Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Week in Tinfoil : Conspiracy Theory News in the UK, Aug 22-29 2010

...being a rundown of recent news stories involving allegations of conspiratorial behaviour, and of 'conspiracy theorising'. Maybe not the best day to do it, since I haven't had a chance to check all the Sunday papers, but still. I'm thinking Faraday Sunday might become a regular feature.

I'm hoping commenters can point out any errors or omissions; if so, I'll update appropriately.

1. Kelly/Hutton, of course.
Most of the media professes absolute certainty of suicide, and of the propriety of allowing Hutton's verdict to stand, and on both counts, of the untruth of 'Conspiracy Theories' - i.e anything that disagrees with one or both of these stances. Mail headlines, by contrast, err on the side of sensationalism about the murder hypothesis.

[Aaronovitch: Reward for first person who spots the dead seconded MI6 man being linked, seriously, with David Kelly. Nice suggestion that this is likely to happen, and equally nice to get his 'followers' (and any bounty-hunters taking seriously the chequebook journalism suggestion) trawling the blogosphere for an example.]

2. The IRA priest conspiracy (DAaronovitch: Why wd Willie Whitelaw connive in the escape of a priest poss responsible for N Ireland Claudy bombing, 31/7/72? Dsn't make sense.)

3. Julian Assange, the Pentagon's current political enemy no 1, is accused of rape in dubious circumstances, the accusations being immediately withdrawn. I've provided a link to the Jack of Kent treatment of this question, which I think speaks for itself. One of the comments drawing attention to Assange having committed the deviant act of having sex with a woman after having had sex with a different woman two days earlier is a particularly nice touch.

Three conspiratorial accounts might be considered:

(1). A false accusation cooked up by one or both of the complainants, or (if we are to deny Assange the benefit of some hulking doubt) opportunistically-timed reporting of a preexisting complaint - perhaps (to speculate freely) hoping for money. (2) A false, exaggerated or deliberately sought accusation by some other actor hostile to Assange. (3) A false accusation engineered by Assange to discredit his own opponents. In all cases, the conspiracy need only involve one or two people, for example the accusers. In the 2nd scenario the conspiracy might be envisaged as having wider scope extending to the well-developed smear machines of a number of pro-pentagon groups and organisations.

4.Panorama (transcript) is granted 'exclusive access to Israeli commandos' giving their officially sanctioned accounts, and to a carefully controlled selection of film evidence from among that produced, and that confiscated, by the Israeli authorities.

I'm not aware of any acknowledgement that (as one supposes) the use of this material was conditional on Israeli approval of the final version of the programme, but it does appear to propound the conspiracy theory, based apparently on a certain degree of bravado shown by the protestors and on statments from the Israeli authorities, that the flotilla victims sought, rather than willingly risked, and - amazing, this - managed to manipulate Israeli forces into meting out, death. Of course this is not described as a CT nor as involving a conspiracy. Another conspiracy theory, that the Israeli attack was not in fact some cock-up resulting from incompetent decisions made on the spur of the moment, but in fact an organised execution, is not considered.

5. Bush and Blair plotted in secret to stop Brown.

6. Asil Nadir returns to the UK after avoiding extradition for twenty years. It is said that proving the prosecutors' conspiracy theory will be made much more difficult after such a long delay. In cases in which there has not been a thorough evidence-gathering operation close to the time, this kind of difficulty will of course be much greater. There is a kind of naturally-occurring analogue of limitation statutes which applies to attempts to investigate potential conspiracies from any substantial temporal distance.

I'm pretty sure I had a couple of other ideas, too, but can't remember what they were. I'll add them to the list if they make themselves known, and again, if anyone else has any suggestions, please do put them in a comment, and I'll consider adding them.

[edit 29/08/10 18:40: typos, punctuation]


  1. Seen this?

    What distinguishes conspiracy theories from genuine efforts to uncover actual conspiracies is that a conspiracy theory is not the most plausible account of events based on the available evidence. David Aaronovitch points out they attribute secret action that ‘might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.’

    Defining terms is fun, isn't it! For example, I'll define Miller & Bartlett's paper as "silly and dishonest"...

    "Recommendation: Introduce some limited, open infiltration of Internet and physical sites by government to introduce alternative information. Government agents or their allies should openly infiltrate the Internet sites or spaces to plant doubts about conspiracy theories, introducing alternative information."

    I think this should be termed "Casstigation".

  2. Thanks BenSix. I wonder, is there any correlation worthy of investigation between Sunstein's paper on CTs (and how to infiltrate groups that discuss them) and his 'Nudge' book's theory of 'choice achitecture'.

  3. Aw BenSix, you stole my thunder.

    Sunstein is quoted, and Aaro in the paper. Interestingly they also note the existence of Operation Northwoods and various other bits and pieces. It also goes on about some far out groups from the past, which are hardly relevant.

    By the way, is it a conspiracy theory that the government lied us into the invasion of Iraq, or am I still evil and/or insane for thinking that?

  4. Yes, thanks for that Ben6 - looks interesting.

    I haven't had a very thorough look at it yet, but it does indeed seem quite similar to the Sunstein piece. Crucial definitional/conceptual issues are ducked and empirical content is almost entirely lacking. Even the few facts actually present get ignored when the time comes to build on the various 'links' between conspiracy theories and trrists, and to make various creepy recommendations on that basis.

    Both papers are dual-authored, too - which makes me wonder whether one of the authors was responsible for the overall thrust, headline generalisations, policy recommendations etc, the other being tasked with providing the background reseach and analysis to pad it out and give a superficial appearance of rigour.

    The Demos piece does indeed have a wild and zany cast of extremist gourps, as well as a pretty flexible idea of what is to count as a conspiracy theory. And of course, seeking out instances of the overlap between CTists and 'extremists' not only gives no indication of any causal relationship, but doesn't even establish a correlation between the two. To do that you would want to look at non-extremist 'conspiracy theorists', and even to see if extremists might include some who don't believe anything describable as a 'conspiracy theory' - though there are very few people in the population at large who meet that description, so I don't suppose that would tell you much.

    The two papers would be worth doing a post on at some point, I reckon.

  5. If you look at their definition of CT, I think they've tied it up to the idea that it runs counter to the evidence. Not sure where that leaves all those things often dismissed as CT that fit the evidence, or the official versions of events that run counter to the evidence.

    I should stop thinking and let Aaro do it for me, I guess.

  6. They can't be fussed to differentiate between theorists/theories. Here, for example...

    According to conspiracy expert Michael Barkun, such theories are predicated on the idea that ‘any widely accepted belief must necessarily be false.’

    To which one can only say: er, no. The whole thing depends upon the reader sharing the prejudices of the authors. If you arrive without the notion that "conspiracy theorists" must be raving, tinfoil-topped buffoons there's sod all to engage with.

    (Further Casstigating here, if anyone's interested.)

  7. The weird thing about Kelly is that most of those who have voiced concerns about the official narrative, have not offered any alternative theory of any kind, yet are still labeled conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theorists without a theory, conspiratorial or otherwise. That just goes to show how divorced the usage of the term have become from any descriptive reality.

  8. Soilysound,

    this is a favourite tactic; when you pick a hole in the official version, the counter-attack is to demand a full explanation of exactly what happened.

    It's like if somebody gives an alibi that they were in a certain place, and you show that they weren't there, and they come back with 'well, where was I, then?'

  9. Yes. I notice with approval that the comments gave it pretty short shrift.