Over the next few weeks I plan to post a series of articles concerning the DomPost’s Conspiracy Theory article of June 23 2012. This first post is a discussion of the first page of the advertorial. Please refer to the link above for the full text of the article.
Additional topics to be covered in future articles are:
Who wrote the advertorial?
Kerry McBride’s biography as it appears on the DomPost site:
Kerry was selected as a Fairfax intern and joined The Dominion Post in 2011. She reports on council and civic issues, as well as writing for the Capital Day page. She has covered issues in Wellington, including Wellington City Council’s spy car, earthquake strengthening and the Occupy Wellington protest.
Kerry has a degree in political science and international relations from Victoria University, and completed journalism training at Massey University.
We can see that Ms McBride is a young reporter whose credentials include a degree from the same university and from the same department promoted in the advertorial. She has been entrusted with covering issues with controversial political content. Without further information, we can infer only that Ms McBride should have some background information on the lecturers mentioned in the advertorial, and with the department offering the course.
Possible further information about Ms McBride may be found on her Twitter page, which seems to focus on personal, rather than professional matters.
Next, let’s look at the advertorial itself, and what qualifies it as an advertorial, as opposed to a feature article
An advertorial is an advertisement in the form of an editorial. The term “advertorial” is a portmanteau of “advertisement” and “editorial.” Merriam-Webster dates the origin of the word to 1946.
In printed publications, the advertisement is usually written in the form of an objective article and designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story. In television, the advertisement is similar to a short infomercial presentation of products or services.”
The form, content and source all indicate that this story is an advertorial. While written “in the form of an objective article”, it is not objective. The story quotes only the course presenters and others who support the viewpoint of the story. If any attempts were made to solicit comments from so-called Conspiracy Theorists who may have questioned the motivation, intent or legitimacy of the course, those details are omitted. The subject matter is highly controversial, therefore some non-laudatory viewpoints would have been included if this were an objective article and not merely a large promotional vehicle.
Am I being a bit harsh here? I don’t think so. Yes, to paraphrase some later verbiage you will read here, newspapers are full of articles that may be considered as promotional material (advertising or advertorials) that feature commercial entities such as businesses, cinema, theatre and other events. These articles do not touch on politically sensitive or controversial topics, however. That is why I claim that this politically biased promotion of a university course is an advertorial.
The story features seven photographs, including two dramatic photos from Ground Zero on 9/11. The layout, covering all of the first two pages of Section C, except for a 14cm x 37cm advertisement at the bottom of Page C1, is pretty grand and splashy for an article about a Philosophy/Psychology course being offered at one of the local universities at some indefinite time in the following year. No sponsor is listed in the advertorial, therefore we do not know at whose bidding this generous, highly favourable coverage appeared.
Now for a look at some of the actual advertorial content. The headline reads, “Conspiracies: Fact or fiction?” The large type subheading reads:
Believe it or not, a new Victoria University course will investigate the philosophy and psychology behind conspiracy theories – and what it takes for people to believe them. Kerry McBride looks at why people distrust the United States government, whether 3.5-metre reptilian humanoids rule the world and why New Zealanders still think Suzie the waitress poised the All Blacks.
The promotional material for the course ensues on the first page. On the second page are separate articles about conspiracy theories relating to 9/11, Roswell, the moon landing, Suzie the waitress, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Let us first look at the information in the subheading quoted above. “Believe it or not, a new Victoria University course will investigate the philosophy and psychology behind conspiracy theories…” Not being overly credulous, I decided – believe it or not – not to believe it! Instead, my crack team of one investigator checked with VUW to see if such a course was indeed in the offing. Our findings:
1. The course was not “new”. It had already been offered in TRIMESTER 2 2011, from 11 July to 12 November 2011, and previously, apparently for the first time, in 2009.
2. The same or similar course is scheduled for the first trimester of 2013, but the information concerning the 2013 offering was not made available until over three months after the publication of the advertorial. More recently, an article has appeared on an AUT website wherein one of the course presenters says that the course had been offered on a trial basis previously, but is now set to become a permanent feature of the catalogue.
3. The required course book (PHIL215) for the previous course is not listed when searching on the course book (book store) web page, and the course book for the future offering is not yet available.
As for the remaining assertions of the breathless subheading, the course outline is more academic in tone.
Finally, let’s get to the first sentence of the article itself. After all, we have no evidence that the author wrote the headline or subheading, that job being often assigned to editors. The first sentence: “History is full of events that were once thought to be conspiracy theories, but are now accepted as truth.” I think the intention behind her tortured prose is, “History is full of events for which there were competing explanations: the official explanation, and one or more competing non-official explanations. Eventually, one of the non-official explanations turned out to be true, and the official explanation, false.” A few sentences down, Philosophy lecturer Stuart Brock is quoted as saying, “There are conspiracy theories throughout history that people now accept as true,” confirming my interpretation.
Dr Brock is paraphrased as saying that the course will give students the chance to get beyond the “nuttiness” of conspiracy theories and explore the reasoning behind them. (Note the word “reasoning”. He does not say that they will explore “reasons” or “facts”. Again, we must allow for the possibility of his being misquoted.) He cites Watergate as an example of something “which everyone now accepts as true, but at the time people really thought it was nutty.”
To think that Watergate is not “nutty” is, by definition, to subscribe to a Conspiracy Theory, so let’s have a brief look at Watergate. The incipient Watergate event was a burglary by a small group of people, allegedly working on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election campaign committee, the Committee to reelect the President, or CREEP. (The actual motivation for the burglary remains a matter of speculation.) The burglary itself constituted a conspiracy (more than one person involved in the burglary), as did the coverup, which also involved a number of people. There eventually arose various Conspiracy Theories concerning Who knew What and When, the “nuttiest” of which included complicity on the part of the President himself, which turned out to be true. Those of us of a certain age well remember the question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The received Official Conspiracy Theory (hereinafter, OCT) posits that President Nixon, while he probably did not authorise the initial break in, did participate in the ensuing coverup. He resigned from office shortly before he was to have been impeached by the US Congress.
However, I must point out that the Official Watergate Conspiracy Theory is a “limited hangout” theory, i.e., a version of events that limits culpability to certain actors while excluding some of the true actors. An OCT is a version of events that is generally accepted by Mainstream Media (MSM), university lecturers and a majority (supposedly) of the general public. Wikipedia is an excellent gauge for OCTs, as it makes no claim to reporting “the truth”, but received opinion, or a “neutral” point of view. Therefore, I must object to the use of “true” or “truth” when applied to a Conspiracy Theory that has been formed to explain events, which has some validity, but includes only part of the available facts, thereby shielding some of the perpetrators from blame. To say, for example, that the Official Watergate Conspiracy Theory is “true” is false. There is much more to be learned about the events and various actors in the Watergate scandal than is generally known. To say that the Official Watergate Conspiracy Theory is “true” is just as bad as calling other Conspiracy Theories “nutty” without a proper investigation. Both statements are meant to imply that a particular chapter of history has already been written, and to discourage people from doing further research on their own.
I therefore contend that not only are the terms “Conspiracy Theory” and “Conspiracy Theorist” meant to be “thought stoppers”, or buzz words that discourage most people from giving the matter or person discussed any serious thought, but some Official Conspiracy Theories, such as the 9/11 and Watergate OCTs, are also meant to discourage any serious consideration. Case Closed, as it were.
What is the rationale behind this course offering? Why would two distinguished university lecturers from two different departments devote so much attention to what many consider a fringe pop culture phenomenon? Dr Brock is quoted as follows: “It’s about examining what it is that makes people buy into one theory, but not another. What common thread do these theories have that divides opinion so clearly?” The Conspiracy Theories covered include a couple of serious political topics as well as ones that are easy for most people to ridicule, such as the humanoid lizard belief.
Dr Brock is paraphrased as saying, “(T)he course is not concerned with simply arguing about whether a theory is true, (i)nstead it challenges students to think about what it would take for a theory to be seen as credible, and how theories are formed over time.” Students are discouraged from dismissing Conspiracy Theories as “nutty”, but instead to evaluate them more carefully.
The advertorial states (without citing the source, but apparently this also comes from Dr Brock) that students tend to fall into two categories, “vocal believers of the theories, and vocal opponents”. I would hope that some students would exhibit some flickers of cognition between Stimulus and Response, but these cogitators must be in the minority. The philosophy lecturer’s final quote in this advertorial is, “It’s nice to get a controlled dialog going between the two sides, and we do that by thinking about theories in more abstract ways.”
Let us summarize the quotes from the philosopher. The goals of the course are
* to examine “what makes people buy into” some theories and not others
* to find ways to make a Conspiracy Theory (be seen to be) more credible
* to see how theories are formed over time
* to control the dialog between Conspiracy Theory believers and non-believers
* to think about Conspiracy Theories in (more) abstract ways
* to examine the validity of the various Conspiracy Theories by using the Trivium and analysing them to detect possible Logical Fallacies.
* (I made that last one up. He never said that.)
These first five points, which I did not make up, come not from a professor of marketing and public relations, but from a professor of philosophy. The other course lecturer is Dr Marc Wilson, who was also interviewed. Dr Wilson grouped Conspiracy Theories into four categories, but his four categories can be condensed into two: theories involving elite ruling class groups at different government and corporate levels, and “alien conspiracies”, which also seem to fall under the general rubric of elite ruling class conspiracies. His distinctions are therefore without any qualitative differences. I find obvious merit in some of his points, but first I will cite most of his statements quoted in the advertorial.
“We find relatively few people believe the alien conspiracies, but are more likely to believe the others.”
I must pause in the quotation to parse this sentence. I think what he meant (I’m hoping he was misquoted) was that more people believe the non-alien conspiracies than believe the alien conspiracies. Continuing to quote Dr Wilson:
“People tend to believe things consistent with what we want to believe. If they have been slighted in some way by government or an organisation, they are far more likely to think there is something sneaky going on. But relatively few people have had paranormal experiences, so there is less belief out there that aliens are going to take over the planet.”
The advertorial states that the course will include the topics of Suzie the waitress and the Rainbow Warrior bombing. Continuing the quotation of Dr Wilson, “That is far more relevant to them than whether or not there are aliens hidden in Roswell.”
I draw some conclusions from these statements. To put his first point more broadly, if a person has been slighted by an organisation, that person is more likely to believe bad things about that organisation than someone who has been well treated by that organisation. Among the subsets of bad things that a slighted person might believe is that the organisation against which he holds a grudge engages in malevolent conspiracies. This seems plausible.
Next, the “alien conspiracies” seem to comprise two different theories: (1) present or future aliens as a ruling elite, and (2) our (human) ruling elites hiding evidence of extra-terrestrial visitors to our planet.
Dr Wilson states that people who have had paranormal experiences are more likely to believe “alien conspiracies”. I am sceptical of that claim, which leads me to wonder how much he has actually looked into ET (extraterrestrial) conspiracy theories and paranormal experiences, which often have no ET component.
Let’s say there is one part of the population that has had a paranormal experience of some sort, like having a strong impression that they have seen their one of their dead relatives standing in front of them and perhaps saying something, like warning them not to ride in a car that day. Does that automatically make that person more likely to believe a rather fringe conspiracy theory involving aliens or humanoid reptiles after having the paranormal experience than before the paranormal experience? I remain to be convinced of that.
The statement that people are more likely to believe Conspiracy Theories involving a subject they are familiar with, to expand a bit on Dr Wilson’s claim of New Zealand specific beliefs, is obviously true. If you don’t know very much about a topic, then that probably means that you have not taken an interest in it, and you are not very likely to entertain Conspiracy Theories involving that topic.
I conclude from these quotes that Dr Wilson has answered at least one of Dr Brock’s questions, i.e., what makes people “buy into” certain Conspiracy Theories and not others. Dr Wilson finds that people buy into theories on topics they know and care about, and don’t buy into theories on topics that do not interest them. Furthermore, if a person has a negative view of a person, organisation or movement, that person is more likely to entertain negative thoughts about that entity (including Conspiracy Theories) than the person otherwise would.
The next interviewee is the ever credulous staunch defender of received opinion, Vicky Hyde. She is quoted as saying that “the course is a brilliant tool for challenging thinking and getting people to look beyond what they read about online.” Apparently though, people are not to challenge what they read about in newspapers. Today’s so-called sceptics are by and large, staunch defenders of the received opinions of mainstream media, corporations and governments. While sceptics (skeptics) including Michael Shermer and James Randi do some useful work in debunking obvious scammers, they always do so within the framework of politically correct, received opinion. Ms Hyde’s other comments, inexplicably included in the advertorial, do not merit examination.
The next interviewee was local photographer and certified paranormal investigator, James Gilberd. Mr Gilberd and his local group are serious investigators, using scientific methods in their investigations into paranormal phenomena. A careful look at their website reveals not a whiff of a conspiracy theory, only serious investigations of unexplained phenomena by an experienced team of enthusiasts, some sporting advanced degrees in medicine and science. Judging from his quotes, Mr Gilberd, who regards most Conspiracy Theories as “bunk”, seemed to have misunderstood the nature and intent of the course, thinking it was meant to “research the paranormal and things outside the usual realms of science”, offering “reasoned discussions” and a “balanced academic study”.
Next time: a look at some of the accompanying articles.