Monday, October 20, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
Critical thinkers? I would hope that everybody who thinks is critical in the real sense of the word – that is, capable of weighing, measuring and assessing things in a reasonable fashion and with all due scepticism, but without becoming enmeshed in the snares of pure cynicism. To think critically involves being able to separate fact from opinion; knowing what empirical evidence is; knowing when an hypothesis or theory is reasonable and based on adequate evidence; and knowing when what is only an hypothesis has been promoted by its supporters into a dogma. Critical thinking also involves the ability to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources. The partisanship of sources should also be regarded critically, although one interesting aspect of critical thinking is understanding that partisan sources are not necessarily wrong, although they often are. That somebody supports ardently a cause does not, of itself, make that cause a false one, although ardour does tend to cloud critical thinking.
Why am I lecturing you with these obvious truisms?
Because recently, and much to my regret, I have noticed that conspiracy theorists have begun to use the terms “critical thinking” and “critical thinker” as code words for supporters of their own pet (and in many cases untenable) theories.
I most recently saw this (mis-) usage in a context where one does not expect a high degree of reasoned argument.
I saw it on Facebook.
Some facetious wit had posted one of John Oliver’s comments about how it didn’t matter that one in four Americans didn’t believe climate change was happening, because climate change was a fact and whether people believed in it or not was as insignificant as whether people believed that hats existed or not. In reply, a comment was added by an angry dissenter from this view, who after stating (truly enough) that the media are awash with misinformation and facetiae, proceeded to say that real “critical thinkers” know AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is not an established truth. Further utterances showed that this angry personage was indeed a denier of the empirical fact of great human impact upon the climate. His denial came close to conspiracy theory. All those scientists who say there is a human impact on climate change, he claimed, have been suborned by institutions because they want promotion or grants or tenure and therefore they subscribe to a false theory.
In a way, one can see how the misappropriation of the term “critical thinking” has happened. Much that is presented glibly on the mass media (and certainly on satirical shows like John Oliver’s) is indeed untrue. It takes genuine critical thinking to separate fact from opinion in the media. But conflating media misinformation with the consensus of most scientists is not critical thinking. It is conspiracy theory.
If this particular person had been the only person in my ken to use the term “critical thinking” inappropriately, I would not have commented on the matter. But recently, not once, but twice, I have been harangued by a conspiracy theorist who repeatedly insists he is a “critical thinker”.
Time was, the most popular subject for conspiracy theorists was wondering who “really” killed JFK. Now the most popular subject for conspiracy theorists is what “really” happened in the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre in September 2001 – the event which Americans (with their reverse dating system) insist on calling “9/11”. Apparently the twin towers, says this particular conspiracy theorist, were deliberately demolished by a secret weapon that the US government has developed, which is able, by sound waves, to cause tall buildings to collapse into their own footprint. As for the ‘planes that people saw crashing into the buildings – they were holograms created by Hollywood-like trickery. Why the US government did this was, apparently, to create a reason to go to war, so that they could invade the Middle East, protect their oil supplies, and continue to dominate the world. The destruction of the twin towers was an artificial “Pearl Harbour” and the conspiracy theorist was able to cite an article by an American official, written before “9/11”, stating that what America needed was a new Pearl Harbour to wake it up. As those who have had to trudge through this drivel before will be aware, this is called the “false flag” theory.
There is a major difficulty attempting to debate with conspiracy theorists. Like fundamentalists who have a mass of Biblical “proof texts” to floor all comers, conspiracy theorists really are immersed in their subject and have at their fingertips all that data which supports their pet theory. But, usually, ONLY that data. In the case of “9/11”, the mass of eyewitnesses and empirical evidence is simply ignored. Conspiracy theorists begin with their conclusion (in this case, that “9/11” was a put-up job by American security to create an excuse for war) and then work back from that, ignoring all the evidence that doesn’t support the pre-conceived conclusion. Additionally, much of their “evidence” is fanciful and purely imaginary.
Do I need to stress that none of this is true “critical thinking”?
Further, do I need to stress that conspiracy theory of this sort is not to be confused with genuine investigative reporting? In the process of his/her research, the investigative reporter, sifting through a mass of evidence, may indeed uncover grubby secrets which governments would wish to be left hidden (the “Watergate” investigation is the paradigm of this). But they do not begin with a conclusion and then cherry pick only those scraps of information that appear to support it.
Another point needs noting. Conspiracy theorists are masters at confusing cause with effect, or intentions with consequences. I have no doubt at all that the US government wages wars for its own national purposes, and that its involvement in the Middle East and Iraq is linked intimately with its desire to control oil. I am not naïve about how and why foreign policies are formed. I would even guess (and it is only a guess) that at least some members of the US administration used “9/11” as an excuse to beef up “Homeland Security” in ways they wanted to anyway, and that it gave them a neat casus belli to invade Iraq. Nor is it inconceivable that secret weapons have been developed.
But none of this is proof of a conspiracy causing “9/11”. At best, it is speculation.
Let me give an historical parallel. The Reichstag Fire happened when Hitler’s hold on power was weak and he wanted to secure absolute power. The Reichstag Fire was used by the Nazis as an excuse to round up socialists and communists, gag a free press and push through an Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial power. Those who benefitted from the Reichstag Fire were clearly the Nazis. Therefore, outside Germany and at least until the end of the Second World War, it was long assumed that the Reichstag Fire was a put-up job by the Nazis giving them some popular support to do what they wanted to do anyway. Elaborate theories were devised to “prove” that the Nazis had set the fire. This conception has remained the popular legend of the Reichstag Fire. But the consensus among historians now is that the fire really was set by an ex-Communist arsonist, acting on his own. Certainly the Nazis used the fire opportunistically, but of itself this is no proof that they set it. The question cui bono? always produces answers that are at best circumstantial and that are not proof.
I make it clear that there are still some (reasonable) dissenters from what is now the historical orthodoxy about the Reichstag Fire, but my point still stands. The outcome (Nazis smashing their opposition) was opportunistic, but it was not the result of a conspiracy. The outcome of “9/11” (beefed-up “Homeland Security”, the invasion of Iraq) was opportunistic, but again it is no proof of a conspiracy. Not that this is of the least interest to conspiracy theorists. I note, in my own research for this piece, that those who believe in a conspiracy concerning “9/11” have produced posters comparing it with the Reichstag Fire. They are probably more right than they realize.
One final point. To sustain a conspiracy of the sort my ardent conspiracy theorist proposes would take many thousands of participants. In the thirteen years since “9/11” not one single person has been identified in relation with such a conspiracy or come forward or broken cover or even been exposed by the mountains of classified material leaked by the likes of Edward Snowden. Noam Chomsky is known as a trenchant critic of US foreign policy, an opponent of the war in Iraq, and no friend of government propaganda. Yet he rejects conspiracy theories about “9/11” as clearly as I have here, and for this very reason. There is not one scintilla of empirical evidence to support them. Only cherry-picked “evidence” to buttress a pre-determined conclusion.
This is the diametrical opposite of “critical thinking”.