David Berlinski dismisses the bulk of professional scholars in the West as “a native conspiracy class. They’ll believe anything. And once they believe something the conspiracy is held very tenaciously.” He’s poking fun and exaggerating. Yet undeniably there’s a paranoiac inclination among many academics.
When I was in college, for example, the fashionable imaginative construct held that society was in the grip of a shadowy white male conspiracy, the Patriarchy. It was a bit like Skull and Bones or Bohemian Grove except that it encompassed half of an entire race. Students and faculty alike were spell-bound by this legend, which has since gone somewhat stale.
The tendency, hardly limited to the faculty fringe, is to want to repudiate the intuitions of common sense in favor of recondite alternative understandings. These purportedly expose the true, secret inner workings behind the fa�ade of society and nature and, in the process, cast the very sources of our intuition in the most sinister light. This is the essence of conspiracy-thinking.
With the approaching 9/11 anniversary, Slate has been running a series tracing the rise and ongoing evolution of 9/11 Truth theories that try to show how the attacks 10 years ago were really an inside job. According to this thinking, 9/11 was no attack by Islamic terrorists. Rather, the towers were detonated by an expertly covered-up collusion among Zionists and U.S. government operatives. You might have expected these notions would, if entertained at all, be dispelled by the exhaustive debunking job that Popular Mechanics did with its 5,500-word article on the subject back in 2005. Not so, as those who take an interest in conspiracy culture know well.
What I found striking about the first installment in the Slate series, by Jeremy Stahl, is the parallels with what we know about the thought and writings of Evolution Truth activists: our ever-loving friends in the Darwin Lobby. You may recall the news of a few months back that Glenn Branch, deputy director of the Darwin-lobbying National Center for Science Education, had collaborated with 9/11 Truth conspiracist James H. Fetzer in editing a special number of the journal Synthese on “Evolution and Its Rivals.” That issue of the journal became so notorious for the incivility of its contributions that a whole fracas broke out and made the pages of the New York Times.
It may have seemed just a delicious coincidence at the time to find Branch and Fetzer teaming up so comfortably. Yet consider the features of 9/11-style paranoid thinking and some similarities to its evolutionary counterpart.
Writes Jeremy Stahl:
Facts alone are insufficient to destroy a conspiracy theory, of course, and in many ways a theory’s appeal has more to do with the receptiveness of its audience than the accuracy of its details….
Stahl quotes Popular Mechanics editor James Meigs on the “scary” response from 9/11 true believers to his magazine’s debunking job, which was inspired initially by the need to respond to the splash made by a 2002 book, Painful Questions: An Analysis of the September 11th Attack. The book’s author, Eric Hufschmid, spent $3 million promoting his theory.
Responding to the report in Popular Mechanics, the conspiracists jumped on a crazy guilt-by-association mini-theory, observing that a junior researcher on the magazine’s staff, Benjamin Chertoff, was apparently a distant cousin of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. According to the mini-theory, Chertoff the Elder called the shots and ordered up the article through the medium of Chertoff the Younger.
Meigs observes that the 9/11 Truth conspiracy theory is “self-confirming,” twisting every kind of evidence and non-evidence to its own favor:
In that sense it is immune from any kind of refutation and it is very similar to, if you’ve ever known a really hardcore, doctrinaire Marxist or a hardcore fundamentalist creationist. They have sort of a divine answer to every argument you might make.
In the world of 9/11 Truthers, Stahl explains, there’s a whole “demonology” of imagined plotters serving as the object of “obsessive” speculation by the conspiracists. A leading figure in the demonological pantheon, former 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow, comments about those in the community of paranoiacs: “They’re not really able to listen to you. It’s almost like you’ll say something and then the tape will just replay its loop again.”
There is a sealed-off quality to 9/11 conspiracy theorizing. The theory generates its own alternative reality, which it needs to do since the experience of living in the real world goes so much against it. Stahl quotes Popular Mechanics reporter Erik Sofge who says, “This sounds really mean. But really, it’s like arguing over the marching speed of hobbits.”
Darwinists would say the same of us in response, they’d have to, but candidly doesn’t all this remind you of the special mental world of the Darwin advocates? I’m not speaking of the run of regular working scientists in biology and other fields, for the vast majority of whom evolutionary apologetics are a subject of little interest, but rather about those inside and outside the world of science who make it their mission to faithfully guard Darwinian orthodoxy.
When he burst on the scene a century and a half ago, in the Eric Hufschmid role, Darwin offered precisely a conspiracy theory: a radical overturning of common sense, in this case the understanding that nature reflects design. That was replaced now with an unseen and unseeable material mechanism that simply and comprehensively explained how everything we thought we knew about life’s development was totally wrong.
“Facts alone,” as Stahl puts it, cannot refute the conspiracy. In the ID community, itself the object of much demonological theorizing by Evolution Truthers, we know better than anyone else the imperviousness of Darwin’s true believers to matters of fact. Dealing with these people can indeed be “a little scary,” in James Meigs’s words, with their obsessiveness and their inclination to seek connect-the-imaginary-dots guilt-by-association connections between scary-sounding, largely fictional constructs (mostly recently, “Dominionism“) and thinkers on the other side who are merely trying to offer a rational critique of and alternative to Darwinian theory.
Darwinism is, again borrowing Meigs’s expression, “self-confirming.” Once posited, it tells a story that accommodates any observation. This is the brilliance of paranoia. Though Meigs cites Marxism and fundamentalist creationism as parallels, Darwinism offers one just as apt. Whatever nature brings forth can be squeezed to fit the effectively unfalsifiable Darwinian mold, which always turns out to predict, in retrospect, whatever is found.
You may recall P.Z. Myers’s assertion on this theme to our associate Jonathan M. in their Glasgow encounter. Arguing about homology and the evolution of developmental pathways, Myers explained his way of thinking: “I wish I could get that one thought into these guys’ heads: evolutionary theory predicts differences as well as similarities.” In other words, Casey Luskin notes, it predicts everything and nothing.
If you get into an argument with someone like Myers, he is not, in Philip Zelikow’s words, “really able to listen to you.” Every time you hear a Darwin activist repeat the formula that “ID is creationism,” that it “denies evolution” or “denies science,” that it is an argument from ignorance or incredulity or from the observation that life is “too complex” to explain in Darwinian terms, you can only throw up your hands and suppose it’s because he’s got a tape running in his head, looping back again and again, that feeds him these lines.
Erik Sofge may think it sounds “really mean.” But we know by now, from our repeated experience, that arguing with Darwinists and devotees of Evolution Truth is an awful lot like “arguing over the marching speed of hobbits.”