Have you heard? Rumours and Conspiracy Theories

We’ve all heard the stories. Rumours about government sanctioned attacks on its own people. Hidden military bases in Nevada. Terrorist training camps in the Ureweras. Sometimes these rumours are borne out, sometimes they become conspiracy theories. Drawing on recent work by CAJ Coady and David Coady I will develop a theory which foregrounds the distinction between the activity of Rumourmongering and the propositions (or collections of them) which qualify as Rumours. Whilst Rumourmongering seems to present a pathology of the testimonial process Rumours themselves can be examples of reliable testimony. Yet Conspiracy Theories, which arguably share many characteristics with Rumours, are not usually treated as being reliable. I will argue that this is because Conspiracy Theories exist in contrast to Official Theories and that Official Theories are more reliable, thus justifying our suspicion of Conspiracy Theories but leaving the reliability of Rumours alone.

Annoucement of non-forthcoming publication

Michael Shermer, editor of ‘The Skeptic’ wrote the other day to tell me that he shan’t be publishing the article he accepted for publication back in 2005. The magazine is backlogged with material and whilst he likes the piece he doesn’t know when it would go into print, so he’s ‘released’ it.

A shame really, since I did all that work on the extensive rewrite he asked for[1].

Still, now it means I can either seek a new home for the article or sling it online here. It also gives me a chance to do another rewrite; I’m fairly sure I can make the article slightly breezier.

The piece is a defense of a certain account of the Paranormal. I suppose it would be better to describe it as a critique of a certain fundamentalist strain of scepticism, the kind that denies that we could ever have evidence of paranormal phenomena. As we know, even idiots and idealogues can be sceptics (as I’ve said in the past, some of the most irrational people I have ever met were atheists and rationalists (the two don’t have to go together, but they often do…)). I run through three reasons why we should be open to the possibility that paranormal phenomena does occur, based upon what we can plausibly say about the methodology of Western Scientific practice.

In other news, someone wants to interview me in re getting the JREF Scholarship.

1. This will also come as a bit of a blow to all those people I used as editors whilst writing the first few drafts. Sorry guys.

James Randi Knows Who I Am

Well, it’s official; I have just been awarded the JFREF Scholarship for the 2007/2008 academic year (that’s the Northern Hemisphere edition of the Academic Year(TM)). I received an e-mail from the Amazing Randi himself to congratulate me and have spent the morning writing replies and sending off information.

JREF Letter Snippet

See here for the officialness of it all. I still am a bit stunned by this award.

I mean, I’m good, but that good?

Blogging will be a bit sporadic for the next few weeks; the course is taking up more time than I imagined and I’m in the midst of tricky philosophising, which robs me of the will to spend even more time at the keyboard.

Seeing that I am a) awaiting for the information to become public (I assume they have to wait for the other recipients to acknowledge acceptance; the scholarship awards four prizes, of which mine is the largest) and b) find myself staring into space thinking about very little I thought that, maybe, I should talk about this whole JREF thing.

It all started in a library. The University of Auckland General Library, to be precise, where I was rambling through the Wikipedia on my weekly grumbling session. Perhaps I was looking up what Penn and Teller had recently ‘showcased’ on their show, or possible I was looking at Michael Shermer’s bio, but I eventually arrived at the JREF page and saw they were offering scholarships. “Hmm,’ I probably said out loud. “I like money. Perhaps I should apply.” Then I would have laughed, knowing full well that I don’t ever receive scholarships (although I do have a string of successful teaching applications, which is almost as good).

When I downloaded the application I knew I was screwed.


It required standardised test scores.

And why is that a problem?

The answer to that question does, I think, highlight the real difference between America and what’s left of the Commonwealth[1]. We (the remnants of British Imperialism) came to the realisation in the 1960s that standardised test scores only show an examiner just how well a person does in standardised tests. In the States, however, they pretty much decide the rest of your life when you take them at age 18.

Well, I thought, applying will only increase my carbon footprint by a meagre amount and it won’t even cost me postage (since I could send the letter through the external mail system at work. Of course, that would be immoral and I would never do such a thing…), so why not send an e-mail to Dr. Hal Bidlack and see if my pre-approved PhD proposal could do at a pinch. The answer, “Yes.”, was encouraging and so I wrote up 500 words as to why I deserved the scholarship, printed off a proposal, a literature review and the abstract (for good measure) and let the weighty package wander off overseas.

That was in June.

The applications closed at the beginning of July and so I let my mind wander off to more academic and less financial tasks. An announcement was promised by the first of August and so, working on the assumption that by the second of August our time I would know if my application was successful, I dutifully began scanning my junk box in case an e-mail slipped by.

Nothing. Not a red herring or anything.

I checked the JREF website and found a curious notice:

The announcement of the JREF scholarship winners will be delayed a few days due to factors beyond our control. Please watch this space for a formal announcement of winners in the next few days.

Interesting, I thought. What does that mean? Hoping to shed light on the matter I mentioned the scholarship in passing to one of my referees, hoping that he would mention being contacted. He asked when the applications had closed and then admitted that he had heard nothing. That didn’t sound good. Not at all. If they weren’t going to contact my referees then there was little chance I was ever in the running.

Thus I stopped dreaming of spending my ill-gained monies.

Thus it was utterly and totally surprising to get the e-mail from James Randi this morning (which is a Wednesday, one of those August ones that belongs to the 8th) awarding me with American greenbacks. Apparently my PhD proposal had been enough to seal the deal. My application was superior; it looks as if all those years of training to be a speech writer have finally paid off (actually, that last century when I earnt thousands in less than five minutes for one measly speech; long story short: spoke at a funeral, inherited large sum of cash).

And so here I am today, waiting for the news to be made all official so I can stop fantasising and get back to work.

Well, it’s the next day and news is still not official; I imagine they have to get in contact with people and then confirm details and the whole process is probably an administrative mess. Still, I don’t like sitting on this, if only because until such time that I see my name on a website I’m still not entirely convinced I have the scholarship. My paranoia has been slightly exacerbated this morning by the latest e-mail from James Randi (for now we are ‘in correspondence’) and he calls me ‘Michael.’ Michael is not my name and as my name appears just a few lines beneath his reply, in clear sight, I’m more than just a little peturbed.

The FHG claims that the reason why I got the scholarship was her edit of the application letter. Seeing that the committee didn’t contact the referees she might well be right…

I went out to celebrate the awarding of the scholarship last night; a low key affair with my Mother, the FHG and a friend of the family. It all felt a bit odd. A friend of mine had told me earlier today that I could now call myself a ‘professional sceptic’ rather than a ‘talented amateur’ and yet, despite having got my accreditation from the Big School of American Skepticism I was still eating Asian Fusion cuisine in Grey Lynn. No flashy five-star hotel room service meals for me (although I have done that and it’s nowhere near as exciting as you might think). Actually, this is a pointless comment. I like that place in Grey Lynn, although I suspect Penn Jillete would find the seating a tad uncomfortable. When he and I become pals we will have to go eating elsewhere.

My Department now knows. The appropriate members are pleased and curious; James Randi isn’t really a name bandied about in professional Philosophy because philosophers and skeptics aren’t usually close. Still, international monies awarded to Antipodean boy make happy ivory tower occupiers, even if the exchange rate could be more favourable.

Not that we would be concerned about the filthy lucre.

Still, it seems my forthcoming corporate speaking engagement is of more interest to the senior staff. A junior philosopher addressing a major corporate on the virtues of critical thinking skills? Astounding. I think some of them want to know how it goes so they can get in on the act.

I am back to being ‘Matthew’ in the Amazing Randi’s eyes. This is surely a ‘good thing.’ No update on the website, though. This could take several days; maybe I should be putting datestamps of some kind in this little additions. It is now the next ‘next morning;’ my coffee is still too hot to drink and I need to wake.

Well, the weekend has been and gone. Had a long and tortuous coffee session with a friend today who tried to appeal to my sense of vanity in re a social contretemps, a move that did not work (the meeting, overall, only exacerbated the perceived problem). She then tried to get me to change my mind by appealing to my sense of logic, but all that did was highlight the differences in purported models of human rationality, something which came into sharp relief tonight when I had dinner with my fellow PhD students in the CBD. We were discussing whether Tony Soprano could ever have self-esteem and that got us into decision theory and what ‘values’ are. Depending on how you construe rationality you can get very different accounts of right action; this seems rather important both to my thesis and to the scholarship. The monies are meant to aid me in promoting critical thinking, which is a fairly vague thing in itself, but one of the key aspects of such an activity is, I’m sure, modeling good, rational behaviour. What this ‘thing’ is, though, is open to debate; for an Ancient Greek it would centre around individualism and looking after one’s own interests, whilst for a citizen of the Roman Republic it would centre around a communitarian ethic where the Republic comes first. Does a critical thinker do their work in respect to the Academy? Do they do it in respect to the community of peers or to the integrity of what they, personally, believe?

I think I need sleep.

Still waiting. Might as well go and write the saga of Dalek Caan.

The saga of Dalek Caan will have to wait; I’ve discovered the most almighty ‘issue’ with my PhD enrolment that means that, come the end of this month, I might not be a PhD student anymore. I’m glad to say that it’s not even slightly my fault and thus other people are in the process of a) sorting it out, and b) working out who they can plausibly blame. The scholarship monies may well go towards a trip to, say, Cuba, or something, if ‘things end badly.’ Either that or I will buy an(other) iMac; they’re nice and slim now and I have the envy.

Well, I see that Mr. Randi’s latest SWIFT gives a broad hint of the announcement to come. In lieu of announcing what I know to the world I have posted just that snippet and am interested to see what you lot make of it. I’ve told virtually everyone I’ve seen about the scholarship; soon there won’t be any point sitting on news everyone knows…

Still, it would be nice for it to be official. Then I can start worrying extensively as to how to look after my new ‘assets.’

My monies arrived today via the postal service that links the USA with New Zealand. I’ve not actually opened the envelope yet; it seems like it should wait for an oppurtune time (one, perhaps, located close to the depositing of said monies into a bank account, or simply in the company of someone close). No idea as to whether my monies come with a signed certification of qualified excellence from the Amzing Randi himself. There still isn’t any official notice about the scholarships and the tremendous foul-up in re my PhD registration still hasn’t been fixed; if the Powers-That-Be (who are responsible for the problem, not I) do not fix things within two weeks then I may, on a technicality, fail to complete the goals of my PhD and thus fail the PhD in its entiriety.

I suppose that if that happens I should give back the monies, eh.

I might leave the banking until next week. Then again, the scholarship is also for teaching, so perhaps a partial refund. If I had full confidence in the University of Auckland’s internal processes, then this would be a humurous observation, but if I had full confidence in the University of Auckland’s internal processes, then I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, would I?

Answers on a postcard to the School of Graduate Studies.

Don’t speak too soon, they say, and they are right. It wasn’t the cheque; it was a printed and signed version of the e-mail. James Randi has a magnificent signature; I’m beginning to wonder whether you need such a thing to be properly famous. Shakespeare had at least six of the buggers, and he’s probably the most famous user of the English language thus far (and possibly forever). I changed my signature a few years back into something much more interesting than the undulating line it used to be, so I presume it’s just a matter of time before my fame grows.

The New Zealand dollar keeps falling. This makes my scholarship worth all the more. If I was a capitalist this might be important.

Well, it is all ‘public’ knowledge now and those of you who have read this far will be thinking ‘My, just how bloggy can you get, what with the emo and the stuff.’ And frankly, I agree, although you do have yourselves to blame. I mean, I wrote it but why did you read it all? Some of the latter entries are incredibly wanky and might make you turn emo. So why?

Anyway, it’s all official and I’m a favoured son of the American Skeptical Movement and things like that. I still have to wear pants, but now my pants are carefully vetted for ‘woo woo,’ whatever that might be.

Back to your normally unscheduled programming.

1. Of course it doesn’t. But it is funny.