Things are going along just fine and then there is a crisis, a financial bubble bursts, unemployment surges, terrorists blow up something. We live in a world saturated with information and events, and it is only natural to try to make sense of them. One writer on conspiracy theories described them as a “poor man’s sociology,” an unscientific attempt to explain things.
The two large competing popular views of why events bad happen are that events are the result of an unseen malevolent hand engaged in a conspiracy, and the other is that things are more or less accidents and screw-ups (the Forrest Gump “**IT” happens view). Neither view is correct, a priori. Indeed both could be called a poor man’s sociology (or whatever scientific discipline one wants to apply). I do no agree that there are only these two alternatives. I believe that there are predictable natural processes too.
While there is serious debunking of the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory, and the 9/11 Twin Towers controlled demolition theory, much of what appears for debunking is begging question by saying things like, “the government can’t keep a secret,” or to attack the sanity of the one presenting the theory. I prefer to limit my own application of ridicule to conspiracy theories to the really silly ones, like the guy who says that teen aged Obama teleported to a base on Mars.
Certainly in the Obama Conspiracy debunking process, we do invoke accident, such things as part of a date missing from a selective service registration, or a publicist client brochure saying Obama was born in Kenya. But invocation of an accident is not enough. It should be argued that the accident is plausible: in the case of the date stamp finding other date stamps with parts missing, and in the case of the brochure obtaining the testimony of the one who wrote it. Birthers say that the oddities in Obama’s story are so numerous as to be implausible as accidents; however, much of what birthers include in that list of oddities turn out not to be odd. One must also take into account that massive amounts of material were sifted to come up with that list.
One of my preferred techniques is to find internal inconsistencies in the conspiracist narrative. An example is a birther narrative that explains artifacts in Obama’s birth certificate PDF to an inept forger, while at the same time the birther narrative says Obama was out into office by the CIA who has some of the best forgers in the world. Another basic technique is to demonstrate that birther premises are false, such as their premise that no one used the phrase African American in 1961 or there was a travel ban to Pakistan in place for Americans in 1981 when Obama traveled there. Contemporary government documents blow apart both those stories.
Finally, I expect someone putting forward a conspiracy theory to offer some tangible evidence beyond a coincidence. Birthers tried that with Obama’s birth certificate, but that all fell apart under close scrutiny. If that evidence is testimony, then I expect some explanation of how the witness knows what he claims (this is where the Tim Adams story fell down), or if it is expert testimony, then I expect the witness to be an actual expert.
Insofar as Obama birthplace conspiracy theories, I think the skeptics have done a solid debunking job, and have not relied simply on skepticism and ridicule.