David Ray Griffin on “Conspiracy Theory”

David Ray Griffin weighed in on the Jesse Ventura/Huffington Post matter (Huffgate?) at Mark Crispin Miller’s website, to the effect that:

”[A] conspiracy theory is simply a theory that posits a conspiracy – a secret plan on the part of some group to influence events by partly secret means.” (Charles Pigden, “Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom,” Episteme, 4 (2007), 219-32, Sect. 2.)….So, in telling us that the 9/11 attacks resulted from a conspiracy between Osama bin Laden and 19 members of his al-Qaeda organization, Bush and Cheney clearly articulated a conspiracy theory. They and Sunstein, of course, call it a true theory; but all conspiracy theorists claim that their theories are true.

In any case, the HP did not say that it accepted true conspiracy theories and excluded only false ones (and to do this, they would need to do an enormous amount of research). They said they avoid “lending credibility to any conspiracy theories”….What the HP policy amounts to is excluding any allegations that our own government has orchestrated any conspiracy. So they would have had to exclude all allegations about Tonkin Gulf being a hoax; ditto about the Watergate break in; ditto for WMD in Iraq (recall “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”?); ditto for the claim that Saddam helped al-Qaeda with the 9/11 attacks; and so on.

Click here to read the comment in its entirety.

I was so annoyed by Griffin’s sophistry that I was moved to post the following rejoinder (except that by accident I flipped “inductive” and “deductive” on Miller’s site; I corrected it here):

Let’s not play games with semantics. “Conspiracy Theory” does mean something, and it doesn’t mean–as Conspiracy Theorists disingenuously accuse their debunkers of meaning–that anyone who believes in conspiracies is disreputable or a nut. Of course there have been and always will be conspiracies, many of them carried out by people in governments.

Most people understand it in the sense that Karl Popper defined “the conspiracy theory of society” in The Open Society and its Enemies (1952), as “the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon…and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.” Popper went on to attribute this way of thinking to “the secularization of…religious superstition.”

Conspiracy Theory, in other words, is 1) A way of thinking, as opposed to a particular thought; one that presumes causes from their supposed effects; 2) It is a way of thinking that imposes a totalizing, ideologically inflected template on its subject; and 3) One that has more in common with the deductive methods of theology than the inductive methods of science.

Wearing his theologian’s hat, David Ray Griffin has written about the evils of the notion of American Exceptionalism. 9/11 denial provides him with a counter-narrative with which to attack it.

“9/11 serves as a revelation of the nature of the American empire—an empire that has been in the making, on a bipartisan basis, for a long time. 9/11 reveals the nature of the values that have underlay this empire-building project for over a century, especially the past 60 years,” he wrote in “9/11, American Empire, and Christian Faith.”(http://davidraygriffin.com/articles/911-american-empire-and-christian-faith/). “We must ask whether the term “evil,” which US leaders have used so freely to describe other nations, must be applied to our own. There can be no doubt about the application of this term to 9/11. We can here quote President Bush himself, who on the evening of 9/11 said: “”Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. . . . Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.” No explanation of why the attacks were despicable was necessary. The proposition was self-evident. This proposition is even more self-evident, of course, if the attacks were orchestrated by our own government.”

And again: “As these parallels between Roman and American imperialism show, we can speak of the latter as evil without even bringing 9/11 into the picture. But the awareness that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out to further America’s global domination project, and hence increase global apartheid, helps us, as I have suggested elsewhere, to “fully grasp the extent to which this project is propelled by fanaticism based on a deeply perverted value system.” 9/11 can thereby serve as a wake-up call to Christians in America, forcing us to ask how to respond to the realization that we are citizens of the new Rome.”

I would venture that Griffin didn’t write his 9/11 books and take to the hustings because he read about nano-thermite or because he timed the buildings’ velocities of collapse or because he noticed a devastating hole in one official account or another. He began with a narrative about the American imperium, then he gathered together whatever forensic evidence he could find to support it–evidence that remains so thin, so inconsistent, so circumstantial, that most thoughtful people regard 9/11 Denial as a “conspiracy theory” rather than a conspiracy that is being exposed.

21 thoughts on “David Ray Griffin on “Conspiracy Theory”

  1. I urge you to read Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s article on Conspiracy Theories. As you read it, ask yourself: what is the difference between the conspiracy theory and the “true story”? How can a principled distinction be made without destroying democracy as we know it?

    Answer that, and I’ll be impressed.

  2. OKAY, so under your definition the Gulf of Tonkin attack wasn’t staged, Iraq had WMD’s, etc. Prior to the admission of those crimes it was just *theories* that the government had committed them, and lo and behold it turned out that the theories were right and that the government HAD committed crimes and were lying. So your statement that:

    “Conspiracy Theory, in other words, is 1) A way of thinking, as opposed to a particular thought; one that presumes causes from their supposed effects; 2) It is a way of thinking that imposes a totalizing, ideologically inflected template on its subject; and 3) One that has more in common with the deductive methods of theology than the inductive methods of science.”

    is false because at least SOME so-called conspiracy theories turn out to be true, such as the aforementioned and many others (Levon Affair, Operation Northwoods, MK Ultra, on and on). I think you take your own advice about ‘not playing games with semantics’. The truth is that you want to project a virtuous image of the U.S. government that’s demonstrably inaccurate. Considering the record of it’s crimes, from the genocide of Native Americans to the mass murder of Iraqis, the belief that it would be capable of conducting a terrorist attack against it’s citizens and lie about it is far from ridiculous, even if it’s false, considering that only a few thousand people were murdered in that compared to the millions that the U.S. government has murdered. And on top of that it’s also documented that the U.S. had killed it’s citizens in the past in experimentations and things like the Tuskegee Experiment.

    This article reads not so much a critique of Griffin or a debunking of anything he’s written as much as it is an expression of your frustration that’s he’s right. Unless one discounts the historical record as I’m sure you wouldn’t have a problem with.

    1. How am I clearing the government of anything? My argument was about the common understanding of the phrase “conspiracy theory,” which I said, contra Pidgen and Griffin, doesn’t simply mean “a theory that posits a conspiracy” but rather implies a Manichean style of thought.

      I don’t believe the Warren Commission, but I think many of the alternative explanations for the Kennedy Assassination fail to rise above the level conspiracy theory. I don’t necessarily believe the 9/11 Commission either, but I’ve yet to see convincing evidence–from Griffin or anyone else–that Al Qaeda didn’t carry out the attacks.

      If you read my original post, you’ll see that I thought that the Huffington Post made a mistake in taking down Jesse Ventura’s post, even if it was mostly conspiracy theory.

  3. You claim that conspiracy theories have three characteristics; presumes causes from effects, imposes a totalizing template on its subject, is similar to theological deduction. I’d like to see you provide specific examples from DRG’s 9/11 conspiracy theory that fulfill your criteria.

    1. Example One:

      “The Pentagon is ringed by anti-missile batteries, which are programmed to destroy any aircraft entering the Pentagon’s airspace, except for any aircraft with a US military transponder. If, by some fluke, Flight 77 had entered the Pentagon’s airspace, it could have escaped being shot down only if officials in the Pentagon had deactivated its anti-aircraft defenses. So, even if we accept the official story, according to which the Pentagon was hit by Flight 77 under the control of al Qaeda hijackers, we must conclude that the attack succeeded only because the Pentagon wanted it to succeed.” (From “911 and the American Empire: How Should Religious People Respond?”)

      This presumes a cause from an effect: If the Pentagon is impregnable, then a successful attack must be planned by its guardians. But why believe that the Pentagon is impregnable? There are, in fact no anti-missile batteries guarding the Pentagon (unless their existence is a state secret that Griffin is somehow privy to). Griffin footnotes the claim to Meyssan’s 2002 book 911: THE BIG LIE. Not sure how Myessan is in on the secret either. As for 100% reliable anti-missile-missile defenses–they were a great dream of Ronald Reagan’s, but in practice they’ve turned out to be something of a money pit. They don’t exist.

      If the Pentagon didn’t have anti-missile batteries, then it’s no mystery why they weren’t fired. If it did, then it’s just as likely that the system failed as that it was sabotaged by an insider. Another assertion in the same article I could build on is this: “One reason for concluding that these three buildings were brought down by explosives is the very fact that they did collapse.”

      Example two:

      Read the title of the speech I quoted above. The idea of an American imperium is a totalizing template in Griffin’s hands.

      “The only remaining debate about the American empire is whether it is benign,” he writes. “There is no escape from the frightening conclusion that 9/11 was engineered by members of the Bush administration and its Pentagon. As to why they would do this, at least part of the answer is clear from the way in which they have used 9/11: to advance the American empire.”

      Please note I am not arguing with the particulars of Griffin’s critique of the American militarism–only with the conclusions he reaches about will and intention vis a vis the events of 9/11.

      Example three:

      See above. Griffin believes that 9/11 is the smoking gun for an American imperium that must be stopped. “Insofar as Americans participate in this anti-imperialist movement, their activities will be deeply patriotic, because they will be seeking to call our nation back to its moral ideals, which stand diametrically opposed to the values implicit in the global domination project.” He is not proceeding from particular to general (why are there spheroids in the dust?) but from general to particular–an evil empire would kill its citizens to build its power, the US is an evil empire, hence this attack was an inside job.

      Personally, I am very much of one mind with Chomsky on the idea that 911 conspiracy theory provides a huge distraction from the real and verifiable crimes of American militarism.

  4. Thanks for your response.

    Lets just focus on example three for now. I think you have it backward when you state that he proceeds from general to particular because he does proceed from particular to general. One of his particulars is the presence of spheroids in the dust which were documented by USGS and RJ Lee Group. This iron-rich microshperes are evidence that the steel melted which is impossible from office fires or jet fuel. So how do you account for the presence of iron-rich microspheres?

    Personally, I think that 9/11 is a real and verifiable crime of American Militarism and one piece of that verification is the presence of the iron-rich microspheres. But please tell me how there presence is not evidence that the official version can’t be true.

    1. Neither Steven Jones’s methodology nor his conclusions are widely accepted outside the closed loop of 9/11 Truth; I am not a physicist myself, but I take full cognizance of the controversial nature of his evidence. Ryan Mackey of the JPL, for instance, has written that “the RJ Lee Group report considers samples taken several months after the collapses, and it is certain that torch-cutting of steel beams as part of the cleanup process contributed some, if not all, of the spherules seen in these samples.”

      I would be much more inclined to believe that thermite bombs were responsible for the demolition of the WTC if they had been used in building demolitions before. They haven’t.

  5. Your dismissal of Steven Jones is an argument by consensus, which is not science. So what specifically, if anything, can you say is scientifically wrong with his methods or conclusions? Because I could say of your criticims that it is possible that anyone that takes the time to look into Dr. Jones claims becomes part of the “so-called closed loop of 9/11 truth” (which itself is a preposterous term since Jones has repeatedly requested that his work be scrutinized). As far as Mackey’s claim goes what evidence does he use to support his claim that contradicts the RJ Lee Groups findings that the iron-rich microspheres were the result of “extreme tempertatures” during the collapse. Or are you simply taking Mackey at his word that what he says is true? You are also not taking into cosideration that when joens ignited one of the red/gray thermite chips he found it created an iron-rich sphere. Is that just some kind of coincidence?
    I would be much more inclined to believe that fire were responsible for the demolition of the WTC if it had caused demolitions before. It hasn’t.
    So I would like to see what actual critiques are of Jones methodology and conclusions, and what evidence Mackey produces to back up his claim that the iron-rich microspheres were produced during the cleanup.

    1. Science isn’t a popularity contest, true, but consensus plays an important role in the refinement and eventual acceptance of new theories. Jones remains something of an outlier. Mackey, as you well know, has published and posted extensively and he’s debated members of the Truth community; you probably know the literature better than I do. There are a number of examples of steel framed buildings that were weakened or collapsed due to fire (though none of them were hit by airplanes or sustained multi-story gashes from a 100-story skyscraper collapsing across the street).

      I could go on and on, but I won’t convince you. That’s the nature of the beast.

  6. My problem is that you seem to be arbitrarily believing things simply because you want to believe them. Namely, you believe there is something wrong with Dr. Jones methods and conclusions but can’t specify what these are, and you believe Mackey is right that the iron-rich microspheres were produced from clean-up operations even though you can’t state what his evidence is for this claim. Basically, what you have is beliefs based on faith. In other words it is you, and not members of the 9/11 truth movement, that has a way of thinking which is “the secularization of…religious superstition.”

    1. Philip Johnson accomplishes much the same rhetorical ju jitsu in Darwin on Trial, in which he “proves” that creationists like himself are open-minded while the scientific community is driven by a blind faith in secularism that is more dogmatic than any religion. It’s clever and essentially unanswerable, but it doesn’t really change any minds. It’s just a way of getting in the last word.

  7. I asked you a very simple question: why do you believe what you believe? You can’t answer it which means you beleive it based on faith. You can very easily prove me wrong by telling me what reasons you have for believing what you believe. It is you that started out your article by accusing Conspiracy theorists as having a way of thinking which was the “secularization of religous thinking,” But when it is pointed out to you that it is actually your beliefs that are the ones that are faith-based you try and reverse your position and accuse anyone that points out secular “religous thinking” in another is similar to a creationist. So you are now in the position of acting counter to your original argument and comparing Popper’s accusations to that of a creationists.

    1. I wrote literally hundreds of words in this string, most of which you’ve ignored. No, I’m not qualified to debate Steven Jones on physics or materials science, which is precisely why I’m not taking your bait. If that makes me the real conspiracy theorist, then so be it.

  8. So now you are claiming that you are not qualified to determine whether or not what Dr. Jones says is true. I am also assuming you are not qualified to determine whether what Richard Gage says is true, and that you are not qualified to know whether or not what NIST says is true. In other words any belief you have regarding 9/11 is simply a faith-based belief because by your own admission you do not believe yourself “qualified” to know whether or not what they say is true. Yet you claim to know that 9/11 was not an inside job (i.e, you are arbitrarly believing the government’s version). Can you please explain in what way your way of thinking is not the “secularization of religous superstition”?

  9. Sigh…. There is a lot of literature out there, which I put more and less credence in. Many of my decisions about who and what to trust and not to trust come from my own thinking. In some cases (as when I read about any other issue that I’m not qualified to comment on from my own first-hand knowledge–quantum physics, Greek poetry, Serbian nationalist movements) I rely on what I regard as expert opinion.

    I watched the first plane fly into the North Tower from less than a quarter mile away; I saw, heard, and smelled a lot of what happened subsequently with my own eyes, ears, and nose–which is why I know to be very skeptical of even eye-witness reports (much of what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong). Part of what makes me distrust so much of what I read by writers like Griffin is his absolute certainty.

    I have been very careful not to state that I believe “the government’s version” of events, because I don’t. Neither has anyone convinced me that the government made it happen. Big questions like 9/11 don’t get resolved by all or nothing debates about isolated pieces of evidence.

  10. You are still arbitrarily choosing to believe one expert over another. So you will put more creedence in Mackey than Jones. You are also arbitrarily choosing which evidence to accept and which to reject. Anyways, my primary point was in regards to your statement that Griffin works from generals to particulars which I disagree with because if you read Griffin’s earlier work it was about how the particular pieces of evidence taken as a whole show the official version to be absurd and impossible. What Griffin is doing when talking about the war in Afghanistan is showing how 9/11 is relevant to current policies (i.e., as the pretext for two wars). At any rate, your entire characterization of the 911 conspiracy theory as being the “secularization of religous superstition” just doesn’t work because the 911 conspiracy theory is all about evidence. Some groups like Architects and Engineers for 9/11 truth don’t even endorse a conspiracy theory at all but merely present evidence that makes the official version very difficult to believe. Your only choice in regards to AE911 truth is to arbitrarily choose to dismiss them.

    1. Where you use the word “arbitrary” I use words like “thinking,” “consider,” “decisions” and “belief.”

      I totally concur that Griffin is seeking to demonstrate 9/11’s relevance as the pretext for two wars; after reading and responding to your comments I am less convinced than ever that he was led to his position by evidence and not vice versa.

      You and I are at an impasse; neither of us will change each other’s mind.

  11. It is quite obvious you have never read any of the works of Dr. Griffin, so I find it strange that you consider yourself qualified to critique them.

  12. “..evidence that remains so thin, so inconsistent, so circumstantial, that most thoughtful people regard 9/11 Denial as a “conspiracy theory” rather than a conspiracy that is being exposed.”

    This has got to be the most absurd assertion I have yet heard.
    This compounded by the fact that the official conspiracy theory is based on nothing but the assertion of authority–no proofs have been offered, only twirly bird IN YOUR FACE cover-up and white wash.

    This country was founded by conspiracy theorists and if it is to be saved it will be by conspiracy theorists {see; Declaration of Independence–the most elegant conspiracy theory ever written}


  13. Hey Arthurgoldwag,
    Maybe a little off topic, however, The number of 9/11 Nut-jobs, Kooks, and Wing-Nuts are increasing at an alarming rate.

    Why do the bush administration tolerate these “outrageous conspiracy theories” concerning the events of 9/11, malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists themselves away from the guilty? Making an example of a “Kook” such as David Ray Griffin in a court of law would certainly stem the flood, don’t you think?
    I look forward to your next post

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