A while back I stumbled across a recent article posted on social media that claimed that the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 was not caused by commercial passenger jets crashing into the towers. The article was followed by a multitude of comments by persons who also disputed the conventional understanding of the events of that day and who voiced the belief that there was some sort of coverup by the government or the media or both. True story. Frankly, I was a shocked and dismayed.
Reviewing my own thoughts regarding the events of 9/11, I find that some 15 years later I have no doubts about what happened. I believe that the attacks occurred as the media have always reported, that there was indeed a terrorist cell that hijacked four commercial jets, intent on crashing them into the Pentagon and into the Capitol or White House, as well as into the World Trade Center towers. There was no government or media conspiracy and no coverup.
Those who question the conventional understanding of the events of 9/11 consider themselves to be skeptics. They are, they say, skeptical of the government and media accounts of those events. But theirs is not the form of skepticism to which I subscribe.
It is certainly true that a component of skepticism includes the notion that statements should be subject to question or doubt. But that is only the first step in the process. The second, and perhaps more important component of what I would call philosophical skepticism is the process by which we resolve that doubt. It is in what evidence we rely on and how we evaluate that evidence. None of us goes through life questioning everything we hear and then maintaining those doubts about everything. At the end of the day, we all wind up with beliefs of one sort or another.
Here, briefly, are what I consider the fundamental hallmarks of philosophical skepticism:
1. Statements should not be accepted—or rejected—simply on the basis of their source. A statement should not be accepted solely because it was made by, say, Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman or because it is written in the Bible. By the same token, a statement should not to be rejected simply because it was made by the U.S. government or by the news media.
2. Statements should be tested against all available evidence. Frankly, this should be a matter of common sense. However, it is human nature to ignore or discount evidence that is inconsistent with our existing beliefs. This practice is sometimes referred to as “cherrypicking.” In the context of 9/11 there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the conclusion that there was an attack by a terrorist cell that included hijacked jetliners that were crashed into the World Trade towers—videos, eyewitness accounts, post-attack engineering studies, etc. All of that information has to be included in any analysis.
3. No source of evidence is “sacred,” that is, unimpeachable. The classic example of this is to treat scripture as infallible. But the same could be said about accepting without question the findings in a science article. At its most fundamental, skepticism means greeting any statement with the response, “Wait a minute. Let’s think about this.”
4. Not all evidence is equal. Some is better than other. Objective evidence is better than subjective. Evidence based on observation and scientific experimentation is better than evidence based on personal opinion, internal feelings, or received authority.
5. All beliefs should be held conditionally. The formation of beliefs needs to remain an active, lifelong process. Skepticism means continually reminding yourself that all knowledge is tentative. Think back to when you were a teenager. Do you have the same set of beliefs today that you had then? Do you think your beliefs will continue to evolve?
So what about those people who deny the conventional understanding of the events of 9/11, who believe that whatever happened was the result of government actions that have been hidden from public view. I have not, knowingly at least, spoken personally to anyone who believes in such a conspiracy theory, so perhaps it is unfair to assume what their thinking might be. But I’m going to anyway.
I believe that key to such individuals’ point of view is the belief that the federal government is essentially evil, that it engages in conspiracies for purposes that are detrimental to the best interests of the country, that it is naive and foolish to think otherwise. This conspiracy belief is fundamental and irrefutable. In that sense such conspiracy theorists, rather than being philosophical skeptics, violate a number of the hallmarks of skepticism. (a) They begin with the premise that statements made by the government or by mainstream media are to be rejected simply on the basis of the source of the statements. (b) They point to minor anomalies in the narrative, such as the perhaps surprising fact of the melting of the steel supporting structures of the towers, but they ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence based on eyewitness accounts, records of missing planes, missing people, engineering reports, etc. (c) They refuse to review their point of view in light of subsequent information.
This analysis raises another point: What kind of overlap is there among conspiracy theorists? Are the individuals who question the 9/11 events generally the same ones who question the moon landings or the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate?
Am I being unfair? I hope I am willing to listen to other points of view.
© 2016 John M. Phillips