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.

An inside job?

News hit me earlier today (because I’ve been very lazy in keeping up to date with my correspondence) about a recent article proposing that the destructions of the Twin Towers and Building 7 on September the 11th, 2001, were the result of a controlled demolition. What makes this article notable (since 9/11 Inside Job hypotheses are not notable in my line of work) is that it was published in Europhysics News, which – while not a magazine that everyone knows about – is prestigious enough to cause waves. Even the editors are aware that they are publishing something outside their usual mix of news stories and research, adding the following caveat to the article:

This feature is somewhat different from our usual purely scientific articles, in that it contains some speculation. However, given the timing and the importance of the issue, we consider that this feature is sufficiently technical and interesting to merit publication for our readers. Obviously, the content of this article is the responsibility of the authors.

And who are the authors? Well, Steven Jones (the most notable name), Robert Korol, Anthony Szamboti, and Ted Walter. Quite the collection1

The piece itself is a fairly standard ‘The official theory about the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7 looks flakey; the best explanation is that it was a controlled demolition (something denied by the official theory)’. It certainly does not say anything particularly new or exciting; if you’ve read blogposts about the controlled demolition hypothesis, then you’ve read what the authors chose to present. What is curious or fascinating about the piece is its place of publication. Europhysics News is not a clearing house of matters conspiratorial (like, say, the Veterans Today website, or InfoWars). It’s a ‘proper’ magazine, with a circulation of 250000 actual print subscribers. Thus the noteworthiness. Thus the caveat at the beginning of the article.

Indeed, if one were to be critical, you’d accuse the authors of a few pieces of sleight of hand throughout the rather slight piece. For example, they talk about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 as being largely the result of fires, noting that no other large building has collapsed in a similar way prior or since. The way they introduce the issue in the article, you would think the fires weren’t caused by two massive airliners flying into the towers, and the idea said plane impacts both caused damaged to the fire-cladding on the affected floors, as well as causing some structural damage is really only half-hearted admitted later on in the paper.

Then there’s this:

[A] growing number of architects, engineers, and scientists are unconvinced by that explanation.

That explanation being their presentation of NIST’s conclusions (which is already a fairly suspect disingenuous portrayal). But, really, what does a ‘growing number’ mean here? Surely they do not mean ‘growing number’ in the sense that ‘More and more people have joined Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth because that’s meaningless. Unless they can show that the growing number of dissenters from the official theory outpaces the number of adherents to the orthodoxy, or that such dissenters now make up a plurality of views on the matter, the fact people keep joined some organisation tells us very little. It’s a nice rhetorical move, but little else.

Then there’s Jones’ pet theory, the presence of nano-thermite in the debris of Ground Zero. The article states:

Meanwhile, unreacted nano-thermitic material has since been discovered in multiple independent WTC dust samples.

However, that’s a really quite contentious claim, and it’s a recognised controversy within the 9/11 Truth movement. None other than James Fetzer has argued that adherents of the nano-thermite ‘charge’ might well be overstating their case.

Still, the most interesting part of the article has to be the call to arms for an(other) investigation into the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7.

Given the nature of the collapse, any investigation adhering to the scientific method should have seriously considered the controlled demolition hypothesis, if not started with it. Instead, NIST (as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which conducted a preliminary study prior to the NIST investigation) began with the predetermined conclusion that the collapse was caused by fires.

Yes, and no. There was an obvious (and I would say primary and plausible) hypothesis, which is that the destruction of the Twin Towers was likely due to the impact of the planes, and the resulting damage. The idea that widespread fires lead/contributed to the collapse came out of initial explorations of that thesis.

Now, should NIST have at least entertained the idea that the collapse was the result of demolition charges? Maybe. Perhaps you could run a line where you accept the official theory about who caused the destruction of the Twin Towers and Building 7, but think that the apparent cause of the collapse of the buildings – the impact of the planes – was a cover for setting off charges in the building. In this version of the story you don’t need to even suggest it was an inside job; all you have to do is say ‘The collapse of those structures looks weird, so I wonder if there was anything else going on…’

Now, I feel I must note that the authors of the Europhysics News piece do not advance any claim of conspiracy. They do not insist the destruction of the Twin Towers has been covered up. They do not make accusations about certain parties having an agenda. All they do is argue that the official theory about the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 is at odds with their expert opinions. It is both a very measured piece in this regard, and somewhat odd. We all know where this argument is meant to lead us, but the authors do not seem to want to admit to it.

Still, I can see why NIST chose not to explore a controlled demolition story at all; they had a proximate cause (the impacts) which seems plausibly-related to the event in question. Why cast about for another explanation, especially if the first one bears fruit upon examination? You don’t need to think NIST were incompetent or negligent in their investigation (or that there was a conspiracy to cover something up). They simply focussed their attention on the most plausible hypothesis available to them at the time.2

Still, this gets into the interesting aspect of the ethics of investigation into claims of conspiracy (my current project in Bucharest). Should there have been another committee, charged with exploring the alternatives? On some level it seems ludicrous to suggest a different conspiracy here. On another, if there are experts raising questions, surely a parallel investigation was – or is still – warranted?

I’m not going to answer that question. At least, not just yet. This post is long enough as it stands. But it’s an interesting question, and 9/11 might well be the best contemporary example (feel free to chime in with even more recent examples). Given the scale of what happened on the day, let alone what happened afterwards, surely asking ‘Was this quite what it seemed?’ is a question some people not only should be asking, but should be able to ask without public opprobrium.

Notes

  1. Interestingly enough, Walter is the director of strategy and development for Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth; the rest of the writers have some background in engineering, whilst Walter’s background is public policy. I’m thinking he actually wrote the article (thus the by-line) or he’s been added to for citation’s sake.
  2. A hypothesis, one should add, that was considered plausible by a lot of people at the time. ‘Growing number’ or not, the official theory has a lot of supporters.

The Ethics of Conspiracy Theory – A workshop review

So, on Friday the 9th, I was at the Ethics of Conspiracy Theory workshop at Deakin, Melbourne. The workshop was organised by Pat Stokes, with help from Chris Fleming, whose mysterious funds helped pay for our get together. So, thanks to both of them for organising my trip to Australia. That being said, now that I am in Bucharest, I hope not to see the inside of an airport again for quite some time. I have spent far too much time looking at departure information in the last two weeks. Far, far too much time.

The workshop was made up of four papers from David Coady, Pat Stokes, Chris Fleming, and me. Overall, it was a good mix of work in particularist philosophy of conspiracy theories. The following mini-reviews are merely in order of presentation, and in no way signals my preferences towards the papers. Well, with the exception of my own, but we’ll get to that shortly.

David Coady’s talk, ‘Cass Sunstein, Conspiracy-Baiting, and the Industry of Conspiracy Theory Expertise’, takes a good, long look at Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermuele’s paper ‘Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures’. He points out that if Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper had been about the causes and cures of scientific theories, it would have been easily rejected, not just because such a proposition is ridiculous, but because the same kind of argument run against scientific theories shows up the flaws in their thinking about theories which are conspiratorial. The implication is that Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper only got through because we keep being told conspiracy theories are bunk.

Pat Stoke’s paper, ‘Auxiliary Accusations: On Some Moral Costs of Conspiracy Theorising’, argues there is a moral cost to some kinds of conspiracy theorising. However, Pat doesn’t want to use this point to argue for a general scepticism of conspiracy theories. Rather, he wants to be a particularist who can principally reject certain kinds of conspiracy theorising. He sees a moral problem when conspiracy theorists defend their theories; as the accusations expand, more people are impugned, thus incurring a moral cost.

Chris Fleming’s paper, ‘Conspiracy Theory as Folk Sociology’, looks at said ‘folk sociology’ and its application to conspiracy theories. Chris’ thesis is that we lack, and thus need, some account of agency when talking about conspiracy theories. His concern is that contemporary academic work doesn’t really offer a solution to agency panic. This explains why the work of debunkers – those devoted to quashing conspiracy theories generally – looks awful and misguided.

Which just leaves my presentation. How did I think it went? Well, it’s probably the least of the four pieces presented at the workshop. That’s not necessarily all that condemning; the three papers previously mentioned where very good. Still, my paper was mostly promises of future work, whilst everyone else had strong theses to propound in the here-and-now. You can take a gander at my slides, and accompanying audio, below. Points to the person who is first to work out which slide I accidentally left in…