False Flags and Vapour Trails: Reflections on Conspiracy Theory

Vapour trailsYesterday, I attended a talk here in Vancouver by author and activist Yves Engler, promoting his latest book The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy. While the talk was very informative, most of the entertainment came during the question-and-answer session towards the end, during which a pair of audience members raised the topics of false flag operations and chemtrails.

Not being fully caught up on all forms of supervillainy commonly attributed to the US government, I had to look that last one up. Chemtrails refer to chemical agents placed in the vapour trails of airplanes for purposes of spreading illness, changing the weather, or controlling the population. Engler for the most part refrained from responding to that one. However, on the subject of false flag operations (military attacks made to appear as though they were executed by one’s opponents), Engler gave an utterly reasonable, if brief, reply along the lines that such operations have undoubtedly occurred historically, but that this did not mean they were everywhere. Sometimes, things actually are the way they seem.

I always feel relieved when radical thinkers resist the temptation to fall into the conspiracy theory trap, something exceedingly easy for anti-establishment types to do. Is this fair, this dismissive attitude? Is it really so simple? (See here for an interesting read on how not-so-simple it is, a read that significantly influenced my thoughts on the matter.)

If I may extend Engler’s comment on false flag operations, conspiracies in general sometimes do take place and will probably continue to do so into the future. This is uncontroversial. Well-known examples include Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. And if we include not only conspiracies of action but also conspiracies of motivation (for example, governments lying about their reasons for passing a law or pursuing a goal or invading Iraq), then there is nothing particularly uncommon about conspiracy theorizing.

Yet I feel reluctant to place myself anywhere on a spectrum that includes truthers, birthers, climate change skeptics, and Holocaust deniers. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad?

If one assumes (as I do) that the vast majority of conspiracy theories — though not quite all — are false, then it is reasonable to greet every new one not with outright rejection, nor with perfect neutrality, but with an attitude of healthy suspicion. That is an appropriate starting point, and one should adjust one’s position in one direction or the other as evidence presents itself.

Some, however, will object to the first premise above. Who says conspiracy theories are usually wrong? Maybe they have simply not been found out. Where is the evidence that proves them false, and to the extent that such evidence exists, is it reliable or is it itself part of the conspiracy?

That last question is what makes conspiracy theories, in their most extreme form, so frustrating to me. They are unfalsifiable. Any expert opinion that appears to support an opposing worldview is treated not as evidence against the conspiracy, but as evidence of how deep this thing really goes. President Obama’s birth certificate is dismissed for being short-form rather than long-form, or, if the long-form certificate is released, for allegedly being photoshopped. Scientific testimony that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel use is dismissed as having been paid for by deep-pocketed environmentalists or some kind of global communist New World Order.

It is virtually impossible to disprove these allegations. Whatever retort one offers, the “true believers” will have an answer that weaves the retort seamlessly into the very fabric of the conspiracy. Therefore, my policy of healthy suspicion must ultimately rest on pragmatic grounds.

If we were to require the same stringently high standards of proof that conspiracy theorists demand of establishment narratives, and moreover if we were to apply these standards consistently, then it would be virtually impossible to truly know anything. We would be plunged into a world of darkness and uncertainty. No election result or ingredients list or auditor’s report would ever be trustworthy. For that matter, neither would any conspiracy theory.

In other words, in order to believe in anything — “official story” or otherwise — we must agree on a few basic things that, at least most of the time, deserve our trust. For starters, I recommend science, as well as other forms of scholarship. I would also add those facets of government that are sufficiently constrained by legal checks and transparency requirements as to be reliable. Obviously not every politician or office or agency would make that cut.

At the same time, while my policy of healthy suspicion of conspiracy theory is certainly not compatible with dogmatic mistrust of the establishment, one should not go too far in the other direction either. An open mind and a willingness to question authority are necessary so that we are not caught by surprise on those occasions when real conspiracies do occur. At the very least, mainstream voices need to stop treating the term “conspiracy theorist” as an insult.

Still, don’t expect me to run for cover the next time I see a vapour trail.