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Blogs - Muertos - Herding Cats: How And Why Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong About Experts and Academicians

Author: Muertos (Show other entries)
Date: Nov 13, 2010 at 03:04

By Muertos (

Originally posted here.

It is a question that drives conspiracy theorists, and other traffickers in fringe beliefs, batty: "Why don't more experts and academicians agree with me?"

It's a fair question.  If a conspiracy theorist or other fringe believer, who is typically not an academician him or herself, has been convinced of something nutty--that 9/11 was an inside job, that Christianity is a false construct, that aliens visited the earth in ancient times, that global warming is a hoax, that colloidal silver cures cancer, etc.--it is difficult to understand why experts in various fields aren't convinced by the same "evidence."  Usually the answer in the conspiracy theorist's mind comes down to a dismissal of the value, independence, or honesty of experts and academicians: "They are all part of the Establishment.  The truth I believe in fundamentally challenges the Establishment.  Therefore, they're either unable to recognize that it's true, or afraid to endorse it."

This blog will explain why this position is incorrect, and even absurd.  I will do so by utilizing three case studies of fringe believers who can't get any legitimate experts to sign on to their theories: Acharya S./D.M. Murdock, who claims that Christianity is a hoax; Erich von Däniken, who promotes the "ancient astronaut" theory; and Steven Jones, who maintains that the World Trade Center towers were blown up on 9/11 by "controlled demolition."

<strong style="font-weight: bold;">1.  How Academia Really Works

First, the groundwork.  Conspiracy theorists and fringe believers generally think that academia and the world of experts is a small, close-knit, elitist club where an "official" orthodoxy is rigidly enforced and extreme peer pressure maintains order.  In this ivory tower that conspiracy theorists think academicians live in, the slightest deviation from the "official line" is a career-destroying move for any expert.  He or she will be blacklisted, unable to publish, drummed out of faculty departments and brutally ridiculed by his or her former colleagues.  In the world of conspiracy theorists and fringe believers, this orthodoxy holds fast even if the facts it is based on are demonstrably false--comparisons are often drawn to the geocentric view of astronomy that Copernicus challenged in the sixteenth century, or the (actually incorrect) assertion that "before Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat."

There's just one problem with this view.  It simply isn't true.

I am formerly a lawyer, but I now work in academia.  My colleagues and superiors are well-trained and respected historians.  They have put in years of research and are well-versed in the methodology of history in everything from medieval Japan to U.S. nuclear policy in the 1960s.  But getting them to agree on <em style="font-style: italic;">anything is impossible.

Academics have a reputation for being idiosyncratic and curmudgeonly.  Sometimes that is true.  Anyone who's ever attended a faculty meeting, though, knows immediately that trying to drive academicians in any particular direction is like trying to herd cats.  You just can't do it.  So the idea that there is some sort of rigid orthodoxy, especially one that's artificially imposed by a government or other "Establishment" actor, is simply laughable.

Furthermore, not only is the research of academicians <em style="font-style: italic;">not intended to reinforce any sort of "official line" on anything, but most of them actively<em style="font-style: italic;">seek to expand the boundaries of their field in new and previously undiscovered directions.  After all, being the pioneer of a new line of study ensures academic immortality.  Einstein is famous, and justly so, for being the first physicist to describe relativity.  Everyone's heard of Maynard Keynes because he pioneered a new type of economics.  Doing something new, different and revolutionary is every academician's dream.  They constantly seek new avenues of inquiry in all fields from science to sociology.  Closing yourself off to new ideas is the kiss of death for an academician.

But what is also the kiss of death--an even quicker and more final death--is to commit academic malpractice.  Academicians are, after all, professionals in their field.  They don't get there by ignoring the tenets on which their expertise is based.  If those tenets turn out to be flawed, part of the academician's job is to question and reexamine them.  But if the tenets are sound, ignoring them is, by definition, the mark of a bad expert.

Let's use two quick, simple examples.  Suppose I break my arm and go see a medical doctor.  How bones break, and how they heal, is clearly understood by medical science.  It is not inconceivable that in the future medical science may develop some technology to re-grow broken bones faster or in a more efficient and healthful way.  Perhaps, if I was lucky and willing to take a risk, my broken arm could be healed by such a revolutionary new method.  But that method would rest upon, and be consistent with, what's already known about how bones break and how they heal.  Whether the doctor puts my arm in a cast (the old-fashioned way) or grows me a new humerus with fancy stem cells (the revolutionary new way), my arm is still going to heal using the same biological processes as have been understood for a long time about how broken bones heal.

Now say, instead of going to a doctor for either an old-fashioned cast or a new-fangled cure, I see a doctor who promises that my bone will heal by doing nothing other than dabbling colloidal silver on it.  Perhaps the doctor has some arcane theory as to how colloidal silver re-grows bones.  Obviously my arm isn't going to heal.  Equally obviously, the doctor who prescribes colloidal silver for a broken arm is a quack.  Why?  Because colloidal silver as a treatment for broken bones does not rest upon, and does not comport with, anything that medical science knows about healing bones.  A doctor who prescribes colloidal silver, and nothing else, for broken bones isn't going to remain a doctor for long.  He'll be drummed out of the profession quickly because--no matter how fervently he may believe his theory about colloidal silver--he's committing malpractice.

Think of it this way: if colloidal silver really <em style="font-style: italic;">did work to heal broken bones, wouldn't medical science have at least <em style="font-style: italic;">some inkling of it?  Why would the quack know this and no legitimate doctor wouldn't?  Even if they couldn't explain how or why it works, wouldn't somebody in the medical profession be saying, "Hey, you know, I'm not sure how this colloidal silver works, but it appears to be effective"?  In short: if there was anything to the quack's theory, wouldn't someone <em style="font-style: italic;">other than the quack have said something about it?

This is an extreme example, but keep the principle in mind as we examine the following case studies.

<strong style="font-weight: bold;">2.  Acharya S./D.M. Murdock: Pseudohistorian.

"Acharya S." is the pen name of one D.M. Murdock, an author from Seattle whose claim to fame is the advancement of the "Christ myth theory:" basically the idea that Jesus never existed and Christianity is a hoax constructed by ancient political and religious leaders from various pagan practices, especially sun worship.  Murdock first advanced her theory in a 1999 self-published book <em style="font-style: italic;">The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, which she has followed up with numerous books since then which all harp on the same theory.  Murdock/Acharya is well known to conspiracy theorists.  Her views on the supposed nonexistence of Christ were a cornerstone of Peter Joseph Merola's 2007 conspiracy theorist film <em style="font-style: italic;">Zeitgeist: The Movie, which itself spawned the Zeitgeist Movement, a movement whose main (but not officially acknowledged) goal is the dissemination of conspiracy theories.

Murdock is not really an academic in the classic sense.  She holds no advanced degrees.  She has a bachelor's degree in classics from Franklin &amp; Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and attended for a year an archaeological institute in Greece.  (cite)  As she passionately espouses on her website, she believes these credentials are sufficient to qualify her to rewrite the history of Judeo-Christian civilization.  (In fact, at the start of her passionate defense of her own credentials, she charges that any attempt to question her work based on her lack of them is an "ad hominem attack."  Conspiracy theorists love the words <em style="font-style: italic;">ad hominem).

Murdock believes Christ never existed and that evil power-hungry political and religious leaders thought him up, cribbing from Egyptian sun myths, the life of Buddha and other sources.  She gets there, as all pseudohistorians do, by cherry-picking sources and drawing very strained interpretations of ancient history and astronomy.  Her books are not peer-reviewed.  They are self-published through her own press, Stellar House Publishing.  So far as I can tell, Stellar House Publishing publishes no other authors other than Murdock.  Searching on JSTOR and other academic databases at my university, I couldn't even find a <em style="font-style: italic;">review of any of Murdock's books--not even to denounce them.  The legitimate academic community doesn't even care enough about Murdock to waste a page in some journal refuting her.

Yet, there are thousands of historians, archaeologists and researchers out there with advanced degrees in classics, ancient history, archaeology, and religious studies--degrees that Murdock does not have--and each and every one of them would <em style="font-style: italic;">love to have something new, cutting-edge and revolutionary to write about.  Strangely, not one of them is writing about what Murdock is writing about.  No dissertations or research theses are being churned out of the Notre Dame or Berkeley history departments that even <em style="font-style: italic;">remotely comport with Murdock's theories.  With as desperate as academics are for cutting-edge stuff, you'd think that one of them would have found her by now, or would at least be nibbling at the edges of the body of work she claims to have interpreted correctly.  But they aren't.  Why?  Because to advance the "Christ conspiracy" theory is academic malpractice.  Why is it malpractice?  Because it isn't true.

Murdock and the <em style="font-style: italic;">Zeitgeist conspiracy theorists would have you believe that the reason legitimate academia pays no attention to her is because her theories are "too radical" and violate the orthodoxy of academic study in ancient history, or because it's somehow "taboo" to claim that Christ never existed or isn't holy.  One need not remind Murdock and the Zeitgeisters that there are more than just Christians researching ancient history.  Learned universities in the Islamic world and in Asia employ historians, archaeologists and researchers every bit as competent as the ones in the West.  Strangely those people--who, being Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos or atheists, certainly have no personal or professional attachment to the idea of Christ--haven't picked up on Murdock's theories either.

So the idea of Christ not existing is <em style="font-style: italic;">so taboo that the devout Muslim head of the history department at the University of Cairo is quaking in his boots to take on the topic?  Who's not going to publish <em style="font-style: italic;">him for taking that stance?  Who's not going to give <em style="font-style: italic;">him a grant for doing that sort of research?

There must, therefore, be another reason why no one in the academic community is talking about Murdock's ideas.  You don't have to look hard to find it: they're not talking about her ideas because her ideas have no factual merit.  They're so obviously identifiable as false, the unvetted work of an amateur, that even the devoutly Muslim head of the history department at the University of Cairo wouldn't touch them.  <em style="font-style: italic;">Any academic advancing them would be advancing a falsehood.  If they weren't false, somebody <em style="font-style: italic;">other than Murdock would be working on them.  Just as if colloidal silver cured broken bones, somebody legitimate within the medical science field would be working on it--somebody, somewhere, at some institution.

Because the total academic indifference to Acharya S. cannot be explained by anything <em style="font-style: italic;">other than the notion that her ideas and research are so wrong as to constitute academic malpractice to assert them, it is entirely legitimate and appropriate to dismiss them.  Acharya S. isn't ignored by the academic community because her work violates some "taboo."  Even if that were the case--and remember I told you that academia doesn't work that way anyway--ancient historians and archaeologists would be writing article after article dismissing her.  Acharya S. is ignored by the academic community because her theories are ridiculous.  She's the classic example of a pseudohistorian.

Acharya S. has a lot of supporters, especially conspiracy theorists in the Zeitgeist Movement.  I will probably get hate mail regarding this blog to the effect of, "You haven't debunked anything!  You haven't disproven a <em style="font-style: italic;">single claim of Acharya S.!"  This criticism is asinine and betrays the fundamental misunderstanding by conspiracy theorists such as Zeitgeisters of the academic process.  <em style="font-style: italic;">In academia, someone's assertions are not judged on a "true unless proven otherwise" standard.  In fact, it's exactly the opposite.  Your assertions are judged to be a tissue of lies until they've been thoroughly vetted by the peer-review process.  This is why graduate students have to defend their dissertations.  You're judged to be a liar until you prove you are correct.

The question, therefore, is not, what does Acharya S. get wrong, but what does she get <em style="font-style: italic;">right? The burden of proof is on her to show that her theories hold any water.  She cannot meet that burden.  Until she can, no one is obligated to give her the time of day.

<strong style="font-weight: bold;">3.  Erich von Däniken: Pseudohistorian and Pseudoarchaeologist.

D.M. Murdock is one in a long line of pseudohistorians whose work strikes a chord with the public but who is shunned by the academic community.  The granddaddy of them all is Swiss author Erich von Däniken, whose famous 1968 book <em style="font-style: italic;">Chariots of the Gods? proposed the idea that extraterrestrials visited Earth in prehistoric times, helping primitive humans build such things as Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines.  <em style="font-style: italic;">Chariots of the Gods? was a runaway bestseller and is still in print.  The "ancient astronauts" idea has achieved such cultural resonance that it has become a central plot element of many books and movies, most notably the 2008 film <em style="font-style: italic;">Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The most amazing thing about von Däniken is that he's taken as "seriously" as he is.  His credentials are even thinner than D.M. Murdock's--in researching this blog I looked for some notation of any professional degrees held by von Däniken and have found nothing.  Even his own homepage doesn't list any degrees.  You would think if he was trained, for instance, as an archaeologist or an Egyptologist he'd trumpet it from the rooftops.  So we can assume, unless someone can correct me, that von Däniken has no degrees in what he claims to specialize in.

As for his claims themselves, they scarcely need refutation here.  (If you want refutation try this and this).  Suffice it to say that von Däniken's theories rest upon shallow and ethnocentric assumptions about ancient peoples: that, simply because they were ancient and more "backwards" than we, they couldn't have built the pyramids or Stonehenge with the technology they possessed.  Of course this is ridiculous.  They could, and they did.  The belief that modern technology is the <em style="font-style: italic;">sina qua non of civilization is a dangerous ideology called "high modernism," a viewpoint that I blogged on at length earlier (here).  The Egyptians were no less brilliant architects and engineers than the people who built the World Trade Centers.  In fact they may have been considerably more so.  Von Däniken's reasoning is shallow and simply silly.

Yet he sells books.  Still, more than 40 years later.  Again think of the quack doctor and his colloidal silver.  If von Däniken had a point, wouldn't someone <em style="font-style: italic;">other than von Däniken be making it?  If there really <em style="font-style: italic;">was any evidence of "ancient astronauts," wouldn't Carl Sagan, the founder of Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), have been interested in that?  Wouldn't it have validated his entire life's ambition, which was to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence?  In fact Sagan denounced von Däniken publicly and notoriously.  If von Däniken's theories had <em style="font-style: italic;">anycredibility, Sagan could have built his career on bringing them into the mainstream.  He didn't.  Ever wonder why that is?

<strong style="font-weight: bold;">4.  Steven Jones: Pseudoscientist.

Our final case study involves Steven E. Jones, the former Brigham Young University physicist who had, not one, but <em style="font-style: italic;">two high-profile flirtations with pseudoscience, the latter resulting in the end of his career.  If you troll in the conspiracy underground you've no doubt heard of Jones.  He's one of only two people with significant scientific degrees who are out there claiming that 9/11 was an inside job.  The other, for the record, believes the towers were destroyed by super duper beam weapons from outer space.

Jones, unlike Murdock and von Däniken, at least <em style="font-style: italic;">was a real academic.  He earned a Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt University and once worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  Long before 9/11, though, he got into a bit of trouble by claiming he and some other BYU professors had observed "muon-catalyzed fusion"--popularly known as cold fusion.  Whether or not cold fusion is a scientific possibility, the bottom line was that Jones's experiments couldn't be replicated, although other scientists later discovered why they thought Jones came to the conclusions that he did.  Jones would not be known as a pseudoscientist if he'd left it at this, though he probably wishes he could have.

Then, 12 years after the cold fusion controversy, Osama bin Laden's hijackers attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Jones became the poster boy for the 9/11 Truth movement when he began advocating for the "controlled demolition" hypothesis and then later published a paper claiming he found "iron microspheres" in paint chips from the World Trade Center, which he convinced himself was somehow evidence of controlled demolition.  What happened?  BYU cashiered him in 2006.

You can read all about why Jones's theories are wrong here.  That's not the point of this blog.  Note, however, that Jones's paper was not published in a peer-reviewed journal--he paid $800 to have it published in an obscure Korean journal that does not use traditional peer-review processes--and that his thesis has been denounced by other scientists who (curiously) have <em style="font-style: italic;">not been canned from their universities.  Here we have the same pattern as Acharya S. and Erich von Däniken: either academic indifference, or active refutation by legitimate academics.  But nowhere is there the hint of legitimate academia finding any support for Jones's theories.

Conspiracy theorists claim that academics are afraid to support Jones, even though he is supposedly right, because they fear some sort of official retribution.  Once more this assumption is revealed as silly when you think of who actually comprises academic departments.  Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that scientists exist in total lockstep with government orthodoxy, and any deviation from the "official line" brings horrible consequences.  (Some even claim what happened to Jones is an example of those horrible consequences--as if somehow George W. Bush or whoever is supposed to have blown up the WTC towers called the BYU faculty and told them to can Jones.  Yeah, right).  If 9/11 <em style="font-style: italic;">was an inside job, though--meaning, if Jones's theory had any validity--the scientist(s) who exposed it would be lauded as national heroes and brave patriots.  Why would they have any interest in helping the government cover up the murder of 3,000 innocent people?  In all of academia there isn't <em style="font-style: italic;">one scientist--excepting Steven Jones--who has one ounce of decency or morality?  Not <em style="font-style: italic;">one?

Steven Jones's own behavior demonstrates the fallacy of this argument.  We can assume that Steven Jones honestly believes the towers were brought down by controlled demolition.  Look how tenaciously <em style="font-style: italic;">he defends the conspiracy theory.  Despite years of being debunked, Jones continues to hammer his tinfoil hat theories.  He seems to have no problem going against "orthodoxy," so why should other academicians?  In order for the conspiracy theorists' conception of academia to be true, Jones must be, by definition, qualitatively different in ethics, morality and professional courage than every other physicist in the United States (if not the world).  If you assume that Jones's theories are actually true, he is automatically <em style="font-style: italic;">more moral, ethical and courageous than every single other physicist in the world.  If you accept Jones's theory as fact you have no choice but to believe this no matter how arrogant it sounds.  What, then, sets Jones apart from all his other colleagues--the "sheeple" who are supposedly so cowed by this official academic orthodoxy that they'll avoid speaking out against a factually untrue story and a monstrously unjust act of murder?  Is Steven Jones <em style="font-style: italic;">that different, in courage and moral character, from all of his other colleagues?

He may believe he is--and 9/11 Truthers would certainly maintain that he is--but I venture to say that what's different about Jones as opposed to his colleagues isn't the same thing.  The difference is this: all of them realize he's wrong, but he doesn't.  For whatever reason he can't see the scientific, logical and empirical flaws in his ridiculous theory.  He is the outlier--whereas, to hear conspiracy theorists tell it, Jones is the only one who's right and <em style="font-style: italic;">every other physicist in the world is wrong.  Yes, <em style="font-style: italic;">every other one.

Let's assume there are 8 million physicists in the world total.  Which is more likely?  That Steven Jones is factually correct and more morally and professionally courageous than 7,999,999 of his colleagues?  Or that <em style="font-style: italic;">Jones is the one that's wrong, and the 7,999,999 physicists who don't believe in controlled demolition have the better argument?

What's really happening here is very clear.  Jones got drummed out of the profession because he committed academic malpractice.  None of his colleagues want to follow him out on that limb, not because they're afraid of peer pressure or the big bad government, but because they can't get behind a demonstrably false theory.  Jones is wrong.  The academics who shun him are right.

<strong style="font-weight: bold;">Conclusion

The real world of academics and experts bears little resemblance to the one imagined by conspiracy theorists and fringe believers.  In reality there is no rigid orthodoxy, no brutal peer pressure to conform to false realities, no swift and terrible retribution for standing up against an arbitrary officially-derived "party line."  Academics hunger for something new, different and paradigm-shifting.  If there was any possible chance that the routes of inquiry urged on them by conspiracy theorists and fringe believers had any validity, academics would jump all over it in an attempt to be the first to expand the boundaries of their own discipline, and thus attain academic and intellectual immortality.

In our world of increasingly specialized functions and mountains of information, expert opinion <em style="font-style: italic;">does matter.  Academics exist for a reason.  Advanced degrees are difficult and expensive to get on purpose, to make sure that the people who obtain them have what it takes to do good work in their respective fields.  Conspiracy theorists and fringe believers see none of this.  To them, amateur understanding is on par with, or even superior to, expert opinion.  The divinity of Christ can be disproven by a self-published author from Seattle.  A Swiss ufologist with no expert training can rewrite all of human history.  A screwy physicist who fell for a conspiracy theory can be morally and ethically superior to every other one of his colleagues on the planet.

That is the Bizarro world in which conspiracy theorists dwell.  They may take great comfort in their delusions, but the real world should be left to the experts.  It just might be that they're experts for a reason.