The wake of the Boston Marathon bombings brought with it an undertow of conspiracy theories ranging from the farfetched to the unbelievable. Two weeks ago, I never would have imagined being asked to explain, in casual social situations, what a "false flag" attack is. On The David Pakman Show, inspired in great part by curiosity about the response it would bring, we've been debunking many of these theories. In dissecting much of the material, in particular one short video released by Glenn Beck, I've been able to identify the fundamental misunderstanding that impedes productive conversation with conspiracy theorists. This is not an indication of my personal belief that any specific conspiracy theory is or is not true. This is not a denial, on my part, that governments don't sometimes lie, distort, and distract, but merely an attempt to point out the fallacious nature of many conspiratorial arguments.
For the unfamiliar, Glenn Beck is a former morning radio host turned former Fox News host turned current conservative internet video maker and nationally syndicated radio host. His video program is known — among my circles — for dramatically filmed conservative rants, slow-zooming tirades against President Obama, and majestic wide shots during which Beck states that God guided Mitt Romney to lose a presidential debate. Glenn Beck was the catalyst for the realization I write about today.
Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, Beck developed and expanded on a theory about the young Saudi national who was injured in the explosion. Initially incorrectly assumed to be a suspect in the immediate aftermath on April 15, Beck believes he is actually an Al-Qaeda recruiter who the government is trying to sneak out of the country. The theory is much more involved, but the details are irrelevant to my discussion here.
After outlining his case, Beck repeated the fundamental misunderstanding that so many conspiracy theorists hold. "The burden of proof is on the federal government," Beck said, "and so far they have not presented one shred of evidence that has refuted what the Blaze (Beck’s associated internet media outlet) has reported."
This is the central issue and fundamental problem surrounding conspiracy theories and theorists. The burden of proof is not transferred to whoever is accused by the conspiracy theorist. The desire for the federal government to address whether the moon landing was faked, whether 9/11 was an "inside job," or whether the Boston Marathon bombing was a "false flag operation" does not transfer the burden of proof to the federal government. The burden of proof is on he who proposes the theory.
This lack of understanding of what constitutes a burden of proof, combined with the fact that it is very difficult to prove a negative, make it virtually impossible to satisfy many conspiracy theorists that their theory, while not provably false, has not been proven positively with evidence. This is why the reaction to many of the debunkings we've done on the David Pakman Show are met with the response that we have not proven to the conspiracy theorist that their theory is false.
There's an additional layer. Many of these conspiracy theories and theorists rest on basic philosophical disagreements about how knowledge is obtained. If you choose to engage with such theorists, you might find yourself "negotiating down," as the case may be, by citing a specific piece of evidence that contradicts their theory. A common response will be to question how you really know that the evidence you are citing is real and/or that its fabrication is not part of the very conspiracy they cite. As you continue this downward negotiation, you arrive at the point where any evidence not physically observed by you, beyond any possibility of subterfuge or manipulation, must be discounted as evidence.
The counterpoint to this — and this is the key to the double standard — is that the conspiracy theory itself is no doubt based on the same type of evidence that, when used to disprove it, is called unreliable. In the case of the Boston bombing, while arguing that we can't believe what media and government officials tell us and show us, we see intricate conspiracy theories based on analyses of the exact media and government statements, images, videos, and documents that the conspiracists themselves allege can't be trusted.
Further exploration of the concept "burden of proof" by conspiracy theorists would lead to more reasoned thinking, less baseless ideas, and far fewer awkward conversations at social gatherings. As Wikipedia states, "when debating any issue, there is an implicit burden of proof on the person asserting the claim." Alex Michalos wrote in 1969 that "if this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed."
Let's avoid appealing to ignorance. Am I wrong about this?
David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program "The David Pakman Show," writes a monthly column. He can be reached at www.davidpakman.com.