by Terry Welshans
I have been interested in conspiracy theories for some time. I suppose there has always been a dissenting point of view on about everything, but some of these theories fly in the face of Occam’s Razor with impunity. Although at times a complex explanation is correct, almost always the simple, direct explanation, when supported by facts and proof, is correct.
It is easy to be drawn into some of these theories, as we tend to enjoy possessing exclusive information, which abounds in most conspiracies. Almost all conspiracy theories are founded on a single fact that seems to be an outlier at best. The theory then expands, using that single fact, into a whole new explanation of an event, becoming far too complex to be rational.
Some of these theories are based on a political agenda that is meant to either enhance the position of its creator or to demean or demonize an opponent. These theories are self-serving. Similar facts that apply in other cases, but do not reinforce the theory, are ignored. These alternate theories take on a life unto themselves, and , when repeated often enough, replace the true facts of the situation.
In war, the first step in defeating an enemy is to dehumanize and demean them. It becomes easy to hurt or kill an enemy when they are not recognized as human. A stereotype is one way to do this.
Prior to and during World War II Americans thought little of the Japanese people. They were characterized in cartoons as bumbling creatures in thick glasses that were incapable of producing anything of a durable nature. The American military was positive that every Japanese war machine was flimsy, poor performing and not worthy of a serious engagement. Some American aviators volunteered to do battle with the Japanese in China before America entered the war. These aviators, led by Claire Chennault, became known as the “Flying Tigers” and were the first Americans to fight against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter. Reports to Washington told of a fantastic new Japanese fighter flown by excellent Japanese pilots that constantly outperformed the American Flying Tigers’ P-40 Warhawk. This report ran counter to accepted theory, and was completely ignored. The Army’s stereotype did not allow such an airplane, so it logically could not exist. The P-40, after all, was the most modern fighter in the Army’s inventory, and was thought by the Army to be the premier fighter of its time. Common knowledge at the time was that a Japanese pilot could not fly a high performance airplane. Aviation “experts” knew a Japanese pilot could not see well enough because of their “slanted eyes.”
Lookout Manual page 42, NavPers publication 170069, 1943
On December 7, 1941, Americans at Pearl Harbor, witnessing these aircraft flying overhead while the ships and airfields were under attack, were in awe at how they performed. Once the Japanese insignia was seen, the military was in total shock. The attack itself was thought impossible, and again, the stereotype prevailed.
An eye witness to that attack knew better. Major Jimmy Gates’ story puts it in perspective. Jimmy realized immediately they were under attack by pros.
This of course spawned a conspiracy theory that President Roosevelt had allowed and even encouraged the attack to happen. No one could believe that we were completely unaware such an attack was possible when well after the fact, several documents indicated otherwise. Never mind the documents were unavailable at that time as they were not decoded until months after the war. This theory became the lynch-pin of the conspiracy, and proof the President knew when and where the attack was coming.
Everyone had forgotten that a little more than a year earlier, the British had launched 19 biplanes from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (R87) in a daring night attack at Taranto, Italy. The attack came as a complete surprise to the Italians, who were in awe that almost all of the Italian navy had been sunk.
Jump forward in time about sixty years.
On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked by a terrorist force. Four commercial airliners were hijacked and used as cruise missiles piloted by humans who were ready and willing to die for their cause. The plan was master-minded by a small group of Islamic radicals led by Usama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden (we know him as Osama bin Laden). The plan was simple. Hijack the airplanes using a small group of people, a simple task as the protocol in place at the time was for the pilot to do as told, and not resist, a method which had worked for forty years. This time it didn’t. The hijackers did not want asylum in a friendly nation or a suitcase full of money. They wanted to destroy the aircraft, crew and passengers while inflicting as much shock to the American psyche as possible. And they were quite good at it. Again, America was in disbelief, in shock that such a thing was possible.
After the fact, a report was published with background information on the hijackers that included reports that they were individuals who were already under suspicion by a number of Federal agencies. The report was critical of these agencies in that they did not share that information. Had they done so, the events of 9-11-2001 may have been prevented. The conspiracy theorists took this and ran with it. It became an industry.
More than twenty years have passed and these theories still have traction, although not as much as when they were new.
Years ago I spoke with a fellow I have known for some time. We were sitting around a camp fire at the campground at an antique tractor show where we had a common bond. The conversation turned to the 9/11 attack. This fellow believed it was a cruise missile that struck the Pentagon. His theory was based on fragments of and out-of-context quotes from news reports. He quoted one reporter there was no airplane at the scene, and no airplane wreckage was visible. He said that the video used to describe the flight path of the airplane crash proved no airplane was present and that no airplane could have flown as low as thought due to “ground effect.” All good arguments until you check the facts and closely examine the photos published at the time.
I have held a commercial pilot certificate for more than two decades. I have been at several aircraft crash sites. I know how airplanes fly and I know and understand the aerodynamic laws that control flight. I began asking questions to determine how much of what he had said was fact and how much was fiction. After each question was answered, I countered each with a factual statement disproving the elaborate theory proving his case. His argument about ground effect led me to an offer to take him for a ride in my own small Cessna airplane where I could demonstrate how ground effect affects airplane performance when close to the ground. He declined.
He was also unconvinced that any explanation I gave was correct. I can understand this. His were closely held beliefs and proven true within his mind. No other explanation could replace these beliefs, and arguments opposite his beliefs only added strength to them.
Today, we see that similar theories are alive and at work in the political arena. One Presidential candidate has been demonized by the other over a minuscule event with an unfortunate loss of life, while ignoring a similar and more serious series of similar events that happened to President of that candidate’s own party. The candidate’s foe is dehumanized, called school-yard names and is stereotyped, and becomes easy to hate. The hate spills over into threats, in some a person is roughed up; in others there is a masked threat of deadly force. A conspiracy is alive and well concerning this hated opponent, a theory not supported by the facts, but has a single seed from which it grew. When you examine the facts, you clearly see the motive force is to discredit a political opponent, at the expense of the truth.
Recently, I spoke with a friend who supports one of the Presidential candidates with a passion. He supports that candidate even though many of the candidate’s statements and positions would not benefit him and may in fact harm him. I asked him why he supports a candidate who not only has views contrary to his own, that candidate advocates violating the United States Constitution and international law. His response was to regurgitate the party line hate mantra, ignoring the contradictions. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman-philosopher wrote:
“An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”
Facts and logic do not seem to sway or influence these strongly held opinions of the typical conspiracy theorist.
Occam’s Razor seems to have gotten dull.