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The Interview

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

A little break from the atheism to talk about the insanity of Alex Jones and the Megyn Kelly interview from last night.

Which I didn’t watch.

I didn’t watch it because I already know what’s about to happen, and he’s quite unbearable if you’re familiar with his shtick. I’m old enough to remember Pauly Shore, and it took halfway through the second movie before I thought, “Alright enough, it’s not funny anymore.” Jones is like that…minus anything that could pass for intentional comedy.

I didn’t boycott the interview, nor did I sign a petition, email an ad buyer, or put a long winded diatribe on facebook/twitter in which I chastised NBC or Kelly for airing the interview. In fact, this is what I wrote when I learned of the interview, “Alex Jones is an opportunistic piece of shit, but he tends to self-destruct when interviewed. Yes, he’s a Sandy Hook denier, but he’s also a total nutter. The interview might just expose him for being that.”

The boycott that erupted in response to the interview was an understandable one. Though I was mystified by it’s sole focus: the Sandy Hook denial. It’s horrible, it’s absurd, but it’s nothing more than he does on a daily basis. It’s also not the only thing he denies happened. I have a joke in my skepticism classes that every single time a shooting occurs it takes 24 hours, at the most, before Jones will either deny it happened or call it a false flag. I’m rarely wrong with that prediction (the baseball shooting was a remarkable exception).

We should be clear about what he’s saying with the Sandy Hook massacre. He’s not saying that the lone gunman didn’t do it, and that it was a coordinated attack by the deep state, or whoever his boogey man was at the time. He was saying that it didn’t happen. Everything from the dead bodies, the grieving parents, and the school was staged. I’ve looked into this theory, it is part of my job, and it’s just bad. I don’t buy into any conspiracy theory, maybe the Taylor Swift/Katy Perry feud is just marketing, maybe Ali’s first championship fight was a thrown fight (not on his behalf though, the theory is that his opponent was heavily in debt), maybe Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball was a secret suspension due to his gambling problems, but those are all theories that require few people and a low amount of moving parts to accomplish.

The 9/11 Conspiracy theory, in it’s absolute vastness, did raise some questions that I had to look up. I never once doubted the actual story, but there were some weird anomalies (which is all that theory relies on: anomaly hunting) that made the conspiracists somewhat reasonable, i.e. jet fuel and I-beams; but all of that is easily explainable.  I say reasonable because it’s a theory based on incomplete information filled in by a hack screenwriter and a rather decently produced “documentary” that was started as a teaser for an X-Files type movie.

The Sandy Hook theory was pure fiction. It wasn’t based on incomplete information, it was based on a fetish-like need to protect guns. There is very little anomaly hunting (home value listings were dropped to zero shortly after the shooting but then were fixed by the new year) and the “if you squint and want to believe it” idea that there existed crisis actors. Jones was the lead propagator of this theory. Even going on CNN at the time to claim conspiracy, though not going far enough on air to spout the “it didn’t happen” theory.

Any major event, again minus the baseball shooting, he’s on the radio in between hocking bullshit “nutritional” supplements and gold, claiming that it was a plot by the government. I get why the boycott groups focus on this theory of his: it was horrific even by mass shooting standards, the parents of the deceased children received hate mail and death threats. Yet everything from the Pulse Night Club shooting to the Boston Marathon bombing was fair game as well.

I have no issue with the boycott. Don’t want to watch it, don’t. Don’t frequent companies that sponsor the show, even write asking them to stop sponsorship. Those are fine.

However, that’s also the rub. The people, like me, who are familiar with him don’t want to watch him, but there’s a lot of people that aren’t and I have to agree with Bill Maher with people like this: they die in sunlight, with one important difference. The difference between someone like Jones and Yiannopolis is that Yiannopolis is a professional troll. His whole thing is pissing people off by being such a flagrant asshole (I mean pearls? C’mon, this isn’t the 1930s) giving him light doesn’t matter. Jones on the other hand, is regarded by a certain aspect of conservatism as a fringe guy that some people believe. Yet no one looks too hard at him.

Giving him this type of interview exposes his belief. William F. Buckley Jr. threw the John Birch society out of the GOP in 1962 for their outrageous claims regarding water fluoridation, and that then president Eisenhower was a Soviet sympathizer (or at worst, a Soviet Agent). While the Birch society has started as just a conservative group it quickly, under the operation of its founder Robert Welch, turned into the kind of nuttery that we see in Alex Jones today. This is important because the president has not only appeared on Jones’ Infowars, but endorsed his views, and given them press access.

This is a guy who talks about “life extension technology” and began screaming about “inhuman intelligence” on his show. He’s probably the biggest driving force behind the pizzagate attack and I doubt many people were aware of who he is or what kind of things he says. They probably regarded him only as another right wing pundit who is a little more extreme than the rest of them. Now however, he can’t be merely regarded as that, but instead as the insanity spouting conspiracy nut that he is. Hopefully this will encourage more people to denounce his views, maybe even the president.

 

 

Rigged Election

October 19, 2016 1 comment

From time to time I stray away from thoughts on religion and indulge myself with a post on my skepticism. For new people to the blog (as I’m happily gaining followers) I teach a course on Skepticism with a focus on conspiracy theories. It’s an interesting topic because almost every conspiracy theory falls into the same traps, and to list a few (and this list is by no means comprehensive): they have no evidence, they rely on coincidence, and they would collapse under their own weight if they were true.

The last one is a subtle accusation and one that most people would deny. Sure it’s possible that all of these theories could be true, but that’s “possible” in the strictly logical sense of the word, as in there is inherent impossibility that these ideas possess. Whether or not they are plausible is a completely different story, and they are not. There are very few conspiracy theories that have even the remotest inkling of plausibility. Simply because of the numbers. Italian philosopher, politician, playwright, and guy who tries to steal a river (with Leonardo Da Vinci): Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that people cannot keep secrets. If a person needs to tell a person they need to tell no more than one person because the secrets get out otherwise. For almost every conspiracy theory to be true they require a vast amount of people acting in perfect concert and with a 100% success rate of secrecy.

Right now, GOP-ish candidate for US president is complaining that the election is rigged against him. This is an odd claim for someone to make before the election happens, and especially odd with three weeks to go, but nonetheless he’s attempting to delegitimize the election process so that he can go along in his happy little world never having to admit that it was him a majority of Americans are happily rejecting. Further he’s trying to claim that something called “the media” is against him as well. This claim is so pervasive that journalists who are assigned to cover his campaign are now assigned security to protect them against perceived threats from his supporters. Again, it’s the fault that he’s a simpleton whose appeal does not extend beyond a strain of nationalism that was, and I repeat was, lying underneath the mainstream American culture–no, it’s because the media is out to get him. Their methodology is apparently repeating the things that he’s said.

Let’s assume that he’s right and there is a conspiracy between the election process (in his own party as well) and the media. The simple question to ask is this: how many people would it take to conduct it? Machiavelli’s point about conspiracies is that they fail because too many people talk and eventually the authorities find out. The example I use in class is Gunpowder plot in England. It failed, not only because Guy Fawkes literally fell asleep at the match of gunpowder he was supposed to ignite, but also because someone who knew told Lord Monteagle to not show up to Parliament that day. Lord Monteagle expressed concern about the number of fellow Catholics that would have died in the explosion (although one analysis shows that there would have been no bang as the gunpowder had gotten wet due to the damp weather in London that year) and turned the letter in.

So back the question how many journalists? Given that most news media in the United States are at least sending a person to cover the election in person it’s a lot of people. That number increases when you consider in studio personnel that offer analysis from the field, moderators of the debates, newspaper editors, interns, owners of the newspapers, television editors, online media writers, editors, and support staff. Even at a conservative number we are talking thousands of individuals. I’ve tried to check on just one station but the numbers aren’t readily available.

You have to think about this because it doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It’s simply way too many people for no one to have spilled the secret. What’s more important is that we realize that journalists are in the job of spilling secrets. They decided to get into a profession that literally is about telling people things and have decided to remain quiet about what would undoubtedly be the biggest story in American politics. Even if some of them said no, for this conspiracy to be true, it means they turned down whatever offer they were given because of integrity and then decided they wouldn’t talk about it anyway. Of course, the average conspiracist, is going to say that it’s because the editors are the ones in control. That type of argument may have worked in the past, but now with the internet it no longer holds any water. Sure, my editor can say no but then I can just go online and post the video/audio of being told not to talk about it, or I can just hop on any number of free hosting site (like wordpress.com) and write about it.

Finally, there isn’t a “the media” to begin with. “The media” is a collective noun we use to refer to a large group made up of individual news agencies. Everything from CNN to the BBC is “the media” and these are, in the United States at least, in competition with each other. This conspiracy, if it were true, is assuming that there is this one huge story that any number of these individuals could report on but all are collectively agreeing to keep it shut. A news report with actual proof that there is this agreement would garner not only a huge number of viewers/listeners but also the kind of media trust of Walter Cronkite levels that would guarantee it a loyal viewership in the far future. CNN’s moment came during the 1991 Gulf War and they are still trading on that reputation.

Rigging the election would require even more secrecy by a greater number of people. This in light of the fact that rigging any election is a federal crime. A whistle blower would be a hero if any of these accusations were true. Perhaps this type of crime would finally excise –gate from everything and we could call crimes and scandals something else for once. Too many people are required to pull this thing off.

All of that said, there is one part of the election that is rigged: the population of America are ill disposed to elect someone like Trump and that is what the system should do.

It’s Because of Emotion

September 8, 2016 2 comments

One of things I’ve mentioned over the course of this blog is that for the last five semesters (2.5 years) is that I teach a class titled, “Conspiracy Theories, Critical Thinking, and Skepticism.” I try and impart to the students the ability to discern a conspiracy theory from a historical fact, from an actual hypothesis about what is going on, and how to identify the beginning of a conspiracy theory before the person finishes speaking. There are many “tells.” For the most part the class runs pretty well, I used to be a conspiracy theorist back in the 90s (when you had to go to the library for information) and my personal experience informs a great deal of my psychological insight into the phenomenon.

However, in the 90s, there wasn’t social media. You had to write a letter to the editor in hopes of reaching a wide range of people, and then hope that it was printed in the paper. Barring that you had to consult the alt-media, the city free papers, and such. So there’s one facet of the conspiracy angle that I don’t understand but I may have had an insight into it purely by accident. I can tell you exactly who, on my friend’s list, is a Trump voter/Bernie voter/or ultra fundamentalist Christian. I can say who exactly believes there is a war on cops, a war on Christianity, a war on Christmas–and I can do this because they constantly post in their news feed about it. A study in Plos One by Bessi et. al (2012) reported that the more one believes in conspiracy theories the more aggressive they are on social media…by a long shot. If they are true believers they have to remind themselves and others repeatedly of the various things that they believe or have “discovered.” This is the thing that I don’t understand.

If you look at someone who believes in conspiracies involving GMOs, Big Pharma, or any pseudo-health claims, they constantly post. However if you don’t believe those things and rest your knowledge of health claims on what the accepted medical science believes (or biology) then you tend not to mention it. As a skeptic I’ll ocassionally post something crazy that I’ve read on the internet regarding acupuncture or raw milk because I think the beliefs are daffy. If I find a belief that is particularly dangerous, I’ll post a warning (don’t use black salve for instance). With the exception of posting refuting articles from Snopes, I tend to leave it alone. What’s the point really? I’m not going to constantly post things that are real and not based on opinion: that’s actually boring.

That leaves us with the having to assume the motives behind the aggressive posting. The first hypothesis is that they are trying to do the right thing. They discovered the truth and are trying to let everyone else know what it is. That’s the actual best case scenario. However, given that they often caption their posts with insults to those that don’t believe it we should throw that option out. If they are trying to warn us about the destruction of Christian America due to the influx of Muslim ISIS immigrants then why insult “libtards” for being stupid? This kind of behavior leads me to the second hypothesis.

This is that they want to feel superior to everyone else. They found out the truth, they are special, and the rest of us are morons for buying into the official story. It’s a unique dynamic in American political discourse with these people. It’s not that I, am just coming from a different perspective, it’s that I actually am un-American for not agreeing with them. It’s not that I support a different view of the country, but that in not supporting Trump I might as well join ISIS and blow up a building for voting for anyone else. They want to portray themselves as the Red Dawn Wolverines fighting the oncoming hordes of (Muslims, Atheists, Abortionists,…whoever). However these posts lack the type of smugness that is usually reserved for people that think they are correct. I admit that I post with some smugness when I post about the record levels of crime in this country (that record being low) because I have the facts on my side. Yet these people aren’t doing that either. This leads me to the third hypothesis.

They need constant reminding of their beliefs. The echo chamber cannot sustain itself by one voice, eventually that dies out. What the constant posting does is keep that echo going, it keeps reminding them, “the thing your saying is true, because it is being said.” If we assume the counter-factual, that Monsanto really is killing natural farmers and giving people GMOs so that they (insert whatever desired result here) then these people would be persecuted. Yet they aren’t, so they have to scream their opinions as loudly as possible so that when someone tells them to be quiet they can point as if to say “see, that person wants me to suppress my speech.” Otherwise it won’t happen.

Look at the “war on religion.” It’s not happening, there isn’t one church that the government has closed by virtue of being a church. President Obama hasn’t ordered the execution of Christians, people still celebrate Christmas, but to hear them tell it they have to hide the crosses they display on their necks, in their houses, and in front of their churches. The facts don’t fit their worldview. However, if they can shout down the facts, and get like minded people to shout down the facts, their anger and desire to be persecuted can continue to fester. Because all of it, all of the conspiracy beliefs, the religious persecution beliefs, it’s all an emotional creation. The objective world does not conform to it, and once their aggression subsides they will be forced to realize the truth: that none of these beliefs are real.

Does the religion of the President Matter?

July 20, 2016 1 comment

Short answer, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States.”–Article IV, US Constitution

Legally it is of no concern what religion, if any, the president believes. Our first grouping of presidents were deists including John Quincy Adams who refused to swear the oath of office on the Bible. However, the public perception of the president is often ignorant of the specific laws on an issue…either that, or they are valuing the religiosity beyond a legal requirement. As I type this, the second day of the Republican National Convention has begun and with it are renewed calls that the current president, Barack Obama is a Muslim.

It has been an accusation that has dogged him since the beginning. I could delve further, trying to see whether or not it began at his appearance during John Kerry’s convention in 2004, but the internet is coming up with only unconfirmable rumors. I want to talk about this issue and why it seems to matter. Let’s begin with the obvious, the accusation is pure bigotry. The only purpose it serves is to attempt to dissuade people from supporting the president. After all, Muslims are the enemy, the president is a Muslim, therefore the President is the enemy. We’ve been at war with Islamic terrorists for fifteen years now and a Muslim president would be against winning such a way, not to mention the various attacks on the US and its interests in the last several years.

Let me first say this: I’m not a Republican, Democrat, Conservative, or Liberal. I don’t have a pre-decided set of things I’m going to believe. This is something that I need to get out of the way first lest anyone accuse me of being a blind Hillary supporter.

First off, let’s assume that this is true: that President Obama is a Muslim. Ok, so? He’s not passed any laws advocating the adoption of strict fundamentalist Sharia law, in fact, his administration has been passing laws that would be anathema to Sharia. Trying to quash HB 2 in North Carolina is a fine example of it, as well as the Supreme Court allowing gay marriage, these are not Sharia laws. His administration has been much more supportive of the separation of church and state than one would think a devout Muslim with terrorist sympathies would be. This is despite the trouble he got into during his first election for attending the church of Jeremiah Wright, it’s odd that a Christian pastor would be preaching to a Muslim but in this crazy world who knows what is really going on.  Clearly, if he is a Muslim, then he’s not a very devout or fundamentalist one. In this I’m reminded of John F. Kennedy who was a Catholic but seemed to refrain from advocating Catholic law in the borders of our country.

Secondly, it would be odd for this alleged “Muslim President” to be so active in the drone program and in continuing warfare in Muslim countries. He’s conducted more drone strikes than his predecessor, took out Osama Bin Laden, just to name two examples. Now, if he were to have such hard terrorist sympathies than someone needs to show me the times that he’s expressed them. The only things I can think of is his stubborn refusal to call it “Islamic terrorism” or “Religious fundamentalist terrorism,” which I find frustrating and have criticized him for it. Although to be fair he also doesn’t call it “Christian Terrorism” when someone shoots up a Planned Parenthood clinic so maybe it’s an all or nothing kind of thing where he chooses nothing. The other example is the draw down of forces in Iraq, which in a completely round about way allowed the Islamic apocalypse cult Daesh (or Isis, or Is, or Isil) to rise. That however is ignorant of the facts since Obama only honored the agreement that Bush made with the Iraqi government. An agreement that he couldn’t break if he even wanted to. Is it because he visited a Mosque? Like that great friend of Islam, George W. Bush, within two weeks after 9/11. Or is it because the president has repeatedly stated that we are not at war with Islam, just like the previous president did as well? I get confused as such a baseless accusation is repeated over and over again, then adopted as truth without the slightest shred of evidence.

Thirdly, it doesn’t matter. He’s not broken the law despite what conservatives want to believe, and they do want to believe it. So if he’s praying to Mecca five times a day it really doesn’t matter. There are no orders that “Islam” can give him for one simple fact: Islam isn’t Christianity, specifically it isn’t Catholicism. See the idea that there is an Islamic flag of victory is a fantasy. There isn’t a centralized Islamic governing body. The rules for Islam are largely set forth in the Quran and the Hadith, but the rest of it is open to interpretation usually by political bodies. This is why some Muslim countries force women to wear full coverings while others just a head covering. This is why Isis is a bigger threat to Muslims than to non-Muslims provided they are not the “right kind” of Muslim. There is no Islamic Pope, no one to give orders, no singular flag that all of the faithful can gather under.

It’s pure bigotry and xenophobia. I said in the beginning I am not a Republican nor a Democrat, this post isn’t about politics it’s about accepting claims without evidence. Something none of should ever do no matter how much that claim fits within the political narrative that we find most soothing.

The Holy Grail

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

In my professional life I teach a class entitled “Skepticism, Conspiracy Theories, and Critical Thinking;” for the most part I tend to avoid the religion angle in that course. I don’t know if that’s cowardice but I think that teaching a class in which I publicly run through the reasons that religion doesn’t hold up to critical thinking might get me in trouble. I don’t know with whom, but for some reason in this age of political correctness someone will take offense if I spend a couple weeks bashing the Bible. Because the anti-PC crowd sure doesn’t like it when you force them to call someone by the name they prefer but you always have to show them the utmost respect for their beliefs.

The class primarily deals with various conspiracy theories, myths, and pseudoscience. One that I concentrate on in particular is the myth of the Holy Grail. This is one of the few intersections that my class has directly with religion (I’m planning on an Apocalypse/End of the World lesson but I’m currenrlt working on it).

The problem for the myth is that it doesn’t make any sense from any perspective, that’s if we even take the story of Jesus and the last supper as being true. Let’s ignore the supposed powers the grail is supposed to give its owner and just talk about the grail itself. Despite the legend surrounding the grail we have to remember that it’s just a cup. A cup, it’s nothing other than that.

The last supper is the story of Jesus’ passover meal with his followers. The cup bears some importance as the whole affair serves as the basis for the Catholic sacrament of Communion and is recreated in various other Christian sects. However, we must still remember that it’s just a cup at a dinner.

The meeting place was rented, we know this because Jesus offered up a prophecy that there would be reservations made for the place. If we move the whole affair to the current time we would see how silly it is that a cup used in a restaurant would be saved for any reason at all. Imagine that not only would the table bussers keep one particular item but that they would even notive it in the first place. I’ve bussed tables before but I’ve never notived what anyone at any of the tables said, did, or really, even who they are. Now I admit that the world is a different place and that most likely the workers at the place were the same as the family that owned it, but still does that matter? It doesn’t seem so.

The only people there were the members of Jesus’ Apocalypse cult. Unless the members of the staff were also followers of him they would pay the group no mind. This is unlikely though as if the supper was a Passover meal then the workers would have been Gentiles and thus probably not into the whole Hebraic Messiah thing that Jesus was preaching at the time.

Now some of the legends have the cup catching the blood of Jesus on the cross. Yet this isn’t substantiated by any of the biblical stories. This part of the story doesn’t appear until the 12th century as part of Robert de Boron’s story Joseph d’Aramathie. De Boron’s story has the grail being given to Joseph by the resurrected Jesus. We don’t need to get into the problems with the story as it is clearly an attempt to connect the British mythology with the Christian one, in what was probably an attempt to legitimize the Arthurian legend.

As Dan Brown, yes I’m seriously referencing his fictional work–because I’ll feel sick if I have to refer to Holy Blood, Holy Grail, points out through the improbably named Leigh Teabing (it’s an anagram of the names of the authors of the aforemntioned work of pseudohistory) that in Leonardo’s painting (which I suppose I could have just referenced) there are many cups. Now of course the painting is not a photograph of the event but it’s important to know that the idea that there was a a specific cup hadn’t stuck by the Italian Renaissance.

The story gains prominence with the Aurthurian legends. As those gained prominence the grail itself gained prominence. To this very day it is still the matter of curiosity, but can we be curious about a thing that doesn’t exist? Sure, it’s a story and sometimes the story is very interesting.If it weren’t for the intrigue underneath the Catholic religion, and the Vatican itself it probably would have disappeared. Of course that neglects one of the motives that finding the grail would legitimize the story of Jesus itself. This is like the discovery of the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When it was originally discovered people were excited that there was corraborating evidence for the biblical story of Noah. However, their excitement was quickly extinguished when it was discovered that the Sumerian epic was older than the Bible’s. The grail story is just a legend about a myth. That’s not even getting into the massive conspiracy that currently surrounds it. The conspiracy almost bears no mentioning since the whole idea of the bloodlines was concocted by an admitted con artist who forged the primary documents.