Friday, August 23, 2013

Conspiracy Manipulators, Pseudo-Critical Thinkers & Other Frauds

Having observed the psychology of conspiracy theorists over the last few years, I think the term "conspiracy theorist" needs to be changed. Modern propagators of conspiracy talk almost never actually offer any theories; they tend to throw YouTube videos and infowars-type links at you, spew some talking points, and invite you to "come to your own conclusions." They are conspiracy manipulators: With extreme prejudice, they propagate information from within their echo-chamber, and using surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical techniques, they shape their recycled cherry-pickings into a narrative that evokes (if not actually describes) a dark and sinister world of deceit and cover-up. The most successful conspiracy manipulators are filmmakers skilled in visual and soundtrack techniques; the Loose Change crew is a classic example.

This summer, the case of Michael Hastings (see my previous post) has brought conspiracy manipulation front-and-center once again. It has become frighteningly fashionable among liberals to casually assume that the journalist was murdered, even after his wife and brother have come forward to say that it was only a tragic accident. We now know that Hastings was on a path to self-destruction, but that doesn't matter to the conspiracy manipulators; they continue to post their "unanswered questions" in comments sections, such as why Hastings' car engine was found behind the crash site, a physical impossibility in a high-speed crash. (This online rumor has been repeatedly debunked, but again, that doesn't seem to matter.)

One might think that the rise of conspiracy manipulation and belief stem from a failure of critical thinking. But it's more troubling than that; the trend is a perversion of critical thinking. Conspiracy manipulators and believers will adamantly tell you that they are the ones thinking critically; their critics are not. Those who criticize are declared either "brain-dead sheep," perhaps tranquilized into mindless conformity by fluoride in the water (yes, some do actually say that), or paid-off operatives of a government with limitless funds -- "shills" or "disinfo agents" in conspiracy-manipulation parlance.

Such arrogance is a textbook illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the proven tendency of individuals who are less competent to overestimate their competence, while more competent individuals tend to underestimate their competence. To put it more colloquially, conspiracy manipulators wouldn't know critical thinking if it hit them in the head. To them, merely being "fringe" and dismissing all information from authorities (unless, of course, it supports their cause) is enough to declare themselves super-awesome critical thinkers. "Wake up and open your eyes!" they tell you. For all their talk of open-mindedness, ironically they are pseudo-critical thinkers, too self-impressed with their questioning of authority to notice their own pseudoskepticism. And, they will deny that they are conspiracy theorists as readily as crazy people say, "I'm not crazy."

Do conspiracies exist? Of course they do, and of course the government has lied to us at times. But the conspiracy manipulator takes these to the extreme, seeing conspiracies everywhere. He (or she) skillfully crafts language that is fertile soil for the impressions of cover-up and deceit to bloom, all while asserting their impartiality as a mere seeker of truth. In the same way that the sociopath masters the art of superficial charm, the conspiracy manipulator -- completely oblivious to their own intellectual dishonesty -- masters the art of superficial inquisitiveness.

It's quite easy to write like a conspiracy manipulator, and if things had been slightly different, I could have been one (video). So let's give it a try:
I have reason to question whether the milk from Berkeley Farms -- a local dairy in my area -- is actually from cows. There are so many unanswered questions, things don't add up. There's a note on the Berkeley Farms label: "Does not come from cows treated with rBST." Hello? They're practically admitting it right there. So I called Berkeley Farms and asked if their milk comes from cows. The person on the phone refused to answer, and she seemed surprised -- unnerved, even. She put me on hold, and guess what, the call was dropped. What is Berkeley Farms hiding? (Sure, their website says their milk is from cows, but Ikea's website never told us their meatballs were horse meat, either.) I don't want to believe I'm drinking pig's milk! So, I went to Berkeley, to visit their farms. I found a major university and a lot of built-up urbanization, but not one single farm.* I then compared the color of milk from a random gallon of Berkeley Farms to one from a competitor, Clover Stornetta, and discovered that they look different (see below). Several calls to Professors with Ph.D.'s confirmed my suspicions that cow's milk would probably look different than milk from a pig or another animal. It should be noted that the Clover Stornetta label depicts a cartoon of a cow; the Berkeley Farms label does not. Interestingly, when I Google "Berkeley Farms milk is from cows" I get exactly zero results, whereas Googling Berkeley Farms pig milk yields 20,400,000 results. An e-mail demanding that they release genetic-analysis reports was ignored. Is Berkeley Farms milk from pigs or some other animal? I don't know, weigh all of the facts and decide for yourself!

Do these milk samples look the same to you?

Of course that was ridiculous and I hope you got a laugh out of it. But imagine that instead of milk, we were talking about something beyond the scale of everyday human life (the collapse of skyscrapers, a high-speed car crash, jet trails in the sky, etc), and that instead of a local dairy, we were talking about something more powerful and nebulous (the U.S. government, the New World Order, or "big science" if you're a creationist). In that case, you might approach the situation with a pre-existing desire to believe an alternative view. And that's the key -- although it's a tall order to convince someone that cow's milk is pig's milk, selling suspicions of the government to an audience already suspicious of the government ... piece of cake. People will always believe what they wanted to believe in the first place. That's why it's easy to sell penis-enlargement pills to men who would like to believe they can enlarge their penis. If the pills said they could make you a foot shorter, even the dumbest guys would cry bullshit.

I always find it amusing when a religious person tries to get me to pray. "Just try it, what have you got to lose?" they ask. "Drop to your knees and cry out to God. If you truly believe, in your heart, then trust me, Jesus will speak to you." Yeah, if I truly believe, first. That's the kicker there.

And if you cried out to the dairy-conspiracy gods -- and you really, truly desired to believe that the milk in your cereal isn't what it seems -- then my Berkeley Farms conspiracy would probably speak to you, too.

* Inspired by the signs on their delivery trucks, reading, "Farms? In Berkeley?" (Of course, there are a lot of indoor farms in Berkeley.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Michael Hastings: A Classic Conspiracy-Theory Fail

In June, when 33-year-old journalist Michael Hastings died in an unusual single-car accident, it quickly became a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we were at the apex of NSA paranoia, and a reporter famous for investigating the U.S. government and decrying the surveillance state was suddenly dead. Looking at the comments on HuffingtonPost, many ordinary liberals were highly suspicious of the crash, some outright assuming that of course he was murdered by the powers that be, yawn.

It did seem somewhat suspicious. Hastings died at 4 in the morning, driving an estimated 100 MPH on a residential street in Los Angeles before crashing into a palm tree, with enough impact to throw the engine block 50 yards away. What a weird way to die. I wanted to dig deeper, so I created a Google Alert and watched the news -- and the opinion -- come in.

During the long wait for autopsy and toxicology reports over a slow-news summer, various dubious "journalists" were happy to fill the void and keep people talking possible murder. One rose to the top quickly: Kimberly Dvorak, a Southern California freelance reporter whose stories on Hastings were bought by San Diego 6, a local affiliate of the CW television network based in Tijuana, Mexico.

So, not exactly the Washington Post.

In an early piece on Hastings' death -- which was reposted on dozens of "news" sites -- Dvorak wrote that:
1. An eyewitness saw the car going at maximum speed, then "heard a couple explosions shortly before the car crashed"
2. The explosion was so intense that it took the coroner's office two days to identify the body
3. Toxicology would reportedly take weeks to complete (even though "in stark contrast," James Gandolfini's toxicology in Italy had been completed in only a few days)
4. Shortly before his death, Hastings had sent an e-mail saying he was on to a big story
5. Hastings had said that he received death threats about once per year
6. "Accounts of the car crash" had contained "erroneous details" that "were hard to overlook" (like, the street was actually wide and straight, not narrow and curvy)
7. Even though the LAPD found no immediate evidence of foul play, the intensity of the fire, as judged by watching videos, resembles a thermite burn1 -- "gasoline generally doesn't burn that hot" (in Dvorak's opinion)
8. The LAPD "refuses to release the accident and toxicology reports"
9. The LAPD refuses to make the vehicle available for inspection ("which only fuels speculation")
10. Although Hastings had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, "his family and friends say he kicked the habit."

Dvorak also mentioned an interview in which HuffingtonPost had asked counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke to weigh in on the Hastings case. Clarke -- ever the provocateur -- stated that the crash was "consistent with a car cyber attack" that could remotely control the speed and braking.

Further articles were routinely picked up by left-leaning news aggregators. Dvorak wrote that Hastings hadn't touched alcohol in five years and "drove like a grandma," according to his friend, Staff Sergeant Joe Biggs2; that the palm tree hit by the car showed "seemingly minimal damage" and only a scratch on the curb; that in TV interviews, Hastings' wife "kind of had a smile on her face and didn't seem like a grieving widow"; and finally, that according to her own analysis of a surveillance video (using a "mathematic equation" for speed supplied by "a University professor"), Hastings' car was going only 35 miles per hour at impact.

Well, when you consider all of these facts, I guess he was murdered! I mean, there were clearly explosions3 and stuff, and stuff burning that wasn't gas, and the car was being driven by someone on a laptop or something who could make it go 100 MPH, or, well I guess I mean 35 MPH. Simple physics says only an explosion would launch an engine 50 yards -- normal car accidents aren't like that, and I know, 'cause I've seen 'em on TV. And you can't trust the LAPD, remember OJ? All I'm saying is, keep an open mind by reading all of Kimberly Dvorak's articles, and then come to your own conclusions!

What are they hiding under that sheet, other than a grotesquely burned corpse?

Imagine the embarrassment when Michael Hastings' accident, autopsy, and toxicology reports were published.

Most of the headlines said that meth and pot were found in Hastings' system. While true, the drug levels were determined to be too low to have contributed to the crash. Other details were more telling: According to interviews with family members, Hastings had relapsed into poly-substance abuse about a month prior, and his brother was soon to arrive in L.A. to try to get him into a rehab program. Hastings had delusions that he was invincible. In 1999, he had been abusing Ritalin and crashed his car into a pole, and subsequently checked into rehab. Later we learned that Hastings had recently come to believe that his car had been tampered with and that helicopters over L.A. were tracking him.

No, drugs didn't cause Hastings to drive 100 MPH. But, he appeared to have a bit of a screw loose, and the addiction and delusion was just a symptom of that. Brilliant journalist, yes; pillar of the community who drove like a grandma, no. What's disturbing is that many of my fellow liberals picked up on the murder narrative, because, well the government with the NSA and everything just seemed so darn sinister.

Actually, the murder talk had already been largely deflated, once Hastings' brother and wife came forward to say that it was probably only a tragic accident. Even while the new "casual conspiracy theorists" were describing to each other a stable, responsible Hastings being remote-controlled toward his fiery, explosive murder at the hands of vengeful government agents -- great scene for a movie, huh? -- his family privately knew that he was simply advancing toward self-destruction.

Ouch. That's gotta hurt, when the victim's own family denounces the cinematic narrative of the journalist-hero getting cyber-gunned down. (Maybe the wife and brother were bought off by the New World Order global bank? Sure....)

I'm not saying for certain that Hastings wasn't murdered. It's just so unlikely, given what we know now. It's an Occam's razor thing: Either, sinister forces came together to commit a Black Ops high-speed murder on the gritty streets of L.A. using cutting-edge wireless cyber-hacking technology, ooh! Or, a very talented dude who was already unstable and had a sad history of psychiatric problems, early one morning just snapped.

Doesn't make for a great movie. Then again, reality seldom does.

1. Many 9/11 conspiracy theorists believe that the World Trade Center buildings were demolished using thermite, a notoriously difficult-to-ignite incendiary.
2. If you want to give your "expert authority" more credibility, add a title or two, or three ("physics Professor Dr. Steven E. Jones, Ph.D.").
3. The reporter Dvorak routinely conflated sudden fire with explosion. There is a difference; actual explosions shred vehicles. Plus, eyewitness testimony is unreliable and easily manipulated.