As Anthony Hall says, Michael Shermer isn’t a real economics professor – he just plays one on TV. But that doesn’t mean he’s always wrong. In a recent Scientific American article, Shermer gives us many reasons to think that the Official Conspiracy Theory of 9/11 is “likely to be untrue.” Below is Shermer’s list of the characteristics of probably-untrue conspiracy theories. My comments are in italics.
Nevertheless, we cannot just dismiss all such theories out of hand, because real conspiracies do sometimes happen. Instead we should look for signs that indicate a conspiracy theory is likely to be untrue. The more that it manifests the following characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality:
1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
Good point, Michael! Example: The government’s 169 “overt acts” allegedly showing a conspiracy by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five co-defendents to pull off 9/11 in fact show no such thing. The 169 acts consist of innocent actions like starting bank accounts and purchasing Swiss Army knives. Only a paranoid, hyper-imaginative lunatic could connect these 169 dots and see a plot to pull off 9/11. The government has essentially admitted that there is no convincing evidence against these defendants, by withdrawing plans to try the defendants for these crimes. Likewise, the FBI and the Justice Department have admitted that there is “no hard evidence” connecting Osama Bin Laden to 9/11. That means that the popular conspiracy theory that 19 guys conspired with KSM, OBL and five co-defendants is, in your words, “likely to be false.”
2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
Another good point! How could four groups of four and five 5-foot-tall 150-pound Arabs – all on the same day – succeed in taking planes away from brawny military-vet pilots, when no US hijackings had succeeded in more than two decades? How could they prevent the pilots from squawking the hijack code – a simple action that takes at most a few seconds – on all four of the planes? How could three of four hijacker pilots – the best of whom was so incompetent he was prohibited from soloing in a Cessna training aircraft – succeed at hitting extremely difficult targets at sea-level speeds that probably exceed the capability of the aircraft? How could they avoid all of America’s military defenses and fly around unmolested for more than an hour and a half? How could they take down three skyscrapers with two planes? Compare these guys – who looked like the most pathetic, bumbling, booze-and-drug-addled incompetents imaginable during the run-up to 9/11, yet allegedly morphed into superheroes on 9/11 – to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, and the Christmas tree bomber.. Why did the pathetic 9/11 patsies – but none of the other pathetic terror patsies – suddenly develop superhuman powers?
3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
9/11 was a complex crime no matter who did it. Intelligence agencies, and the private entities they work with (top-tier organized crime outfits, high-tech military contractors) would obviously be more capable of pulling off such an intricate operation than a ragtag bunch of lowlifes.
‘Eckehardt Werthebach, former president of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, Verfassungsschutz, told AFP that “the deathly precision” and “the magnitude of planning” behind the attacks of September 11 would have needed “years of planning.” Such a sophisticated operation, Werthebach said, would require the “fixed frame” of a state intelligence organization, something not found in a “loose group” of terrorists like the one allegedly led by Mohammed Atta while he studied in Hamburg. Many people would have been involved in the planning of such an operation and Werthebach pointed to the absence of leaks as further indication that the attacks were “state organized actions.”‘ http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BOL403A.html
4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
Intelligence agencies, and to a lesser extent organized crime outfits, have a proven capability to keep secrets; ordinary people, like the nineteen 9/11 patsies and the people they allegedly conspired with, do not. (Anyone who thinks governments cannot keep secrets ought to study the Manhattan Project and Operation Northwoods.)
5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
What do political and economic elites ever do but conspire for control over nations, economies, and political systems? What do empires ever do but conspire in pursuit of world domination? What in the world was Shermer smoking when he wrote this?
6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
Like ratcheting up from Arabs starting bank accounts and buying Swiss army knives to pulling off superhuman feats and defying the laws of physics.
7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
Swiss army knives and bank accounts.
8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
Facts: Swiss army knives and bank accounts. Speculations: two planes destroy three buildings.
9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
I have never heard of anyone being “indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups.” Nobody has ever accused, say, the Social Security Administration or the Rotary Club of involvement with 9/11. This one is a straw man.
10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.
This is exactly what the 9/11 Commission did, as David Ray Griffin explains in The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions. (Short version here.)
To sum up: Many, though not all, of Shermer’s points are at least partially valid. But they must be applied evenhandedly to all theories about any given historical event. And it should be added that if a crime is complex, or required the keeping of secrets, it should probably be attributed to those organizations that specialize in complex operations and the keeping of secrets.