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April 22, 2011

Salon Debunks Deranged Trigtherism Conspiracy Theory

Pretty nice effort, but futile. This will not change any minds.

There are in fact real conspiracies. We have, and have had since legal codes began, a criminal charge of conspiracy (defined as an agreement between two or more people that at least one of them will undertake a crime).

People do in fact conspire towards non-criminal activities too. These activities are often shady and at least borderline illegal, but people can conspire to do nice things too.

What makes a "conspiracy theory" different from an actual theory of a conspiracy isn't the conspiracy part. It's the inversion of the relationship between premise and conclusion.

When we say something is rational, we usually mean that there are one or more well-founded premises which, taken together, fairly imply a conclusion.

That conclusion need not always be logically inevitable -- outside of mathematics and computer programming, it rarely is inevitable, or definite. Usually it's a fuzzier thing -- the premises tend to support the conclusion. A probabilistic thing more than a mathematical, binary necessity.

But the conclusion must at least be fairly derived from the premises. It must at least be likely or at least plausible.

We say conspiracy theories are irrational because they do not observe the rules of rational, reasonable, fair deduction and inference. In some cases, the premises are simply false and easily provable as such, and yet the conspiracy theorist insists on a different set of non-existent "facts" which, if true in the hypothetical, would support his conclusion.

And/or: The conspiracy theorist makes unfounded, implausible leaps from premise to conclusion.

But both of these irrationalities are caused by the same irrationality: For the conspiracy theorist, premises to not lead to conclusions.

Irrationally, conclusions now lead back to premises, invented on the fly or discovered by wishcasting.

Premises don't give birth to conclusions; conclusions now give birth to premises.

This is why it is of course absolutely futile to challenge the premises of a conspiracy theorist. This is why it is so frustrating. Because rational people are attempting to argue with the irrational, using the rules of rational discussion, which simply do not apply in a conspiracy theory.

The rational mind thinks that if it can demonstrate that the premises a conclusion supposedly rests upon are false, then the conclusion must, logically, fall as well.

But it won't. In a conspiracy theory, with its irrational inversion of the relationship of premise and conclusion, premises do not grant evidentiary support to a conclusion; the conclusion, instead, grants evidentiary support to the conclusion.

If the premise is consistent with the conclusion, it is asserted as true; if the premise is inconsistent with the conclusion, it is asserted that it must be false.

It must be. It must be. We know the conclusion is absolutely true, therefore any and all premises which tend to undermine it must either be false, faked, or forged.

So there's really no point whatsoever in debating these premises, in undermining them (as Salon does), because in a conspiracy theory, the conclusion doesn't rest upon this series of premises. It never did. The conclusion stands independently of evidence, above it, beyond it, immune to the laws of logical gravity, like an anvil floating in mid-air.

The floating anvil of the conclusion does not need the support of planks of evidence to hold it aloft. The conspiracy theorist will suggest various planks to hold its weight up, to make it "look good," so that it's not so obviously a heavier-than-air anvil defying the laws of gravity, but if those planks are knocked away, it just doesn't matter, the anvil can float without them. They're window dressing.


They have the appearance of supportive planks but in fact they're purely cosmetic. Something that defies gravity has no need of undergirding; undergirding may be added, cosmetically, but that's just so people won't be freaked out by a floating anvil.

And yes, this is exactly what happened with Birtherism, too. The original premise that started this whole rumor was that Obama's Certificate of Live Birth lacked the traits of a real COLB -- it lacked a serial number, it lacked a signature and/or stamp and/or watermark.

Based on this premise -- which, at the moment the theory had been birthed, had not yet been falsified -- a conclusion was drawn. A fair one, a plausible one, if it were true (or at least not yet falsified) that the COLB was fake.

The logic was simple and sound:

Premise: The COLB appears fake.

Premise: No man fakes legal documents unless he has a need to. The penalties are too high for a man to do this on whim.

Conclusion: The COLB has been forged because Obama has a strong reason to fake it.

Next premise: A COLB is evidence of US birthplace.

Premise: The Constitution demands natural-born citizenship as an absolute prerequisite for seeking the office of the presidency.

Premise: If Obama faked a critical document, specifically about his place of birth, he must have had a specific motive for doing so, most likely having to do with the information on the COLB, and most likely in direct connection to this run for the presidency.

Conclusion: Since the COLB was faked, and the only likely bit of critical information on the COLB which has any bearing on Obama's run for office is his birthplace (age is unlikely, as he easily appears older than 35 and his timeline confirms that), then it must be (or is very likely to be, at least) the case that Obama's was born in a place which would not confer natural born citizenship and has faked a US birth to qualify himself on this count.

Almost all of this, actually, flows logically. It all makes sense. There are no extreme leaps in logic -- we make logical inferences of this size or smaller every day in our lives.

The Birther chain of reasoning, based upon the above-noted premises and inferences, is utterly fair, reasonable, logical, and rational.

Except for one small detail.

And that detail is, of course, that within 72 hours of so-called "document verification experts" (who soon proved to be no such thing, as they'd gotten the most elemental details of that expertise completely wrong) putting forward these premises, their very first premise -- their foundational premise, upon which the entire subsequent chain of logic stands -- was proven utterly false.

The COLB was not fake. It never had been fake. It did have a serial number. It did have a stamp -- but the "documentation verification experts" did not know that the stamp is on the back of the document, which hadn't been seen in the pictures of it. (Odd thing for experts not to know.)

Likewise, the signature was on the back too, exactly where it should be.

The next claim -- they were desperate -- was that there was no visible watermark, but close inspection of the jpg of the document did in fact reveal a clear watermark.

Here's where a rational, fair, reasonable little theory became an irrational conspiracy theory:

At this point, when the foundational premise of it all failed completely, the conclusion should have fallen as well.

But it didn't. The conclusion remained lofted in the air, an anvil behaving like a helium balloon, and new premises were spun to appear to give it support.

The conclusion began generating fresh premises, none of them true. The COLB suddenly was conceded as real, but created from a forged (unseen) long-form birth certificate.

There's no evidence for that. But it asserted as true, because it must be true -- if the conclusion is true (which we know it must be) there must be evidence to support it.

The conclusion was now generating its premises.

And the conclusion generated other premises. Don't like the long-form forgery theory? Okay, let's invent a tendentious (and easily disproved, weird theory of law) that a "natural born citizen" must have two natural born parents. This suddenly makes every child born of a Vietnam vet who married a Vietnamese woman of dubious citizenship, but nevermind, we have more important things to think about.

You'd also think that there should be a big caselaw history on this point -- so many people are born every year to an American and non-American-born (naturalized) parent. If this is happening so frequently, where are the rulings that such offspring are not eligible to vote, or collect Supplemental Social Security, or go to college paying in-state rates? Where are the controversial decisions on this point? This would happen quite a lot; we'd expect, if such children were in some kind of nebulous not-quite-American state, we'd have caselaw to cover them.

I keep being told there is a third category, apart from "natural born" and "naturalized," and yet, there is no hint of such an in-between category in the caselaw of this country. And note: We're a very litigious people.

Or: A small child can somehow renounce his citizenship when his father tells him too and that decision (even if actually made, for which there is no proof) is binding on that child. This ignores the entirety of the law of majority, which says that minors lack full legal capacity and therefore can void legal agreements at any time they wish as they lack the adult capacity to commit to (and be subsequently bound) to a contract; but let's assume that for some reason the law permits child actors to void their contracts at will but is vindictively punitive as regards a dad telling his kid "You're an Indonesian now, deal with it."

Whatever. It doesn't matter what the premise is. The important thing -- the unreasoning thing -- is that the premises are being birthed by the conclusion.

Same thing with Trigtherism, of course.

Premise: She didn't look pregnant in some pictures, and some people were surprised to learn she was seven months pregnant.

Premise: No reasonable woman would take a flight when their water began leaking.

Conclusion: Oh, she must not have been pregnant.

These premises have all been debunked. In fact, she often looks quite pregnant in pictures, defeating entirely the first premise. Oh, that's easily gotten around: She was wearing a "Fat suit" and/or the pictures were altered.

In fact, women often have a full day or more before giving birth when their water starts leaking. Oh, that's only true of some women. We know that's not true of Sarah Palin, because, well, we know she wasn't pregnant in the first place.

The conclusion hangs in the air like an anvil; bits and scraps of flimsy wood are assembled beneath it to hide the fact that the law of gravity has been switched off it its vicinity.

So none of this matters. As the old and extremely useful saying goes: You can't reason someone out of a position that he wasn't reasoned into in the first place.

It wasn't reason that gave birth to these premises and their conclusions. It was hope. Anti-Obama partisans held out for hope that there would be some tricksy way to defeat the "Indonesian Imposter" who was set to cruise easily to victory in 2008.

Anti-Palin and anti-Republican partisans held out for hope that there could be some way to prove this "Chillbilly Caribou Barbie" could be exposed as the nasty fraud she must be (she must be-- she was saying mean things about Obama, after all!), and thus take away the brief McCain/Palin lead and then, post-2008, drum this baby-faking fat-suited charlatan out of political life forever, so we wouldn't have to see her again in 2012, and so all those mean things she said about Obama would be cancelled out entirely, because the woman saying them was such a duplicitous monster that she actually acted out a Villainous Soap Opera Bitch plotline in real life.

As they say, hope is the thing that floats. Or, as Emily Dickenson put it, hope is the thing with feathers.

Conspiracy theories are floating anvils, a strange thing, ungainly and ugly, but they provide something valuable to those who hold them.

There's really no point in disputing them, because at some level, all you're really asking someone to do is to give up their hope.

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posted by Ace at 12:38 PM

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