It’s a Conspiracy!

Paranoid Android

By Mike Cronin

Last week I wrote about critical thinking.  This week I thought we might look at an area that is ripe for its practical application: Conspiracy theories.

Some people believe the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by our own government in order to provide the Bush administration a pretext to go to war. Others believe the Apollo moon landings were faked.  Conspiracy theories abound: Aliens at Area 51. JFK’s murder. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The list keeps growing.

How do we get at the truth? Sometimes we can’t. While the truth may be discoverable, the means of discovery are not always available at the time the conspiracy theory is popular, nor is discovery always worth the price to find out even if the means are available.

On the other hand, we have thinking tools to help us decide whether a given conspiracy theory is plausible. These allow us to dismiss the implausible theories.  One of these tools is called Occam’s razor.  In a nutshell, Occam’s razor says that there is seldom any need to consider complicated answers when simple ones will do.

Let’s take the case of UFOs at Area 51.  The theory generally postulates that aliens crashed on earth near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the US government is holding their bodies and recovered spacecraft at Area 51.  In order to believe that, you have to accept:

  1. Out of all the possible places the aliens could visit in our galaxy, the aliens came here.
  2. The aliens have faster-than-light travel (which our science believes to be impossible) or they can hibernate for hundreds or thousands of years. Either way their technology is fantastically beyond ours.
  3. Their fantastic technological advantage both failed them utterly (because they crashed) and succeeded spectacularly (because their bodies and spaceship survived the crash roughly intact.)
  4. Out of all of the possible places they could have crashed, they wound up hitting rural New Mexico.
  5. Our government bureaucrats have been savvy enough to keep the real truth secret all of this time.

It might be possible…but the “evidence” to support the theory to date amounts to not much more than fuzzy pictures and unverifiable “eye-witness” testimony, while the holes in the theory are powerful. For example: Remember the space shuttle Columbia disaster?  If the aliens’ spacecraft made it through reentry intact, there would have been a huge crater at the impact location like the one near Winslow, Arizona:


If it broke up during reentry, there would have been debris scattered for hundreds or thousands of miles along the descent path:


Let’s apply Occam’s razor: It is far more likely that there was never an alien spacecraft crash in 1947 or any other year. Most likely, whatever the government recovered in New Mexico in 1947 was man-made and that whatever goes on at Area 51 now is wholly human activity devoid of alien influence. Why believe that?  Because there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that intelligent extra-terrestrials have visited earth.

Why does there always seem to be a slate of such conspiracy theories “active” at any given time?   Because conspiracy theories are fun and profitable!  There is no shortage of people who will “investigate” such mysteries and sell their findings in the form of books and special reports. There are others who make and market souvenirs. If the theory gains enough of a following, there will be entire TV shows dedicated to “solving” (i.e. perpetuating) the myth or even movies that popularize various explanations. (For example: there was a movie called Capricorn One that gave credence to the idea that the government could fake a maned Mars landing – which no doubt fueled the Apollo conspiracy). It’s all meant to keep the gravy train on track.

The conspiracy theory-industrial complex is mostly harmless when understood for what it is.  For example: Like most people, I can enjoy a sci-fi mega-flick like Independence Day or its forthcoming sequel Resurgence (which romanticize the idea of aliens at Area 51). However, for me to enjoy such movies, I have to suspend my disbelief (i.e. “ignore” my faculty for critical thinking).

On the other hand, there is a dark side to the conspiracy market. It manifests in at least two ways:

  1. There are an abundance of Americans whose education neglected to cover critical thinking. They cannot “suspend their disbelief” because they don’t have any!
  2. A viable market for conspiracy theories is also fertile ground for politicians to play upon people’s fears: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken)

On Critical Thinking


By Mike Cronin

A lot of people talk about critical thinking, but I seldom ever see any explanation of what critical thinking is.  Left to our own devices, we might reasonably assume that critical thinking means being critical.  That is partially right.  Certainly people who practice critical thinking are often critical of others, but that is not the essence of the term.

To me, critical thinking means examining my own thoughts on an issue for errors in logic or reasoning before verbalizing them. It means basing my positions on a foundation of rational thought. It means recognizing bias, especially my own.

I’ve written before about bias.  When you read a news article or watch a news piece, the reporters and networks pretend they have no bias, but that is absurd.  Everyone has a bias – it is inevitable, because even the wisest among us cannot see things from every and all perspectives.  The difference between my blog and some others is that I tell you right up front what my bias is.  I am pro-freedom, pro-capitalism, pro-individualism, and pro-reason.  I am against socialism and any other form of collectivism. My biases are not a result of my upbringing.  If anything, my biases are in opposition to the trends and positions espoused to me in school, church, and to some degree, the military.

Logic is another key ingredient of critical thinking.  Ayn Rand described logic as the art of correct identification.  That sounds simple, but it has deep consequences.  It is easy for a child to recognize a lemon as a lemon, but it might be a bit harder for the child to understand that the lemon can never be anything other a lemon.  It can only do or behave as a lemon.  A person might squeeze it to get the juice, or grate it to get the pith, but a lemon cannot become a bird and fly away.

Wishful thinking and other logical errors are the source of much conflict and dysfunction in the world. An example:  The current brouhaha over gender identity.  We are either born with male anatomy or female anatomy (occasions of true androgyny are exceedingly rare). “Identifying” as the opposite gender from what one’s anatomy dictates (no pun intended) is logically erroneous.  One might align their conflicted desires to reality via surgery and drugs, but until those procedures are complete, one is “male” or “female” according to one’s anatomy.

At the heart of many arguments and conflicts over logic are premises.  There is no shortage of pundits, educators, and other influential people that use well-crafted logical arguments that stem from bad premises.  Take “equality” for example.  We might hear that the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives want people to be treated as equal under the law, while liberals want everyone to have equal outcomes.  The first premise rests on the idea that no one is more valuable as a human being than anyone else.  It creates the conditions whereby a poor person can raise themselves up from poverty on their own hard work and merit. It is essentially correct, but hard to enforce, because the rich and well connected can sometimes buy better legal representation than the poor. The second premise rests on the idea that it’s not fair for one person to have more than another, so wealth must be redistributed.  It gives no attention to the concepts that wealth belongs to whomever created it, or that individuals have any responsibility for their own situation.  It is a bad premise, because it ignores the fact that life is not and cannot be fair, and it ignores all of the evidence of human history:  Humans cannot rise above animalism without individual effort to devise technology or apply the technology to raising the standard of living.

Are you a critical thinker?

A Crazy Idea


By Mike Cronin

In the 1600s, pilgrims came to this land to escape religious persecution. Other colonists soon followed. In the late 1700s, the thriving 13 colonies decided to throw off the yoke of their far-off ruler. In the 1860s, we fought a war over slavery.  (Some will tell you the war was about state’s rights, but the “rights” being fought over were the right to secede from the Union in order to continue the practice of slavery.) About a half-century later, women won the right to vote. Nearly another half century after that, we had the civil rights and equal rights movements.  At some point, other groups saw that these early movements were largely successful in gaining for their members the recognition that they deserved the same rights as anyone else. But then new groups started seeking privileges disguised as rights.

For instance: the gay marriage movement.  This movement sought (and is still seeking) the privilege for one person to be able to marry another person of the same gender. The movement postulates that since heterosexuals have a “right” to marry, homosexuals deserve no less. Advocates of this arrangement are right that homosexuals ought to have the same rights as heterosexuals; but they err by seeking parity with heterosexuals in being permitted to marry by the government. If marriage (or domestic partnership), or any other kind of association is indeed a right, then the movement should be demanding the elimination of government intrusion (except for the function of contract enforcement) in the domestic arrangements of competent, consenting adults. (Freedom-loving heterosexuals ought to consider advocating for the same thing!)

Now we live in a time with a constantly-increasing number of movements and causes seeking special privileges for smaller and smaller groups of people.  The latest examples: Trans-gendered folks seeking the “right” to use whichever public restrooms are appropriate to the gender they “identify” with.  College kids demanding “safe spaces” where they can be free from challenging ideas espoused by disagreeable people. Illegal immigrants demanding in-state tuition rates and voting rights. Minimum-skilled fast-food workers demanding higher pay than junior military members (who have months of technical training) make. Able-bodied yet jobless people demanding food stamps.

Before you know it, every single individual in this country will get the crazy idea that they deserve equal rights for themselves.  Some will demand free speech, others will want to own a gun, and many would like to have the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  Some might even want to be free to associate with whomever they’d like.

Folks might get the fantastical notion that a genuine individual right cannot require or obligate anything of anyone else other than that we leave each other alone and honor our voluntary commitments.

Some thought leaders and other prominent people might even get together and decide to craft a document that would enshrine these ideas.  They might imagine that the best way to organize a government would be around the concept that its sole purpose is to protect the rights of free individuals, and that such freedom is the best way yet devised by humans to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number.

I wonder what it would take to produce such a document and put it into force. Could such a society ever flourish? What would we call such a place?


A Matter of Perspective


By Mike Cronin

No doubt you know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west once every 24 hours.  It has done so for billions of years and will continue to do so for billions more.

Fact: The sun rises and sets about 16 times per day.

Fact: The sun rises and sets once every two weeks.

Fact: The sun doesn’t rise or set at all.

All of these facts are true.  How can that be?

Each is true from a certain perspective – and false from other perspectives.  The first is true from the perspective of people on the earth’s surface.  The second is true from the perspective of an astronaut onboard the International Space Station.  The third is true from the perspective of an astronaut on the surface of the moon.  The last is true from the perspective of the sun itself.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in so-and-so’s world, XYZ is quite different than in your world. Maybe you were taught to think of Western Europe, the US, the British Commonwealth, and Japan as the “first” world, and places like Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan as examples of the “third” world. Yet we all live on the same planet, so how can we be living in different worlds?

The first, second, and third worlds aren’t really separate worlds; they just appear that way from certain perspectives.  Sometimes using such metaphors can be useful in helping us frame our understanding of the actual world; sometimes the metaphors become euphemisms and are used to evade harsh truths.

For example: Haiti is the poorest, least-developed country in the western hemisphere.  It occupies part of an island called Hispaniola; the remainder of the island is taken up by the Dominican Republic. Compared to Haiti, the Dominican Republic is doing well. Some folks who call Haiti a failed state and a third-world country may be setting a scene or weaving a narrative (i.e. depicting things from a certain perspective) in order to ask you for donations to help the poor souls that live there.

Such people may mean well, but the solution to Haiti’s troubles probably depends on understanding things from a more difficult perspective.

Consider this: The 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) was followed less than a month later by an even more powerful earthquake in Chile.  Both earthquakes caused about the same amount of destruction in terms of the value of the property destroyed, yet the death tolls were staggeringly different.  In the Haiti quake, nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives.  In the Chilean quake, the death toll was three orders of magnitude smaller. (A little over 500 people died).

Why was there such a vast difference between the two? How can a more powerful earthquake cause far less loss of life, but the same amount of property damage?

In Chile, there are building codes, insurance, robust first response capabilities, adequate hospitals, and property rights. In Haiti there are not. The property damage was the same from the perspective of cost, but vastly different from the perspective of number of buildings destroyed.  In Haiti, a good portion of the buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed outright, including the president’s palace.  In Chile, many buildings suffered damage that will be expensive to fix…but far fewer buildings actually collapsed – because most were built to code to withstand earthquakes.

haiti palace

The Haitian presidential palace after the 2010 earthquake.

Why did Chile have those benefits and not Haiti?  Because for most of its history, Chile has given at least some recognition to the concept of individual and property rights.  Chileans had incentive to achieve and build and protect their investment.  Haiti, though its existence as a nation is essentially the result of a slave rebellion, never really adopted the concepts of individual freedom or property rights.  It has been ruled by a series of thugs, some worse than others, who would simply take what they wanted.

The harsh truth in the more difficult perspective: Sending aid to Haiti may help some Haitians stave off the reaper a little longer, but no amount of aid can help the Haitians adopt a philosophy of recognizing and respecting rights.

Understanding that a difference in perspective can be trivial (as in the case of knowing astronauts see 16 sunrises per “day”) or pivotal (as in the case of sending aid to Haiti), and how differing perspectives might be compared or judged against each other, is a critical skill to develop – one many of our elected leaders have failed to acquire.