Friday, October 27, 2006

Loose Change/Upper East Side: Part VII - Conclusion

(Note: This is the seventh (and final) in a series of posts about 9/11 conspiracy theorists and their reaction to the Cory Lidle tragedy on October 11th. Earlier parts: I, II, III, IV, V, and VI.)

Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger crashed their small plane into a residential building over two weeks ago. In the intervening time, I’ve obviously spent quite a few hours on the event, first reading and monitoring the Loose Change message board that dealt with the tragedy, and then transforming my notes into a series of posts on this website.

Why in the world would I do this?

Actually, that question should be broken up into two parts: why would I decide to spend time challenging the conspiracy theorists at all, and why would I decide to use the Lidle tragedy as a means to do so? Let me answer the second question first.

The Cory Lidle crash was a horrible tragedy. Its exact cause is not known at this time, but – as I mentioned earlier – it appears to have been the result of a failed u-turn attempt by an inexperienced pilot in a narrow flight corridor that left little room for error. If these early indications wind up being borne out, then we will need to seriously look at the flight rules around Manhattan that allow for a situation like this to develop.

The specific findings of the eventual accident report notwithstanding, the Lidle crash was also very simple. A small plane with two civilians in it crashed into an anonymous tower on the eastern edge of Manhattan. It happened in the middle of the day in one of the busiest places on the planet. There were scores of witnesses. Within minutes multiple camera crews were on the scene, broadcasting pictures live. Within an hour or so the fire was out. Within two hours or so we knew the identity of at least one person on the plane. No further events ensued. While those first headlines that a “plane crashed into a building in New York” left all of us (especially in New York) stressed and worried, we also quickly put our worst fears to rest by examining what was going on and the evidence regarding what had happened.

In its combination of tragedy and simplicity, the Lidle crash offers us a test. If you develop a new model, technique, tool, or the like, you test it to make sure it performs as you might expect. The best way to test something is with known data; if it produces the answer you expect and know is right, then the model may be considered validated (at least partially). On the other hand, if it fails to replicate answers that you already know to be true, then you have a problem. In such a case, the model is faulty, and needs to be fixed or replaced before you can hope to get any information from it about things you don’t know yet, or that are more complicated.

As I described above, we know what happened in the case of Lidle, and in fact we knew what happened rather quickly. In that sense, as a “test” of cognitive ability, rationality, and visceral instincts, the Lidle crash is a rather simple challenge. My reason for highlighting it in the context of the Loose Change adherents and other conspiracy theorists is to see how well they performed under such “test” conditions. To put it another way, if they can’t get something as simple as this right, why on earth would we trust what they have to say about the tougher stuff (i.e. 9/11)?

My friends, they failed miserably.

Note that it is not enough for them to say today that they now believe that the Lidle crash was an accident; at this point 16 days later, only someone truly deranged would think that it was a conspiracy of some sort. No, we can still call them out even by focusing only on that first day after the crash. What were their instincts - should we trust them? How was their ability to focus on key issues, to process information, to separate data from noise? Could they recognize honest, conflicting reports from the scene as the mistakes they were? Did they adjust their theories based on the evidence, or attempt to adjust the evidence to fit their theories? Did they effectively police their own members’ sloppy thinking, or were all opinions tolerated in the spirit of there being no such thing as a “bad question”? Did superstition or deduction direct their “analysis”?

You need to learn to walk before you can run. Analyzing the Lidle crash was like learning to crawl, and figuring out the events of September 11th and its aftermath is like running a marathon. If you can’t do the former, you will be utterly useless in tackling the latter. This event was the “control,” and the “control” has shown us that the tool, the model, the movement is not to be trusted.

What are some things that characterize the conspiracy movement? Lazy intellectual standards. Incredibly poor knowledge of mathematics, especially statistical theory. Little accountability. An apparent unfamiliarity with the science of chaos, complex systems, and self-organizing phenomena. Paranoia. An unparalleled ability to data mine themselves to ridiculous conclusions. A disarming tendency to attribute evil and complicity to large swaths of their fellow man. Delusions of grandeur, and other related psychoses. Perhaps most importantly, a rejection of the scientific process, under which there always exists a theoretical set of evidence that would prove your hypothesis wrong. No such evidence exists for the conspiracy monger, for it would only go to further “prove” the conspiracy. Conspiracy isn’t a theory to these people; it is a religion.

Now back to first question: why worry about it? If you are reading this blog, more likely than not you already think that the 9/11 conspiracy movement is nuts. You forget about them if possible, ignore them when necessary, mock them only when you absolutely have to face them in one context or another. In general, you think that they are not worth your time or attention. I know this impulse, and have personally followed it myself for the past few years.

The trouble is, we need to speak up. Too many of our fellow citizens are now taking their gibberish seriously; one survey in the US reports that over a third of the population thinks that the government was somehow complicit in the attacks. Too many of our politicians (mostly on the Left, I observe with no joy) give some of them rhetorical safe harbor. DNC chair Howard Dean thinks there are "interesting" theories raised. Too many entertainers think that it is somehow professionally beneficial to nod approvingly in their direction. Too many of the “cool” and the “hip” think that of course the government was in on it, and too many of their friends think it is enough to change the subject when such garbage is brought up.

Our responsibilities, though, are much greater. Some among us are doing the heavy lifting; sites like Screw Loose Change and 9/11 Myths – to name but two – are doing the yeoman’s work of confronting the conspiracy theorists head on. They’ve earned our appreciation, and deserve our help. And not, I may add, simply in the world of “debunker” websites. Instead, we must move beyond talking just to ourselves, and make the case among the broader public. What the conspiracy theorists charge is intellectually dishonest, but just as important morally reprehensible. Yet they do it with impunity, casting their development of “alternative explanations” as some sort of noble cause, instead of the bankrupt, self-aggrandizing bout of mental masturbation that it is. Such impunity should end.

Challenge them. Confront, don’t coddle. Mock mercilessly. Get angry. Get indignant. Don’t let them get away with skulking in the intellectual shadows, preying on innocent people who would know better if they took the time, but are instead taken in by pseudo science and slick appeals to their worst instincts. Cast light upon these shadowy arguments, and watch them fade away as a result. Sunlight is a wonderful disinfectant, and we’re allowing too much of the conspiracy world to exist in a social twilight – generally dismissed, but still allowed to fester.

Why did I do this? Because it has to be done. I hope that you will help.


Van Helsing said...

Amazing. Moonbats could make a conspiracy out of a traffic accident. People will go along with conspiracy theories just because they think it shows how trendily cynical they are, when in actuality it shows that they are laughably gullible and not very bright.

LDS Patriot said...

I concur with your post. I was very happy when Professor Flapdoodle aka “Steven Jones” retired from BYU. Jones is an embarrassment to BYU & The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Alex Constantine said...

Yeah, I remember when the conspiracy theorists said HUD money had disappeared ... well, not a good example. Oh, yeah the idiots were screaming that Enron was trying bankrupt California, and, heh ... oh, Enron DID bankrupt California ... in coordination with the U. of Texas investment roaches. Let's see, oh, yeah, the CIA "cocaine plane," that was a good one ... oh, it WAS a CIA cocaine...

Gadfly said...

Alex -

That's right. I remember when I had this broken watch, but it was still right twice a day. Quite a powerful tool.

Nice watch, but I wouldn't use it to make sure I was going to catch a plane.