Unorthodox thinker or conspiracy theorist?

If we allow freedom of thought and ideas to be curtailed, we are embracing tyranny.

A clumsily-written article in the Independent newspaper (30th July 2015) reports on a university study that appears to link “conspiracy theorists” with violent extremists who go overseas to join foreign terrorist squads.

As part of his research into Vice Epistemology, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University, is studying what makes people believe in “certain theories”. Professor Cassam, according to the Independent, believes that “some people” are more vulnerable to “intellectual vices” such as dogmatism, gullibility and close-mindedness [sic], and is quoted as saying:

“For example take 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Why do they hold onto their conspiracy theory despite the fact that there seems to be overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t an American government conspiracy to bring down the towers?”

This stereotyping of everyone who questions the official reports of a particular event as thinking with one mind and behaving in exactly the same way is, to my mind, not very scientific.

I would fall into Prof Cassam’s blanket description, as one who has always questioned the official portrayal of the events of September 11, 2001. Doubts arose in my mind from the day it happened, because Osama Bin Laden was identified as the official culprit from day one, before any proper investigations had been carried out. I also wondered why air traffic control radar had not picked up the aberrant planes entering the world’s busiest airspace during rush hour.

I have never said categorically that Bin Laden was not involved, but I did feel that there was more to this than the mainstream media was telling us. The questions that arose in my mind on that day have never been fully answered to my satisfaction by the official explanations and investigations. However unlike some people, I don’t think I’m in a position to say what actually did happen. My views may change according to new details that emerge­. I don’t see that as “closed mindedness”.

There have been many other cases where I’ve questioned the “official” version of the facts. One example is the conviction of Barry George for the murder of the television presenter Jill Dando. This high profile murder was initially reported as a highly professional shooting, yet the man convicted of the killing was a strange loner with several different personality disorders who was obsessed with Gary Glitter and Freddie Mercury. Going by the reports of the case, it seemed obvious to me that either the initial reports were wrong or that George was not the killer. He was acquitted of Dando’s murder in 2008.

People are often labelled “conspiracy theorists” simply because they dare to question the official versions of events, even when the mass media doesn’t bother to question them. Many of these so-called conspiracy theorists do an enormous amount of research work to back-up their claims. A more suitable term, to my mind, would be “unorthodox thinking”.

Conspiracy fact: the CIA strategy to discredit critics of the Warren Report

CIA doc p1The phrase “conspiracy theory” is widely believed to have been coined by the CIA in 1967, following the Warren Commission investigation into the shooting of President John F Kennedy.

CIA Document 1035-960 “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report” aimed to counter rising public scepticism towards the official version of events, as a spate of books and articles at the time were criticising the Commission’s findings, and in most cases were suggesting the existence of a conspiracy, often implying that the Commission itself was involved.

In addition, a recent public poll had revealed that 46% of Americans did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in shooting the President.

The stated aim of the CIA dispatch was to “provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries.”

The document, which can be read in full here, presented several strategies designed to discredit the “critics”, such as the following:

“Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories.”

Dangerous developments

These strategies have been very successful over the years. But today, things seem to be taking a more sinister turn. Conspiracy theorists are not a political or religious faction. To be labelled one, all you have to do is express views that diverge from the mainstream way of thinking. If you don’t mind being laughed at, that’s fine – except that now the authorities are linking “conspiracy theorist” with “extremist”, which links to “terrorist”.

In my opinion, this is a very dangerous development, akin to the Nazis burning books and persecuting intellectuals. It’s an attempt to stifle independent thought. It effectively turns anyone who dares to challenge political orthodoxy or question the government into a heretic.

Totalitarian regimes don’t allow their citizens to question the political orthodoxies of the State. Freedom of thought is essential to a free society. If we allow freedom of thought and ideas to be curtailed, we are embracing tyranny.

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