Politics

9/11 and other fictions, Part IV

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[Incomplete draft; published as is]

Psephologists and pollsters are as famously impartial and non-partisan as those who cite them.

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”
Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom

That an opinion-seeking poll on some specific issue is conducted or commissioned in the first place suggests that the issue is gauged to be both contentious in the public mind and so far unresolved (and in some instances in principle unresolvable) by evidence or proofs. Whether capital punishment serves as a deterrent to violent crime, for example, is both a contentious issue and also in principle an empirical question, hence resolvable: look for a statistically significant correlation between the incidence of violent crime and form of penalty in countries that do and do not practice capital punishment, and count this ceteris paribus as evidence. Whether capital punishment is morally right or wrong, by contrast, is contentious but, since it is difficult to imagine what might count as bona fide decisive evidence, is probably in principle unresolvable, a “question of decision, not fact” in Chomsky’s words.

Secondly, it is well understood that responses to polls, and hence poll results, can be influenced by a number of factors–such as, for example, the wording of the question or of the optional choices of response, the sampling of respondents, or the emotive nature of the topic–that effectively render any possibly determinative evidence, if not an irrelevancy, at least just one consideration among many.

Thirdly, even where supporting evidence (and counter-evidence) is available, respondents will typically lack both the time and the professional expertise to read and evaluate it. Hence respondents may base their responses not on the evidence itself but on such secondary factors as, for example, the estimated credibility of the experts, or the degree of coherence between the proposition expressed by the question or choices and the respondent’s prior knowledge and beliefs. (‘Knowledge’ should perhaps be put within ‘scare quotes’ to indicate that I intend it in a cognitive rather than a factive sense.)

Fourthly, and finally, poll results, when cited in support of an argument, are [1] those who use polls are selective in which polls are cited [2] polls reveal far more about those polled than about the issue itself [3]

I’ve just begun reading David Ray Griffin’s The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions, in which he cites polls demonstrating that “Most Americans evidently believe that the Bush administration had more information about the impending [9/11] attacks than it has admitted”. It does not follow, of course, that the Bush administration did have more information about the attacks; it does not mean that the wording of the poll question was neutral with respect to bias (though Griffin does later note that he knows of “no poll in the United States asking about complicity in the stronger sense, according to which the Bush administration would have been involved in the planning and execution of the attacks” while such questions had been the explicit subject of polls in Canada and Europe) or to anticipated readership; it does not follow that there were no other polls conducted at that time whose results may have been different. What does follow is that not only do polls @@@ adduced as secondary evidence

In 2002, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a poll on this question, asking its readers if they were “satisfied the Bush administration had no advance warning of the September 11 attacks.” Only 52 percent of the respondents said they were. A surprising 46 percent said “No, I think officials knew it was coming,” while 2 percent said “I’m not sure. Congress should investigate.” This means that almost 50 percent of the 23,000 people who responded—before the poll was suddenly withdrawn from the paper’s website—suspected that the Bush administration was covering up advance warnings it had received.
[Griffin, 2005, p.2]

and on the following page:

a CBS/New York Times poll taken April 23-27, 2004, found that 56 percent of the American public believed that the Bush administration was “mostly telling the truth but hiding something” about what it knew prior to September 11, while 16 percent believed that it was “mostly lying”. This means that by that date an astonishing 72 percent of the American people believed the Bush administration to be guilty of a cover-up, at least to some degree, of relevant information it had prior to the attacks of 9/11.
[Griffin, 2005, p.3]

And, inter alia, from a 11th July 2006 Sign of the Times editorial by William Douglas:

A CNN viewers poll, which is not scientific, held Wednesday, November 10th, 2005, asked, “Do you believe there is a U.S. government cover-up surrounding 9/11?” 89% replied “Yes,” they did believe there was a cover-up by the U.S. Government (9,441 votes), while only 12% felt there was no cover-up. In a national Zogby poll, of May 2006, found that 45%, of the American public felt a new 9/11 investigation should be launched because “so many unanswered questions about 9/11 remain that Congress or an International Tribunal should re-investigate the attacks, including whether any US government officials consciously allowed or helped facilitate their success.” An earlier Zogby poll of New York City residents, from August of 2004, found that Half (49.3%) of New Yorkers felt that U.S. government officials “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” While 66% of New Yorkers called for a new probe of Unanswered Questions by Congress or New York’s Attorney General.
[Link]

Polls can be selectively cited and selectively designed, of course:

Most Canadians believe the U.S. Government knew that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were coming–and did not act to prevent them, a poll released today indicates. When asked about the following statement, 63% of Canadians agreed that “Individuals within the U.S. Government including the White House had prior knowledge of the plans for the events of September 11th, and failed to take appropriate action to stop them”. Additionally, 16% of Canadians believe that individuals within the U.S. Government were involved in the planning and execution of the events of September 11th.
[Link]

Yet what is rather more interesting is the very fact that such polls should be conducted in the first place

There are a great many questions that have already, and repeatedly, been raised with regard to “9/11”. ‘Conspiracy theories’ (including the official theory which assumes both an Islamist conspiracy to attack America and possibly a conspiracy by conspiracy theorists to discredit the official version) are attempts to furnish answers to these questions.

There are, it seems to me, other interesting questions that have not yet been asked. These are not questions that pertain specifically or uniquely to “9/11”. Rather, these are questions of a more general theoretical nature with regard to the notions of individual and collective belief, trust, credibility, and rationality. The basic generic question is, I suppose, “@rational conduct@”. My questions follow below.

  1. Assuming the official account to be a provably true account, supported by firm and incontrovertible evidence, why do alternative conspiracy theories persist? or alternatively, and put more strongly, how is it possible, if discredited by the evidence, for alternative theories to continue to exist? (a Darwinian “survival-of-the-fittest” view of the world would suggest that if the theory does not fit the facts, it should wither away). This is in fact to bundle together a number of questions and assumptions that need to be addressed separately:
    1. The question above assumes the provable veracity of the official account; we’ll need later, in the interests of a balanced argument, to assume the contrary; or indeed, more precisely, generalise the question as “Assuming just one account, of many competing accounts, to be a provably true account, supported by firm and incontrovertible evidence, why do alternative theories persist?” Whether or not the official story is a true and exhaustive account is, of course, not the issue here: I’m simply raising the very general question of how alternative theories–irrespective of the specific domain of enquiry, “9/11” or whatever else–are able to survive in the face of contrary evidence. This will, I conjecture, turn out to be most productively and revealingly studied within what one might call an “ecology of ideas” in which the survival and persistence of an idea or theory will be determined less by a point-for-point mapping into facts (correspondence) than by its relation to other (often conflicting) ideas and to the historical, political, and cultural circumstances of its emergence (coherence).
    2. The question assumes the rationality of agents: if it were provably the case that, in every significant and contentious detail, the official account is both sufficiently comprehensive and provably true, then it would be irrational to cast doubt upon it, for at least the following two reasons: (a) to deny the factuality of proven facts is to act irrationally; and (b) in expressing doubts, one jeopardises one’s reputation and credibility as a rational being and perhaps one’s career as a professional. How then should one account for the fact that proponents of counter-theories (or conspiracy theories) assume themselves to be acting rationally, and are assumed by their adherents to be acting rationally? The corollary of this is that, if the proponents of such theories are presumed to be thinking and acting rationally (they’re not, for example, facing dismissal from their jobs for crankiness or incompetence),
    3. Either (a) the official version is provably true and adequate, and the conspiracy theorists are acting irrationally, or (b) the official version is not provably true in some or all of its details, or is not fully comprehensive and adequate account, in which case proponents of the official version are acting irrationally in dismissing the doubts and conjectures of the conspiracy theorists, or (c) the evidence available provides at least as much support for one or more of the conspiracy theories as it does for the official version
    4. The question makes no assumptions with regard to the integrity of agents.

whether or not one is inclined to believe an account depends also on personal beliefs and on trust in the credibility of the source

  1. Challenges to the official “9/11” story have come from, inter alia, respected scientists and senior academics (Steven E. Jones, Kenneth L. Kuttler, Michel Chossudovsky, David Ray Griffin, Frank Legge, John Newman, Paul Zarembka), politicians who have served in government and cabinet (Andreas von Bülow, Michael Meacher, Cynthia McKinney, Mark Dayton), former senior civil servants, intelligence officers, and government officials (Robert Bowman, Morgan Reynolds, Ray McGovern, Catherine Austin Fitts, Kenneth J. Dillon), senior US military staff (Maj. General Albert Stubblebine), as well as from experienced engineers, newspaper editors, respected investigative journalists, and diplomats. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the number of their peers who have published rebuttals of their claims is no greater than the number of ‘conspiracists’. Consequently the @@@ with regards to the facts of “9/11” takes on something of the character of normal academic debate. The questions that need to be asked are therefore:
    1. For what reasons have so many high profile individuals publicly challenged the official story?
    2. [how do we account for the opinion polls and hence for the rationality of ordinary people?]

What is a conspiracy theory? Definitions that seem to me a good starting point are: “A conspiracy theory is an unproveable scheme describing connections between events and people that would not normally be deduced” (Everything2.com), “a theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition; The Free Dictionary), “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary), and “a claim that a condition, effect, or series of events is the result of secret planning by two or more individuals or by an organization, rather than a less dramatic cause, such as people acting openly, people acting independently but in concert, or natural causes” (SkepticWiki). Under these definitions the claim that, for example, John F. Kennedy was assassinated not by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald but by the mafia or by the CIA would count as a conspiracy theory, as does the claim that the World Trade Center towers in New York were brought down in a plot by an organisation called al-Qa’ida headed by Osama bin Laden.[1] An official version is such, not because it is necessarily true or proven or even plausible, but because it is promoted and endorsed by those who wield the authority and the power to legitimate it (i.e., give it legal force or status, declare it to be justified) as the official version. economics, power, serves vested interests.

note1

Bush Defector To Demolish 911 Lies On May 6.

Dr. Reynolds, who holds three U.W.-Madison degrees, and who is currently Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University, will present evidence that top Bush Administration officials orchestrated the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center, and the murder of almost 2,500 Americans, as a pretext for initiating their pre-planned “long war” in the Middle East.

The former top economist in Bush’s Department of Labor, Morgan Reynolds, will speak out on the 9/11 inside job at the State Historical Society, University of Wisconsin-Madison on Saturday, May 6th. The film Loose Change will be shown, and refreshments served, starting at 1 p.m, and Reynolds will speak at 3:00 p.m.

note2–pejorative use of term, to dismiss out of hand

note3–we will act in ways that, as individuals, we recognise to be irrational, simply because we trust the rationality of the group (James Burke example: All Things Bright and Beautiful)

:: Footnotes ::

[1] Interestingly, there are two conspiracy theories at issue here. The first is the now officially discredited claim of a conspiracy between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to attack the U.S., and it remains interesting in light of the fact that polls have indicated that as many as 72 per cent of Americans at one time believed there to have been such a conspiracy, while even as late as September 2004 a Newsweek poll found that “42 percent of Americans still think Saddam was ‘directly involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks’.” In other words, that a significant section of the US public have been gripped by a conspiracy theory. (Parenthetically I find it interesting that in April of that same year, as noted at the beginning of this essay, “an astonishing 72 percent of the American people believed the Bush administration to be guilty of a cover-up”. Surely not the same 72 percent?) The second theory–that there exists a coherent terrorist organisation called al-Qaeda–was, according to Guardian journalist Jason Burke, devised purely as a matter of operational strategy by the FBI: “it is only during the FBI-led investigation into [the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa] that the term [al-Qaeda] first starts to be used to describe a traditionally structured terrorist organization. … The culture of the FBI is focused on achieving convictions, and the teams working on the prosecution of those responsible for the east African embassy bombings of August 1998 had to work within the extant laws, particularly those of conspiracy. Such laws were designed to deal with coherent and structured criminal enterprises, not with amorphous and dispersed politico-religious movements where responsibility for any one single act is very difficult to pin down. Evidence that someone is a member of an organisation is thus extremely useful” (Burke, 2004, p.6). [Video at YouTube]

:: Bibliography and further reading ::

Books

Griffin, D.R. (2005). The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions. Northampton, Mass.:Olive Branch Press. ISBN: 1566565847 [Amazon]

Burke, J. (2004). Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. London: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN: 0141019123 [Amazon]

Web

William Douglas, ‘Exposing the 9/11 Conspiracy Wingnuts’, 11th July 2006. Accessed 13th July 2006 from:
http://signs-of-the-times.org/ signs/editorials/signs20060712_Exposingthe911ConspiracyWingnuts.php

Mark Jacobson, ‘The Ground Zero Grassy Knoll: A new generation of conspiracy theorists is at work on a secret history of New York’s most terrible day.’ New York Magazine, 27th March 2006. Accessed 13th July 2006 from:
http://nymag.com/news/features/16464/index.html

‘9/11 conspiracy theories’. Accessed 13th July 2006 from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9/11_conspiracy_theories

‘Alternative theories of September 11, 2001 attacks’. Accessed 13th July 2006 from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category: Alternative_theories_of_September_11%2C_2001_attacks

‘Researchers questioning the official account of 9/11’. Accessed 13th July 2006 from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Researchers_questioning_the_official_account_of_9/11