Monday, June 28, 2010

Conspiracies and conspiracism

Jim Fetzer
Online Journal
28 June 2010

MADISON, Wisc. -- A new study from Political Research Associates entitled Toxic To Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating, by Chip Berlet now proclaims that conspiracy theories are “toxic to democracy” because they share some portion of moral responsibility for irresponsible acts, such as the shooting of the abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, which some have associated with Rush Limbaugh and other pro-life zealots. By adopting a sweeping stance that does not discriminate between different cases on the basis of logic and evidence, Berlet discredits himself. Since conspiracies only require collaboration between two or more individuals in illegal acts, they are as American as apple pie.

Perhaps Berlet didn’t get the memo, but according to the government, the US was attacked on 9/11 by 19 Islamic fundamentalists who used box cutters to hijack four airplanes, outfox the most sophisticated air defense system in the world, and commit multiple atrocities under the control of a guy in a cave in Afghanistan. When I published a critique of the “official account,” which suggests the facts contradict it, I used the title, THE 9/11 CONSPIRACY, in the knowledge that either way a conspiracy was involved -- either one told by the government using THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT, or something far more sinister, which involved key members of the Bush administration with a little help from their friends. (See, e.g., “9/11 and the Neo-Con Agenda” and the PowerPoint presentation, “Was 9/11 an ‘inside job’?,” which is archived at

According to Berlet, belief in a conspiracy turns out to be the manifestation of a “belief system” that violates the principles of logic. Having taught logic, critical thinking, and scientific reasoning for 35 years, however, the violations of logic seem to be committed by the author. Berlet commits many fallacies in the course of his study, including some stunning, easily disprovable generalizations about reasoning:

“Conspiracism is neither a healthy expression of skepticism nor a valid form of criticism; rather it is a belief system that refuses to obey the rules of logic. These theories operate from a pre-existing premise of a conspiracy based upon careless collection of facts and flawed assumptions. What constitutes ‘proof’ for a conspiracist is often more accurately described as circumstance, rumor, and hearsay; and the allegations often use the tools of fear -- dualism, demonization, scapegoating, and aggressively apocalyptic stories -- which all too often are commandeered by demagogues.” (Toxic to Democracy)

No one would deny that a certain proportion of the American public may be vulnerable to “conspiracism” in this sense, which represents the modus operandi of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing zealots, who find conspiracies to be a ubiquitous part of public life, from left-wing efforts to spend the country into oblivion to encouraging illegal immigrants to flow into the country unabated to questioning whether Barack Obama has the qualification for office of being “native born.”

These are the kinds of “conspiracy theories” that are dime a dozen, which find gullible followers across the country by the bushel basket.

But so what? If conspiracy theories like these are supposed to be “toxic to democracy,” then democracy needs to be made of sterner stuff. Circumstance, rumor, and hearsay, after all, tend to be the starting point for more serious studies of specific events. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point. Who has not heard swirling rumors about Halliburton having cut corners, the BP practice of putting profits before safety, and the further catastrophes that await those who reside along the coast of the states that are most directly affected? Puzzlement over phenomena that do not readily fit into our background knowledge and preliminary understanding is the point of departure for scientific investigations that may better reveal the truth.

Suppose we were prohibited from speculation and rumor in relation to the events that have made the most difference to American history in recent time? The most important aspect of reasoning is comparisons between different theories to measure which best explains the data. Indeed, Jesse Ventura’s AMERICAN CONSPIRACES advances no less that 14 illustrations of the collaboration between two or more individuals to bring about illegal ends, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (where four co-conspirators were hanged from the same gallows at the very same time), to the big-money conspiracy to overthrow the government in 1934 on to Watergate, the Jonestown Massacre, the Iran-scam that gave the presidency to Ronald Reagan, drug-dealing by the CIA, and many more -- a list that can be readily expanded by the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X (see, for example, JFK and RFK: The Plots that Killed Them, The Patsies that Didn’t).

Berlet claims (what he calls) conspiracism “must be confronted as a flawed analytical model, rather than a legitimate mode of criticism of inequitable systems, structures, and institutions of power.” He claims it suffers from four debilitating features as “metaframes” of the model:

  • dualism, according to which the world is -- presumably simplistically -- divided into the forces of good and the forces of evil;

  • scapegoating, according to which an individual or group of people is wrongly stereotyped with negative characteristics;

  • demonization, according to which an individual or a group is taken to be the personification of evil; and,

  • apocalyptic aggression, which occurs when scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the “common good” and may be subjected to violence.
What is fascinating about these categories is how well they fit many of the government’s own campaigns to convince the American people to support an unpopular course of action. After 9/11, for example, the world was divided into the forces of good (the Americans) and those of evil (the Mulsims). Members of the Muslim community were said to be fanatical and violent, contrary to the principles of the Koran. Nineteen alleged hijackers and al Qaeda were scapegoated as responsible for those atrocities. And wars of aggression would be launched against Iraq and Afghanistan, which continue to this day.

Berlet tells us that what “conspiracy theorists lack is the desire or ability to follow the basic rules of logic and investigative research.” We can all remember being told Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, but eventually even George W. Bush acknowledged that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. We were told that Iraq was in cahoots with al Qaeda, but investigations by the Senate and the Pentagon showed that that was not the case. And when Ed Haas of “The Muckraker Report” questioned Tex Tomb of the FBI about why 9/11 received no mention on a “wanted poster” for Osama bid Laden, he was told the reason was the FBI had “no hard evidence” connecting Osama bin Laden to the events of 9/11. But if Saddam was not responsible and if Osama was not responsible, then who was responsible for 9/11?

Indeed, according to THE 9/11 COMMISSION, 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The number from Iraq was zero. So why did we attack Iraq instead of Saudi Arabia? That looks like a stunning illustration of the failure to follow basic rules of logic or investigative research. As Ron Suskind, THE PRICE OF LOYALTY, reported, George W. Bush’s first secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neil, was astonished that war with Iraq was discussed at the first meeting of the cabinet, nearly nine months before the events of 9/11. Which means 9/11 was used as a fabricated rationale to support a predetermined conclusion, which appears to have been a policy that was adopted by Bush and Cheney before their formal inauguration.

While Berlet insists that “conspiracism” fails to follow the basic rules of logic and investigative journalism, he should have explained that rumor and conjecture represent the second stage of scientific modes of reasoning, where it is crucial to elaborate all possible alternative explanations to insure that the true hypothesis is not excluded from scratch. Thus, the first stages of puzzlement and of speculation are followed by those of adaptation (of hypothesis to evidence, using likelihood measures of evidential support) and of explanation (when the evidence has “settled down” and the best supported hypothesis is entitled to acceptance in the tentative and fallible fashion distinctive of science (see “Thinking about ‘Conspiracy Theories: 9/11 and JFK”).

The essence of Berlet’s book, however, is that he believes conspiracy theories come out of psychological needs of prejudiced people, which makes them INTERNAL FANTASIES. He is thereby throwing the crime baby out with the conspiracy bath water. Conspiracies really do happen in the EXTERNAL WORLD. They are not merely internal figments of the imagination. It is true that some people embrace conspiracy theories and reveal themselves by the inability to improve or adjust their views in light of new evidence or new hypotheses. If they are scapegoating, then the internal origin of their conspiracy need is manifest. However, conspiracy crimes are commonplace and external to us. When they are the subjects of objective investigations, those who study them are governed by logic and evidence, which are basic to rationality.

Ultimately, Berlet has defined a belief system called “conspiracism” that has only tenuous connections with conspiracies. While some gullible persons may satisfy its constraints, there are vastly more conspiracies than there are examples of conspiracism. Ask what Shakespeare would have had to write about if not for plots against the kings and queens of England. How many victims of conspiracies have died in the 20th century alone? In his brilliant study, “The Silence of the Historians,” for example, David W. Mantik, M.D., Ph.D., lists the names of more than two dozen prominent political figures -- from Franz Ferdinand and Czar Nicholas II to Salvadore Allende and Fidel Castro -- who were targeted for assassination by multiple conspirators on a single page of MURDER IN DEALEY PLAZA (page 402).

The ultimate failure of Berlet’s study is that it succumbs to the kind of simplistic thinking that he condemns. The world is divided into forces of good (the rational thinkers) and evil (the conspiracy theorists). The evil conspiracy theorists are stereotyped as trading in circumstance, rumor, and hearsay, while the rational thinkers follow the rules of logic and investigative journalism. Their careless collections of facts and flawed assumptions are often commandeered by demagogues. And of course they can be used to incite unjustified violence against innocent parties. But this presumes knowledge of which claims are true and which assumptions are flawed. Simplistic thinking of Berlet’s kind does not advance understanding. As Michael Moore said, when asked if he was into conspiracy theories, ”Only those that are true.” Each case must be evaluated on its merits using logic and evidence.

Thanks to Mike Sparks for inviting my attention to Berlet’s study and more.

James H. Fetzer is the editor of and co-editor of He has a blog at His academic web site is found at