April 16, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

By Dr. Romeo Vitelli
As skeptics, it is baffling to us that people can believe in so many different things that have little or no evidence to support them and often have plenty of evidence against them.  We tend to look at these people as cranks, kooks, or loonies.  There is a tendency to ridicule and make fun of these people and sometimes this is an appropriate response, but we need to remember what Leon Festinger had to say in his book, When Prophecy Fails:

“…through the mocking and scoffing of nonbelievers there is usually established a heavy commitment on the part of believers. …the jeering of nonbelievers simply makes it far more difficult for the adherents to withdraw from the movement and admit that they were wrong.

The reality is that most of these believers are suffering from cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a theory first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950’s.  He theorized that when an individual holds two or more ideas that are related but inconsistent with each another the inconsistency creates a state of discomfort. (Harmon-Jones, E. and Harmon-Jones, C. 2007) He tested his theory by studying a UFO cult that believed that there would be a great flood on December 21, 1954, and that a flying saucer would save them.  When December 21 passed with no flood and no flying saucer, the members of the group became even more dedicated to their beliefs.  This is because most of them had given away everything they owned and had given up everything to their belief in the prophecy.  They told themselves that their sincere commitment stopped the flood from happening, and that this belief proved that they were right. (Festinger, et al. 1956) Cognitive dissonance is something that most of us have experienced to one degree or another.. Most of the time the dissonance is easily and painlessly resolved simply by making a decision. For example, say you know that you need complete a project deadline by the day after tomorrow and you have planned on completing it today, but then you get a call from a friend asking you to go out for lunch and shopping.  You feel uneasy because you know you need to get the project done.  If you decide to work on the project instead of go with your friend, you have resolved the dissonance and the unease is gone now that you know you will complete your project today.  If, on the other hand, you decide to go with your friend, the dissonance remains.  You justify your decision by telling yourself that you have all day tomorrow to complete the project.  In this case you haven’t really resolved the dissonance, but you have rationalized it to yourself effectively enough so that you are able to go out and enjoy your time with your friend, even if the dissonance may be nagging at you in the back of your mind. We deal with situations like this all the time. The vast majority of times, we resolve it by making a decision that makes the dissonance go away. Sometimes, we choose to let the dissonance remain and we rationalize it away in order to allow ourselves to function without the emotional discomfort. A fairly innocuous example of cognitive dissonance is the story of The Fox and the Grapes. The fox wants to eat the high hanging grapes, but unable to reach them, he convinces himself that he didn’t really want the grapes anyway because they were probably sour. A more serious example might be a doctor whose patient dies in her care because of a mistake the doctor made.  She then denies that she made a mistake despite the clear evidence that she did She then comes up with several rationalizations to explain why the patient’s death wasn’t her fault. Most of us would look at the doctor and say that she was wrong and should own up to it. We perceive her as being dishonest and uncaring. What is really going on is more complex than that. The doctor most likely is a very honest and caring person and sees herself as such. Because being honest and caring is an essential part of how she sees herself, there is great cognitive dissonance introduced by the death of her patient due to  her error.. She has a difficult choice to make: either face the very uncomfortable fact that she was responsible for the death of her patient, or find reasons why it wasn’t her fault. While facing the facts is obviously the right thing to do, it will seriously call into question a very fundamental aspect of who she is. In order to live with herself she chooses, somewhat unconsciously, to find other reasons for the patient’s death. Another example is one that we hear about far too often.  Someone is told that they have cancer and that a difficult regime of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery is required to remove it, but they fear these treatments and the possibility of death so much that cognitive dissonance is created in their minds.  This may cause them to latch onto alternative treatments that are untested and unsafe.  This is all too common and the results are usually deadly. Real, effective treatment is postponed in favor of alternatives such as homeopathy or naturopathy, so that, by the time they realize the alternative treatments aren’t working, it is too late. It is important for all of us to understand Cognitive dissonance because it is very easy for us, when faced with cognitive dissonance in our own lives, to choose the easiest way to deal with it.  Most of the time the results are insignificant, but as the example above illustrates, the results can also be deadly. Resources: Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., Schachter, S. , Aronson, E. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Harmon-Jones, E. , Harmon-Jones, C. 2007. Cognitive dissonance theory after 50 years of development. Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie (38): 7-16. Jay Walker is a skeptical writer whose work has been published in AIM Magazine and various local newspapers. He is also the author of the Freethinking For Dummies blog at http://freethinkingfordummies.com and is a regular contributor to the blog at randi.org Jay is also an organizing member on the Conference Committee for the Omaha Atheists. See What Others Are Saying: http://forums.randi.org/tags.php?tag=cognitive+dissonance
January 30, 2011

“Foreign Trade Zones” are Bad Policy But Not a Plan to Sell the US to China

By Dave
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A friend recently forwarded me an alarming email called “The Brooks Report” which exposes the terrible threat to the nation posed by “Foreign Trade Zones” which are apparently going to give away 257 small towns in the US to the Chinese and other nations and establish them as foreign enclaves outside of the control of our government, possibly as a deal to sell part of America to China to pay off our massive debt.

Of course, the claims are absolutely insane.  This conspiracy theory reminds me a lot of the NAU  theories and it is similarly based on a gross misinterpretation of fact.  Note that there is no link to any legislation or official policy documents supporting any of the claims in the original email.  Most of the email is just wild speculation with no basis in fact at all.  There’s just enough fact in there to make it sound good and the rest is hogwash.

THE BROOKS REPORT”

SO THIS IS WHAT OBAMA AND THE CHINESE WERE UP TO, SEND THIS TO EVERYONE ON YOUR LIST, WRITE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR AND GET THE WORD OUT… VIRGINIA

This is an urgent message! Read this and spread the word! Subject: Foreign Trade Zones. This is unbelievable at first, but you will soon realize that there are several motives for the global communists to physically weave our United States territory together with communist China . Read On! Here’s what is going on!
Each and every one of our state governors has approved and allocated a certain amount of acres of their U.S. state land to be inhabited by Chinese communists –communists straight from China ! They are to set up little towns and live here, supposedly for the purpose of producing Chinese products for sale in the U.S.A. The land the states are giving them for their little towns will be considered “foreign territory”!!! We are told that the laws of the state (in which these Chinese communists dwell) will apply to the communist Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ). Comment: If so, why are they allowed in here!??! Isn’t the whole set up unlawful??? There are 257 of these little communist towns to be built all over the United States . Go to this website and see the list of the states, and how many FTZ’s are to be erected in each and every state! Our nation is being peppered all over with these communist closed towns called “zones”! This insane brainstorm by Washington , D.C. officials was just recently discovered by alert citizens in the State of Idaho , where an FTZ is being built there, just south of Boise , Idaho , possibly 30,000 acres of Idaho is going to be used for that FTZ. Check this site quickly before it is removed:

http://ia.ita.doc.gov/ftzpage/letters/ftzlist-map…html

When you get to this website, be prepared by having enough paper to print 40 pages, listing all the FTZ’s to be built over the whole United States ! 257 of these FTZ’s! It is absolute insanity!! How gullible are we??? The excuse given for creating communist towns all over our nation is that these Chinese people will produce products for sale in the United States , and the FTZ will eliminate overseas shipping costs of the products they create! A bizarre excuse!!! Can’t we manufacture our own products anymore with American workers? How foolish are we to allow this??? Remember the hard-learned lesson taught to gullible people back in ancient times, when the Trojan Horse was built and they pulled it past their protective gates??? Do we Americans look THAT STUPID to the Chinese and to our Washington , D.C. leaders???

It will not mean jobs for Americans. All the help will be Chinese! Besides, it is to be classed as “foreign territory”, remember! You won’t know what is really going on inside the enclave. Is there any danger for Americans to allow this? What do you think?!!!

It is a known fact that China has been preparing for war against the United States ! Many guns are pointed at us. Why should these FTZ’s be allowed??? What is the real reason?? Is it that Washington , D.C. needs foreign help to disarm American citizens (who have privately-owned firearms) so that the federal administration can comply with Public Law 87-297, signed into law by J.F. Kennedy for “general and complete disarmament of the United States “? It is a law continually financed by Washington , D.C. That’s the law that calls for us to have no more army, no more navy, and no more air force, all of which is to be transferred over on a permanent basis to the communist-dominated United Nations! That law also prohibits all firearms from being owned by American citizens!

Without firearms, there will be no more liberty, freedom, or justice in government. Guns are the main core of the check and balance system. Our nation’s founders realized that firearms in the possession of the people are the indispensible safeguard upon which all of the other rights in the “Bill of Rights” depend! That’s why the Second Amendment was meant to be honored, treasured, and preserved!

Some people are wondering if the American land in these FTZ’s is being given as collateral for the huge debt we owe to China ? Some people are asking: “Does China own us and is our land collateral in case we don’t pay the debt?” China is allowing American businesses to get established in China as FTZ’s. Americans must build the structures in China , and they must employ all Chinese people to do the work in what is built there. After a short amount of years, the Americans must vacate, leave the buildings and let the Chinese keep the technology and the active operation as on-going. What this amounts to is transferring American technology and management to communist China .

FTZ’s are also known as SEZ’s (Special Economic Zones) Please relay this information to all your friends. Someone has to answer for this on state and federal levels! What a set-up for sabotage, espionage, and a study on how to take over the whole United States in a war! Because the newspapers and other media are controlled, they will not be reporting on this unless there is a great public outcry. Remember when being a communist was a punishable crime in the U.S.A. My, how we have changed! Complete reversal. Best to take this information to local public officials as well as all your contacts.

Please do not delay spreading this information.

What this program actually appears to be is something similar to the program of “Duty Free” shops (and it’s based on the same 1934 law which created them) but applied to wholesale businesses with the intention of reducing the tax burden in certain areas to encourage foreign investment and trade in the US.  I’m pretty sure it’s terrible economic policy, but it’s not the alarming threat to the nation which this email makes it out to be.

If you check out the FAQ on the site linked to in the email it dispels many of the claims made in the email.  For example it states clearly “FTZ sites and facilities remain within the jurisdiction of local, state or federal governments or agencies.”  So they are not, in fact, treated as foreign territory in most practical ways and foreign governments will have no authority there.

If you go to the primary site at Customs and Border Protection (it’s name this week anyway) it explains how these zones work in great detail.  There is also a simpler explanation on Wikipedia.

In many ways these FTZs are akin to the various business subsidies and tax abatements you see being used by local governments to attract businesses to a particular state or city, where they will waive property taxes, build infrastructure and even pay some costs for businesses to relocate to their jurisdiction. As a rule these are usually very bad policy, trading an increase in taxes for the hope of job creation and an increase in the tax base. The problem is that the tax gains are small because taxes are abated, and once the deal runs out there’s nothing to keep a company from leaving again, taking away whatever benefits it brought. It’s the same thing with these FTZs. They hand out unjustifiable benefits to foreign businesses which are not being offered on an equal basis to their domestic competitors. They may help the balance of trade and specific companies partnering with foreign businesses, but the benefits are short term and it’s a terrible example of government interfering in the natural flow of trade to pick winners and losers and benefit some business interest over others.

These FTZs are terrible policy, but they’re bad enough without adding on paranoid distortions about foreign takeovers of the US, which aren’t supported by this policy. The real facts are alarming and worth being concerned about, but there’s no reason to go absolutely hysterical as the author of this email does. A rational approach to opposing them is likely to be much more effective.

I’m also not inspired with confidence by the fact that the author of the email doesn’t know the difference between Idaho and Iowa.

Dave

November 22, 2010

Another Reminder that the Extreme Right is Not Libertarian or Constitutionalist

By Dave
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Today I received another reminder in my email of why Alex Jones and the John Birch Society and other conspiracy fanatics on the far right who claim to be libertarians or at least paleocons are nothing of the sort. (also available in article form.

This took the form of a lengthy collection of links and brief observations drawn from a variety of websites run by Alex Jones and the John Birch Society and other even more questionable folks, focusing on the “invasion” of American towns by private security companies, which is apparently some sort of diabolical plot to advance the police state and implement the dreaded New World Order.

Apparently this horrific development has taken place in exactly two towns nationwide, though the only one they are able to actually name is Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And although described as an “invasion” it appears to be nothing more sinister than merely contracting out some police services to properly trained private security in order to save money, all of which is self-evident from information provided in the article.

Bizarrely, almost all of the actual complaints against law enforcement raised in the various links accompanying the article refer to abuse of power by actual police officers who work directly for local government and are not private contractors. The only specific activities ascribed to private security firms are “driving around in police patrol vehicles” and “harassing citizens.” Very vague and pretty much what police are supposed to do, so long as the harassing is confined to suspected criminals.

The article also includes a screed against the use of private security contractors and mercenaries in overseas military operations and a grab-bag of typical Bircher lunacy about the NWO using foreign troops to suppress American dissent, FEMA and ATF stormtroopers, etc. Lots of good supporting links to absolute lunacy at infoward.com and the JBS’s newamerican.com.

The content of the email was another reminder of how far these extremist groups are from the real values of libertarianism, ,a philosophy which they often claim to believe in, but seem not to understand at all. It’s also interesting that they claim to advocate traditional American values, yet they seem to be deeply hostile to the capitalism which is the backbone of American economic liberty and their leaders like Alex Jones and Jerome Corsi regularly appear on Russia Today, the external propaganda arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau which has as its specific agenda undermining the security and sovereignty of the United States.

For decades real libertarians have widely supported the introduction of more capitalism into areas currently controlled by government. This includes support for the privatization of many government functions, including law enforcement and national security. As a taxpayer and a libertarian I applaud these communities which have taken the initiative to contract out some police services to properly trained security company personnel. This is a move away from a police state, not towards it.

If anything, you are likely to receive better treatment and more accountability from private security which has to keep the citizens happy if they want to have their contract renewed than you are from police officers protected by unions and by an assumption of authority which is likely to make them arrogant. Private companies also do not enjoy the government’s protection of sovereign immunity so you can sue them in civil court, which provides another avenue of redress if there is abuse.

Remember when airport security was private? Was that better or worse than the current behavior of the TSA? Private contractors who did airport screening were respectful and competent because their jobs depended on it. Government-employed and soon to be unionized TSA personnel are arrogant and act as if they are above any law or accountability.

The attack on the use of mercenaries is also amusing from people who often also claim to be “constitutionalists” with great admiration for a document they have apparently never read. While there’s a good argument to be made that the long term deployment of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is unconstitutional, what is absolutely clear from Article 1, Section 8 is that it is absolutely legitimate for the government to hire mercenaries for overseas operations. This is specifically what the authorization of “letters of marque and reprisal” refers to. In fact, it was our great civil libertarian President Thomas Jefferson who first used mercenaries under this authority to execute his war with Tripoli.

Sometimes it’s enough to just say that Birchers and Infowarriors are nuts and ignore them, but every once in a while it is important to look at what they preach and what they claim to believe and point out the inconsistencies between the two. Their promotion of conspiracies and hatred of specific groups (jews and foreigners), their hostility to capitalism and their paranoia about government in general are much more characteristic of the early development of totalitarian movements than they are of libertarianism. There are legitimate reasons to fear the growth of government power, but there is nothing government can do to us with private security and mercenaries it can’t already do and do much worse with its existing security apparatus.

The Obama administration is probably going too far when it talks about putting these extremists on terrorist watch lists — there’s already far too much of that going on — but it is quite clear that these purveyors of hate and misinformation are no friends of liberty or the Constitution.

August 13, 2010

Featured Idiot: Andrew Schlafly

By Dave
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When your mother is ultraconservative hatemonger Phyllis Schlafly, I guess it’s not surprising that you would be raised to be inconceivably stupid, and that appears to be the case with Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly who has put a page on his site detailing his disputes with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Of course, it’s not entirely clear that Schlafly even knows what the term “relativity” means. Based on his opening paragraph on the subject he seems to have somehow crossed it up with “relativism” to which it actually has no relationship whatever:

“The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Who would have thought that physics was a liberal conspiracy? Well, maybe the same guy who has a plan to rewrite the Bible to remove the “liberal bias” — perhaps his mother complained that it didn’t have nearly enough stuff about killing homosexuals and he wants to add some more. And if he’s going to remove the liberal bias that’s almost certainly going to require him to remove the most inconveniently liberal person in the Bible, Jesus.

Schlafly actually graduated from good schools and has a law degree, hard though it is to believe. He’s a classic example of what happens when an obsession – in this case about both religion and conservative “values” – runs so out of control that it totally distorts your view of reality. It’s easy to blame his parents for making him the twisted freak he is today, but he’s a grown up and has had enough real world experience that there’s really no excuse for his behavior.

Perhaps most troubling is that his Conservapedia site is a one-stop shopping center for copious scientific and historic misinformation which has to be seen to be believed. I can just see homeschoolers sending their kids there as if it’s a valid educational resource, with the likely result that they’ll grow up just as delusional and bigoted as Schlafly, making the entire nation less intelligent by their existence.

August 8, 2010

Internet Rumor: Muslims in Houston Celebrating 9/11

By Dave
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This is a classic bit of ignorance-based fearmongering which has been making the rounds for about a year.  It’s latest incarnation is in the following hysterical email:

******

UNBELIEVEABLE!! AMERICA MUST STOP BEING STUPID AND STOP THIS INVASION! NO MORE MOSQUES IN AMERICA. STOP THE MUSLIM TERRORIST.

Well,….. We’ve ALL been pretty passive & understanding for all of their special rights up ’til now,…..

so,……. reckon this will tick anybody off ?
IN CASE YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS.
PLEASE READ CAREFULLY….
(This is so “Unbelievable”.. )

In Houston,Texas at the Harwin Central Mall:

The very first store that you come to when you walk from the lobby of the building into the shopping area had this sign posted on their door. The shop is run by Muslims.

Feel free to share this with others.
In case you are not able to read the sign below, it says

“We will be closed on Friday, September 11, 2009

to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ali


Imam Ali flew one of the planes into the twin towers.

(Nice huh? )


Try telling me we’re not in a
Religious war!

THIS HAS NOT BEEN AROUND….SO MAKE SURE IT DOES!

*******

First the truth. The sign did appear in a perfume shop in Houston in September of 2009.  That’s about all there is that’s correct here.

Imam Ali was decidedly not one of the 9/11 terrorists as he was already long dead.  He was Mohammed’s son-in-law who was assassinated  about 1400 years ago and the anniversary of his martyrdom is sacred to muslims, particularly Shi’ites who consider him the first Imam.

The fact that this particular muslim holiday fell on the 11th of September last year was a coincidence and it has nothing to do with terrorism.  It’s always on the 21st day of Ramadan and Ramadan changes dates from year to year based on the lunar calendar.  This year it was on September 1st.

So this inflammatory and factually incorrect email which has been circulating for months despite widespread deb is still out there being forwarded by gullible idiots.  We’re lucky none of them have firebombed the store or beaten up its employees.

Perhaps people should spend more time learning about Islam and less time spreading hate and misinformation. The truth behind this sign can easily be found in any basic text on Islam or even on Wikipedia, and a simple Google search for “Harwin Central Mall” brings up page after page explaining how wrong the interpretation of the sign is.  There’s no excuse for being this ignorant.

Dave

July 11, 2010

Is Conspiranoia the Product of Ignorance or Delusion?

By Dave
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It occurs to me that perhaps we sometimes look for unnecessarily complicated explanations in trying to understand the mental processes of those who are conspiracy obsessed, Several examples I’ve seen recently lead me to wonder if perhaps many common conspiranoid beliefs are the result of a simple misunderstanding or misreading of a text, or even an inability to parse an English sentence correctly. Or perhaps there is an inclination to read what one expects to see in a text rather than what is actually there – reading between the lines and ignoring the lines themselves.

I recently encountered a textbook example of this in the text accompanying a YouTube video titled “WARNING – Microchipping to Begin in 36 Months Under New Health Bill.” It’s a particularly excellent example because the author actually quotes the text of the Healthcare bill and then proceeds to interpret it in a way which obviously has zero connection to the actual words he’s quoting. Here’s the relevant part of the text:

“The new Health Care Bill, H.R. 3200, just passed by Congress has within it the requirement that all people thereunder shall be microchiped. The plans for this microchipping have been in the hopper going back to December of 2004.

Witness the actual FDA (Food and Drug Administration) document dated December 10, 2004 entitled Class II Special Guidance Document: Implantable Radiofrequency Transponder System for Patient Identification and Health Information. This ten page document may be read on the FDA website at…”

Now, if you go to the FDA website listed, what you find is a standard applicaton for FDA approval of a medical device. Nothing about mandatory implantation, just information about the chips which are a commercial product to help doctors track patient records electronically. Yes, the chips are implanted, which is why they need FDA approval, but there’s nothing there about any kind of government program or mandatory implantation. Just because the FDA is the government, that doesn’t mean that it’s endorsing or mandating this product. It’s just reviewing and ultimately approving its use exactly as it has countless other drugs and products.

The bizarre documentary misanalysis goes on from there:

“Witness the wording within H.R. 3200, Americas Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 found on Congresses House Ways and Means website…On page 1001 is Subtitle C National Medical Device Registry which states,

“The Secretary shall establish a national medical device registry (in this subsection referred to as the registry) to facilitate analysis of postmarket safety and outcomes data on each device that is or has been used in or on a patient.”

In other words, everyone microchipped pursuant to the new Health Care Bill must be registered with the Secretary. The Secretary is defined as the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

There you have a quote from the document followed by a conclusion which cannot possibly logically result from an accurate reading of the text. The provision in the healthcare bill clearly refers to analysis and registration of the devices. It says nothing at all about registering people or making the devices mandatory. The author just leaps to that conclusion because of his paranoid inclinations.

I think it’s not a coincidence that he then goes on to quote extensively from the Book of Revelation and identifies the microchip as the famous Mark of the Beast. Clearly this very confused individual and what has happened here is that he heard about these microchips on a news report (the video shows that report) and immediately leapt to the irrational conclusion that they were a diabolical plot from a government working for the Antichrist. He then went looking for documentary evidence to support his belief, finding the FDA filing and the section in the healthcare bill which refer to the chips. And then he just assumes that these dosuments support his beliefs, even though they do nothing of the sort.

This is the exact inverse of a normal reasoning process. Normally you would start with evidence and draw conclusions based on the evidence. In this case the writer has started with his conclusions and then looked for evidence to support those conclusions. In the best case he might have found evidence which he could take out of context or shape to fit his conclusions. But in this case he just took evidence which really does nothing to support his conclusions and then points to it victoriously as if it says something which it does not.

This type of inverse reasoning seems characteristic of the thought processes of many conspiracy adherents. Their conspiranoia warps their perception of reality and they literally see and read things which are not there. They can look at video of planes and see guided missiles. They can read a government document and draw farfetched conclusions unrelated to its contents. They can ignore any amount of evidence if it doesn’t fit their predetermined conclusions. My first, charitable inclination is to assume that they just don’t know how to reason properly or can’t understand what they see or read, but given the almost hallucinatory disconnect from reality required to make these leaps of illogic, the less kind but perhaps more accurate conclusion is that this is evidence of an actual mental disorder, and the experts have a term for it – cognitive dissonance.

I’m not a psychologist, but I do have some understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy, and when fantasy supplants reality and you begin seeing things which aren’t there or even reading subtext which is not objectively present in a document, that’s a sign that something is very wrong. The fact that we’re dealing with a shared delusion or some sort of mass hysteria which effects a small but notable segment of the population doesn’t make it any less crazy, though it does make it a greater concern, raising the question of whether this particular mental disease is contagious and if so, how can it be contained?

May 9, 2010

Truther Cited for Commercial Solicitation

By Dave
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In a laughable incident caught on video and then massively overdramatized, a truther was cited for illegally distributing commercial materials in downtown San Antonio by a group of bicycle cops whose silly outfits added to the ridiculousness of a scene which plays rather like the segment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where an irate and feces-spattered peasant begins ranting insanely that King Arthur is oppressing him when he just asks him for directions.


In the video members of the truther fringe group We Are Change of San Antonio are stopped by bicycle police while distributing copies of two Alex Jones conspiracy videos and one is given a ticket for illegally distributing commercial solicitations in a public place without a permit. Their defense is to claim that they were being oppressed and even “assaulted” by the police and denied their free speech rights because the DVDs they were giving out are protected political speech.

I’m looking forward to seeing this argument tested in court, as Alex Jones videos are clearly works of fiction, rather than meaningful political statements. Because they exist solely to enrich Alex Jones they are also obviously commercial samples rather than protected speech. Now, I admit that I don’t think that San Antonio should have the right to restrict commercial speech or ticket someone for giving out free samples of a commercial product, even if it’s promoting Jones’ particular snake-oil medicine show. However, under the statute as written there’s a very solid argument that these deluded fanatics were just shilling for a commercial enterprise and not really exercising free speech as defined under the statute.

What’s particularly clear from the video is that it’s time for these nutjobs to find a more productive way to spend their time.

April 9, 2010

The Executive Order 13489 Fallacy

By Dave
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One of the spurious claims being circulated by the Birther fringe is that one of President Obama’s first acts in office was to issue Executive Order 13489 (PDF) which they claim was intended to seal away his birth certificate, school records and other evidence that he is not a United States citizen or otherwise unqualified to be President.

However, this executive order is virtually the same as Executive Order 123283 (PDF) which President George W. Bush issued early in his presidency and which it replaced. That executive order is in turn virtually identical to its predecessor Executive Order 12667 which was issued by President Reagan. All of these orders deal specifically with the National Archive and its role in preserving presidential papers and records. The orders refer only to records generated by the office of the President during his administration which have been kept by the National Archive since that institution was created in 1934.

Starting with Reagan it has been the practice of successive presidents to keep their operating records secret until a later date when they are made public as part of the comprehensive record of their presidency. This concern over the secrecy of White House records clearly originated in the aftermath of the Nixon presidency, which explains the discussion of executive privilege in the orders in question. It’s equally clear that none of these prior presidents had any interest in concealing President Obama’s birth records.

However, what none of these Executive Orders have any authority over are documents which were not generated by the President’s office while he was serving. They do not apply to state records like birth certificates or private records like school transcripts. The President does not have the authority to seal those records by executive order even if he wanted to, and nothing in these Executive Orders even attempts to do so.

This is a classic example of people looking at a document with a conclusion already in mind, and mistakenly assuming that the document they are looking at supports their preconceived conclusion solely because of some superficial characteristic which may not actually be relevant. In this case the logical fallacy is the assumption that if President Obama is keeping records secret those records must relate to his birth certificate or school records because you already believe those things to be falsifications which he would want to cover up.

This is an example of the Existential fallacy or Vacuous Truth fallacy which is often demonstrated in the classic False Antecedent Syllogism. In this case:

  • President Obama has a Kenyan Birth Certificate.
  • President Obama is keeping documents secret.
  • Therefore President Obama is keeping his birth certificate secret.
  • To those already inclined to belief this may sound good, but in fact there is no proven foundation for the first assertion and no actual causal link between the second premise and the conclusion. It’s a compound logical error originating with that unproven assumption which the evidence introduced doesn’t actually support despite all claims..

    This problem of misreading documents which have some superficial elements which can be misconstrued by those inclined to look for nefarious meanings is remarkably common. It becomes even worse when the documents deal with legal terms or concepts which the readers are unfamiliar with, or when they use foreign phrases, usually in Latin, which can be easily mistranslated to produce nonsensical or self-serving results.

    Entire pyramids of conspiracy theory are built on this kind of illogic, and their delusional adherents will cling to them relentlessly so that their entire delusional world view isn’t brought crashing down by pointing out their foundational error.

    February 20, 2010

    Alex Jones is Still A Jackass

    By Dave
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    I started out to write an article about an ominous attack on Second Amendment rights which took place here in Austin recently, but on viewing videos of the subsequent protest at city hall as part of my research I got sidetracked with more overwhelming evidence that Alex Jones is a narcissistic douchebag and really no friend of liberty, facts which I have observed before but which just become clearer with each new incident.

    Earnest and passionate local advocates for individual liberty led by John Bush of Texans for Accountable Government organized a peaceful protest rally on Monday afternoon in opposition to the Austin Police Department’s involvement with the BATF in attempts to illegally shut down private gun sales at gun shows in Austin. They had a good turnout and a schedule of speakers including Darwin Bedecker, who was the most recent target of this persecution campaign, and notable local liberty advocates like Jerri Lynn Ward and Catherine Bleish. It was organized on short notice, but it was a well-planned and effective rally presenting a legitimate grievance to the city government with a permit and everything.

    Then, in the middle of it all, Alex Jones shows up with a bullhorn and what can only be described as a gang of thugs, and proceeds to disrupt the entire rally, shouting over the speakers, shutting down the program, and ultimately driving off most of the participants with his obnoxious antics. Not only that, but Jones was rude to everyone, including those who tried to invite him to become a program participant, called Catherine Bleish a “cointelpro” agent provocateur and ranted on and on about the NWO and various issues completely unrelated to the purpose of the protest, while surrounded by his personal videographers and thuglike followers.

    Apparently Jones is incapable of allowing a protest to go on where he isn’t the center of attention, and in order to get that attention he is willing to undermine the effectiveness of the protest, offend potential sympathizers and generally behave like a penis with legs. It’s not surprising that by the end of the event people were accusing Jones of working for the statists to discredit legitimate protesters, and a lot of people came away from the event cured of any prior attraction to Jones’ particular brand of anti-government paranoia. As I’ve said before, Jones is his own worst enemy and he lost a lot of supporters Monday because of his boorish behavior and an attitude which was widely described as “divisive.”

    Jones clearly has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and has all the earmarks of a little Hitler in the making and that type doesn’t like to be left on the sidelines. He has the “rule or ruin” attitude where if he’s not in charge and doesn’t have all eyes focused on him then he will cause chaos and destruction and to hell with everyone else and the important issue which they may have been protesting. For Jones the cause of liberty and the truth are secondary. His goal is self-promotion and probably personal profit as well. Jones can’t just cover a story or add his voice to protesting an issue, because he has to be the story and he has to define the protest or it is of no value to him.

    For more video of this event taken by Catherine Bleish see here and here.

    September 29, 2009

    Stop Listening to Idiots

    By Dave
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    I offer this video as a classic example of delusional people behaving in ways which are sociopathic and which would be embarrassing if they had any sense of self-worth or common sense. To behave so irrationally and to then proudly trumpet your beliefs to the public in a video has to be some sort of mental disorcer.

    If you watch the video you can see exactly where the misinformation this buffoon is spewing is coming from. He starts out with Lou Dobbs, the media’s idiot-in-chief, and as the video goes on he repeats word for word many of the myths and delusions actively promoted by conspiracy-huckster Alex Jones. Note his reference to the mythical North American Union, the nonexistent Amero currency and the dreaded Security and Prosperity Partnership. He tells us to all go out and read about them. And there’s where you know he’s nuts, because if you go and read legitimate sources or read the actual documents he references you realize that his claims about a one-world conspiracy are utterly without merit and probably the manifestation of some sort of paranoid delusion.

    And note Governor Perry’s reaction to mention of the Bilderbergers. Like most people who attend this conference he’s utterly at a loss to figure out why these conspiracy nuts are so obsessed with it, or why Alex Jones is hiding in the bushes outside the conference hall with his video camera. It’s the kind of behavior which ought to get him some time in a nice padded room. The Bilderberger obsession basically comes down to an irrational fear of any group composed of the rich and powerful. If a bunch of politicians and buisness leaders meet in a room they must be plotting something evil. This is a classic example of the logial fallacy I call the Conspiracy of the Ruling Elite which assumes that any coordinated effort by the rich and powerful must have dark motives, whether there is any evidence to support that claim or not. To this mindset, private clubs are cult-like organizations, international conferences are secret planning sessions for world government, and innocent organizations whose real motives are absolutely clear like PNAC and the CFR are the seedlings of a dreaded one-world government. All of this despite the fact that the real activities and beliefs of these groups are widely documented and easily available for anyone who cares to do even minimal research.

    What the truthers and the birchers and other similar conspiracy nuts need to do is stop listening to idiots like Alex Jones and Lou Dobbs who seek to exploit their gullibility to advance their own wealth and their own careers. These freaks need to get a grip, spend some time among real people, and take a course in logic at the local junior college. Until then we’d all be better off if they just mumbled under their breath like the schizophrenic street people with whom they have so much in common.