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Fostering healthy skepticism

I tried to think back to the earliest lie the United States government told me. I settled on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, where the government hid CIA involvement. Then where was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, secret bombing of Cambodia, Watergate and the list goes on to the Bush Administration and “yellow cake.” While the argument might be made that the US Government is more transparent than most, most of the time, that’s not where I’m going. History justifies a healthy skepticism about what the government says.

There really are government conspiracies and cover-ups, but the difference between healthy skepticism and conspiracy theories is that the latter persist even after they are proven to be wildly improbable. The problem with conspiracy theorists is that they give healthy skepticism a bad name and leave skeptics to start in the public perception hole dug by conspiracy theorists. It’s easy for real government conspirators to discredit skeptics just by using the “conspiracy theorist” label as the Bush campaign did to Howard Dean in the 2004 when he said that the Bush Administration was manipulating the terrorist alert level and recycling old intelligence for political purposes (which they were). And just as writing off skeptics as conspiracy theorists weakens healthy skepticism, so does using “conspiracy theorist” label (even if correctly) dull the users ability to distinguish between healthy skepticism and nutcase denialism. This is why I’m going to try to make a conscious effort to avoid any ad hominem argument that looks like: “you’re a conspiracy theorists; therefore, you are wrong.” They are wrong because of the facts, not because they are conspiracy theorists.

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33 Responses to Fostering healthy skepticism

  1. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy August 7, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    At this point I will highlight a couple of comments I made recently here:

    So, birther, exactly why are you demanding Obama do what he already did over two years ago? Because you are a stupid, ignorant birther, that’s why.

    That was probably uncalled for, even if accurate. The Birther had made a statement predicated on false facts, and I called him for it. I said it with the intention that the “shock value” might goad him into being more skeptical—something I sincerely doubt will happen. It was just a drive-by anyhow. The other comment was:

    You’re just a stupid birther and there is no reason to listen to you.

    That one was more calculated, coming on the heels of a previous warning to the commenter:

    So if you don’t want to receive the reply “you’re just a stupid birther and not worth listening to” to everything you say (or worse), you really need to take some responsibility for what you say.

    I was trying to convey a message that my warning was coming true after another irresponsible remark. (I think this one is a troll.) Perhaps I was being too subtle.

  2. avatar
    jdkinpa August 7, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    Speaking of fostering a healthy skepticism. Ran across this little ‘Sheriff’s posse’ news.

    http://www.kpho.com/story/22949208/sheriffs-posse-makes-mistakes-aims-to-fix-before-school-year

    I’d think that any parent who sends their children to a Maricopa County school would be highly skeptical of that child being safe at the hands of Sheriff Joe and his posse.

  3. avatar
    JPotter August 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    “Fostering healthY skepticism”

    Typo in title?

  4. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy August 7, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    The spell checker didn’t object, so it must be right.

    JPotter:
    “Fostering healthY skepticism”

    Typo in title?

  5. avatar
    JPotter August 8, 2013 at 1:47 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy:
    The spellchecker didn’t object, so it must be right.

    Unimpeachable logic, that 😉

  6. avatar
    Lupin August 8, 2013 at 3:15 am #

    The thing is, most of the conspiracies you mention were exposed; by this, I mean irrefutable evidence was found. As out;ined here before, an “Obama conspiracy” (were it real and not a delusion) would have to s[pan 50 years and involve 100,000 people. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s lunacy.

  7. avatar
    The Magic M August 8, 2013 at 3:54 am #

    Lupin: an “Obama conspiracy” (were it real and not a delusion) would have to s[pan 50 years and involve 100,000 people

    … while at the same time showing total incompetence at forging not one, but two birth certificates at a level that “every (enlightened) person on the internet can see it”.
    And that of all 100,000 people involved, it was those at the very core of the conspiracy (Obama himself and Bill Ayers) who freely told everyone and his dog that Obama was “born in Kenya” or “a foreign exchange student”.
    And that Congress is playing along and tells the press that Obama is eligible, yet tells every Dick and Tom who asks them in private that “everybody in DC knows he’s not eligible”.
    And about 500 more mutually exclusive stupid things birthers believe in.

  8. avatar
    Paul August 8, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Yeah… I still harbor what I’d like to think is “healthy skepticism” about WTC 7. I have no doubt the twin towers fell as they did, but I STILL can’t get my head around building 7. And here’s the thing:
    1: Allegedly there was a CIA office in that building.
    2: The Swiss have the bridges and tunnels into their country wired with explosives so that, in case of a ground invasion, all they have to do is blow the infrastructure. Ergo…
    3: Is it too farfetched to think that the US government did the same with a building containing materials so sensitive that the government would rather see them destroyed than discovered?

  9. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy August 8, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Have you read the book that came out of the Popular Mechanics investigation? It’s supposed to be very good and detailed.

    I think that it’s quite a stretch to go from the Swiss infrastructure to a non-infrastructure building that happened (maybe) to have a CIA office. And precisely how was the alleged CIA office’s allegedly sensitive material somehow in danger? Where was the threat coming from? Plus, I’m sure the CIA has ways of “sterilizing” its office short of blowing up the entire building. If one wanted to hide secrets, blowing up a building would be one of the worst approaches I could think of.

    Paul: I still harbor what I’d like to think is “healthy skepticism” about WTC 7.

  10. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy August 8, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    I could have written this article from a different angle, and titled it “overreacting to extremes.” I think people have difficulty with perspective; they overestimate fearful risks (terrorism, air travel) and then underestimate risks when a reward is involved (see: Lottery).

    It would be a mistake to overreact to birtherism by dismissing all skepticism.

  11. avatar
    Dr Kenneth Noisewater August 8, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Have you read the book that came out of the Popular Mechanics investigation? It’s supposed to be very good and detailed.I think that it’s quite a stretch to go from the Swiss infrastructure to a non-infrastructure building that happened (maybe) to have a CIA office. And precisely how was the alleged CIA office’s allegedly sensitive material somehow in danger? Where was the threat coming from? Plus, I’m sure the CIA has ways of “sterilizing” its office short of blowing up the entire building. If one wanted to hide secrets, blowing up a building would be one of the worst approaches I could think of.

    Yeah sounds too much like the X-files movie

  12. avatar
    gorefan August 8, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: blowing up a building would be one of the worst approaches I could think of.

    Not for Edward Lyle.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vh4Q3A0jvKY

  13. avatar
    ArthurWankspittle August 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    2:The Swiss have the bridges and tunnels into their country wired with explosives so that, in case of a ground invasion, all they have to do is blow the infrastructure.

    I sure I’ve seen this discussed elsewhere and the situation is that they have the ability and plans to do this, it is not the situation that every main bridge already has explosives under it.

  14. avatar
    JPotter August 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    ArthurWankspittle: I sure I’ve seen this discussed elsewhere and the situation is that they have the ability and plans to do this, it is not the situation that every main bridge already has explosives under it.

    Oh no, according to Swiss news reports it’s quite real. The policy began in the 1960s, and the implantation continued for decades. Some are being removed now, but many, many key points are still wired.

    Fun article:
    http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/archive/Lucerne_yields_up_explosive_secrets.html?cid=3456984

    Google “swiss tunnels bridges explosives” for a good time.

    Seems like an awful lot to maintain.

    There are so many other sites for Trooferiness …. please ignore that attempted trolljack!

  15. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Paul,

    Having taken an extensive look at the physics of the collapses of WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7 (before birthers I was fascinated with 9/11 truthers), I can say with confidence that the evidence strongly suggests that all three buildings collapsed as a direct result of the airliners striking the Twin Towers. Building 7 was seriously damaged by debris when the towers fell and had unchecked fires on at least one third of its floors, some of which were being fed by huge tanks of diesel fuel in the basement (intended to power backup generators). In addition, due to its construction on top of a ConEd substation, there was a structural flaw by which the failure of a certain column (I believe it was column #17) could cause a collapse which, in simulations, looks pretty much exactly like what was seen on 9/11 (first the east mechanical penthouse falls in followed by the gravitational collapse of the whole building). The speed at which it fell (a little less than free-fall speed) is consistent with the amount of energy necessary to collapse the structure being diverted from the kinetic energy of the collapse. Furthermore, the idea that explosive demolition charges could have been placed beforehand and concealed or placed after the planes hit the towers is, in my opinion, far less likely than Dr. Dunham traveling alone to Kenya to give birth in 1961. I believe that an objective look at the science and the objective evidence is sufficient to satisfy any and all healthy skepticism regarding the theory that planes hit buildings causing buildings to fall down which in turn caused falling building pieces to hit another building leading to massive damage and unchecked fires which lead to the failure of a key support of the other building and its collapse. As to your points, I don’t believe that any office building could be secretly wired with explosives even if someone were insane enough to do it and if the CIA wanted the ability to destroy sensitive data, localized charges to destroy all of their servers and hard-drives and thermite to burn all of their files to slag would have been a much cheaper and more effective solution. While the government has truly earned much of the skepticism that is directed its way, this particular theory has, in my mind, the same combination of uber-competence and complete idiocy that is characteristic of groups like the birthers.

    Paul:
    Yeah… I still harbor what I’d like to think is “healthy skepticism” about WTC 7.I have no doubt the twin towers fell as they did, but I STILL can’t get my head around building 7.And here’s the thing:
    1:Allegedly there was a CIA office in that building.
    2:The Swiss have the bridges and tunnels into their country wired with explosives so that, in case of a ground invasion, all they have to do is blow the infrastructure.Ergo…
    3:Is it too farfetched to think that the US government did the same with a building containing materials so sensitive that the government would rather see them destroyed than discovered?

  16. avatar
    helen August 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    Ergo, I am not a birther as I don’t believe that there was any explosives in any building in the WTC. Correction , it is not impossible that there were explosive substance in the buildings, but not high order explosive.

    I believe the government has lied to us since the government was established in 1789, or so, but the people don’t want to believe that is possible!

    If the government has security clearances and locked doors, they are lying to us!

    If the government does not want the people to know what is in the lawyer’s offices they are lying to us.

    And this administration is a fine example of lying to the public.

    But, some actually believe that everything the government issues is absolute truth, and that belief can not be swayed

    That is a true statement

  17. avatar
    helen August 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    the next thing the government will probably do is put destructors in the files of the news that they do not want exposed.

  18. avatar
    Arthur August 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    helen: That is a true statement

    The fact that government officials and agencies occasionally lie, does not make birther delusions true.

  19. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    That’s some fine word salad, Helen. I especially like “high order explosive”—did you make that up yourself?

    As for administrations or presidents lying to the American people, I think that the current administration, while they have been disingenuous on some topics like civil liberties, has a long way to go to exceed whoppers like “I am not a crook” (he was), “Iraq has WMDs” (they didn’t), “torture is a legal/ethical/effective means of gathering information” (it isn’t any of those things), or even “I did not have sex with that woman” (by any definition that most people’s wives would care about, he did).

    helen:
    Ergo, I am not a birther as I don’t believe that there was any explosives in any building in the WTC.Correction , it is not impossible that there were explosive substance in the buildings, but not high order explosive.

    Ibelieve the government has lied to us since the government was established in 1789, or so, but the people don’t want to believe that is possible!

    If the government has security clearances and locked doors, they are lying to us!

    If the government does not want the people to know what is in the lawyer’s offices they are lying to us.

    And this administration is a fine example of lying to the public.

    But, some actually believe that everything the government issues is absolute truth, and that belief can not be swayed

    That is a true statement

  20. avatar
    Dr Kenneth Noisewater August 8, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Slartibartfast: That’s some fine word salad, Helen. I especially like “high order explosive”—did you make that up yourself?

    Like I said typical trolljack word salad

  21. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    I know you can’t expect rationality, objectivity, erudition, or a lack of hypocrisy from a troll, but it would be nice to see at least a little bit of coherence…

    Dr Kenneth Noisewater: Like I said typical trolljack word salad

  22. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    I think one of the signs that someone is crossing the line between healthy skepticism and conspiracy theorist is when they explicitly or implicitly demonize people as villans in their narrative. President Bush did some truly horrible things, but I have no doubt that he thought he was doing what was right. However, if the truthers were correct (especially the MIHOP truthers), he would be a complete monster. The birthers have no problem painting President Obama, Michelle, Dr. Dunham, the president’s grandparents, Barack Obama Sr., any number of Hawai’ian officials, Nancy Pelosi, and many others as horrible people bent on doing evil. I think that if your theory can’t be true if you assume people believe their actions to be honorable then it is most likely that your theory isn’t true.

  23. avatar
    Hektor August 8, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Slartibartfast: The birthers have no problem painting President Obama, Michelle, Dr. Dunham, the president’s grandparents, Barack Obama Sr., any number of Hawai’ian officials, Nancy Pelosi, and many others as horrible people bent on doing evil.

    Slart, I agree. There’s a phrase I heard a long time ago that I am fond of, people are rarely the devil in their own stories. I think that a sign of conspiracy thinking versus true skepticism is not just that powerful figures are viewed as malevolent, but when fairly average people are tarred with that brush too. With Sandy Hook truthers, they have accused grieving families of being “in on it.” With birthers, state employees of the Hawaiian DoH are seen as co-conspirators.

    I think that if your operative theory requires whole groups of people to be willfully aiding (or at least turning a blind eye to) malfeasance, I think you reach conspiracy theory land.

  24. avatar
    Northland10 August 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    Slartibartfast: Having taken an extensive look at the physics of the collapses of WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7 (before birthers I was fascinated with 9/11 truthers)…

    There goes Slartibartfast, acting like he is some type of science guy. Oh wait.. He is. Well, how can you trust anybody whose lived in a place that, when somebody asks where they are from, the point at their hand.

  25. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    Come on, it’s not like you don’t know the difference between a Yooper and a Troll…

    Anyway, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been here *points at second phalange on right palm*, but now I’m back home over here *points at lower left of right palm*. While my family was visiting we went here *points with nose at spot between left and right palms* like good fudgies, but there wasn’t a path of Christmas trees to follow (that last reference was a trap—if you got it, then you’re one of us… bwa-ha-ha-HA-ha!)

    I would also point out that I haven’t just lived in the place, I’m a natural born citizen of it (by the common law definition, that is, birthers would quibble because I don’t know my biological parents and can’t prove their citizenship).

    And what’s up with the “whose”, eh?

    Northland10: There goes Slartibartfast, acting like he is some type of science guy.Oh wait.. He is. Well, how can you trust anybody whose lived in a place that, when somebody asks where they are from, the point at their hand.

  26. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 8, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    I’ve never heard that particular phrase before, but that is exactly what I was getting at. I think that the casual tarring of “regular” people that you mention is what takes birthers (and Sandy Hook truthers. I hate Sandy Hook truthers) from just being deluded souls with too many cognitive biases and too few critical thinking skills who should be pitied (and ridiculed) to horrible people that I wish were on the receiving end of a huge helping of instant karma.

    Hektor: Slart, I agree. There’s a phrase I heard a long time ago that I am fond of, people are rarely the devil in their own stories. I think that a sign of conspiracy thinking versus true skepticism is not just that powerful figures are viewed as malevolent, but when fairly average people are tarred with that brush too. With Sandy Hook truthers, they have accused grieving families of being “in on it.” With birthers, state employees of the Hawaiian DoH are seen as co-conspirators.

    I think that if your operative theory requires whole groups of people to be willfully aiding (or at least turning a blind eye to) malfeasance, I think you reach conspiracy theory land.

  27. avatar
    Dr Kenneth Noisewater August 9, 2013 at 12:04 am #

    Slartibartfast:
    I know you can’t expect rationality, objectivity, erudition, or a lack of hypocrisy from a troll, but it would be nice to see at least a little bit of coherence…

    But that’s not trolljack’s game. His game is to twist logic until it’s completely incoherent. He thinks birthers (himself) included have gotten a raw deal and have been at the receiving end of unfair criticism. His game is to twist everything and have you chase his tail around.

  28. avatar
    John Reilly August 9, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    I do not believe Dante created a circle of Hell low enough for Sandy Hook truthers.

  29. avatar
    Andrew Vrba, PmG August 9, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    John Reilly:
    I do not believe Dante created a circle of Hell low enough for Sandy Hook truthers.

    Which Falcon is one of, surprise surprise. That’s one reason why I look upon anything he has to say with extra disgust.

  30. avatar
    Kiwiwriter August 9, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    As far as security clearances go and not releasing information:

    There’s a difference between the government not releasing information and the government releasing a lie.

    We hold personnel records confidential for privacy act reasons. By Helen’s thinking, the government’s failure to release those records is lying. No, it’s not. It’s protecting privacy and the personnel hiring/disciplinary/promotion/job termination process.

    As for the WTC: My pal Mike Sheridan was the operations manager of the place and retired just before the 2001 blasts. He was in charge during the 1993 bombing, and saved lives. He knew many of the PA people who both died and lived on 9/11.

    Any time someone suggested to him that the WTC was destroyed by anything but hijacked airliners — all three buildings — he would greet them with a punch in the mouth. Mike knew better.

  31. avatar
    Slartibartfast August 9, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    And he would have been every bit as justified as Buzz Aldrin punching out Bart Sibrel. These people think nothing of insulting the honor of heroes in pursuit of their delusions. John Reilly is right, Dante didn’t go far enough. Maybe they can go to Reverend Book’s “special hell”, although I would be happy so long as they left the planet in any manner.

    Kiwiwriter: Any time someone suggested to him that the WTC was destroyed by anything but hijacked airliners — all three buildings — he would greet them with a punch in the mouth. Mike knew better.

  32. avatar
    Paul August 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    First time back to this thread since I posted, but… Good points well taken, y’all!