Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Flawed study on conspiracy theories comes up with semi-accurate conclusions
A study that came out last year indicates that that conspiracy theorists are the sane ones and the government is the one that is untrustworthy or hostile and irrational; or at least that is the way some people that support conspiracy theories have interpreted it.
A close look at the actual study indicates that there is at least partial justification to indicate that they're interpreting it accurately; however there are also some flaws in the methodology of the study and there are also some statements in it that raise doubts about how rational some conspiracy theorists really are. Ironically some of the potential flaws in the study might be the result of a conspiracy theory; which could put both sides in an awkward positions since those that oppose conspiracies might hesitate to use this explanation to debunk it and those who support them might hesitate to accept conspiracies that raise doubts about conspiracies.
On top of that let's face it, some conspiracy theorists really are nuts.
David Icke claims that the Queen of England might occasionally transform into some kind of reptilian creature or something like that.
At the same time many of the highest profile self appointed skeptics routinely ignore scientific rational, when it doesn't support their beliefs; and often use some of the same manipulation tactics that conspiracy theorists use; or at least the ones they often accuse conspiracy theorists of using.
One of the biggest problems with this study is that it relies primarily on of discussions on the internet which might include a large portion of input from anonymous people that might have an undisclosed motive.
Another problem is that they don't adequately challenge a common assumption that the debate is often between "conspiracy theorists" and "skeptics," who often like to refer to themselves as "rational skeptics."
The truth is that a good conspiracy theorist should be a rational skeptic; and a rational skeptic should admit it when there is legitimate reason to believe that there really might be a conspiracy. By declining to address this many conspiracy theorists play into the stereotypes that often give many people the impression that they might not be as rational as the so-called skeptics, including many that refuse to acknowledge research that doesn't support their beliefs.
Ironically in many cases the government or traditional media often support their own conspiracy theories, but somehow try to convince the rest of us that it shouldn't be confused with "fringe conspiracy theories" which often turns out to be those that they disagree with or that don't suit their purposes.
The following excerpt from a relatively recent article that claims a 2013 study proves conspiracy theorists are the most sane of all might demonstrate how studies can be flawed in at least some ways and misinterpreted to suit the purposes of those that report on it. However a review of it might indicate that even though both the study and the way it is presented might be flawed some of the conclusions might be close, or at least closer than the conclusions by the government or the so-called “conventionalists.”
First of all if you go to the original study which he cites, (“What about building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories 07/08/2013), the authors of that study don't claim that either “conspiracists” or “conventionalists” are more "sane" than the other; and they don't even mention the CIA. However it is understandable that they came to those conclusions on their own, at least to a point. I certainly don't limit myself to conclusions from any one study or article.
More importantly is that they're using information from a large number of people that might have an ulterior motive or others that may have been manipulated by those that do and the study doesn't seem to take this possibility into consideration. This type of activity isn't limited to discussion of conspiracy theories; there have been numerous stories about how people have been hired to do online work for advertisers, political purposes, social research projects or other reasons; and they're probably more common than many people realize.
An article from earlier this year, Why Trolls Start Flame Wars: Swearing and Name-Calling Shut Down the Ability to Think and Focus cites a study reported in the New York Times about how uncivil comments polarizes the discussion and prevents rational reviews. In order to do this study they apparently had people intentionally behave in an irrational manner. The results of this study would enable anyone that wants to disrupt discussion about issues that they don't want disclosed to do so.
The amount of disruptive behavior done for this research project is almost certainly negligible; however much more is almost certainly being done to distort discussion, perhaps with the knowledge they obtained from either this research project or similar ones. After spending even a modest amount of time on some of these discussion boards it didn't take long to recognize some people that might have been behaving for these purposes; however there are almost certainly others that do so for their own irrational reasons so if, as I suspect this is happening, then it is hard to tell them apart. Those that are being disruptive for an ulterior motive might look the same as obsessive compulsive people that spend too much time on internet chat rooms and do a lot of trolling.
Glenn Greenwald reported previously on How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations using these methods and others. This type of activity would almost certainly skewer any research results being done using this method and unless they take this into consideration then their results might be flawed.
This could mean that this study might need to be reinterpreted based on the possibility that large portions of the discussions they've been studying might involve phony attempts to manipulate the public and even help advance stereotypes about conspiracy theories as political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith says or implies.
It is understandable for some people to be skeptical of the possibility that there are a lot of trolls disrupting internet discussions but this is actually trivial compared to some of the past conspiracy theories that have been proven to be true. Googling "conspiracy theories which turned out to be true" quickly turns out a long list of conspiracy theories that have been admitted to by the government as well as others that probably aren't quite as reliable. The same source that cited this study also came up with 5 conspiracy theories which turned out to be true. At least four of the examples they cite have been admitted to in government documents or hearings and the fifth has also been proven by numerous reliable sources.
Additional examples of conspiracies that have been proven to be true could include Watergate, Iran/Contra and the effort to look the other way when drugs were being run into the country to finance the Contras as well, which was exposed in the Kerry Committee report.
One other famous and well known theory that was acknowledged by the government was the JFK assassination conspiracy theory, or one version of it.
That's right one of the most widely ridiculed "conspiracy theories" was at least partially confirmed by a well known government investigation. The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that Kennedy was probably killed by a conspiracy. Then they tried to restore the previous explanation which never made any sense at all; and anyone that took a close look at the details knew this either before the HSCA came to their conclusions or after, or after they were revised so that they could restore the original incompetent explanation.
Who should feel more absurd or ridiculous for their beliefs, those that check the facts and notice when the government is changing their stories and misrepresenting history, or those that blindly believe what they're told by authority figures when it is repeated over and over again without scrutiny, even when it doesn't make sense?
Some of the conspiracy theories that have been proven true and often confirmed with disclosed documents that were previously classified are as absurd if not more absurd than arranging for a lot of people to infiltrate the internet to help distort the stereotypes about conspiracy theories. They would also be less expensive and harder to get caught at it as long as they rely on people that have an incentive not to disclose it, which would mean they would be disclosing their own illegal or unethical activity; and if they did so they would lack credibility and they could easily be portrayed as a conspiracy theorist.
However if the CIA participated in activities like Operation Northwoods, Operation Paperclip, MK-Ultra, and others as disclosed in the previous article and others that do an even better job documenting their activities then it is far more reasonable to assume that they wouldn't hesitate to create phony bloggers and message board participants than to assume that it is out of the question. However, to start assuming that just about every blogger or commenter would go to the other extreme. It would be far more rational to try to recognize principals based on their merits than to try to spend too much time trying to figure out which bloggers or commentators are credible, unless in some cases people get a large volume of information from a few sources. Even then occasional skepticism is in order.
Mike Adams, who is cited in a lower profile manner in the above article, does a far better job pointing out rational conspiracies that have been proven to be true in, "Refreshing rationality: Why NOT believing in conspiracies is a sure sign of mental retardation." He points out a long list of examples where government officials are the conspiracy theorists and prosecute people based on their theories. He states, "The idea, then, that there is no such thing as a conspiracy is flatly ludicrous," which is true; however there are plenty of ludicrous things that have also been true like some of the conspiracy theories that have been proven to be true and the selection of presidential candidates we had during the 2012 elections or during the 2010 midterm elections when the Tea Party ran a lot of ludicrous candidates.
The truth is often ludicrous!
What is more important is that in addition to being ludicrous the claim that there are no such things as conspiracies is factually inaccurate.
As for Lance deHaven-Smith's claim that The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time, which has apparently gone viral on the internet, there is an enormous amount of evidence to indicate that either it is true or there are one or more other groups that have accomplished this. I don't completely rule out the possibility that there are multiple groups with a common ideology that have done this, actually this is something that the CIA might have taken advantage of if they were doing such a thing without their knowledge.
As I indicated previously in at least a couple of posts about Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, Stanford Prison Experiment and Corruption or Bias in the American Psychological Association the military has been openly financing psychological research for decades and the CIA has almost certainly been involved in a lot of it, including some that has been disclosed like the ones previously mentioned and the Obedience to Authority experiments, which Professor Alfred McCoy claims is almost certainly done with support from the CIA acting through the Office of Navel Research.
Some of this research could easily be used for propaganda purposes and there is an enormous amount of additional research that could also be used for that purpose but it involves going through a lot of material which the majority of the public isn't inclined to do. Numerous sources including Victor Marchetti and Alfred McCoy have reported, over the decades about, how the CIA has been consulting with academics since they began and before when their predecessor the OSS began consulting with academics for covert operations during WWII, as indicated in the following declassified document from http://www.foia.cia.gov/.
It is understandable why they would chose to consult with scholars, psychologists, and technicians when trying to win a war but it is hard to understand why they would have relied so heavily on economists and students of finance from the very beginning unless you take into consideration that a large portion of the differences between the United States and the the USSR even before WWII was based on the way they controlled financing. What is rarely mentioned when discussing the appeasement of Hitler by the mainstream media is that part of the reason why they appeased them is because they thought he was a better alternative than the Soviet Union when it came to his financial ideology which was more like the one supported by the west giving large financial benefits to the elites.
A large portion of the information that good conspiracy theorists, who also happen to be rational skeptics rely on might not actually be completely secret at all, although it may not be widely broadcast to large segments of the public. A lot of this can be found in lower profile news outlets books and at the library; but the most accurate conclusions aren't always the quickest.
It is difficult to tell the difference between those that are trying to expose the truth for legitimate reasons and those that re doing so for an ulterior motive but it is much easier if more people recognize Manipulation Tactics and realize that those that are more likely to use them are often less likely to be sincere, although technically it is possible to use manipulation tactics to convince people of the truth there is less motive to do so.
This study may have some flaws but there are other ways to confirm that some conspiracy theorists are more rational and better informed than the majority of the public or some of the self described skeptics that automatically accept the official story without scrutiny even when research raises major doubts about it.
If the problems with this study are corrected then it could be more helpful in understanding how rational conspiracy theorists are, or sorting out the more rational ones from those that just go along with what they're told from one source or another. One of the things that they could study is how many people accepted this study without scrutiny, or even reading it.
People that are accustomed to reviewing social research studies might realize that most if not all of them have some kind of flaws in them and some are much worse. In order to recognize how reliable the studies are it is important to recognize their potential flaws. This could be similar to the Obedience to Authority experiments. A close review could determine who came up with their own ideas and who accepted the study because it supported their beliefs or who refuted it simply because it didn’t fit their beliefs and why.
A Google search of Lance deHaven-Smith's quote, “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time turns up,” hundreds if not thousands of hits with the full quote; and most of them seem to be related to the study that they claim shows “Study reveals conspiracy theorists the most sane of all.” It doesn’t take much searching to find that a lot of people accepted it without scrutiny; but apparently this brought a response from one of the author’s who claims that they’ve been taken out of context.
Mike Wood wrote Setting the record straight on Wood & Douglas, 2013 which seems to correct some of the misconceptions; however it doesn’t address some of the concerns that I made and I still believe there are additional concerns about the methodology of the study. What this does indicate is that additional study appears to be going on regarding how people respond to the study without scrutiny, or use it to support their beliefs, right or wrong.
Apparently they followed it up with another study that puts more emphasis on the claim that many conspiracy theorists accept contradictory theories at the same time which has been interpreted as saying “Psychologists prove conspiracy theorists are all crazy!” which is another misrepresentation. The claim that conspiracy theorists accept contradictory claims was in the first study; however it also says that they’re not necessarily overly attached to them. This could also be explained, for some commentators, if they make quick arguments based on the assumption that they’re theories which means that they don’t consider them firm beliefs; and if they recognize that they contradict each other and that both theories can’t be the true then this is acceptable in a rational discussion.
Sorting through multiple possibilities until they have adequate information to figure out which is true is part of the scientific process.
When doing this research it would also be helpful to have access to the servers of the discussions, although this would be an enormous amount of work and it would involve checking a lot of servers to find out the original sources and their IP or if some of the trolls all come from some of the same sources.
The people in the best position to do this would be those that control the media, since a large portion is on their servers and those that control many of the conspiracy message boards or Facebook.
Basically the people that would be in the best position to do this would be the NSA, which controls the ECHELON program, which they now call PRISM.
This is a possibility that I wouldn't rule out and if they wanted to control the disclosure of their own activities so that it either happens on their own terms or not at all this might be the way to do it.
A close look at many of the disclosures that have been coming out over the decades indicates that there are almost always obvious flaws mixed in with the truth, or something close to the truth so reasonable discretion will always be appropriate when sorting through it to get as close to the truth as possible.
On a lighter note if Monsanto pushes bizarre conspiracy theory to deflect blame for GE wheat contamination of commercial crops among other conspiracy theories indicates that it isn't whether or not there are conspiracies; but which ones you support since both sides often promote one or another. FWIW Here are a couple other articles that are related if anyone is interested:
12 Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking
German Journalist Blows Whistle On How the CIA Controls The Media
Donovan and the ClA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency by Thomas F. Troy