In my 47 years of practicing law, I have witnessed with admiration and awe how our justice system attempts to resolve factual disputes. Jurors and often judges are charged with the duty of first sifting through and then evaluating evidence in light of a standard established in the law (in a criminal case- proof beyond a reasonable doubt). To make sure they reach a fair and hopefully accurate verdict they are instructed to set aside any preconceived notions or interests, which may unduly color their judgment. However, an unbiased examination of the evidence is not the methodology incorporated or even preferred by all segments of our society.
A prime example of a rational search for the truth taking a back seat to other interests was clearly evident in the recent impeachment trial of the President in the United States. The verdict was predetermined and most Senators exhibited neither the desire nor inclination to either fully or impartially explore the articles presented by the House of Representatives. But such an occurrence, although immensely disappointing, is not unique. History is replete with examples where states of mind such as partisanship, greed, power, prejudice, hatred, racism, ignorance, mysticism or blind faith took precedence over rationality. As I’ve noted in past columns, a large number of these societal detours from earnest truth seeking fall under the rubric of conspiracy theories.
Let’s examine one of the more prominent conspiracy theories, namely that the government engineered the 9/11 attacks. This theory is propagated by the likes of Alex Jones of Info Wars fame, one of the most egregious purveyors of inflammatory and destructive propagandistic misinformation. To evaluate this or any theory, we will employ the “SEARCH” method: judging the theory on its own merits while comparing it to any alternative explanation, utilizing the long recognized standards of simplicity, conservatism (not the political kind), scope, and fruitfulness.
First, the conspiracy theory: the destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job, carried out by agents of the United States government to engender support for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The counter theory: the World Trade Center fell after being struck by planes that were commandeered by foreign actors not employed by or under the direction of our government.
Basis for adopting the conspiracy theory: 1) The collapse of the towers looked exactly like an explosive demolition; 2) Explosive charges can be seen shooting from several floors prior to the collapse; 3) Consistent with the explosive demolition of building, the towers fell down into their own footprint; 4) A steel framed building has never collapsed due to fire yet three steel framed buildings collapsed that day; therefore, explosives must be responsible.
The counter arguments: 1) Blasting professionals always concentrate on the lower floors. Close examination of every video and photograph of the World Trade Center collapse shows that each building began to fall at precisely the point where the planes hit; 2) Human inhabited buildings are comprised of 70% air and 30% structural elements and content. During any rapid collapse that air must be displaced in some manner. When a structure collapses, the air within the edifice is propelled horizontally through windows, door frames or any other path of least resistance; 3) Simply put, the buildings did not fall in their own footprint. Several blocks around the site were showered with debris from the towers; 4) The fact is that many steel framed buildings have collapsed due to fire. Each does specifically in line with its particular structural specifications. This was true in this case as well. Furthermore, a thorough examination of the site revealed zero evidence of explosives being present but rather presented overwhelming evidence that the towers collapsed due to the aftermath of being struck by two planes.
Now let’s evaluate the competing theories utilizing the standard of our SEARCH criteria:
Simplicity: The conspiracy theory is less tenable because it assumes that many more than 19 people were involved. It also would require that government officials at the highest level were involved. It would stand to reason that at least one of them would have come forward by now.
Conservative: The conspiracy theory is less conservative because it conflicts with everything our experts know about explosives. Further, to pull it off would involve a coordinated effort among numerous government agencies and a massive number of individuals. Explosives would have to be placed undetected and somehow engineered not to go off when the planes hit the towers as well as magically leaving no seismographic trace.
Scope: The conspiracy theory has less scope because it raised more questions that it answers. By whom, when, and how, were the buildings wired with explosives? Why not just blow up the buildings and blame the terrorists? Why kill so many people? Who installed and operated the remote control devices that the conspiracy theorists insist were used? No answers to any of these questions have ever been posited.
Fruitfulness: Although the conspiracy theory predicted hard evidence in the way of taped conversations, memos, emails etc. linking members of the Bush administration to the attack, none were ever found. Instead, suicide notes and videos of the Al Qaeda operatives in which they admit the planning and carrying out of the attack were found and verified.
The only rational conclusion is that the conspiracy theory must be rejected because it is less simple, less conservative, has less scope and is less fruitful than the official version. In addition to this particular conspiracy theory the same SEARCH method criteria can be employed to analyze and judge other proposed theories.
Why bother? Don’t we create our own reality? What’s true for you is not necessarily what’s true for me? If we embrace this theory, we abandon any notion of truth. Science, politics and any other human endeavor is grounded in the belief that we can and must discover how the world is, not just how we experience it or would like it to be.
It is more essential than ever, in this ever-confusing world that we remain resolute in our search for the truth. We can and must evaluate competing versions of “the truth” by asking two basic questions: 1) How much understanding does the theory produce? 2) To what extent does the particular explanation systematize and unify our knowledge?
These two vital questions can only be answered by drawing upon the yardsticks I have outlined above: simplicity, conservatism, scope, and fruitfulness. The quality of our lives and our society in general is dependent on the quality of the decisions we make individually and collectively. Like the juries I described earlier, if we are to have any confidence in our judgments, it’s crucial that we base them on a reasoned examination of the evidence and nothing else. To do otherwise is as foolhardy as it is dangerous.