I weep for humanity

Okay, a bit of hyperbole in this posting title. Still, I came across an honest-to-Zeus conspiracy theory web site today, and like a car wreck on the side of the highway, I couldn’t help but slow down and gawk. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I have a strong interest in how people come “to know” things, in particular with how they learn to reason with evidence. This site – and the controversy – are a reminder of how reasoning can go astray.

Without further ado, the web site documenting the Chemtrails conspiracy. (This links to a specific page on a large web site – it’s a good pedagogical example of where “reasoning” can go astray).

First, a quick summary of the “controversy.” Proponents of the Chemtrail conspiracy believe that commercial jet liners are being used by the Government (both US and New World Order) to spew toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, causing those bright white trails one sees behind airplanes at altitude. The motivation appears to be some form of population control through selective poisoning, as well as weather control.

Oh, you thought those were merely water vapor trails resulting from hydrocarbon combustion? You poor fool, let us enlighten you.  </sarcasm>

So, how did I come across this? Totally by accident (although I’d heard of this group in the past). I was looking at postings a friend of a friend had made on Facebook, and noticed it was cross-posted to the Facebook group belonging to the site linked above. I was curious, and that’s when the can’t-look-away browsing started.

I could easily spend a few paragraphs writing “OMG can you believe these people?!?” comments – I had a really visceral reaction to perusing that site that made me physically ill. It’s like I have to purge that out of my system to feel well again. But there is no need to put you, dear reader, through that ordeal. Let me instead address what I thought were some of the more interesting aspects of the Chemtrails culture, again referencing the page I’ve linked to.

First this:

Since the writing of my series of articles exposing contrails, multiple professional airline pilots have contacted me and thanked me for my stance against the contrail deception

All of them told me personally that they have never seen trails come out of jet engines and that they appreciate my work exposing the disinformation about contrails. Every one of these pilots knew that contrails are so rare that most people will never see one in their lifetime, and if they do occur, they are at high altitudes that cannot be seen from the ground.

Each of these professional pilots have flown most of their lives and have always had a deep interest in aviation. Some of them fly mainstream commercial jets while others fly large jets for major parcel carriers.

We could go through the pedantic exercise of tagging and categorizing the logical and rhetorical fallacies here, but I just want to hit the highlights. First we have an appeal to authority – professionals who ought to know what they’re talking about are telling us that contrails (the common term for those visible exhaust trails) never come from a jet engine, or if they do they are so rare and at such extreme altitudes that most people will never observe one.

Next:

Those spreading disinformation about chemtrails would like nothing more than for you to believe that short, non-persistent plumes coming out of jets are harmless contrails. If they convince you of this, then you will ignore these plumes and allow them to spray you without objection, and this is exactly what they want. 

They will tell you that they’ve seen contrails since they were children. They will tell you that contrails are scientifically proven to contain water vapor. They will tell you anything necessary to make you believe short trails are harmless. This is exactly how disinformation works.

So, the simplest explanation (water vapor is a product of hydrocarbon combustion, which combined with freezing temperatures at high altitudes produces visible vapor and/or ice crystals) should not be believed! This is exactly what “they” want you to think!

Further down the page:

Numerous popular movies, cartoons, advertisements, music videos, and other media now show trails coming out of jets. When the disinformation target audience sees this on a regular basis, they simply conclude—either consciously or subconsciously—that this is normal, so when they see it in the sky, they simply ignore it. This process is called “Normalization” and is probably the most popular method of disinformation used against the public today.

You get the idea.

At various points on that web page we also see examples of the “Hegelian Dialectic.” I’m not even going to try to assess the accuracy of their use of that term – what strikes me most is that by presenting a fancy sounding phenomenon from philosophy (named after a famous philosopher, no less!) the authors continue to imply a sense of intellectual gravitas.

Here’s the real problem: the structure of this “argument” makes it impossible to argue against any of the claims. Why don’t we sample the contrails/chemtrails and analyze them? Seems simple enough. Oh, but who is going to actually conduct these studies? The “scientists?” They’re bought and paid for. Meanwhile, other disconnected facts are brought forth as evidence: traces of aluminum pollution (yes, little known fact, aircraft actually shed nanoparticles of aluminum, but in trace amounts) and mercury poisoning in the soils – must be those chemtrails!

Now, assume that a reasonable person stumbles across this site, a person who is somewhat distrustful of authority and the government in particular. Will this site just excite their confirmation bias? Likely. That, combined with the admonition to not believe the “naysayers” and “debunkers” (who are either naive, conformist, or paid propagandists.  No, really, read this) ensures a perfect echo chamber. If you dive into that web site you’ll see links to 911 conspiracies, using EMF for mind control, the works…

Carl Sagan popularized a method for refining our “baloney detectors.” (See a description here). It’s nothing new – again, most people who study logic, philosophy of science, and rhetoric have come across these. I wish – and hope – that these would become part of the warp and weft of K-12 education. It’s all too easy for otherwise reasonable people to stumble across these sites, pause and say “well, it could be true…”

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Who do these “writers” think they are?

Day 9 of NaBloPoMo, and I’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. Now I want to go out on a limb and express both my ignorance of and belated appreciation for the “writer.”

A bit of background. I read voraciously as a child. When I hit high school and started covering “serious” literature in English classes I began having mixed feelings about reading fiction. On my own time (summers) I would still pick through the science fiction shelves of the local book stores and libraries. During the school year, though, the only fiction I read was prescribed by an English teacher. My high school English classes sucked the joy out of reading; most of what passed for English lit appeared to be an amateur form of psychoanalysis, discussing motives and character and the like. Critically, it seemed like there were those who already knew how to play this game, and those who didn’t (I was in the latter camp). And for those who didn’t, there was precious little instruction in how to actually “do” English literature. I could understand critiques of the technical aspects of writing – incoherence in paragraphs, poor transitions, mixed metaphors, and the like. But getting a C on a paper for the ideas themselves – I truly had no idea what differentiated the A and C papers.

When I got to college my attitude had hardened to the point where I took the minimum required course in English literature and thereafter turned my back on that department. I recognize, of course, that my attitude and experience parallels what many others have expressed about their academic mathematics and science experience. This is more than mere preference at work; it’s an actively hostile aversion to a subject that literally did not make any sense to me.

Later on in graduate school, when I became deeply interested in questions of epistemology, I circled back to the question of literature studies. By what warrants can an author or reader claim to “know” or “believe” a particular claim about a piece of literature? This is the grown-up version of the question that frustrated me as a 9th grade English student – what are the rules of the game? I’ve learned a little bit about interpreting texts (mainly, though, through the tutoring of an anthropologist), but I’m still wary of the value of fiction in general. (Again, a dangling thread I may pick up in a future post. Suffice it to say I closely followed the debate between Elliot Eisner and his critics regarding the status of the arts and fiction in research. Both he and Denis Phillips were teachers of mine in graduate school, and I’m far more persuaded by Denis’s arguments than many of Elliot’s)

Back to the main point – as I’ve been thinking of how to sustain a daily blogging habit, I’ve been reading commentary by authors of various stripes about how they’ve donned the mantle of a “writer.” In particular I’ve taken notice of those who have expressed an inner urge to be a writer, that it was a vocation, a calling. I’ve always thought “writer” was a curious form of identity, sort of like calling somebody an “eater” or a “speaker.” Writing is something one does to express ideas, engage in dialog with critics, sharpen one’s thinking. To say one is a “writer” begs the question – writes about what? The scholar who produces well-reasoned treatises on international relations bears little resemblance to the author of serial romance fiction.

As it turns out, there is a very particular species of writer I’ve learned to both loathe and envy: the self-proclaimed “social critic” writer. Some, of course, write consistently illuminating, thoughtful works. Others simply blather like the Christian evangelists who would periodically infect our college campus. In the middle exists a vast population of commentators whose credentials – whose warrants for their opinions – are suspect. I say “suspect” because the very nature of an editorial piece (or a blog posting) often precludes the lengthy development of ideas and citation of relevant sources. Without knowing something about an author’s history or lineage of writing, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take a single piece of work at face value. I’m all too aware of the dangers of confirmation bias – of nodding my head along with writers who eloquently express the very prejudices I already hold. And there have been plenty of documented cases of journalists and other reality-based writers simply making stuff up.

Yet here I am, writing a series of posts, some auto-biographical, some sharing an insight I’ve gained through personal experience, some criticizing current politics. The question that haunts me is this: why should anybody take anything I write seriously?

I have some partial responses to that question, and they bring me back full circle to both fiction and non-fiction authors and the value of literature. Perhaps it’s not too late for this old dog to learn some new tricks. But for now, I’m just going to leave this question hanging as a mantra.

Why should anybody take anything I write seriously?

Edit: I’ll elaborate on these thoughts in my next post, but I also wanted to pass along a reference to this TED talk by Clint Smith. If you don’t want to watch the video you can also view the transcript of his message.