Friday, February 13, 2009
Brin on conspiracy theories
Science fiction writer David Brin offers some sympathetic criticism of my recent piece “The Trouble With Conspiracy Theories” (originally posted here, and reprinted at Counterknowledge.com). Brin suggests that:
there are ways that a tight-knit “inner conspiracy” of a few fanatics could control much larger groups who did not consciously think of themselves as committing a betrayal. (Suppose, for example, just half a dozen blackmailed/suborned men held the highest offices in a nation; they could then appoint fools and delusionally partisan rationalizers into lower positions, who could then achieve high levels of damage without the ever becoming aware that they were doing so. The same effect can be achieved through clever use of prodigious amounts of cash.)
It seems to me, however, that when we think through in detail how this proposed scenario of Brin’s would go, we’ll see that it is subject to the same problems I raised in my article. Those problems were essentially three: First, that while conspiracies of a small-scale nature do sometimes occur, the nature of modern bureaucracies makes it practically impossible for would-be conspirators secretly and effectively to engineer anything on the scale of a 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenario. Second, while liberal democratic societies are capable of great evil, the adversarial nature of their institutions and the diverse ends and belief systems of the people staffing these institutions make it practically impossible for would-be conspirators to organize enough relevant personnel to do evil of the specific sort involved in 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenarios. Third, the scale of deception posited in conspiracy scenarios of this scale is so all-encompassing that it effectively undermines the very evidential base that conspiracy theorists themselves must rely on to support their theories.
It does not seem to me that anything Brin says really deals with the third point. Whether or not a few conspirators work through unwitting stooges, in the standard 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination conspiracy scenario, they would have to manipulate the relevant sources of information to such an extent that all such information, including the information the conspiracy theorist himself must rely on, becomes suspect. This epistemological problem cannot be solved by positing only a few conspirators, because the problem derives, not from the number of alleged conspirators involved, but rather from the nearly unlimited powers of deception they are purported to have. (This is why I compared such conspiracy theories to the sorts of scenarios familiar from philosophical skepticism – Descartes’ “evil genius” scenario, Matrix-style “brain in a vat” scenarios, and so forth – which are so extreme that they threaten to undermine even the evidence that led to the skeptical doubts in the first place.)
Brin’s suggestion also doesn’t seem to address my first point, regarding bureaucracy. Even if it is only a few conspirators who know what is going on, they would still have to rely on a vast number of bureaucrats to do exactly what the conspirators want done, at exactly the right times, with none of them knowing or guessing at (even after the fact) the overall end their actions are intended to further – and all in (say) the short time frame between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11, and working through the usual bureaucratic incompetence and red tape. Here too, the problem isn’t really (or at least is not solely) the number of people involved in the conspiracy. It is rather the nature of the institutions they would have to work through, institutions the opposite of conducive to carrying out an operation of the scale imagined.
At best Brin’s proposed scenario might seem to counter my second point, about the adversarial nature of liberal democratic societies. The idea here would seem to be that if most of the people involved don’t even know what end they are serving, their disagreement with that end or fear of being caught promoting it would drop out as irrelevant. But we need to ask: How exactly would the small inner circle posited by Brin manipulate their stooges? For example, would they say to the relevant FBI personnel, “We know that these middle eastern guys seeking flight instruction might seem suspicious, but don’t worry – we’ve checked them out and they are harmless.” This might convince some of the relevant FBI personnel before the conspiracy is carried out. But all of them, and even after 9/11? And could the handful of conspirators also effectively manipulate all the right people in the FAA, American Airlines, United Airlines, the Air Force, the NYPD, the FDNY, the media, etc., with none of them figuring out what had been going on even after 9/11 occurred? Not likely, to say the least. And the idea of their successfully pulling off an act of deceptive manipulation of this scale only underlines the third problem I raised, viz. that the more omnipotent a conspiracy theorist makes his hypothetical conspirators, the more he destroys the possibility of having any real knowledge of the everyday social world at all – including knowledge of purported conspiracies themselves.