What's Left

November 14, 2002

Disturbing speculation vs. comforting speculation

By Stephen Gowans

Will the to and fro over conspiracy theories ever end?

Conspiracy theories should be called what they are: theories, which, while in many cases,  are testable in principle, are not testable in practice, and therefore, while pleasant diversions for some--kind of like trying to figure out if Shakespeare's plays were really written by Christopher Marlowe or whether Richard III killed the princes in the tower--usually lead nowhere but to dead-ends of endless speculation.

It's true enough that many conspiracy theories reasonably -- though unpleasantly -- account for a set of facts. And as theories many often have admirable properties: explanatory power, internal consistency, testability (in principle.)

But in every instance I'm aware of, there's no practical way to test conspiracy theories, unless you command an army of investigators and can enlist the co-operation of those the theory says are keeping their conspiracy secret (unlikely).

Take the theory that says Bush knew of the impending 9/11 attacks and let them go ahead to provide a pretext for war on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a variant of the theory which says not only did Bush know of the attacks, he ordered them, putting Osama bin Laden -- who had links to the CIA (some say he still does) and whose family is linked to the Bush family -- in charge.

We know that the administration had advance warning that something would happen, but we have no evidence that Bush knew specifically that an attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon involving hijacked planes would happen on the morning of Sept. 11.

How would you gather that evidence? You'd have to have access to the highest reaches of the US government, and you'd have to have the co-operation of those who are presumably involved in the conspiracy. That's not going to happen.

Conspiracy theory buffs will point to Bush's odd behavior on the morning of Sept. 11 or his weird reminiscences of how he felt and reacted to the scene of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre or the failure of the air force to intercept the hijacked aircraft or any of a number of curious events. The problem is, none of this is definitive, even compelling. It might be in a Sherlock Holmes novel, so it will probably go over well at the next meeting of the Sherlockian society, but otherwise its impact, for good reason, is going to be (and is) very limited.

Anti-conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, usually have far greater impact, not because they make compelling cases (few ever bother to say why conspiracy theories should be scorned, their scorn is apparently good enough) but because they say what everyone wants to believe anyway. They're kind of like people who make a living by doing personality readings, telling everyone, "You're sometimes shy, you're kind at heart, and sometimes you're under-appreciated." Or better still, they're like a personal servant who swats away irritating flies, for that's what conspiracy theories are: irritating.  They say what many people don't want to hear or contemplate. And the better they are as theories, the more irritating they are.

Petr Lom, who teaches politics at the George Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest, wants to swat away a few of those irritating flies, especially the ones that have the name Gore Vidal on them. It's one thing for a guy named Jared Israel to say Bush was complicit in 9/11 -- who's Jared Israel? -- but Gore Vidal's another matter.

Lom says the "Bush had foreknowledge" theory (which Vidal isn't uncomfortable with) "is interesting; very interesting; but nonsense," which makes me wonder how he knows. Apparently, Lom is like the Pope, only while the Pope has a personal 1-800 line to God, Lom's runs straight into the Oval Office.

It seems Lom has his own theory, which he isn't calling a theory (maybe to avoid being dismissed as someone whose views are interesting; very interesting; but nonsense) but it's a theory all the same. It says all the events that conspiracy theorists wonder about are due to "bad planning, incompetence or ill-fortune."

How does he know?

Lom should have said bad planning, incompetence and ill-fortune are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations, which may or may not be true, and further, that the conspiracy theories in question haven't provided against these alternative explanations, but instead he opts for a course of action that's as simple as taking candy from a child: he attacks a view for which there's little sympathy (it's too terrible to contemplate) and rejoins with a theory for which he can adduce no evidence, but clearly resonates with most people (it's far more comforting.) This is the, "if the majority believes it, it must be true, and if it isn't true, who cares, 'cause no one's going to call me on it" view. In other words, Lom would have had a good career attacking Galileo. Which isn't to say conspiracy theorists are like Galileo, misunderstood geniuses (they're more like wannabe Sherlock Holmeses); just that their unpopular views make them easy targets.

So, are their views right? Chances are, we'll never find out.

And what does it matter? Whether conspiracy or bad planning, incompetence or ill-fortune, the Bush administration is using 9/11 to advance a regressive, imperialist agenda. Would it be any less regressive and imperialist if bad planning, incompetence and ill-fortune were behind Sept. 11's tragic events?

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