Conspiracy World

Bill Keller, the top NYT editor, goes exploring:

Humans live along a continuum from doubt to faith. Wander far enough in the direction of faith and you reach the land of Nostradamus and of the Rapture (recently postponed). Wander too far in the other direction, past cynicism, through misanthropy, and you get to more or less the same zone of credulity: Osama bin Laden isn’t dead, President Obama isn’t American, global warming is a hoax.

Later in the column, Keller talks to scholar who makes an observation that seems applicable to conspiracy theorists on both the left and right:

Suspicion hardens into full-blown conviction when people lose faith in authorities, says [Peter] Knight, who edited “Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America.” The present day, he told me, when Internet access has sparked a proliferation of competing, self-appointed authorities, is a particularly fertile time for conspiracy theorists, who might ask: ” “˜Why would you believe The New York Times? Why do they have a monopoly on truth? Surely Twitter and WikiLeaks are just as trustworthy.’ “

Knight added, “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”

That is quite evident, as anyone who browses through the comments on most any climate blog can see.

13 Responses to “Conspiracy World”

  1. Ed Forbes says:

    “…Knight added, “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”…”

    The loss of faith in the media is an old and honorable tradition.

    William Randolph Hearst was one of the more “colorful”, but hardly unique.

  2. Tom Gray says:

    “”¦Knight added, “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.””¦

    Is MSNBC a MSM? Is Fox News a MSM?

    Is the Telegraph a MSM? Is the Guardian a MSM?

    Is the Toronto Star a MSM? Is the national Post a MSM?

  3. David44 says:

    Relevant to this post is one today from  Judith Curry excerpting  an interview with Michael Foucault shortly before his death, entitled “Polemics, Politics, and Problemizations.

  4. Nullius in Verba says:

    “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”
    That’s ever so funny! Do you mean to say there are people who actually believe what they read in the papers?!
    The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that instead of teaching scientific method, the education system has instead often taken the shortcut of teaching by means of scientific authority. Teachers say they don’t have time to go through all the details and questions if they want to get through the curriculum, and many students would not understand anyway, so they instead tell them “what science says”, and students are frequently expected to take it on faith. The result is that they can pass exams, but they don’t know what science actually is. (Insert the usual references to Feynman essays here.)
    The basic flaw with Scientific Authority is that authority is an essentially political method, and is therefore vulnerable to political attack by setting up alternative authorities, or by disputing or discrediting authorities. If you teach a student that evolution is true without teaching them why, they will be vulnerable to the first creationist to come along with a halfway-plausible story. They have no immunity to it, never having been vaccinated against controversy and confusion. In class, science always follows a clean and linear narrative – reality is messy.
    It’s not just science – the observation is applicable more generally to the way society forms beliefs. Having relied for years on Argument from Authority, it comes as a shock to any sort of true believers when others don’t have faith in the same Authorities. But the problem is not that they believe in the wrong Authorities, but that having taught nothing but Argument from Authority, it means that when it stops working there’s nothing left to replace it. People cast around at random and pick up the most bizarre and illogical things. The pervasive use of authority has done immense damage to society’s rational capabilities.

  5. Jeff Norris says:

    Conspiracy Theories are just an example mankind’s desire to demand order in a chaotic system.  What is more comforting the idea that the Christians or Nero’s men started the fire or that it was just happenstance? The former can be easily prevented the latter not so much.
    The loss of faith in institutions is more the fault of the institutions themselves than in the public.  Spin and damage control are more often their reaction than humility and honesty.   These intuitions would be better off to reject Napoleon’s advice on mistakes and apply George Washington’s view
    It is with pleasure I receive reproof, when reproof is due, because no person can be readier to accuse me, than I am to acknowledge an error, when I am guilty of one; nor more desirous of atoning for a crime, when I am sensible of having committed it.

  6. jeffn says:

    So… absence of trust in the MSM equals conspiracy theory? That’s a switch. It was my understanding that both “sides” have been pretty adamant lately that the MSM has done a poor job of coverage- particularly the over-hyping of AGW connections to any weather event. (read the tortured back-tracking on Katrina or the “prediction/projection/speculation” of an “ice-free north pole” – ie the “no scientist said that, it was just journalists…”
    Real Climate has complained about this and even Monbiot has been brutal on his own paper’s (and his own) coverage of nuclear power. Is there a new conspiracy theory epidemic among the warm side? Or is this lack of faith a “problem” only amongst those who might disagree politically with Keller?
    I have this vision of Keller screaming “respect my author-it-tay” and nobody is listening (apologies to those who aren’t South Park fans).

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    @4 I was about to respond to your last comment on the other thread when i saw this one, so I’ll stick with this, since it’s related:

    Are you being facetious or do you actually mean this:

    Do you mean to say there are people who actually believe what they read in the papers?!”

    This goes to the flaw in your arguments here and the other thread: you paint with a broad brush that is overly simplistic.

    Yes, the news media is flawed, has subjective biases, is selective about the news and stories it reports, etc. So? Do you not have the ability to be a discerning reader and decide which news stories are being accurately and fairly reported? Must the whole institution be considered rotten and untrustworthy?

    Again, it’s hard for me to see how you get by day to day, questioning every morsel of information presented to you. Am I really seeing the sun in the sky? Or is that my cognitive bias telling me its the sun?

    The same with this bit about scientific authority being used in the education system. What a load of rubbish. And ironic too, as you speak with Authority as if that’s the way science is actually taught in schools. My older son is in public grade school. He also takes an after school science class and in both places he is being taught NOT FROM AUTHORITY. He is being taught actual science. He doesn’t come home and tell me what the teacher told him to believe. He tells me about the latest experiment or what he learned.

    Lastly, on what basis do make this statement:

    “If you teach a student that evolution is true without teaching them why, they will be vulnerable to the first creationist to come along with a halfway-plausible story.”

    Do you really think that’s how evolution is taught? I’d also like to hear that halfway plausible story about creationism. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about evolution–and who is not a strong religious believer–won’t be taken in by pseudo scientific creationist tales from the Discovery Institute.

  8. Nullius in Verba says:

    Yes, I was being facetious. I assumed the point was widely enough known/accepted that I didn’t have to be precise about about it, and I could indulge in a little humour.
    I exaggerate sometimes for the sake of clarity and brevity.
    “Do you not have the ability to be a discerning reader and decide which news stories are being accurately and fairly reported?”
    This follows: “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”
    (“Faith”?) I presume you consider this “quite evident” in a similarly non-literal way. It’s not all-or-nothing.
    Everybody knows, or at least I assumed they did, that the media doesn’t always tell the truth, or get it right. Everybody knows that you have to use your own judgement to discern whether a story is believable. Everyone with specialised knowledge of a technical subject area will be familiar with how badly the media usually mangle it when they do a story on a subject they know well. But everyone still mostly forgets that fact when it comes to all the other technical subjects they don’t know. Most people probably underestimate just how bad it is. I know I do.
    “Do you really think that’s how evolution is taught?”
    I came to that conclusion based on the number of arguments about evolution I’ve been involved in where the people arguing for it quite evidently didn’t understand how it worked either, and I had to break off from arguing against the creationists to fix the misunderstandings on my own side. The number of times some doubter asked a serious question about speciation or symbiosis, and the only answer given was that “thousands of professional biologists attest to it…”
    Everyone who has gone to school knows more than the slightest bit about evolution – and thousands are taken in. I’ve met dozens with no strong religious convictions at all who did doubt it. And when I asked them why, it turned out it was because they had basic misunderstandings of the theory that nobody had ever bothered to explain.
    Maybe they were taught properly but just forgot. Maybe they weren’t. I’m going by own individual experience here, I haven’t done an in-depth study.
    But the “dumbing down” of science education is something that many others have noted before me. It looks and sounds like science – experiments and all – but if you prod it a little harder, it isn’t science. You will, I am sure, remember Feynman’s many essays on the subject.
    If people had even the most basic education in real science, I wouldn’t keep on seeing Argument from Authority ad Populam popping up everywhere I look as justification for its claims. People would know that Authority is contrary to science. But I do. So where does it come from, if not their education?

  9. Jeff Norris says:

        I think Mr. Keller is more likely shouting “It’s not our Fault!”.  The MSM  despite their denials have   two problems that are undermining their credibility.  1) Herd mentality or Group think and 2) Bias when it comes to politically charged issues.  Look at the recent coverage wrt Mr. Weiner.

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    Michael Crichton skewered this ages ago…

    Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward “” reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story “” and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

    That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.”

  11. Michael Larkin says:

    “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”
    I know they don’t tell the truth about things that interest me and I have some knowledge of. It isn’t necessarily conscious lying – as often as not it’s a combination of ignorance and laziness. Extrapolating from that, why should I believe they are telling the truth about things that don’t interest me and/or I know little about?
    I have stopped reading physical newspapers and only rarely listen to news on TV or radio. I rely mostly on the Internet, because I can rapidly and cheaply look at issues of interest from many different viewpoints and formulate my own opinions, which quite often end up being agnostic.
    The Internet is a wonderful instrument when it comes to cultivating awareness of the ignorance of humanity: despite which its many factions continue to feel so certain about so many things. Such as the utility of relying, even in part. on the MSM.

  12. Brandon Shollenberger says:

    I’m curious about the the last comment by Peter Knight.  Does he seriously mean to suggest distrusting the mainstream media means someone might suddenly believe gravity doesn’t exist?  Or they might believe they can fly by waving their arms?
    Ultimately, it’s obvious the mainstream media has the potential for not deserving trust when it comes to telling the truth.  Even if that isn’t the case, it seems impossible to deny it as a possibility.  Given that, and given the amazingly broad wording of Knight’s comment, I’d like to hear him explain his position more clearly.  It sounds silly to me as it is, but maybe some context or clarification would fix that.

  13. kdk33 says:

    Knight added, “As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable.”

    I guess this makes the MSM the “truth squad”.  Egads.

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