psychological problem in some sense, but being ‘sensible’ and sceptical of the existence of conspiracies is… Well, no one seems to bite the bullet and say that’s the result of some psychological feature of the person in question; indeed, it’s often implied to be due to the sceptic being epistemically superior to the conspiracy theorist. Yet surely we need to ask ‘Is scepticism of conspiracy theorising also psychological?’ (if, indeed, we buy the argument those with high conspiratorial predispositions really are just seeing conspiracies for the sake of it).

Now, I would be the last to deny that there are psychological components to conspiracy theorising, and suspecting that conspiracies exist. I’d also be the last to deny that some conspiracy theorists might well be members of a problematic class of such theorists, the conspiracists. After all, denying that would be equivalent to denying the fact some theists are psychological predisposed to believing in the existence of the gods, or that some political proponents of the thesis of anthropogenic climate change couldn’t justify why said scientific theory is true if you gave them a whiteboard and an entire day to explain their reasoning. However, starting from the perspective that people like this make up the general group of conspiracy theorists is intellectually bankrupt; we should treat these people as the outliers they are, and theorise accordingly.

The second issue comes out of my response to this paragraph:

However, the research area on conspiracy theories is still missing a systematic approach that relates specific properties of information to the emergence of conspiracy beliefs. We assume that the semantics of intent and responsibility—the semantic linkage of information—might interact with conspiratorial predispositions.

Their contention that such a systematic approach is missing is only true if you ignore the work of epistemologists on this issue (they quote just one philosopher, Steve Clarke). Then again, they kind of have to ignore us, given that the epistemic literature is largely sympathetic to conspiracy theorising, and the authors – as noted – basically argue that conspiracy theorising is a psychological, rather than epistemic phenomenon. I can’t help but think that a more than cursory glance at the philosophical literature would have helped here; we philosophers have been looking at the way in which evidence informs beliefs in conspiracy theories, and the idea that being historically and politically literate informs your belief in the possibility that a) conspiracies are occurring here-and-now, and b) how such beliefs inform our appraisal of conspiracy theories.

There’s also a worry (which I find myself feeling nearly all the time when reading social scientists on conspiracy theories) that they take any positive attitude towards some conspiracy theory as evidence someone takes that theory to be warranted, as opposed to the notion ‘I’ll buy that for a dollar’ or ‘That’s worth considering’. Not everything needs to be couched in terms of ‘x believes that p’; sometimes a positive attitude towards some proposition simply tells us that x believes p to be plausible, or x would like to investigate p, and so forth. This doesn’t seem to be picked up upon by much of the social science literature, leading to bizarre conclusions like ‘Conspiracy theorists believe contradictory theories’ (no, they are typically entertaining contradictory hypotheses whilst trying to work out which one is warranted), and the like. A little look at what the work in epistemology would clear up an awful lot of these issues, if only the social scientists would take the time to do some reading outside of their own domain.

Paper review – The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism

Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Elisabeth Lloyd

Published in Synthese on the 19th of September, 2016

DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6

Abstract: Science strives for coherence. For example, the findings from climate science form a highly coherent body of knowledge that is supported by many independent lines of evidence: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human economic activities are causing the global climate to warm and unless GHG emissions are drastically reduced in the near future, the risks from climate change will continue to grow and major adverse consequences will become unavoidable. People who oppose this scientific body of knowledge because the implications of cutting GHG emissions—such as regulation or increased taxation—threaten their worldview or livelihood cannot provide an alternative view that is coherent by the standards of conventional scientific thinking. Instead, we suggest that people who reject the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions (or any other body of well-established scientific knowledge) oppose whatever inconvenient finding they are confronting in piece-meal fashion, rather than systematically, and without considering the implications of this rejection to the rest of the relevant scientific theory and findings. Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.” Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that “something must be wrong” with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation. This high-level coherence accompanied by contradictory subordinate propositions is a known attribute of conspiracist ideation, and conspiracism may be implicated when people reject well-established scientific propositions.

This article is ostensibly on conspiracism, but as conspiracism is never explicitly defined in it (the authors, it would seem, take conspiracist ideation to be where people have psychological – not epistemic – reasons to accept some claim of conspiracy over a non-conspiracy – and by extension – epistemically warranted theory), really it’s an article on the incoherence of certain arguments against the thesis of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, there’s little about conspiracies in the paper, despite the reference to conspiracism; it’s as if the term ‘conspiracism’ is being used here as a pejorative for a kind of irrationality directed against scientific theories (whilst it is true many climate change denial theories also include auxiliary hypotheses about a conspiracy to cover up the truth, this is not a focus of the authors’ work here).

The basic thrust of the paper is that the arguments of anthropogenic climate change deniers are incoherent; they tend to believe mutually contradictory views, and – as such – that is a reason to prefer the standard scientific account of anthropogenic climate change over that of the deniers. There are some excellent examples of incoherent views in the climate change denier camp, and – in this respect – the paper is a good primer for anyone interested in debating such sceptics. However, the paper also suffers from a general problem found in most conspiracist-style critiques, which is conflating the beliefs of certain prominent deniers (the paper takes Australian climate change denier Ian Plimer to task quite extensively) with deniers in general. Now, the authors are aware they might be critiqued for this, saying:

It is possible, therefore, that individuals within this community would only hold one or the other of two incoherent views, and that each person considered in isolation would not be incoherent. In that case, one could argue that there is merely a heterogeneity of views in the “community” of denialists, which might in turn be interpreted as being an indication of “healthy debate” or “scientific diversity” rather than incoherence.

But they reject the idea of making an appeal to diversity, arguing that the best explanation is really some account of epistemic vice (my term, not theirs), with that vice being some account of how the views of climate change deniers generally are incoherent. Yet there are two problems here.

The first (and relatively minor) problem is that the authors present something of a false dilemma: either the views of climate change deniers as a group are incoherent, or they indicate the existence of a healthy debate. There are other options; the debate need not be healthy, or scientifically diverse. It just needs to be a debate in the climate change denier camp. I feel the authors salt the pot (so to speak) here.

The second issue is the more serious. In defence of what they construe to be the scientific method, and the corpus of scientific theories, they have to gradually concede ground. As they argue later in the paper, there is disagreement by scientists about the inclusion of some scientific theories, and thus there is some incoherence in science proper. However, they downplay the significance of such debates because ‘any incoherence contains within it an impetus for reconciliation’.

They are trying to have it both ways; there is incoherence in the Sciences. For example, look at the debate in Physics and the central role of string theory in particular. Whilst it’s true there is an impetus for reconciliation, that reconciliation has a) not yet happened, and b) might not happen (and, c) certain sides are antagonistic in this debate). So the happy picture of the scientist and her chums working together that the authors describe does not quite resemble what really happens in the real world of scientific research.

This also means that claiming the climate change deniers are incoherent is a little rich. Surely what the authors should be claiming is that the level of incoherence in climate change denial theories generally is a problem for their views. It’s not that climate change deniers are incoherent. Rather, it’s the kind of incoherence that we find in them which is a problem.

Maybe they would be better off talking about climate change denialism as being a degenerating or stagnant research programme (ala Steve Clarke), rather than with respect to incoherence, because the more they paint the consensus, the more they have to excuse it’s form of incoherence as being epistemically virtuous in some sense.

Indeed, I think their critique really is on the fact there aren’t that many scientists in the climate change denial camp, rather than the incoherence of their particular views. Then authors make frequent reference to the fact that when you investigate the credentials of the supposed rebel lot who promote climate change denialism, you find few scientists, and even fewer active researchers. The low number of actual scientists in climate change denials entails greater incoherence, because whilst there will be some incoherence in the Sciences (even the anthropogenic climate change camp), such incoherence will be washed out by the sheer number of scientists agreeing with one another.

I’m really not sure what to think of the paper generally. It’s a good primer on weird arguments in the climate change denier camp, but its portrayal of both climate change deniers and scientists as groups makes me worry the authors are misrepresenting both sides to get to their conspiracist-style conclusion.