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The Unapologetic Geek

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The Birth of a Conspiracy Theory

Google calls this picture 'Craft Team Exposed'
The evidence is so clear and unambiguous!

The smoke had barely cleared from the Boston Marathon bombing when I first saw the phrase "false flag operation" on my Facebook feed. In the days that followed, I was treated to all sorts of paranoid speculation about the attack, including people who tried to tie it to the anniversary of Waco and Oklahoma City, people who were quick to assume this was the work of right-wing extremists, left-wing ecofanatics, or whatever other boogieman is popular (to be fair, some people were declaring that they were certain it was the work of Muslim terrorists long before that was known, which is no less arrogant an assumption), and of course, people who were already totally convinced that this was a secret plot carried out by some shadowy government organization for some nefarious purpose. After all, this is what a "false flag operation" is. Now we've got Glenn Beck trying to tell us that a Saudi national who is being deported is actually behind the whole thing and that there's an elaborate effort underway within the Obama administration to cover it up.

It will be several weeks, at least, before we know enough facts to say with any certainty what exactly happened at the Boston Marathon. Still, much of the drama has already unfolded, and it appears we've dealt with the two brothers responsible for the carnage. It's still too early to say this is all there is to know--there are legitimate questions to be asked about what the brothers were trying to accomplish, where they learned to make their bombs, whether they were part of a larger organization, and how we should treat the young man currently in custody--but it's definitely not too early to be annoyed with those trying to rally support for their conspiracy theory du jour.

This is hardly surprising, though. Every major news story these days is quickly followed by a stream of wild assumptions and crazed speculation on social media. There are still--still--theorists trying to gin up support for 9/11 conspiracies with tired questions like, "Since when does fire melt steel?" Indeed, a lot of the big news of any given day can be seen as a Rorschach test. Whether we're talking about the Newtown shooting, the Trayvon Martin case, or the president's last press conference, there are many who are all too eager to share their opinions and ideas about what is really going on.

Bin Laden SCUBA diving
I bet you think Bin Laden is actually dead, too, sheeple

It's perfectly understandable. The world is a complex and terrifying place, and we have evolved an ability to make sense out of our immediate surroundings with lightning speed, in order to be able to activate our fight or flight response at a moment's notice. The problem is that we didn't evolve in a small, interconnected world where we can open a window and live-stream exactly what's happening thousands of miles away. Our ancestors didn't have to come up with evolutionary strategies for coping with 24-hour cable news networks and boldly pontificating talking heads who confuse opinion with fact on a daily basis.

So we try to understand and contextualize everything that happens, and we don't like to admit that we aren't in possession of all the facts. Careful, empirical analysis isn't what our brains are programmed to do, because if an ancient human paused to consider all the possible explanations for that growling sound instead of leaping to the assumption that his life was in danger, he would have been eviscerated by a saber-toothed tiger. The conspiracy theorist takes comfort in the belief that he or she knows and understands things that the masses do not, and the theorist will never admit that he is ignorant of the facts.

Take the aforementioned fire-melting-steel talking point of the 9/11 truthers. The jist of it is that, since fire can't melt steel, the World Trade Center buildings didn't collapse just because they were hit by airplanes. For the last eleven years, however, people have been telling the truthers who trot out this assertion that steel is malleable when heated, which means that it doesn't have to get anywhere near the melting point in order to lose its structural integrity. It doesn't take much loss of integrity to bring down a building as ludicrously heavy as a Manhattan skyscraper. This inconvenient fact is irrelevant to the truthers, though, who generally refuse to even acknowledge it when they trot out their discredited talking point to someone else.

Steel bent in a fire
According to truther physics, this is impossible without the heat of a thousand suns

And like any grand conspiracy theory, a modicum of common sense reveals that it can't withstand the weight of its own assumptions. For example, let's assume that the truthers are right and that the airplanes hitting the Twin Towers weren't enough to cause the subsequent collapse. If you ask a truther what really caused the collapse, they will imply (or perhaps even say outright) that a controlled demolition is responsible. Think about this. A controlled demolition of a large abandoned building takes several weeks, at minimum, and a huge team of workers to wire the structure. The explosives and wires are big and visible. So let's apply Occam's Razor and ask which is more likely: that hundreds--if not thousands--of people were in on a conspiracy to demolish the World Trade Center, have remained silent for the past eleven and a half years, were capable of invisibly wiring the Twin Towers in complete silence without any of the tens of thousands of daily visitors noticing, and had no problem killing over 3,000 people; or that a few jihadists hijacked a couple of planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, causing it to collapse through physics you may not fully understand?

You can take it even further, if you really think it through. The sheer number of people who would have to be involved with the conspiracy is enormous, and the chance that all of these people would be both competent and silent is so infinitessimal that even a quantum mathematician would call it zero. But to the conspiracy theorist, probability is irrelevant. If an expert gets on television and discredits a conspiracy theory talking point, then that expert is just added to the list of people who are complicit in the conspiracy. In the end, it doesn't matter to the theorist that millions of people have to be in on it. The conspiracy theorist is the misunderstood hero in his own fantasy tale, and that's a dream he doesn't want to wake up from.

Woodward and Bernstein
These guys were into conspiracy theories before it was cool

I blame Nixon for proving to the modern world that even the U.S. government is capable of conspiratorial wrongdoing. Watergate was a staggering blow to our collective faith in our leaders (faith that wasn't exactly high to begin with), but it also helps demonstrate why pretty much every conspiracy theory is absurd. It's evidence against modern conspiracy theories because--and this is the kicker--they didn't get away with it. Watergate was just a little B&E at a hotel, and the conspirators were absolutely incapable of keeping it under wraps. How can you possibly believe that they could successfully get away with a conspiracy several orders of magnitude larger than that, especially in the Internet age? I'm all for distrusting the government, but there's a pretty thick line between healthy distrust and rampant idiocy.

This is why I have little patience for conspiracy theories. I believe JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. I don't believe that aliens crashed at Roswell, New Mexico. I believe that 9/11 was caused by Islamic extremists. I also believe that the Boston Marathon bombing was a terrorist plot, not a false flag operation under the direction of the U.S. government. Of course, I probably only believe these things because of the mind control drugs being pumped into the atmosphere by chemtrails.

-e. magill 4/23/2013

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