Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Burden of Proof

Okay, bear with me.  Everything I’m about to say takes a tremendous suspension of disbelief.  But, for the next 1,000 words, try to cut me the same amount of slack you would settling into the seat at your local movie theater.  In real life, the guy doesn’t always get the girl before the closing credits and stories do not unfold in easy-to-digest three-act dramatic structure.  That doesn’t make real life untrue.  Nor do seemingly fantastic elements make things impossible.  We live in a world where we regularly split atoms, send robotic explorers to Mars and use machines hung in outer space to communicate to the other side of the globe in real-time.  We know these things to be true because scientists worldwide confirm it as truth, and our own senses report the same.  Our cell phones work.  Last I checked, Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflected the power and accuracy of Einstein’s equations and their practical application by Oppenheimer and company.  If you are so inclined, you can use a laser to detect the presence of the laser ranging retro-reflectors astronauts left on the moon.  These are verifiable truths.  And all of them are fantastic in nature.

There are, however, a number of truths that aren’t so easily verifiable.  That doesn’t make them false.  It just makes them difficult to prove.  For instance, the Higgs-Boson until very recently was merely a theory based on mathematical extrapolation.  It was not considered truth.  So scientists spent a lot of time, effort and money in creating the Large Hadron Collider in order to verify its existence.  It is believed that they succeeded on July 4th of this year.  Years of further study are necessary, but science will do what it does best and will prove what is true about this finding and will begin to study exactly what that means.

The scientific method is perfect for these types of mysteries.  The brightest minds of our age can communicate, collaborate and corroborate with each other based on experimental analysis.  They can vet out the false concepts of theories and bring humanity closer to a complete understanding of our universe.  However, when it comes to what is happening within humanity itself, science is less successful.  The universe does not conspire to hide its truth from the lens of the microscope.  The Higgs-Boson does not concern itself with deceit in the pursuit of power.  The dozens of exoplanets currently being studied by the world’s astronomists are not hiding behind a smokescreen of wealth, influence and fear.

When a person of a certain level of power in this society wants to bury a piece of evidence, they by and large can.  Before going any further, yes, I am talking about conspiracy theory.  If you are still reading, I can assume you have in fact suspended your disbelief for the moment.  Just the words “conspiracy theory” are enough for most rational human beings to shut down, turn around and head back for the hallowed halls of the scientific method.  Conspiracy theory is the realm of wild speculation, schizophrenic pattern recognition and paranoid delusion.  Above all, it is notorious for confusing correlation with causation.

With all of that said, let me say this: JFK.  Is there anyone left who believes the Warren Commission published a report based on fact and evidence?  The declassified documents released through Freedom of Information Act requests strongly suggest otherwise.  So, we as a public are willing to accept that a clandestine operation was launched to assassinate the President of the United States almost 50 years ago at the behest of a powerful group of handlers in order to overthrow our democracy.  We are willing to accept that this was willfully hidden from the general public for decades.  We may even be willing to accept that JFK wasn’t the only one this happened to.  But, somehow, we are not willing to accept that this group that stole our democracy from us might still exist in some form.

Watergate cleansed our soul, we were told.  Nixon was swept out in disgrace.  The Vietnam War was ended.  Democracy was restored.  This is the narrative my generation was weaned on, in between sips of Coca-cola and G.I. Joe cartoons.  The fact that Iran-Contra came and went ultimately meant nothing.  The S&L debacle amounted to nothing.  The Franklin child prostitution cover-up amounted to nothing.  Grand instances of terrorism from airline disasters to the Oklahoma City Bombing were orchestrated by shadowy groups who stood completely apart from the members of our government, we were told.  The incredibly rich and powerful were never to blame.  It was the Timothy McVeighs, the Ted Kaczynskis, the PLO, the IRA, etc.  It was never us.  Never.

Boom.  The twin towers fell.  We watched it unfold like the worst reality show of all time.  But, we were so numb and shocked and scared and saddened, we didn’t see.  Who owned those buildings?  Why did the WTC 7 building fall?  We didn’t ask those questions, because we weren’t thinking clearly.  No one was. Our media was supposed to do that for us.  Our reporters, our fourth estate.  But they didn’t.  Within hours we were told it was al-Qaeda. It was Bin Laden.  Our cries for vengeance immediately rose too loud to ask questions and, before we knew it, it was treasonous to even ask those questions.  Forget Richard Clarke and anybody who asked why.  Al-Qaeda fit the narrative we had been raised on.  Cobra Commander did it, and G.I. Joe had to stop him. 

It’s eleven years later.  I have a four-year-old who looks up at me like I have all the answers.  She doesn’t believe the world is rotten.  She sees the sun and sees a pretty ball of light, not the furnace that will eventually torch the Earth.  She sees clouds and sees horses and bunnies and frogs, not the global warming smog choking her future.  She sees the Olympics and sees athletes from around the world competing in a spectacle of delight, not the obvious terrorist target that it was or the unveiling of the surveillance state we have ushered in to prevent such an attack.  She sees monsters in her room and it’s my job to tell her they aren’t real.  I wish that was always the case.

So, getting back to my original point, conspiracy theory is lacking.  It can prove nothing.  It can invent danger where there is none and for all of its speculation, it hardly ever correctly predicts disaster.  It is not science.  But that doesn’t make it false.

1 comment:

  1. A few things:
    1) "With all that, let me say this: JFK." = Awesome.
    2) Every time I listen to NPR I mentally replace the word "al Qaeda" with "Cobra" and "bin Laden" with "Cobra Commander" or "Serpentor" depending on my mood. Good to know I'm not alone.
    3) You didn't end up going where I thought you were going but when you said "when it comes to what is happening within humanity itself, science is less successful" I was immediately reminded of this TED talk:
    4) There are _hundreds_, not dozens, of exoplanets already discovered and being studied.
    5) You're faith in humanity is clearly greater than mine if you believe that "most" humans turn back to the scientific method when faced with conspiracy theories.