The Washington Post asked Americans why they think gas prices have fallen in recent months. Sixteen percent said the fall had to do with supply, while 8 percent cited demand; another 11 percent credited "market forces." But a good 30 percent said the change had to do with politics – and, specifically, the midterm election. The finding prompted this front page blurb in the Post: "Suspicion Grows As Gas Prices Fall -- Some think the recent retreat is a political tool."
That isn't beyond the realm of possibility, although it is hard to imagine that US lawmakers have so much influence over OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, that they could convince the cartel, which includes Iran and Libya, to raise or lower oil production out of deference to US domestic politics. The Post notes that "Pump prices…have fallen because of a slowdown in U.S. demand, a buildup in crude oil and gasoline inventories, the end of the summer driving season, a collapse in profit margins at oil refineries and a $17-a-barrel drop in crude oil prices since August." Republicans may reap some benefits from the fall, but there is no evidence that they were behind it.
Lack of evidence doesn't tend to matter when it comes to some people's beliefs, however. In the new CBS News/New York Times poll, for example, 62 percent of respondents said the House Republican leadership knew about Mark Foley's sexually explicit e-mails. Nineteen percent said the leadership didn't know about the e-mails. I'm not sure how, at this point, the average citizen can claim to know one way or the other what the leadership knew or when they knew it. I understand why pollsters ask these kinds of questions – they presumably shed some light on the mood of the electorate. But why on earth would most people answer them? Shouldn't we have some facts at our disposal before we offer our opinions?
And this brings me to the question of conspiracies. When I was in Berlin, I got into an argument in a bar with a man who was convinced that the US government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. He even later e-mailed me a link to a video, uploaded to YouTube, that supposedly proved as much. The video offered up some purported evidence for the claim, but it ignored all of the obvious reasons why, when you get right down to it, the notion that the government orchestrated the attacks just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Edward Feser at TCS Daily took on this very topic on Sept. 20. In his thought-provoking piece, Feser doesn't explore the details of the conspiracy theories so much as the existence of the theories themselves, which he rather indelicately calls "so mind-numbingly stupid that it is mystifying how anyone with a functioning cerebrum could take them seriously even for a moment." Here's Feser:
Everything that happened that day has a ready explanation in terms of bin Ladenist aggression together with two implacable forces of nature: government incompetence and the laws of physics. (Check out the recent book Debunking 9/11 Myths, or this useful website, if you really have any doubts.) There is simply no need to posit a government conspiracy in order to explain the evidence. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theories themselves face all sorts of difficulties, as we have seen. So why even bother with them in the first place? Haven't these people (a few of whom are philosophy professors and scientists) ever heard of Occam's razor?Later, he posits an explanation:
A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as "willing to think," "educated," "independent-minded," and so forth, and with invective against the "uninformed" and "unthinking" "sheeple" who "blindly follow authority." The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.You should really read the whole piece, which gets into historical precedents for the argument. What does all this have to do with the polls I touched on above? I'd argue that what Feser calls "the modern tendency toward hyper-skepticism" has something to do with at least some of the responses. People who hate today's Republicans, for example, flatter themselves into thinking that they, unlike the sheep willing to blindly follow authority, have the intelligence to question it all the time. Are Republicans manipulating gas prices for political gain? Why, you betcha! To this group, the evidence – or lack thereof – for such a claim simply doesn't much matter.
This tendency towards hyper-skepticism also helps explain some of the antagonism towards the mainstream media. Now, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to complain about the press. I've complained quite a bit myself. But the vast majority of the e-mails we get here at PE come from people who are absolutely convinced either that (a) CBS News is desperate to push a liberal agenda down their throats or (b) CBS News is desperate to push a conservative agenda down their throats. (I'm not quite sure how the network pulls off both at the same time.) Evidence that fits these theses is seized upon; that which doesn't is twisted or ignored. This isn't to say that one can't make an intelligent argument, one way or another, that bias exists to some extent. But many of the network's harshest critics seem to be interested not in looking at the evidence and forming a conclusion but in selectively picking out examples that fit their preconceived notions. And that, ultimately, is not all that different than what the conspiracy theorists are up to.
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