April 8 2014 – Cracked Podcast: Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened

Click here to listen: Cracked Podcast: Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened

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                  In this episode of the podcast, Cracked editors Jack O’Brien, Soren Bowie and Jason Pargin discuss real conspiracies that actually happened. Most of these conspiracies are the products of a paranoid Cold War era, none of which are especially surprising to anyone familiar with the time period (or anyone whose read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). The most interesting part of the podcasts isn’t the conspiracies themselves but how the hosts try to demarcate plausible conspiracy theories from insane conspiracy theories. While they make a noble effort, their answer is never very clear or concise and only hints at what a plausible criterion might look like. In this paper, I will briefly summarize one of the conspiracy theories mentioned in the Cracked podcast, explain how the Cracked editors address the demarcation problem, and finally, attempt to sketch my own criteria for how to spot a crazy conspiracy theory.

There were many interesting conspiracy theories discussed over the course of the podcast but I will focus on one I found particularly intriguing. It is the case of a 1950 joint study conducted by the U.S. Army and Navy that involved spraying the bacteria serratia marcescens on the city of San Francisco. The purpose of the study was to test the capability for a dangerous biological agent to be dispersed over a coastline city. The germ used was thought to be harmless, though highly infectious, and therefore perfect for scientific study. The Cracked hosts claim that the experiment resulted in the death of 75-year-old Edward Nevin, who contracted serratia induced pneumonia [1]. Nevin did indeed die of pneumonia and eleven others also reported serratia pneumonia in the weeks following the spraying. However, the Cracked hosts seem all too eager to assume that the Army tests caused Nevin’s death and the uptick in pneumonia cases. The Army’s own internal documents (which were never intended to be made public) consider this possibility but reject it because “No other hospitals reported similar outbreaks… suggesting that the source of their infections lay inside the hospital [2].”

So what separates a plausible sounding conspiracy theory from an implausible conspiracy theory? It is an unfortunate fact that sinister people sometimes really do get together and conspire but how do we discern the real conspiracies from the fictional ones? The Cracked hosts spend a lot of time discussing the psychology that motivates people to embrace conspiracy theories and even more time lamenting how real conspiracies are often ignored.[3] While they mention some of the red flags surrounding crazy conspiracy theories, they never offer us much a criterion for separating fact from fiction.

I want to offer a prima facie checklist for assessing any conspiracy theory. The first tip is to watch out for “weasel words.” Weasel words are meant to smuggle assumptions into an argument, implicitly asserting something to be the case. Consider the common example; “The official story says that Oswald shot Kennedy…” Here the phrase “official story” is meant to imply that there are equally plausible alternative accounts and that the “official” version is merely one possibility, crafted by those in power (and often, the very same people involved in the conspiracy!). Of course what official really means is just the widely accepted version, which appears much less threatening in the sentence; “The official story is that most dentists recommend chewing sugar free gum for a healthier, whiter smile.”

The second tip for analyzing conspiracy theories is to ask ones self, “If this conspiracy is true…what else is true?” In order for many conspiracy theories to be true, the conspirators in question often have to be fantastically well organized and capable of executing amazingly elaborate projects, all while keeping those involved quiet. Consider the typical 9/11 conspiracy; it claims that the U.S. government actually orchestrated the attacks. If this is true than where did the government find the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of complacent psychopaths who were willing to line the WTC buildings with explosives, strap missiles onto the planes, kill the passengers on flight 93, and of course, compose and disseminate the false story about the nineteen Muslim hijackers? Why have none of these people drunkenly confessed their part in the conspiracy to a romantic partner? Why haven’t they killed themselves over guilt and left a note detailing their part in the plot? Why haven’t they cashed in on a book deal and made millions? Conspiracy theorists seem to have forgotten what most of us learned in high school; gossip is an intractable component of human nature [4].

The final tip for dealing with a conspiracy theory is ask those asserting the theory to consider; “What would it take to change your mind?” For any given conspiracy, you should seriously consider what would constitute proof (or at least compelling evidence) for the conspiracy. Likewise, the conspiracy theorist asserting the claim should be able to explain what would constitute the falsifying of their conspiracy theory. The insidious nature of conspiracy theories is that they are often self-immunized against counter evidence because “all evidence against the conspiracy is evidence for the conspiracy [5].” When an idea cannot be disproven by evidence, it is a safe bet that the belief was never formed on the basis of evidence. While admittedly imperfect, the three tips I offered should provide a good working model for how to assess conspiracy theories.

Importance/Relevance:

The reason often listen to Cracked Podcasts are because they are opinion leaders and their podcasts are incredible popular. People seem to love the way they sensationalize information. Which is a problem. As Postman warns we can’t let all information be entertainment there needs to be components that are taken seriously. Unfortunately I believe that this ship has sailed. Competition in media is intense and information that is sensationalized will always sell better and be heard louder. So I believe the only thing to do is not to slow down the progress of the medium but rather learn new ways to cope with the information overload. The primary way to do this is to promote skepticism and critical thinking.

Trilogy: Information, Persuasion, Entertainment

[1] Cracked Podcast, Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened (Monday, March 31, 2014) 12:20

[2] Jim Carlton, Of Microbes and Mock Attacks: Years Ago, The Military Sprayed Germs on U.S. Cities (Oct. 22, 2001) http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1003703226697496080

[3] Cracked Podcast, Insane Conspiracies, 55:50

[4] Almost all of the real conspiracies mentioned in the podcast were exposed for precisely this reason. Somebody always goes to the press or tells someone who does.

[5] Inspired by Brain Dunning’s “The Three Laws of Conspiracy Theories” which are: “Law #1: Authority’s version of events is untrue, by default. Law #2: Everything that differs from the authoritative version is more likely true. Law #3: All evidence that contradicts #1 or #2 is part of the conspiracy.”

Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast, The JFK Assassination (Nov. 19, 2013)

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