Category: Social Science

Attribution in Conspiracy Theory

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Key to understanding how conspiracy theories are formed and perpetuated, aside from cultural biases and preexisting prejudices, is the concept of attribution.

Attribution is a social psychological term related to the process by which individuals explain the causes of events or the behavior of others. The tendency to form a narrative, even when there may be none apparent, is well documented and thoroughly ingrained in the human condition.

 

Illusion.

In the first half of the 1940s, Fritz Heider, credited as the first attribution theorist, and Mary-Ann Simmel did a series of experiments using a video that serves as a wonderful example of the human tendency to impose narrative on an event. As you watch this video, ask yourself what narrative you may be creating.

 

 

Who was the protagonist? The Antagonist? Questions such as these seem ludicrous, yet, if you watched the video you know exactly who (or, more accurately, which of the moving shapes) you believe is aggressor, innocent, hero. One thing; though attribution is almost guaranteed (some will have a different experience) the narrative can change from person to person.

A person who believes that some shadowy organization is behind all the major global trends is, quite obviously, adopting a narrative of attribution. They attribute all mass shootings, political unrest, and even natural disasters to a secret ‘shadow government’ who want to keep all humanity fearful, dissonant, and dependent.

 

Fundamental Attribution Error.

Discussion of attribution is almost always followed, rightly so, by the subject of the fundamental attribution error.

When a person considers the behavior of others, they generally over emphasize (put greater onus upon) the personality or disposition of the other, rather than the situation that person finds themselves in. The converse being true: when asked to describe why they did or said something, people generally focus on the situation rather than claiming that they ‘are’ a certain way that ‘made’ them take said action.

Yes, I oversimplified the above. Yes, there are entire textbooks that can get into much greater detail about actor/observer difference, defensive attribution hypothesis, etc. but for sake of brevity, fundamental attribution error is something everyone should know about. This applies to us all.

It is worth mentioning that everyone’s actions should be considered a blend of dispositional, personal, and environmental factors: so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ included. Conspiracy theorists may take occasion to suggest an earthquake or hurricane was created by the Illuminati, but be fair, the rest of us call it an ‘act of God’.

 

Attribution of Conspiracy and Government.

Attributions of malice or malevolence to acts of Government are not going to disappear, and I don’t intend to sound like an evangelist for positive governance. When people talk about Government (unless they are in Government, and even sometimes when they are), the attributions (accusations) fly.

Something not a lot of conspiracy theorists realize is that most everyone distrusts the Government; not because it is run by a nefarious cabal of elites, but because it is run by people.There really isn’t that much difference in attribution when it comes to Government nowadays. Whether you believe the world is run by an elite Illuminati, or by people who are, to put it bluntly, transparently self-serving and constitutionally incapable of maintaining anything resembling the conspiracies regularly attributed to them.

 

See Also: Heider and Simmel’s 1944 paper,  An experimental study of apparent behavior.

Reification in Conspiracy Theory

 

idealogical optical

In the consideration of conspiracy theories, their adherents and their proliferation, the first thing to consider is how a conspiracy is formed within the mind of the theorist.

Set aside the fact that conspiracies do develop from time to time, and are exposed or fall away, either leading to prosecutions or evaporating into nothing. This is not about illicit drug rings, organized crime, political or corporate espionage; at least not in as much as these are real events. This is about conspiracy theory; non-falsifiable, often politically motivated socially contagious beliefs that someone or something intentionally alters the very nature of reality for their benefit and at the expense of the populous.

 

Reification.

To reify, in the most simple terms possible, is to make something real. Another way to say it; reification is the alteration of an abstract concept into something concrete within the mind or the culture.

There are several ways in which reification is defined. In Gestalt Psychology, reification is the apparent addition of visual dimensional data, such as with that of an optical illusion. In Marxism, the term Verdinglichung meant to consider an abstraction as if it were real and/or physically existent and able to act upon the physical world; this definition gives rise to the connected term, objectification (and for my purposes, personification). There is also the consideration of the ‘fallacy of reification’, whereby an abstraction is treated as a real thing.

Through social psychological processes, reification of certain concepts and ideals are accepted into a given society or social network while other concepts may lay in abstraction or disregarded altogether.

 

Reification of ‘The Conspiracy’.

The average person alive today knows only of Pre-Vietnam War Era from books, documentaries, stories told to them by their elders, or various other archival materials. The reification of such social concepts as race, gender roles and norms, the concepts of Justice and Liberty and overall trustworthiness of the American system were, in America at least, generally accepted social facts. There were some dissenters, of course, but the majority of people tended to agree upon the system as reified.

During the Vietnam War Era, Americans began to shed the dogmatic agreement (at least outwardly) with the previously standardized view of the world. Instead of one standardized social narrative in America, there were several accepted within smaller groups and vying for larger acceptance within the whole. This shift from a dominant social narrative to various competing narratives was at the heart of how many conspiracists began to see their specific social identity as being deliberately subjugated.

At the same time that the various counterculture movements proclaimed ‘the man’ their enemy, an antiestablishment stance and a reification of said establishment, those who supported the status quo were reifying the counterculture movements; Hippies, Black Panthers, Feminists, Leftists, etc. In effect what two sides of American culture did was declare a new reified enemy, instead of the enemy without; often a deliberate and open adversary (such as the Axis Powers during WWII, or either side of America’s Civil War), to be a conspiratorial ‘enemy within’. This development is now aptly referred to as the Culture Wars (itself, a reification).

 

Reified Conspirative Object(s).

Events such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, came alongside the realizations of MK Ultra experiments, the COINTEL-PRO program, and covert operations in Laos and Cambodia; all making the 1960s a time rife for conspirative thought and antiestablishment sentiment. Perhaps, for some, the interpolation of the two was inevitable.

In between the 1960s and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001; The Vietnam War ended, AIDS began infecting Americans by the tens of thousands, Crack Cocaine made for a cheap and highly lethal street drug, and a former head of the CIA became America’s Vice President and, then, President (himself, George H.W. Bush, declaring another former director of the CIA, Dan Quayle, to be his VP). All these events seemed suspicious, and interconnected, to an increasingly distrusting populous, many of whom still suspect the CIA or FBI of assassinating one or all three of the statesmen mentioned above. When the news of the Iran Contra Affair broke, it seemed to reinforce growing suspicions from those who not only distrusted their government. Increasingly, conspiracy theories placed the blame for all new social ills on the ‘powers that be’; an antiestablishment moniker used to announce a distrust in the government and an uncertainty for who or what may be in control of it.

By the time of the siege of the Branch-Davidian Compound in Waco Texas, leading to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 members of his church, anti-government sentiment had been seething. A growing anti-government subculture, existing since the Vietnam War Era saw the news of the Waco Siege and a similar event, the 1992 standoff and siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, as emblematic of the nefarious usurpation of individual freedoms by the ‘powers that be’.

The Waco Siege and Ruby Ridge Standoff became reified events.

These events demanded answer according to Timothy McVeigh, the man who admitted his responsibility for the Oklahoma City Bombing and listed the Waco Siege among the factors leading to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The Oklahoma City Bombing, as well, became a reified event; one signifying immense tragedy and a loss of innocence.

To be sure, The Vietnam War, the JFK assassination and Martin Luther King’s assassination are all reified events within our nation’s history. These events are also continually re-reified, claiming new meaning(s) as time goes on. JFK’s assassination is not only the first and only Presidential assassination to be reported in real-time on national television, but it was at one time the single-most speculated event; culling forth various conspiracy theories in which various suspects were suggested, all reified groups themselves (The Mafia, Communists, the FBI, etc.).

Until 9/11, the JFK assassination marked the main reified conspirative event. It stood as a totem of distrust in the establishment, an event that served as a short-hand for a belief in a system so corrupt that not even its so-called leader is safe. Conspiracy theorists imbued JFK with virtue, and his death was treated as so vile an act as to warrant demonization. Thus, motives were devised that fit the conspiracists’ worldviews; JFK was to announce the existence of extraterrestrial life, or a Jewish Banking conspiracy, or expose the ‘Shadow Government’ in control of it all.

Conspiracy Theory (lets note here, that this is a reified phrase) was not so odd a thing in the wake of the JFK assassination. In 1975, 81% of Americans believed JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy, some decades later (2011) the number is still 61%. With this, every crank with a conspiracy theory had (and, perhaps, has) the JFK assassination as an apparent anchor from which they could (can) lay claim to some suggestion of legitimacy.

 

9/11 and the New Reified ‘Conspiracy’

The September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center are unquestionably the most reified event in American History since the year 2000. Certain places and phrases; September Eleventh, World Trade Center, “Let’s Roll”, Shanksville, PA; have become synonymous with Patriotism (itself often reified).

Another set of phrases, and ideas, became the rallying cries of a subset of society in the wake of those same attacks. “9/11 was an inside job” and “What happened to building 7?” were rallying cries of the 9/11 Truth, or Truther, movement. Though posed in the form of a question, the hunt for ‘9/11 Truth’ was always coupled with the presumption that there was something hidden that must be revealed. Though many Americans now treat the date as a symbol of perserverence, even dignity, 9/11, as reified by conspiracy theorists, is a symbol signifying a Total Conspiracy; one that goes beyond even that of the assassination of JFK.

By Total Conspiracy I mean that everything, all events and every aspect of human existence, is engulfed in this conception of conspiracy. Such a conspiracy necessarily takes total control of anything and everything; approaching, and even including, a supernatural quality. Total Conspiracy theories would include those of the Illuminati (a secret order that is said to control all human civilization and intends to depopulate the Human race) which regularly include reference to a non-human leadership (often either Lucifer or a shapeshifting alien race called the Anunnaki). In discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories with so-called ‘Truthers’, it should be noted that the ‘truth’ reified in this context may include a presumed reference to such a Total Conspiracy.

 

Concrete.

Whether it be called reification, objectification, fetishization, totemism, or transubstantiation; we humans have a long-standing record of making a thing out of a concept or imbuing a thing (a day, a time, an idea, etc.) with special meaning.

It is not only true that conspiracy theorists reify that which they then revere or detest, but it is true of all humans. We are reifying animals (among other things). It is only through consideration and discussion of this tendency that we may find the folly in believing the ‘thing’ we made to be real, concrete, and not the abstract concept of the mind.

To be certain, almost everything in our social life has some amount of reification included in common experience. It is when  the reified version of things is taken too seriously that disorientation tends to take hold.

There is no simple solution for this problem.

I, for one, consider what abstractions I have reified in the past … and laugh.

 

See Also: This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy by James Aho.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat by Georg Lukacs.

or

A more accessible video lecture on Lukacs by Andrew Feenberg.

The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump

The popularity of the GOP front-runner can be explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Written by David Dunning (Politico)

Many commentators have argued that Donald Trump’s dominance in the GOP presidential race can be largely explained by ignorance; his candidacy, after all, is most popular among Republican voters without college degrees. Their expertise about current affairs is too fractured and full of holes to spot that only 9 percent of Trump’s statements are “true” or “mostly” true, according to PolitiFact, whereas 57 percent are “false” or “mostly false”—the remainder being “pants on fire” untruths. Trump himself has memorably declared: “I love the poorly educated.”

But as a psychologist who has studied human behavior—including voter behavior—for decades, I think there is something deeper going on. The problem isn’t that voters are too uninformed. It is that they don’t know just how uninformed they are.

Psychological research suggests that people, in general, suffer from what has become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They have little insight about the cracks and holes in their expertise. In studies in my research lab, people with severe gaps in knowledge and expertise typically fail to recognize how little they know and how badly they perform. To sum it up, the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task. This includes political judgment.

We have found this pattern in logical reasoning, grammar, emotional intelligence, financial literacy, numeracy, firearm care and safety, debate skill, and college coursework. Others have found a similar lack of insight among poor chess players, unskilled medical lab technicians, medical students unsuccessfully completing an obstetrics/gynecology rotation, and people failing a test on performing CPR.

This syndrome may well be the key to the Trump voter—and perhaps even to the man himself. Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job. In a December debate he appeared ignorant of what the nuclear triad is. Elsewhere, he has mused that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons—casually reversing decades of U.S. foreign policy.

Many commentators have pointed to these confident missteps as products of Trump’s alleged narcissism and egotism. My take would be that it’s the other way around. Not seeing the mistakes for what they are allows any potential narcissism and egotism to expand unchecked.

In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.

Here is more evidence. In a telling series of experiments, Paul Fernbach and colleagues asked political partisans to rate their understanding of various social policies, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, instituting a flat tax, or establishing a single-payer health system.

Survey takers expressed a good deal of confidence about their expertise. Or rather, they did until researchers put that understanding to the test by asking them to describe in detail the mechanics of two of the policies under question. This challenge led survey takers to realize that their understanding was mostly an illusion. It also led them to moderate their stances about those policies and to donate less money, earned in the experiment, to like-minded political advocacy groups.

Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.

Trump himself also exemplifies this exact pattern, showing how the Dunning-Kruger Effect can lead to what seems an indomitable sense of certainty. All it takes is not knowing the point at which the proper application of a sensible idea turns into malpractice.

For example, in a CNBC interview, Trump suggested that the U.S. government debt could easily be reduced by asking federal bondholders to “take a haircut,” agreeing to receive a little less than the bond’s full face value if the U.S. economy ran into trouble. In a sense, this is a sensible idea commonly applied—at least in business, where companies commonly renegotiate the terms of their debt.

But stretching it to governmental finance strains reason beyond acceptability. And in his suggestion, Trump illustrated not knowing the horror show of consequences his seemingly modest proposal would produce. For the U.S. government, his suggestion would produce no less than an unprecedented earthquake in world finance. It would represent the de facto default of the U.S. on its debt—and the U.S. government has paid its debt in full since the time of Alexander Hamilton. The certainty and safety imbued in U.S. Treasury bonds is the bedrock upon which much of world finance rests.

Even suggesting that these bonds pay back less than 100 percent would be cause for future buyers to demand higher interest rates, thus costing the U.S. government, and taxpayer, untold millions of dollars, and risking the health of the American economy.

This misinformation problem can live in voters, too, as shown in a 2015 survey about the proposed Common Core standards for education. A full 41 percent claimed the new standards would prompt more frequent testing within California schools. That was untrue. Only 18 percent accurately stated that the level of testing would stay the same. Further, 35 percent mistakenly asserted that the standards went beyond math and English instruction. Only 28 percent correctly reported that the standards were constrained to those two topics. And 34 percent falsely claimed that the federal government would require California to adopt the Common Core. Only 21 percent accurately understood this was not so.

But what is more interesting—and troubling—were the responses of survey takers who claimed they knew “a lot” about the new standards. What these “informed” citizens “knew” trended toward the false rather than the true. For example, 52 percent thought the standards applied beyond math and English (versus 32 percent who got it right). And 57 percent believed the standards mandated more testing (versus 31 percent who correctly understood that it did not). These misconceptions mattered: To the extent that survey takers endorsed these misconceptions, they opposed the Common Core.

My research colleagues and I have found similar evidence that voters who think they are informed may be carrying a good deal of misinformation in their heads. In an unpublished study, we surveyed people the day after the 2014 midterm elections, asking them whether they had voted. Our key question was who was most likely to have voted: informed, uninformed, or misinformed citizens.

We found that voting was strongly tied to one thing—whether those who took the survey thought of themselves as “well-informed” citizens. But perceiving oneself as informed was not necessarily tied to, um, being well-informed.

To be sure, well-informed voters accurately endorsed true statements about economic and social conditions in the U.S.—just as long as those statements agreed with their politics. Conservatives truthfully claimed that the U.S. poverty rate had gone up during the Obama administration; liberals rightfully asserted that the unemployment rate had dropped.

But both groups also endorsed falsehoods agreeable to their politics. Thus, all told, it was the political lean of the fact that mattered much more than its truth-value in determining whether respondents believed it. And endorsing partisan facts both true and false led to perceptions that one was an informed citizen, and then to a greater likelihood of voting.

Given all this misinformation, confidently held, it is no wonder that Trump causes no outrage or scandal among those voters who find his views congenial.

But why now? If voters can be so misinformed that they don’t know that they are misinformed, why only now has a candidate like Trump arisen? My take is that the conditions for the Trump phenomenon have been in place for a long time. At least as long as quantitative survey data have been collected, citizens have shown themselves to be relatively ill-informed and incoherent on political and historical matters. As way back as 1943, a survey revealed that only 25 percent of college freshmen knew that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War.

All it took was a candidate to come along too inexperienced to avoid making policy gaffes, at least gaffes that violate received wisdom, with voters too uninformed to see the violations. Usually, those candidates make their mistakes off in some youthful election to their state legislature, or in small-town mayoral race or contest for class president. It’s not a surprise that someone trying out a brand new career at the presidential level would make gaffes that voters, in a rebellious mood, would forgive but more likely not even see.

But the Dunning-Kruger perspective also suggests a cautionary tale that extends well beyond the Trump voter. The Trump phenomenon may provide only an extravagant and visible example in which voters fail to spot a political figure who seems to be making it up as he goes along.

But the key lesson of the Dunning-Kruger framework is that it applies to all of us, sooner or later. Each of us at some point reaches the limits of our expertise and knowledge. Those limits make our misjudgments that lie beyond those boundaries undetectable to us.

As such, if we find ourselves worried about the apparent gullibility of the Trump voter, which may be flamboyant and obvious, we should surely worry about our own naive political opinions that are likely to be more nuanced, subtle, and invisible—but perhaps no less consequential. We all run the risk of being too ill-informed to notice when our own favored candidates or national leaders make catastrophic misjudgments.

To be sure, I don’t wish to leave the reader with a fatal hesitation about supporting any candidate. All I am saying is trust, but verify.

Thomas Jefferson once observed that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The Trump phenomenon makes visible something that has been true for quite some time now. As a citizenry, we can be massively ill-informed. Yet, our society remains relatively free.

How have we managed so far to maintain what Jefferson suggested could never be? And how do we ensure this miracle of democracy continues? This is the real issue. And it will be with us far after the Trumpian political revolution or reality TV spectacle, depending on how you see it, has long flickered off the electronic screens of our cultural theater.

 

‘Crisis Actors’ and Denial in Radical Ideology

boston-runner-sandy

This is your warning. If you have beliefs you don’t want to have challenged, please read no further. Do not read this blog. Do not read anything, in fact. Do not log on to the internet. This is your chance to hop the first available train car hobo-style to a nice ramshackle shack in the middle of nowhere and toss your smart phone out somewhere along the way.

Conspiracies are real. Okay, sure, but the fact that ‘Conspiracy Theorists’ has become some sort of ideological occupation shows the very confusing nature of human perception. There are a number of ways in which conspiracies have been shown to operate. Mathematicians have shown that conspiracies are only viable given a formula that, if you systematically ‘remove’ all conspirators, the likelihood is that the maximum life-span of an actual conspiracy is about 14 years. The average conspiracy should last about 3 years without someone ‘spilling the beans’ or a rival conspiracy causing an expository conflict. As the number of living breathing conspirators increases so does the likelihood and speed to which the conspiracy will be revealed, or unravel before it even begins.

The truth is that neither facts, nor ‘evidence’ and certainly not conspiracy theory ‘research’ are the causes for the ground-swell of conspiracy theories prevalent in Popular Culture today. Rather obviously, it is the greater connectivity of our culture (i.e. social media), coupled with the decentralization of knowledge (i.e. the ability to seek information and opinion from a nearly infinite number of potential sources versus the old Prime Time News on television or the ever-so-much-more ancient Newspaper), and the ever-increasing crisis of faith with established power structures (i.e. the Federal Government and ‘Establishment’ Politics). The belief in Conspiracy (the idea that any and all important Global events have their roots in a nefarious plot), is more widespread than ever. This overarching ‘Conspiracy’ would require a large number of people, thus making its continual maintenance and secrecy impossible. The anatomy of the suspected ‘Conspiracy’ includes the elite cabal initiating the conspirative act and a ‘cast of characters’ to play the act out.

These people, ‘Crisis Actors’ as they are referred to by believers in ‘The Conspiracy’ are the real victims of Mass Shootings, Terror Attacks, and any other event that may go against a conspiracy theorist’s ideology (i.e. Gun Rights Extremism). The logic is simple: Person A doesn’t like Gun Control of any kind and finds all attempts to regulate guns to infringe upon their rights, Person B loses a loved one to gun violence and is compelled to speak out in support of stronger gun control as a result, Person A decides that this particular incident is a hoax (or ‘False Flag’ operation) and that Person B is a ‘crisis actor’). The aftermath of this decision has often included attempts to show that Person B is, in fact, an actor and uses any similarity of image as ‘proof’ of such assertion. In extreme examples, such as the Challenger Explosion Hoax conspiracy theory, conspiracists try to show that the deceased were actually actors and that they are still alive and well.

What some conspiracists do next is truly disgusting. The idea that these people are alive and well, and that they are conniving to ‘infringe upon their rights’ or, worse, to ‘promote an Illuminati agenda’ leads them to target these ‘crisis actors’ (the actual victims of tragic events). Conspiracy and Alternative ‘News’ websites publish articles suggesting these people are actors and the events they live through were, in fact, hoaxes. Facebook groups release names, phone numbers, addresses and sometimes worse.

 

Here are some more examples:

Crisisgirl

No, it’s not. These three women are collectively referred to by conspiracists as ‘Crisis girl.’

crisis-2

You see, all these woman look alike. Right? Not really.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 finicum actor

Now deceased Oregon Stand-off participant Lavoy Finicum, crisis actor? No.

sandyhookpcgeek-11-1024x576

Here, too, is the same presumption with the victims of the Sandy Hook Shooting.

Some media outlets, the ones that actually cover this type of phenomenon, report the issues of harassment and conspiracy mania, but those aren’t the type of news sources conspiracy theorists tend to trust. Conspiracy theorists listen to other conspiracy theorists, they write the stories, they read the stories, and they call that ‘News.’ The result is an echochamber, a rabbit-hole, the ‘red pill‘ that turns out to just be another dose of poison. Any contradictory views, no matter how reasonable and fact-intensive, are deemed lies by the ‘Mainstream Media’ meant to ‘brainwash’ the ‘sheeple’ into quiet complacency.

Informed media producers, as we are all potential media producers, have also taken on the mantle of fact-checking the baseless accusations of conspiracists. This does not mean that they are actually listened to but at least you can’t blame the ‘Mainstream Media’ on that, right?  Well, conspiracists do. Of course, they don’t think of these people as ‘sheeple’ but, rather, as ‘shills;’ the paid spokespeople of the ‘Conspiracy.’ You see, to a conspiracist, little or nothing is outside of the conspiracy; just like the movie The Matrix that the majority of their own worldview is based on.

The ultimate take away is this, if believing a conspiracy exists also requires that you believe that dozens of actors, military and/or police personnel, Government employees, and the apparently nameless, faceless and family-less News Media have to all be in cahoots for the conspiracy to work … maybe you are simply delusional. Your denial most likely stems from the fact that no ideology, not yours, not mine, is 100% based in fact. Ideologies are based, mostly, in emotion and bias. It will come to pass, quite often in fact, if someone does not wish to change their ideology and worldview as new events occur and new information is revealed, that they will become increasingly disillusioned by the world around them. This actually happens a lot with the very people who perpetrate mass shootings, such as Dylann Roof, or other terrorist acts, such as is the well known case with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. If you find yourself in such a mental state, seek the help of a mental health care professional, or attempt to abstain from so-called ‘Alternative News’ websites. If you are convinced that a conspiracy is real, wait a while, it will either prove itself to be true or, what is more likely the case, the whole subject of the ‘crisis actor’ will be forgotten, replaced with some other inflammatory conspiracy trope. Of course, if the world is truly out to get you, maybe it is best that you go find that secluded off-the-grid cabin and spend your time chopping wood and eschewing news media altogether.

The Golden Age of Bullshit

150709211727-trump-on-obama-birthplace-sot-cooper-ac-00001004-large-169Here’s some Bullshit.

This is a wonderful time for Bullshit in America. All manner of Bullshit. Political Bullshit. Bullshit Medicine. Bullshit Science. Bullshit Advice. Bullshit History. Even, and this may come as a surprise, Bullshit Media and News Coverage. What does all this mean for you? Who knows, probably nothing, but I can make some Bullshit up so you think that it’s the most important thing you will read about and you will either love me or hate me for it. It all depends, does my Bullshit align with yours?

So, is 2016 the Year of Bullshit?  Sure, why not?  Pictured above, Donald Trump is making a constipated face that he believes approximates a garish lack of concern, he is also running for President of the United States of America. He has become an ersatz Bullshit Messiah, both the epicenter of American Political Bullshit as well as a ‘Bullshit Creator’ in his own right. He epitomizes the desire for political outsiders among Tea Party Republicans while showing that they still don’t want a Presidential candidate with a clear grasp of reality, much less one who is willing to be honest.

Donald Trump is not the only source of Bullshit, in 2016 or otherwise. Really, 2016 may be the Year of Bullshit because, for one, we can now talk about Bullshit in a realistic manner. Since the 2005 reformatting of an earlier (1986) essay, Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit is a philosophical look into the subject of Bullshit, several academic articles have been written regarding the study of Bullshit. This line of academic seems to have crystallized into meaningful and actionable study with the November 2015 publish of On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit, in which authors (credited in link) tested individuals’ ‘Bullshit Receptivity’ and found that participants often failed to detect Bullshit and ‘Pseudo-Profound Bullshit’ correlated negatively with conspiracist ideation (meaning they didn’t buy that type of bullshit as often) and positively with belief in the paranormal and with previous knowledge of Deepak Chopra (whose Twitter posts researchers approximated and asked participants to rate in terms of level of profundity). The conclusions drawn help explain how 2016 may be the Year of Bullshit:

Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before. Profundity ratings for statements containing a random collection of buzzwords were very strongly correlated with a selective collection of actual “Tweets” from Deepak Chopra’s “Twitter” feed (r’s = .88–89). At the time of this writing, Chopra has over 2.5 million followers on “Twitter” and has written more than twenty New York Times bestsellers. Bullshit is not only common; it is popular.

Now, if you happen to be a fan of Deepak Chopra, you may feel like some Ivory Tower academic mucky-mucks are taking a cheap shot at something that they do not understand. First, remember, these particular academics generated some of the psuedo-profound statements attributed to Chopra as part of an experiment. If that does not quell your rage, perhaps catching academics falling for some bullshit would make you happy. Well, they have.

The Sokal Hoax or Sokal Affair has become the stuff of Academic Infamy, and Legendary Bullshit. In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokol submitted an article to the academic journal Social Text that was comprised of 100% self-aware pseudo-academic bullshit, Social Text published the article without comment. Sokal later announced the nature of the article, entitled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, as part-parody and part-test but most of all an aggressive rebuke of a Plea to Academic Authority (he was a physicist, after all) rather than the careful consideration and assessment of the content.

One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity. At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity

From Sokal’s Transgressing the Boundaries, which was Bullshit.

Did you know that Homeopathy is Bullshit? The idea that the more you dilute an active ingredient, the stronger it becomes is not only nonsensical, it is nonsense. And yet, Homeopathy has fans, is not illegal (despite its occasionally causing the death of those who would have otherwise sought real medical attention) and even a petition to be covered by Medicare. Deepak Chopra may get a bad wrap for being pseudo-profound, but at least he hasn’t caused anyone’s death (to my knowledge).

Homeopathy is part of a larger wave of Bullshit in the area of people’s health. Anti-Vaccine Bullshit, raging due to Pseudo-Science Bullshit about Autism has led to very real resurgences of diseases that had been all but wiped out. Measles, Mumps, Rubella and approximately 149,000 preventable illnesses and over 9,000 preventable deaths, all due to a significant amount of cognitive biases, fear and, of course, Bullshit. That was, at least, the case until a group of Anti-Vaxxers (the people who think that vaccines are bad) funded a study that actually showed that there is no link between vaccines and Autism. Denial is a definite factor.

Here are two videos regarding Measles and vaccines. Can you tell which one is Bullshit?

So, did you figure out which of these two videos were Bullshit? No you didn’t. What you did was decide which worldview you agree with and decided one was true and one was lying. Well, thankfully, it is possible to verify the information in the second video (using trustworthy sources such as CDC.gov) and to debunk claims made by the first video (but if you did not do either of these fact-checking steps then you did not prevent yourself from falling for any number of potential cognitive biases, the stuff Bullshit thrives on.

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And, again, this guy. If anyone has become synonymous with Bullshit, it is Donald Trump. He unabashedly uses monosyllabic taunts, mockery, empty bluster, and dismissive facial gestures to distract from his lack of substantial policy proposals, leadership skills, tact, or oration. His main reason for being a billionaire is that he was born one, and his main reason for being the GOP’s current Presidential frontrunner is that all of the attributes you see above are actually appealing to an increasing number of voters. He actually has mass-appeal! That’s Bullshit on a whole other level.

Remember what researchers learned about Pseudo-Profound Bullshit? The same can be said about Pseudo-Political Bullshit. When 41% of Trump supporters said they would favor bombing Agrabah and only 9% opposed the action, the polster failed to mention that Agrabah was the fictional country from Disney’s Aladdin. When this came out in December 2015 the headlines mocked Trump supporters’ for their ignorance, ignoring that 19% of Democrat’s surveyed also supported bombing a cartoon country. If Democratic Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley had anywhere near the polling numbers Donald Trump has, the fact that 39% of his supporters also supported bombing a fictional country would have raised eyebrows as well.

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This is not just about the claims Trump has made, or the apparent gullibility of his supporters, but something deeper. Wait, something less deep. Think shallow! Trump is the very epitome of Bullshit because he can and has bullshit his way through life. He may have been born with more money than most small towns collectively make in a decade, but he has made even more money than that, and lost still more, several times over; all the while just as obliviously confident and self-assured as you please. It is this blissful ignorance to consequence that is the Trump persona. Trump is Bullshit incarnate, a walking, talking, tweeting, steaming pile.

What’s more important than Trump’s persona in the race for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination is the absolute media frenzy that started the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy. It was ratings gold, even Donald Trump said so, even when he was announcing his candidacy. He’s that much of a self-assured ass, but he was right. The news media collectively climaxed and prepared for what, they seemed to believe, a few random gaffes from Trump followed by his eventual disappearance. Unlike the other times Donald Trump announced his candidacy, Trump continued onward in his bid for the GOP nomination. At some point, it seems, the American news media became to oversexed by Trump’s daily gaffes, refusal to apologize, ascent into the top echelon among as many as seventeen GOP candidates. The Donald broke the Liberal Media (which, in case you didn’t know, apparently includes FoxNews).

So, is 2016 the Year of Bullshit?

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Well, not really. If you looked at the title “The Golden Age of Bullshit” you may have thought about some of the Historical time periods that were considerably more lacking in a scientifically derived narrative to combat whatever was being said by the ruling elites of their day.Perhaps you considered The Gilded Age or Late Antiquity in Europe, Soviet Russia and its era of extreme propaganda. Maybe you, just now, said “Hey, what about McCarthy and America during the Cold War” after I mentioned the Soviets. Any number of eras could have been argued as the Golden Age of Bullshit because Bullshit has been around as long as humans have had language and reason to ask questions but not the intellectual honesty to say “I dunno.”

What can be said is that there is an overwhelming amount of information available to people today. Not all of this information, however, is based in fact. A great deal of the information that is said, heard, read, written, posted, re-posted, quoted, posted via blogs and social media or becomes a meme is, unfortunately, Bullshit.

Here’s a stark realization then, you believe at least some Bullshit. Sadly, I say that with some assurance, because so do I. When a friend, neighbor, loved one or stranger calls me on my Bullshit, I try to own it, but it’s hard! The thing is, there is so much information (maybe a better way of phrasing it would be something like ‘info-noise’) out there that much of it goes unchecked and becomes a thing we think we know. Worse yet, having the awareness that somethings are Bullshit makes some of us think we can tell, instinctively, what is real and what is Bullshit. That is, among other things, how I came to be among the many who could be collectively referred to as the 911-Truth Movement. My lacking science knowledge at that time did not seem to exclude me from having theories regarding the melting point of steel of the nature of falling buildings, theories that I actually overheard and adopted as my own, sans fact checking of any kind.

The powerful realization that so much ‘info-noise’ being produced so regularly is utter nonsense, but that we cannot necessarily know what is real and what is not is harrowing. Luckily, there are ways of dealing with this. One strong suggestion would be to try and disprove any belief you have before making a claim of Belief: once you tell another person you believe something, it tends to become harder on your self-image to let go of that belief and, thus, be ‘wrong.’ Instead, entertain the notions, but consider the counterpoint. The next big suggestion being, investigate your assumptions often: the very ideas that may make you feel you know the world could be the ones could be the ones you use to unwittingly fool yourself.

The last idea is, of course, laugh. Knowing you were wrong isn’t nearly as bad when you can laugh at yourself. Although I don’t think it is actually healthy to mock others for their deeply held beliefs, it can be a source of relief to consider your old beliefs with an openness to the humor therein. At least I think that could help, that’s my opinion anyway, it may just be bullshit. Of course, the important thing is that we talk about the bullshit, so as to avoid believing the bullshit.

More Bullshit Below:

Why Your Detox is Bullshit

 

Trump Lead Grows Nationally; 41% of His Voters Want to Bomb Country From Aladdin; Clinton Maintains Big Lead

Originally posted by Tom Jensen (PPP)

Text and follow-up link below.

PPP’s newest national Republican primary poll finds Donald Trump holding his largest lead yet in the wake of Tuesday night’s debate. He’s at 34% to 18% for Ted Cruz, 13% for Marco Rubio, 7% for Jeb Bush, 6% for Ben Carson, 5% for Chris Christie, 4% each for Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee, 2% each for John Kasich and Rand Paul, 1% each for Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum, and less than 1% each for Jim Gilmore and George Pataki.

Trump is the biggest gainer since our last national poll in mid-November, going from 26% to 34%. He’s also become more broadly popular with GOP voters, with his favorability rating going from 51/37 up to 58/34. Trump’s hold on the Republican electorate holds true with most segments of the party. He leads with 36% among voters most concerned with having a nominee who’s conservative on the issues, and with 34% among voters most concerned about being able to beat a Democrat in the fall. He leads among both Evangelicals with 35%, and among non-Evangelicals with 33%. He leads with both women (34%) and men (also 34%). He leads with both younger voters (38%) and seniors (32%).

There are only 2 groups of the electorate Trump doesn’t lead with- the closely related groups of Tea Party and ‘very conservative’ voters. Cruz has the upper hand with each of those. He’s at 38% with ‘very conservative’ voters to 32% for Trump, with no one else getting more than 8%. And he’s at 41% with Tea Party voters to 32% for Trump with no one else getting more than 9%.  Cruz has been the second biggest gainer since our last poll, going from 14% to 18%. There are other positive signs for Cruz in the poll. He’s the most frequent second choice of GOP voters with 14% picking him on that front to 10% each for Carson and Trump. He’s also the second pick of Trump voters specifically (25% to 13% for Carson) so he’s well positioned to benefit if Trump ever does falter.

Marco Rubio is really treading water. He was at 13% last month, and he’s at 13% this month. He’s losing second choice support- 13% said he was their next man up in November, now it’s just 9%. Rubio has also seen a pretty big drop in his net favorability rating among GOP primary voters- it’s gone from +30 at 55/25 in November to now +15 at 49/34. He’s certainly still in the top tier but if anything his position is weakening rather than getting stronger.

Ben Carson’s moment now really appears to have passed. He’s dropped down to 6%, after being at 19% in mid-November. Interestingly his favorability rating has barely budged- it was 61/24 last month and it’s 61/26 this month. But increasingly even though GOP voters continue to really like Carson, they no longer see him as Presidential material.

Notes on other candidates:

-The candidate with the highest favorability rating nationally right now is actually…Mike Huckabee who comes in at 63/19. It’s not translating to a ton of support for the nomination- 4% say he’s their first choice, 6% say he’s their second choice. But he may be a darkhorse to pick up some steam later given how at least broadly popular he is.-Lindsey Graham (22/50) has managed to pass Jeb Bush (34/49) for having the highest negatives in the GOP field nationally. Bush has seen a slight increase in his support for the nomination from 5% to 7%. He continues to have struggles on the right though- only 20% of ‘very conservative’ voters see him favorably to 64% with a negative opinion and only 3% within that group support him for the nomination. Joining Bush and Graham with upside down favorability ratings among GOP voters are Rand Paul (34/44) and John Kasich (26/40).

-Chris Christie continues to slowly but surely creep back into the race. He has a 49/30 favorability rating now, up all the way from 28/54 in late August. It’s a reminder that things can change a lot over time and some of the candidates seen as being dead right now could come back to life and some of the candidates who it seems like can’t do anything wrong right now could come crashing back down. Christie’s support for the nomination has seen a small bump from 3% to 5%.

A lot of people thought Donald Trump’s support might come crashing down after he announced support for a ban on Muslims entering the United States last week but that position, as well as a lot of the other things Trump has said recently, is broadly popular within the GOP:

-54% support Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, to only 25% who oppose it. Among Trump’s own supporters there’s 82/5 support for it. Cruz voters favor it as well, 57/25. Rubio voters are pretty evenly divided on it with 39% in favor and 40% opposed, while Bush voters oppose it 21/37.

-46% support a national database of Muslims, to only 37% opposed. Trump voters support this 66/15 but voters for the other top candidates are more closely divided- Cruz’s (40/41) and Rubio’s (44/45) narrowly oppose it while Bush’s (36/49) do by a wider spread.

-36% think thousands of Arabs in New Jersey cheered when the World Trade Center collapsed to 35% who don’t think that happened. Supporters of Trump (49/24) and Cruz (47/22) both pretty firmly think that occurred while Bush (37/51) and Rubio (22/46) voters don’t think it did.

-Only 28% of GOP primary voters go so far as to think mosques in the United States should be shut down to 47% opposed to that. Trump voters are on an island on that issue- they support it 45/28 but backers of Cruz (23/40) and especially Rubio (18/66) and Bush (14/68) are strongly against it.

-Supporters of most of the major GOP candidates agree with the basic premise that Islam should be legal in the United States- it’s 59/21 with Cruz voters, 67/11 with Bush voters, and 77/10 with Rubio voters. Trump supporters are off on their own on that one too though- just 33% think Islam should be legal to 42% who think it should be illegal. Overall 53% of primary voters think Islam should be allowed to just 26% who don’t think it should be.

To put some of these findings about real modern day issues and Trump voters in context, 41% of his voters think Japanese internment was a good thing, to 37% who don’t. And 41% of his supporters would favor bombing Agrabah to only 9% who are opposed to doing that. Agrabah is the country from Aladdin. Overall 30% of Republican primary voters say they support bombing it to 13% who are opposed. We asked the same question of Democrats, and 36% of them opposed bombing Agrabah to 19% in support.

Speaking of the Democrats things are pretty stable on their side. Hillary Clinton leads with 56% to 28% for Bernie Sanders and 9% for Martin O’Malley. Clinton has dropped slightly since our last poll from 59% to 56%, while Sanders (26% to 28%) and O’Malley (7% to 9%) have each seen 2 point gains in their support. Clinton leads with every group we track. The race is closer among younger voters (50/35), white voters (51/33), and ‘very liberal’ voters (55/36). Clinton has more dominant advantages with seniors (68/21), African Americans (67/17), and voters who identify as just ‘somewhat liberal’ (65/23).

Full results here

Everything is a Hoax: Anomie and the ‘Conspiracy’

To a conspiracy theorist, everything is a hoax.

That is not to say that some events are not hoaxes. The very basis of most ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theories, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, was a massive hoax, perhaps perpetuated by the turn of the 20th century Tsarist Russian court, and is still believed by a large number of anti-Semites throughout the world.

The Protocols was taught to German youth after WWI and was used as a rationale for legitimating the internment of German and Polish Jews in ghettos and, later, concentration camps. Nazi Germany provides the archetypal ‘false flag’ as well, when  someone set fire to the German Reichstag, allowing civil liberties to be suspended and Hitler to consolidate power.

Perhaps it is simply natural to view the changing, evermore interconnected and evermore seemingly dangerous world, to believe that highly sophisticated and total conspiracy is somehow at play. But that is neither likely nor is it even statistically possible.

 

 

The Paris Attacks that occurred on November 13th, 2015 were among a series of events that had been immediately suggested as a ‘false flag’ operation, a hoax perpetuated by a totalitarian shadow government hoping to trick the world into fear and submission.

The implications are, in fact, an ubiquitous commonplace conspiracy theory: the concept that some of the macro-level aspects of society are, in fact, controlled and regulated so that the individual can never break free. “The System is Rigged.” “THEY don’t want you to know…” “The ‘Powers that be’ want you to be quiet, docile sheep.” Et cetera. Though this smacks of paranoia, the psychological outcome is actually to simplify the world that is ever-so-much-more complicated.

Conspiracy Theories are actually coping mechanisms for an ever-increasing state of anomie.

 

From Anomie to Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracists, a.k.a. conspiracy theorists, do not all have the same reasons for their beliefs or political affinities but, rather, run the entire gamut from extremely liberal to the very conservative. Atheists, Christians, and members of every religion are susceptible to conspirative thought. The idea that there may be a plot afoot is, honestly, an obvious reaction to a constantly changing and increasingly combative world news, all being pumped in through the television and the internet.

Why, then, is there such a specific conspiracy theory that permeates nowadays? The idea that there is a total, super secret, covert ‘shadow government’ of un-elected rulers that controls the world and that, somehow, needs to orchestrate fake events to consolidate still more power is an increasingly popular narrative that is promoted via conspiracy theory fora, web sites, radio shows, television broadcasts, homemade and semi-professional videos as well as copious print publications. Should such a cabal be real, why would they need to conceal and consolidate their power?

The way conspiracy theorists see this ‘shadow power’ is essentially a tale of how they came to believe in The Big C9nspiracy to begin with. At one time, they believe, everything was right and good with the world (perhaps before the Vietnam War, the JFK Assassination, or even further back before The French Revolution). Then, disorder erupted (at some theorized date and time), and the upshot is that the ‘natural order’ and ‘moral compass’ of society appears to have been disrupted. From there, the mainstream or ‘Establishment’ media and news outlets become suspect and must be eschewed for a more ‘pure’ source of information and, ultimately, solidarity. This is how even a well educated person in 2016, or nearly every famous actor or musician, can become a conspiracy theorist.

 

From Anomie to Extremism

A common argument among the various conspiracy communities is that they simultaneously seek a fearful mass to control but also wish to take away all guns before revealing themselves as the true rulers of the world. This theory, popular within the American Militia Movement and III%ers (who off-handedly threaten armed insurrection and regularly identify with the Tea Party), is regularly invalidated by the various outcomes of armed insurrections and violent standoffs where superior police firepower and intelligence wins over homespun irrationality. It seems important to mention that this is only one aspect of conspiracist ideas popular within the United States and Canada at this time.

Something that I, as a politically liberal youth turning moderate with age and experience (or, as my younger self would say, through complacency), never wanted to deal with was the extreme Right-Wing and anti-Semitic origins of the above conspiracy theory narratives.I did not wish to attend to this glaring issue when I was a conspiracist (more specifically, a 9/11 Truther) but the issue is one that deserves addressing.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the earlier mentioned hoax par excellence also lays out the archetypal conspiracy theory of our age. A group controls all the wealth, controls all the world affairs under the noses of ‘common folk’ and seeks to use fear and desire to consolidate still more power before suspending all civil rights and revealing themselves as totalitarian rulers.The Protocols heaped all accusation on Jewish elite bankers, but the same narrative has taken various forms with various scapegoats. The Illuminati, for instance, is a secret cabal that was really started in Bavaria in the late-1700s but suspected of continuing to exist and being headed by either Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Atheists, Aliens or Satan depending on who you ask. The New World Order, a phrase poached from the Protocols, is a related conspiracy theory formulation that continues in the anti-Semitic tradition by citing the Jewish banking family, the Rothschilds, and linking apparently shadowy goings on to a presumed quest for total political and economic control. The general thrust always fits the same mold, with vile megalomania up against an innocent working class.

It is possible, then, to draw a line directly from the publication and promotion of the Protocols and the proliferation of some otherwise inconceivable conspiracy theories, and how they can seem believable to their adherents. Every event that occurs, every terrorist attack, is to the conspiracy theorist a ‘false flag’ operation; a hoax. As information comes out about the event, conspiracy theorists seek to find any and all contradictions in news bulletins, any victims whose stories don’t seem believable, any bit of rumor or unsubstantiated claim that fits their belief. Having prejudged an event as a hoax, conspiracists may then claim a survivor to be a ‘crisis actor’ (as the above video claims from 3:44 on).

Their is often an ideology attached to the conspiracist’s worldview. An ideology that does not permit that person from seeing nuance and contradiction in the actions of individuals and in the events of the world. If the outcome of an event goes against their ideology, that event must have been a ‘set-up’ of some sort. When an event such as the Paris Attacks occur, the majority of the world sees it as an act of deliberate terrorism by those who claim responsibility (ISIS) or by there sympathizers. That is not to say that many who are prone to conspiracist ideation don’t believe the same thing, if it fits their ideology they most definitely will blame ISIS or radical islamist extremists.

That being said, some blame Barack Obama, some believe it’s the Illuminati, some may claim it’s all part of a Jewish banking conspiracy. The ‘who’ does not matter to a growing community online, sharing theories and ‘research’ in forums and on their YouTube channels. Neither does the ‘what,’ the ‘how,’ or even the ‘is it physically possible’ come into play because the ‘why’ is so close to them that it can replace all doubt. The ‘why,’ it should seem, is to take away those intangibles of freedom and liberty and replace them with slavery, subservience and grief. To a conspiracist, all news is a hoax that constitutes an intentional fabrication to coerce the public into fear. In reality, we live in a changing world and that can be scary, how we choose to cope can make things better or make them much much worse!

Less than a week after the Paris Attacks, ask yourself, was fear the primary outcome of the attacks? Was it fear, or was it a few deep, uncomfortable questions about the world community? Would the Illuminati want America to have a soul search about its issues with asylum seekers? Would a top secret cabal want the Eurozone to work together to make sense of its intelligence and law enforcement communities? Would the jingoism of The West need to be called into question by The West, in effect self-shaming for having overlooked the Beirut Bombing just one day before the Paris Attacks? Call this an overly interrogative coda to a blog, but questioning is a popular evangelizing device among conspiracy theorists and “I’m just asking questions here.”

Additional Sources:

YouTube is place to find the more extreme conspiracy theories nowadays and, here are your conspiracy theories du jour for The Paris Attacks. The intersection of ideologies that come into play with these theories is a mix of Christian Enochianism, pseudoscience and good old fashioned fear of Government.