The assassination of Osama Bin Laden really has brought out the conspiracy theorists. I’m sure a lot of the people expressing their doubts on social media platforms are joking, but some aren’t and I find a lot of this just a little disturbing.
My concerns relate to the way people seem to think they’re being independent free thinkers by refusing to accept the word of the White House. Free thought, however, doesn’t mean jumping on any crazy idea proposed by some outsider, nor simply taking the official line and believing the opposite. Free thought should, in my estimation, require people to actually think. To sift through the evidence just a little and consider the likelihood of varying claims.
Many people are manifestly failing to do that in relation to Bin Laden, and in doing so are applying the same sort of “free thought” that allows them to believe vaccines cause autism or carbon dioxide doesn’t warm the planet.
I attended Confest over the summer, which is not always the most science-friendly environment. Someone gave a workshop claiming that global warming was a hoax (relying on the usual bunch of fraudulent websites). I’d had a very bad night beforehand, and rather than arguing effectively I stormed out accusing him of lying.
After calming down I gave some thought to how I could make something good come out of the event, and settled on running my own workshop. Rather than tackling the deniers directly I decided to call it “Science versus Conspiracy” and talk about the problems with a lot of conspiracy theories in general, using global warming deniers as just one example.
I’m certainly not trying to argue that all conspiracy theories are false. Watergate was a conspiracy theory once. There’s no reason to be surprised that people in power will sometimes abuse their positions, and try to hide the fact that they’ve done so. However, many conspiracy theories, particularly those about science, rely on people acting in ways that involve ridiculous amounts of effort or risk for little reward.
In the workshop I started with the idea that NASA faked the Moon landings. Now most people probably don’t believe this simply because it sounds too ridiculous. However, I’ve met quite a few people (yes mostly at Confest) who do believe it, or get a bit of thrill from at least entertaining the idea. I like this example, because when you think for a moment about the difficulties of pulling off such a fake it quickly becomes clear it would have been a whole lot easier just to go ahead and land some men on the moon and bring them back.
One of the first questions worth asking about conspiracies is how many people would need to be in on the act to make them work. The Moon landings is a great example. One of the profiles in the book is of David Cooke, who helped collect the transmissions from the Moon landing and broadcast them to the world. Cooke was based at Parkes, but there were actually about 25 highly skilled scientists and engineers working on picking up the signal, far from the 3 hapless Aussies and a stressed out Yank presented in the film. So how did this work? Were they all in on the conspiracy, or all so incompetent that not only did they not notice the signal was being broadcast from a Hollywood backlot, but NASA didn’t even need to worry about them noticing? Parkes was just one of about a dozen sites at which the transmission either was collected, or might have been if timing had been different.
Then there are the geologists who have examined the moon rocks*, the engineers who built the rockets and (in some cases) examined the re-entry vehicle or were in other ways vitally involved. It’s not just that any conspiracy theory relies on none of these people ever having an attack of conscience, or deciding they could make a lot of money from spilling the beans, or even just getting drunk one night and telling all. It’s that for NASA to go ahead would require them to have had a pretty high degree of confidence that this would happen. People don’t work that way.
Ok so that’s an easy one. I mean it’s not like hundreds of millions of people believe it or… ok well let’s move on anyway.
So back to Osama. There seem to be three theories here. 1) He’s been dead for years. 2) The Americans captured him rather than killing him and 3) He’s not dead at all.
As far as I can see Exhibit A for claim 1) is a video from Benazir Bhutto saying he was dead some time before she herself was killed. I have no idea why Bhutto may have been lying or misled, but it’s hardly compelling. After all not only do we have several audio tapes from Bin Laden, or an imitator, indicating he may well have been alive up until early this year, but we have to ask whose interests it served to pretend he hadn’t died if he did. It’s particularly hard to imagine why Bush, knowing his enemy was dead, would want to pretend he was alive just so Obama could claim the credit down the track.
#2 is probably the most credible, but it’s a pretty low bar. Taking someone like Bin Laden alive has to be a lot harder than killing him, even if that was your aim (which seems unclear). So the idea depends on the Americans succeeding in capturing him against the odds, deciding the consequences of him talking on the stand were worse than the extra points they would win from trying him publicly, and also being able to keep everyone involved from shooting their mouth off. Ever. None of those are impossible, but three unlikely things piled on top of each other strains credibility.
Finally we have the theory it’s all a big hoax. They killed someone else and decided to pretend it was him. Sure, because having Bin Laden turn up in a few months time right as rain and sending videos to the world won’t do Obama’s re-election chances any harm at all.
In a direct sense the Moon Landings conspiracy doesn’t matter much. The people who actually need to be studying Moon rocks and planning future missions know it’s rubbish. Perhaps if enough people believe Bin Laden is down at the 7-11 with Elvis it might hurt Obama’s reelection chances, but I’m not too worried about that one either.
My problem is, if you don’t bother applying some thought to these before you update your facebook status, how carefully are you thinking about the conspiracies that matter? On the one hand you could believe that tens of thousands of scientists are deliberately faking their data to trick the world into imposing carbon taxes, or on the other hand you could decide a few superannuated shock jocks and corporate shills might be lying to you. Hey, if you’re not bothered about really thinking about which might be more likely, it’s all a matter of preference.
* I’ve interviewed at least one geologist who has studied moon rocks. He says it’s actually not that hard to get access, provided your research won’t use much of the supply and has a reasonable case for scientific usefulness.
Update: Perhaps I didn’t make clear that I can well accept smaller scale conspiracies regarding Bin Laden’s death. It would not surprise me at all if the original claims that he was armed and using is wife as a human shield were a deliberate lie cooked up by the White House and Pentagon, rather than the fog of war in action. However, the fact that these myths fell apart so fast demonstrates just how hard it would be to keep a much more significant lie, that Bin Laden hadn’t been killed at all, quiet.