Just the Facts

Conspiracy theorists and technocrat pundits seem like opposites, but they're closer than they may appear

It was June 5, 2008, and Alex Jones was in Chantilly, Virginia, with a team of producers to stake out the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group — a club where some of the world’s rich and powerful gather to candidly discuss geopolitics. Jones, a paleoconservative radio host and prominent producer of conspiracy-related documentaries, was sitting down to do a radio interview over the phone when a fire alarm began to sound. Rather than become annoyed at the disruption, he leaped instantly into crisis mode.

“Get your higher-quality cameras out and roll them!” he barked at his producers. “This may be some kind of setup. Turn most of the lights out. They do not want me on this show. That’s why this was done. This was done the minute Coast to Coast AM called. You got the small cams?”

A producer tossed him a thumb-size camera disguised with a Doublemint wrapper, a pseudo-spy device Jones had brought as a precaution in case “they come and grab our cameras.” Though Jones didn’t say who “they” were explicitly, he was likely referring to henchmen of the New World Order, an alleged cabal of international global elites who — through various front groups including the Federal Reserve, the Bilderberg Group, and the U.S. government — are supposedly working to enslave the human species. Jones had come to expose these “globalists,” and the fire alarm was a sign that the New World Order was onto him.

Though Jones had braved multiple arrests attempting to expose the conspiracy, this development appeared to be too much for him. “We’re going to check out tonight,” he informed the crew. “I’m getting out of here with the footage we’ve got. I’m not going to sit here and push my luck.”

Like the intricacies of the Talmud or pre-Socratic philosophy, the particularities of Jones’s conspiracy theories will seem a bizarre collection of arcane and useless trivia for everyone but true believers. More significant than the details is the structure of those beliefs and the broader conspiracy movement for which he has become a de facto spokesman. Conspiracism as a political movement is characterized by the de-emphasis of normative claims — the ethics endorsed by Jones are almost comically noncontroversial, amounting loosely to the ethos that “slavery and mass killing perpetrated by evil tyrants is bad” — in favor of an intense focus on spurious empirical claims about the role of the United States government in orchestrating the 9/11 attacks or the desire of elites to create a world government. It is an a posteriori politics that is driven by supposed facts rather than value-based interpretations of circumstances.

To preserve the integrity of their detail-oriented theories from empirical attack, conspiracists such as Jones will dismiss conflicting testimony as a part of the conspiracy and cherry-pick pieces of ambiguous evidence that confirm their beliefs. They can thus present themselves as enlightened empiricists who, through sustained diligent analysis and research, have come to understand the reality that eludes the ignorant masses.

With its emphasis on the empirical, conspiracism is uncomfortably similar to the technocratic mindset of mainstream political discourse. Technocratic pundits — typified by the likes of Ezra Klein, a journalist and blogger who runs the Washington Post’s Wonkblog — are likewise driven almost exclusively by data sets and empirical studies. As Bhaskar Sunkara suggested in this piece for In These Times, such pundits operate under the assumption that the facts are so powerful that they might lead people of all ideologies to embrace a particular array of ideology-free policies.

When technocrats disagree, their debates are supposedly over strictly factual questions rather than ethical ones: Do restrictions on firearm sales actually decrease gun violence? Will running continued deficits destabilize the economy? Does raising the minimum wage increase unemployment? This is not so different from conspiracy theorists, who ask questions about the long-term effects of certain policies (e.g. water fluoridation), and whether historical accounts of past events are consistent with the available evidence, and what will happen if certain groups acquire political power.

The technocrats are akin to conspiracists in that they both claim a monopoly on the sorts of political facts that should sway policy. Both groups come equipped with their own body of experts and studies to vouch for their prescriptions. And both Jones and Klein derive their legitimacy from having, through their supposed diligence and uniquely sharp analytical minds, privileged access to some set of truths of political significance. Both assume that answers to factual questions will make the necessary political action irrefutable. All that divides the conspiracist from the technocrat is the nature of the facts they fetishize.

The appeal of technocratic political debate is its scientism: By focusing on hard numbers, technocratic politics seems to escape from the subjectivity of values, inhabiting the seemingly more stable world of objective truths. Klein and his ilk have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue. This technocratic politics fits with a broader centrist hope that, through empirics and a war fought strictly on the basis of factual information, we might find reconciliation that will render political disagreements obsolete. Rather than the left and right having to exist as perpetually warring factions, technocratic discourse promises us the serenity of consensus.

Yet an information war also happens to be exactly what Alex Jones claims to be fighting. Given the similarity between Klein’s and Jones’s political projects, why do we give so much credence to former yet dismiss the latter out of hand? After all, both believe they are discussing the facts and demystifying ideological distortion.

The obvious answer is that Jones is simply incorrect, that the things that he believes are laughably false. We might, thus, concede to Klein the status of the scientist, providing us access to the truth while relegating Jones to the ranks of  alchemists or cranks—those whose theories are compelling but untrue. It is an intuitive solution, but also one that cannot be sustained. The problem, unfortunately, is that there is simply no rationally justifiable way to divide the scientists from the loons — the Kleins from the Joneses.

The theoretical problem that conspiracy mongers like Jones poses for scientific inquiry was raised by 18th century philosopher and empiricist David Hume, who faced down naïve scientism with a radical skepticism. Hume worried, for instance, that since we cannot actually observe a force like gravity in operation but can only infer it, we have no way of knowing whether gravity is a thing at all. The possibility of its absence means there's no way to verify the truth of the law of gravity across time; our belief that mass will continue to be drawn together tomorrow ultimately rests on faith alone.

Even if we can't know that a theory is true, couldn’t we at least rule out others as false? This is how philosopher of science Karl Popper attempted to redefine the scientific project. For Popper, the defining feature of a scientific theory (as opposed to a pseudoscientific one) is that it must be “falsifiable” — there must be some occurrence that could potentially demonstrate the theory to be untrue — i.e. inconsistent with observed reality. Thus, Jones’s conspiracies could be tested and, when their predictions fail to occur, deemed false.

However, in practice, no theory can be conclusively falsified by experimentation, as the outcome of any particular experiment rests upon a number of distinct hypotheses — any one of which might be to blame for a failed prediction. (This problem is commonly referred to as the Duhem-Quine thesis.) To make this problem more concrete, consider the hypothetical theory that a particular substance is poisonous to humans. Seeking to falsify this theory, a skeptic might ingest a bit of this substance and declare her survival to be an effective refutation, as the theory, if true, would have entailed her death. However, the skeptic’s conclusion tacitly assumes a number of theories of her own, namely that she is not a special case, that she was not slipped an antidote, that what she ate was, in fact, the substance in question, and so on. If only one of these theories turns out to be false, then the falsification is invalidated and the original theory remains in play.

All that conspiracists need to do to sustain their beliefs in the face of widespread debunking, then, is replace one experiment-related hypothesis with an alternative, refutation-undermining hypothesis and their pet theory is safe. A study shows that — contra the claims of 9/11 truthers — jet fuel can, in fact, burn hot enough to melt the steel that comprised the infrastructure of the World Trade Center? Oh yeah, well, such a refutation assumes that the exact same kind of jet fuel powering the planes on 9/11 was used in the experiment. And that the tested steel was insulated in the same way it was in the actual building. And that those conducting the study weren’t paid agents of the New World Order who falsified their data to cover up the conspiracy! By declaring any one of these theories false and asserting its inverse, the conspiracist calls the refutation into question.

Although this move does not settle the matter, it does successfully shift the locus of the debate from one theory to another. Now, in order to contest the original theory — say, that a substance is poisonous or that jet fuel can’t melt steel — the skeptic must defend her refutation by contesting a new, inverse hypothesis e.g., that the test subject was slipped an antidote or that the experimenters used the wrong sort of jet fuel. From here, the infinite regress becomes visible: in order to falsify this new inverse theory, the skeptic must present another refutation which, in turn, will rest on another layer of theories which the conspiracist might contradict with an additional inverse theory—again shifting the locus of the debate in what has become a progression with no necessary conclusion.

To see this process unfold, it is worth skimming some of the online forums hosted by the Flat Earth Society, a presently existing group dedicated to arguing for the theory that the Earth is not round but flat. Though the membership appears to be divided between trolls and the occasional true believer, their methods in argument are identical—and highly instructive.

Popper was suspicious of this sort of ad hoc patching of theories with adjunct hypotheses, suggesting that it pushed the theories away from scientism and towards the realm of pseudoscience. And, indeed, the proliferation of pseudoscientific staples advertised on Jones’s website, including herbal remedies, anti-vaccine documentaries, and crank science lends additional support to such a view. However, as philosopher of science Imre Lakatos notes in Science and Pseudoscience, such behavior can hardly serve as a criterion for demarcating science from nonscience, as almost all scientists are guilty of the exact same move. For example, he challenges the reader to identify an experimental outcome that would convince a Newtonian scientist to give up Newtonian theory. It is hard to come up with a compelling case: no matter what sort of refutation was presented, such a scientist would almost certainly seek to explain it away as a mere aberration via the introduction of her own set of inverse hypotheses.

More important, even if scientists did behave differently than pseudoscientists or conspiracists—i.e., abandoning their theory in the face of experimental refutation—it is not clear why this makes their theories more plausible. Any supposed refutation forces a theorist to choose between theories: will she reject her original one or one of the tacit theories that give the experiment legitimacy? Alex Jones always chooses the latter, and, for doing so, is declared unreasonable. But what reason is there for choosing the former? There is no obvious answer to this question. The only clear reasons for choosing one theory over another appear to be that (a) the chosen theory has been verified or (b) the rejected theory has been falsified. Yet Hume showed this first option to be impossible and it should now be clear that the second is impossible as well. There will always be some ad hoc adjunct hypothesis that can be proposed to save a theory from falsification—theories which are, in turn, propped up by other theories in a cascade that goes all the way down to the unreachable bottom.

Because of the absence of any positive or negative reason for choosing one theory over another, scientific disagreement inevitably comes down to subjective and fundamentally irrational judgments about which theories seem more plausible than others. There is simply no principled way of demonstrating that one theory is more reasonable than another—no way of proving that a theory is false or true or even more proximate to the truth than its competitor. To dismiss Jones or embrace Klein becomes a matter of faith and subjective taste, resting on an intuitive but irrational sense of what is true.

In day-to-day practice, the theoretical problems of science have little effect on how we conduct ourselves and evaluate fringe claims to truth. However, the technocratic character of contemporary political debate is causing the irrationality of science to overflow its bounds. Each political camp trots out its pet studies only to have them dismissed by rivals as flawed; evidence for mutually exclusive positions proliferates. In the face of partisan ideology, empirical claims collapse into irresolvable antinomy.

In this light, the wonks’ contribution to political discourse appears overstated. The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement or at least convey some bit of truth to those reasonable enough to listen. But stubborn ideological opponents can no more be convinced by a pie chart than Alex Jones can be dissuaded from his beliefs by Ben Bernanke. And there are no grounds for thinking that they should be.

If we are to make progress in the public debate, we may have to withdraw from empirical matters. Instead, our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies. If consensus is to be forged, it will be from shared values rather than agreed-upon facts.