Never let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy tale

My mom visited last weekend.  She is currently renting a room to a housemate, and it seems that the housemate is a bit inclined towards conspiracy theories.  One afternoon at lunch, mom told me that the housemate informed her that Barack Obama had just signed an executive order seizing control of all resources in the United States.

Mustering all my logical and rhetorical abilities, I decisively replied: “Uh… what?”

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Don’t Be a Dick redux — now with Real Life Adventure!

Had an absolutely insane personal encounter today that I’m still having difficulty processing, because it was the sort of display of flagrantly irrational, histrionic and emotional behavior that we as atheists and rationalists criticize, but which you in fact rarely get to experience right in your face. It reminded me of a great many basic axioms though. For one thing, being an atheist is no guarantee you’ll come with rationality pre-installed. For another, it never fails that people who have fanatical views that they refuse to see challenged will be the first to praise themselves as beacons of reason. It’s a human flaw I suppose we must all watch out for.

So I’m at a nearby mall today, when I pass by a fellow — who Shall Remain Unnamed — who, many years ago, used to be an ACA member. He left a while back, to the disappointment of few, it must be said, and I recall not liking him much personally for some prima donna behavior he exhibited in regards to the TV show at the time. But anyway, I caught his eye and decided it never hurts to be friendly, so I waved and said hi. I soon had cause to regret my sociability.

We spoke for a moment, and everything was gas and gators. Then he demonstrated that, since leaving the ACA, he’s travelled to a much weirder place, by turning the conversation towards — are you ready? — 9/11 conspiracy theories. Basically, he buys them.

Now, before I continue, I’m sure this is futile but the point of this post is not to start a sprawling endless comment thread debating such theories. (Just go here if you want to have that discussion.) It’s to talk about, well, behavior. And I think it dovetails with a lot of current kerfuffle that’s playing itself out among the online godless community right now — like Rebecca Watson and the Elevator Incident. In other words, part of living the rational life is having a sense of self-awareness. How you interact with others has much to do with how your message will be received. This is basic common sense and socialization, not an advocacy of tone trolling. Indeed, there are times in-your-face rudeness is the way to respond. But in most cases — and certainly in public — how you behave reveals more about you than you might wish people knew. Not only does it reveal what your beliefs are, but it reveals how those beliefs inform whether you’re a normal, cool person that others want to interact with. In short, if you cannot control yourself, expect to be an embittered loner, whose sense of victimhood is shored up by righteousness. Which brings me back to the person at hand.

So the guy shows me the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and indignantly denounces its cover story debunking 9/11 conspiracy mongering as “propaganda.” He then goes on to speculate that the Center for Inquiry has been infiltrated by the CIA, who planted the story in the magazine. (He did not, in his genius, consider that if the CIA was doing this sort of thing, they certainly have the wherewithal to plant such a story in bigger and better-selling publications than Skeptical Inquirer, whose global circulation is around 50,000, compared to, say, Time‘s 3.3 million.) Anyway, it was a farrago of absurdity, and I could tell he was passionate about it.

Now, you know me from the show. I’m snarky. So when he mentioned that the airplanes that crashed into the towers had “nothing whatsoever to do” with their collapsing, despite destroying support columns and causing fires in excess of 1000 degrees, I replied, “So what, was it just special effects on TV, when we witnessed the planes actually hit the buildings?”

Rule #1 when dealing with the fundamentalist mindset (which is something one sees displayed often in non-religious environments, you know): Mock them, or even make them think you’re mocking them, and they will completely lose their shit. Which this guy did. Right there, in public, in the middle of a shopping mall.

So he leans in, and starts shouting at me. No really…shouting. And it has now become a “violating personal space” issue, in addition to the plain inappropriate public display of temper. So, not being one to take this kind of crap, let alone from someone whom I approached for a friendly social chat despite not especially liking him in the first place, I put up both hands and said, “No! Wrong! I’m not doing this in public. Goodbye.” And I walked off.

Naturally, he followed me, keeping up his harangue. How could anyone believe that “gravity could make buildings fall”? Etc etc. Now I am seriously pissed, and begin making my way towards a nearby jewelry store, where they usually employ a cop. Really. I am not making any of this up.

Finally, I stop, in the hopes of just convincing him to fuck off before I have to go and make things really ugly, like pressing public nuisance charges. After another few seconds of heated exchange, he wailed that he has “lost all respect for every atheist blah blah blah.” I say, “Good, so goodbye! Stop following me!” And he leaves.

Gang, this happened. I mean, this happened.

What is it that turns a person into something like this? I understand ideologies, I understand being someone who gets too emotionally involved in what you believe, and I understand a lack of self-awareness and poor social skills. But outside of street riots — where the environment seems to be conducive — you don’t tend to encounter someone whose complete lack of anything resembling basic respect for others and common sense is so proudly on display.

At the core of it all, I think, is irrationality married to poor social skills. Irrationality is not necessarily about what you believe (though yeah, it often is), but how you believe it, why you believe it, and how your beliefs inform your personal interactions and behaviors. After all, why would a rational person choose to take a friendly greeting in a shopping mall as an invitation to start a shouting match about whatever political thing you have up your ass today? And if you expect the person you’re trying to pick this fight with to disagree with you anyway (he began by saying that he expected I, like “most atheists,” to have “swallowed the official 9/11 story”), then what other than arrogant stupidity would provoke you to go ballistic at them when they give you the expected disagreement? If he really hoped to persuade me I’m wrong for not believing in a conspiracy, did he really think totally jumping my shit in the middle of a fucking shopping mall was the way I’d have my mind changed?

I reiterate that this fellow is an atheist, and that his reason for leaving ACA was that we weren’t the group of political agitators he wanted us to be, plus the part he doesn’t mention, which was that he also didn’t like the way we reacted negatively to his being a douche to everyone. But his behavior today was entirely in keeping with his behavior of the past. When in the group, he angered the entire TV crew — of which he was not a part — by turning up at the studio one Sunday holding a bunch of signs he’d had printed, pronouncing himself “art director,” and proceeding to redecorate the backdrop (which took 45 minutes longer than it usually did) with these signs, which had type so small they couldn’t be read onscreen. When repeatedly told this, he flounced off in a huff, making a misogynist insult against one of our women crew and deriding our “amateurishness.” I followed him into the parking lot and chewed him about six new assholes, and never saw him again, until today. Guess I shouldn’t have been shocked.

So, why am I belaboring you all with this? Well, in part, it’s cathartic. In other part, it was a healthy reminder of the dangers of irrationality — the unwillingness to have your views challenged or to entertain that you may be wrong, the blindness to how your behavior affects others, the inability to what what behavior is appropriate and when, the failure of letting temper control you rather than vice versa. We all talk about crazy fundies and how they impose themselves where they aren’
t wanted. But if we wish to consider ourselves on the side of the “angels” of reason, if you’ll pardon my phrasing, then we should be vigilant and self-aware, strictly applying our own standards to ourselves before we demand them from others. I guess what I’m saying is — “Don’t Be a Dick!” I don’t, like Phil, think we all do it, and I certainly don’t agree that challenging anyone in any way is dickish. But with a little too much ego and self-absorption, and too little sense and rational thought, anyone can be a dick if they don’t watch out. An encounter like today’s is upsetting, sure. But you can take it as a cautionary tale, and get the positive from it.

And that’s your drama for today. And I bet you thought Matt got all the wackos. Now, I’m going to go hang with my dogs.

A few words about the Zeitgeist sequels

Our opinion of the movie Zeitgeist should be pretty well known by now. It is an extremely bad and tedious bit of filmmaking, and the scholarship in it is awful, and we disagree with all of parts 2 and 3, as well as nearly all of part 1. And if you need a reminder about why, here are three sites dealing, respectively, with the claims that:
  1. Jesus never existed.
  2. 9/11 was an inside job.
  3. U.S. citizens don’t really have to pay taxes.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me share a few recent emails.

2/11/11

I was wondering if you guys were aware of the (second) sequel to that terrible film, Zeitgeist, and if you plan on talking about it any time soon. If you’ve done it recently, I apologize for spamming you… I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the last few episodes just yet. I’ve just started watching the sequel on YouTube (so you don’t have to do any googling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9WVZddH9w&feature=feedlik), and in the first 10 minutes they started harping on how Biology is wrong because there’s such a thing as epigenetics. Sounds like more relatively well-informed stupidity to me. I only watch it for the same reason I saw Expelled and What The Bleep Do We Know !!!111!? My hopes for humanity diminish proportionally.

1/28/11

by the way you sould look the new film ” zeitgeist Moving Forward ” where we see how
[long list of names with irrelevant credentials]
…etc and of course Peter Joseph

describe that our current system breeds insanity

and i hope you dont act emotional about the word zeitgeist because

” Zeitgeist moving forward ” is not like the first film

1/25/11

I am a member of The Zeitgeist Movement and would love to get your feedback on what the movement is advocating. I have searched high and low for evidence that the concepts of this movement are falsifiable, but have yet to find any information doing so. I’m not sure as to whether or not you are aware of the difference between The Zeitgeist films and the Movement, but there is certainly an expressed difference.

11/29/10

Also, your host insistently bash the Zeitgeist movement and 911 truth. This really baffles me because the Zeitgeist Movement is a just secular movement that advocates the scientific method for social concern (doing away with corrupt monetary capitalism that allows children to go hunger)

Yes, okay, we get it. We heard you. Thanks. The guy who made Zeitgeist has made another movie– actually TWO other movies now — and they cover different topics than the original movie. Lastly, this message is from a comment on a Facebook link I shared that relates to Medicare. Though the commenter doesn’t mention Zeitgeist directly, he did bring up the theme of the last two movies.

 

The better solution than social services is a Resource Based Economy and the elimination of the monetary system altogether. We cannot possible print enough money to solve all of our problems and we certainly cannot save our way to the needed solutions through austerity measures. The ‘bottom line’ is that money is THE constraint on human progress (well, that and cultural conditioning).

So, okay, I’ve finally decided I need to respond to this steady stream of emails, if only so I can have something to link in the future.

I have not watched the new movies, as I greatly prefer to do actual reading over sitting through talking heads. I have set it aside as something I might watch. After all, I suffered through What the Bleep Do We Know? and I guess I can get around to this one too, eventually. From what I understand, Zeitgeist: Addendum and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (which I shall henceforth refer to as ZA/ZMF because I hate typing) are mostly focused on popularizing something called “The Venus Project” (see link). It’s a Utopian movement by a guy named Jacque Fresco — Engineer, Design Consultant, and “Futurist” — and he’s been going around pitching this idea of a resource-based economy.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting: Atlantis. I mean, The Venus Project.

Here’s what that means as I read it. The financial system is broken beyond all hope of repair, so we abolish all forms of currency. In its place, everyone gets boundless freedom to use “resources.” Money is a fiction anyway, and the federal reserve is evil (as explained in the first Zeitgeist, part 3), and people are going hungry because we artificially limit resources (i.e. food) when they could be made useful for everyone (i.e., feeding third world countries).

I’m a fairly liberal guy. I believe that there are problems with our current economic system, and some such problems stem from unregulated capitalism. A couple of recent sources for information I recommend are The Big Short by Michael Lewis, which traced the origins of the recent banking crisis in a highly entertaining and readable way; and this episode of the show This American Life, in which they discuss the ways in which money is really a convenient fiction.

On the other hand, I’m a numbers geek, and from my perspective, money — though “fictional” in some sense — was a fantastic technological advancement in the history of civilization. In any system of trade, some kind of valuation is going to arise naturally. Economists may call it “utils,” or it may just be that we compare the value of one thing to the value of something else on an individual basis (“I’ll give you two chickens for that hatchet”). Money is simply a means of formalizing a system that people are going to agree on one way or another. In prison it becomes cigarettes. In the future it’s probably moving towards all digital currency. Heck, you can even calculate a meaningful exchange rate between United States Dollars and World of Warcraft gold pieces (after adjusting for a lot of inflation due to the recent Cataclysm expansion). It’s an abstraction that achieves a goal. Barter systems are fine in small villages, but they are hopeless at large scales.

In any case, “scarcity” does not exist because of money. Quite the opposite, in fact — money exists in large part because scarcity exists. While many resources such as air and sunlight are effectively in infinite supply, other things are very definitely limited. An excellent (though fairly disturbing) book on the subject is Collapse by Jared Diamond. Diamond studied a number of cultures which, for one reason or another, didn’t survive — they experienced massive population crashes in which a large proportion of their citizens died over a short period of time. In most cases it was because they ran out of something.

In fact, I can kind of sum up Diamond’s formula for disaster that is common among most civilizations that died by their own hands:

 

  1. You have a limited resource. In one case it was timber (cutting down trees on an island faster than they grew back) and in another, it was grazeable farmland.
  2. Something about your civilization requires you to use a lot of that resource.
  3. It starts to run out, but the culture is rigid and resists change.
  4. People talk about breaking their dependency on this resource, but don’t actually do anything about it.
  5. Much to everyone’s surprise, it runs out.
  6. Turns out the requirement for that resource is pretty widespread. Many people die.

I’m not going to go off on a tangent about which finite resources we rely on in modern society (*cough*oil*cough*) but even so, I’m pretty well convinced that if we solved one problem of scarcity, the problem would just move off to something else.

And that’s where money comes in. It is an abstraction that puts a value on resources with different levels of scarcity. They’re not all concrete resources, either: people enjoy their free time, and working to accomplish a difficult task (like volunteering to fly to a third world country and deliver mass quantities of food) is frequently regarded as a “what’s in it for me?” situation. That’s not money’s fault. Money is simply a method of making an abstract concept (“What’s it worth to ya?”) be attached to concrete numbers.

Oh, but I forgot to mention how this problem of scarcity is solved under Jacque Fresco’s system. Here, let me quote:
“A resource-based economy would make it possible to use technology to overcome scarce resources by applying renewable sources of energy, computerizing and automating manufacturing and inventory, designing safe energy-efficient cities and advanced transportation systems, providing universal health care and more relevant education, and most of all by generating a new incentive system based on human and environmental concern.”

And also:
“With automated inventory on a global scale, we can maintain a balance between production and distribution. Only nutritious and healthy food would be available and planned obsolescence would be unnecessary and non-existent in a resource-based economy.”

So you see, this is easily achievable, as long as we first keep in mind the intermediate goals of developing unlimited, clean, renewable energy sources. Also, since human government officials are inherently corrupt, we just need to develop artificially intelligent administrators to manage our cities and distribute everything efficiently.

Riiiiiight.

Artificial intelligence and alternative energy research are only a couple of the most complicated problems facing inventors, businesses, and academics. Have been for decades. And to think that you can hand-wave that away as a minor inconvenience blocking the realization of your Utopia, that’s a pretty damn extraordinary claim. In fact, I would venture to say that if you could create a world with no scarce resources, that all by itself would do a hell of a lot more to fix everything than whatever fantasy anti-currency government system the Venus Project promoters can dream up.

And then there’s this issue of benevolent computer systems that will impartially make sure everyone gets everything they want. Okay, I’ve been involved with software development for most of my adult life, and I feel pretty comfortable saying we’re not replacing all our politicians with robot administrators any time real soon. But even after assuming that little hurdle is crossed, artificial intelligence isn’t a magic solution to anything. There’s no reason to think it would be more advanced than human intelligence to start with, and if it eventually got there, no reason to think it would be any less self-serving.

Show of hands, please. How many people want to turn over our economy to these guys? …Thank you.

Okay, I’m not saying that all artificial intelligence is inevitably going to conquer humanity and harvest their essences to power an elaborate virtual reality that enslaves us or anything. I’m just saying, I don’t see why the AI is going to make any decisions better than a human with some really good ideas who knows how to use data mining tools. A better question is, why don’t we elect one of those?

Getting rid of money wouldn’t save the world from scarce resources. If anything, the immediate effect would be that without a perceptible cost to themselves, people would use up those resources faster than ever. I don’t see how these super-cities that Jacque Fresco invented will stop people from wanting to travel, which is one of the big ones when it comes to draining energy. In fact, if I had all this free time and were unlimited by capital, that’s the first thing I’d do a lot more of. And I can’t envision a realistic political path to implement what sounds mainly like “Socialism… With Robots!” when you have the Tea Party just slavering to declare that Civilization As We Know It is coming to an end if we allow some tax cuts to expire.

So in the end, I’m left with an impression of The Venus Project that is not much different from the original Zeitgeist. It’s a large group of fans with who have coalesced around a group of persuasive amateurs, drawn to the notion that they have uncovered some deep and massive truth that is hidden from the rest of us willfully deceived, blind fools. It is largely ignored by people who have expertise in anything relevant like, say, economics — not because they’re trying to suppress it, but because there’s basically nothing of substance there.

There. You asked my opinion. Now you’ve got it. I hope you’re satisfied.

Open Thread for #679

Here’s the open thread for tonight’s show – have at it!

Here’s a recap of some of the conspiracy theories we’ve received by email in the last year or so. I’ve omitted names and summarized the claims to protect the anonymity of the authors. I see no need to feed anyone’s persecution complex.

  • A guy wrote to us a few months ago with his cosmological model that he claims is better than the Big Bang Theory. He wanted us to review it. When I asked why he hadn’t submitted his ideas to peer-reviewed journals, he said his ideas were too threatening and the scientific orthodoxy wouldn’t let him publish them.
  • Vaccines are a Big Pharma plot designed to keep us from the knowledge that all we really need to prevent disease is sufficient vitamin D3. And maybe some colloidal silver.*
  • 9/11 was an inside job, and the proof is that the US government has previously engaged in conspiracies and genocide. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • Christianity is a big conspiracy designed to keep everyone in line. The leaders of the major denominations all know this, but they are sworn to secrecy. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. HIV is actually a harmless virus, but Big Pharma and the CDC need you to believe HIV causes AIDS. This is used to control certain segments of the population (gays), to generate profits for Big Pharma, and for genocide. It’s actually the anti-retrovirals that cause AIDS. If you just exercise, take your vitamins, eat an organic vegan diet, and reduce your stress, you won’t die from AIDS. If you actually do die of AIDS, it’s because you made a mistake in steps 1-4.

Most of the people who write to us are pretty entrenched in their beliefs and can’t be persuaded that their pet theory has no merit. The guy with the alternate cosmological model has invested about 20 years of his life in his theory, but he’s never gotten around to getting that advanced degree in physics that would actually qualify him to do this kind of research. Why? Obviously, he’d learn enough to know what utter nonsense his theory is.

The 9-11 truthers are often a special case of conspiracy theorist. This is because many of them were convinced by evidence that was deliberately distorted or that was interpreted for them by people who simply lacked the qualifications to do so. Once presented with unadulterated evidence, it seems that many are willing to abandon their conspiracy beliefs and accept the conclusion that a bunch of religious zealots really did fly some planes into buildings on 9/11/01.

For more information on the self-justification that drives conspiracy theorists, as well as other a lot of other ways we deceive ourselves, I recommend a book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”.

Parting shot – in response to the call from Cesar this evening – if you’re interested in what’s been done in the field of abiogenesis since the Miller-Urey experiments, take a look at the book “Genesis” by Robert M. Hazen. It’s an excellent survey of the kinds of research going on and the results of that research, written by a scientist who does that research.

*As I noted during the show, colloidal silver does have antimicrobial properties when applied topically. It does not have similar properties when ingested, which is a good thing. If it did, it would kill your normal intestinal flora and leave you open to colonization by something really nasty – like C. difficile. Oral ingestion of colloidal silver can also cause a condition known as argyria, so unless you want to look like a Smurf, you should probably avoid drinking it.

Why I don’t argue with YouTube, redux

A few months back I posted a statement of policy about refusing to argue with YouTube videos. It has served me pretty well since then, because now every time we get email saying “Watch this video and tell me what you think!” I link to that post and reply with “Please sum up the points in that video that you found compelling, because I’m not going to watch.” I’ve seen several other members take a similar approach more often as well.

I have to say, however, that over at the Conspiracy Science blog, this post provides a much longer and more thorough explanation of why arguing via YouTube videos is (1) mostly fruitless, and (2) so beloved of people who don’t really have a good argument. Read it! Although it relates to conspiracy theories and not atheism in particular, they face a lot of the same issues. A couple of excerpts to get you over there:

Because there’s no difference in a conspiracy theorist’s eyes between any two sources based upon the nature of those sources, they have no way of telling whether a source is true or false. David McCullough, a respected academic historian with decades of credentials, is no more reliable a source than David Icke, an ex-football player who believes that the world is controlled by reptilian shape-shifting aliens. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists in recent history, is no more credible than bloviating radio talkshow host Alex Jones on matters of economics. This is why conspiracy theorists generally interpret any questioning of the credibility of their sources as an “ad hominem” attack, because to them credibility is irrelevant. Taken to an extreme, this idea results in the bizarre belief that a YouTube video can be just as true and credible as a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in a nationally-respected journal.

Conspiracy theorists hate experts and intellectuals mainly because they are forced to. Few if any real experts in anything—engineering, economics, metallurgy, political science, or history—agree with conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists know that this is a major obstacle in their attempts to gain mainstream acceptance. Honestly, if one structural engineer with questionable credentials says that the World Trade Center towers were dynamited and 99 real structural engineers say that theory is bullshit, which side are most people going to believe? Consequently, conspiracy theorists have to tear down experts. They do this mainly by denigrating the real value or relevance of expert opinion, which usually means casting aspersions on expert status in the first place. This has two effects: first, they think it blunts the attacks of experts on their theories, and second, it elevates non-expert opinion into the same realm as expert knowledge.

Also, in the interest of not having a double standard, I want to say something else.

(Pausing to look sternly at the Atheist Experience audience.)

I hope you guys don’t argue that way.

Something I prefer not to see is using a clip from TAE as an authority. We’re not one. Thus, if you’re in an argument and you say “You’re wrong! Here, watch this video!” … You’re doing it wrong. You know they won’t watch the video, and if they do, they will dismiss it as quickly as possible.

It’s the arguments in the video that are meant to help you, and they don’t carry any additional weight just because some slobs with a few bucks to blow on producer licenses said them in front of an audience. If you thought the arguments were good, do yourself a favor and learn to use them. The effort of typing in your own version of the Euthyphro dilemma or the argument from evil or whatever, will serve you much better in the long run than proving you can paste a URL into a window.

The Worldview Wackaloons are coming to Austin

Not like I’m going. I mean, part of me thinks, from a journalistic standpoint, it would be an intriguingly revealing peek into the mindset (generously assuming there will be minds present at all) of the mad. But then the idea of being bombarded with that much 50-kiloton thermostupid all at once is simply more than I can bear. Still, Brannon Howse and his big Christian Clown Car will be here on September 13, offering us an eye into the alternate universe he inhabits between his ears, of which the following topic list is representative.

How This Happened to America, Where We Are Going and The Biblical Response; How This Can Be The Greatest Hour For the American Church; How to Prepare the Remnant For What is Coming; The Worldviews and People Destroying America From the Grave and How Every Teen and Adult Must Respond To Be Protected; Refuting Evolution; What Happened to the Dinosaurs; The Impact of Evolution on America; Political Correctness is Cultural Marxism; How to Contend For The Faith in the 21st Century; Why Oprah’s Pagan Spirituality is Doubling in America Every Eighteen Months and a Christian Response; Why Worldview Training Matters and Students Want it; What The Bible Has to Say About The Coming One-World Religion, One-World Economy and Global Governance.

If that isn’t a concentrated spasm of atavistic “Mommy help me the monster is under the bed!” terror, I don’t know what is. Surprising that he left out anything about teh gayz, but maybe one of them will remember before the big tour begins.

I mean, I’d consider covering this for the blog and TV show, you know, but seriously, the amount of abuse my poor brain would endure would make me insist that, I dunno, every AXP reader send me $100 for medical expenses or something. So I guess we’re left to our imaginations, which, even at their wildest, I’m sure would not be the equal to the parade of delusion these rallies will exhibit!

The unofficial Atheist Experience response to Zeitgeist

So many people email us asking if we have seen the online movie “Zeitgeist” that we’ve had to come up with a stock response to people so that we don’t have to keep explaining why it sucks so much.

Matt has been sending this response to emailers, and I have gotten his permission to repost it here on the blog.

Thanks for writing! Most of us have seen Zeitgeist and we’ve commented about it numerous times on both shows. I’ve actually watched it several times, and if others hadn’t already done a brilliant job of debunking the nonsense in that film, I’d probably devote more time to doing exactly that.

The first third of the film is an unscholarly, sophomoric, horribly flawed, over-simplification that tries to portray Christianity as nothing more than the next incarnation of the astrologically themed religions that preceded it. Like all conspiracy theories, they combine a few facts, focus on correlations and build an intriguing story that seems to fit the pieces together nicely – provided you don’t actually dig below the surface to find out where they might have gone wrong.

The second third of the film is full-on conspiracy theory nonsense that is a virtual cut-and-paste from the “Loose Change” 9/11 conspiracy video. The flaws in this portion have been expertly addressed on numerous websites, video responses and investigated not just by responsible publications like Scientific American but also thoroughly debunked by peer-reviewed science. There is no reliable evidence to support the fascinating fairy-tale they weave. Again, like all conspiracy theories, a few facts a compelling story and as long as you don’t look behind the curtain, it can be fairly convincing.

The final third of the film is complete bullshit. The claims that taxes are illegal and that one doesn’t have to pay taxes have been bandied about for years – and they’ve been tested in the courts. Anyone willing to actually refuse to pay their taxes based on the information in this film is likely to find themselves in a court room appearing very foolish as mountains of case law and precedent demonstrate the absurdity of their claim.

Zeitgeist is perhaps one of the most damaging films I’ve ever seen, because people who don’t exercise proper skepticism buy into a flawed story and then repeat it. They may convince other folks, and what we’ll end up with are a bunch of people who reject Christianity, for example, for very bad reasons – and the minute they come face to face with someone who can defend Christianity from these easily dismissed claims, they’re likely to not simply be convinced they were wrong but also convinced that Christianity is therefore true (after all, we’re talking about folks who weren’t bothered to investigate the truth in the first place).

There are some facts in the film, but it’s not particularly difficult to take a few facts, spin a clever story and make a very convincing case for something, despite having no rational, evidence-based justification for their beliefs.

I’d highly recommend you spend time looking around for websites and videos that offer rebuttals to the information in Zeitgeist. You might find that it’s far less impressive than you originally thought.

To Matt’s very thorough answer, I will add some links of my own.

  • This is an episode of the TV show that Matt and I did on conspiracy theories. While it is not about Zeitgeist in particular or even any 9/11 conspiracy, we touch on similar issues that are obviously intended to apply.
  • This is a blog post I wrote earlier describing my general reaction to the so-called “9/11 truth” movement.
  • This web site is a very thorough response to most of the various claims of the “9/11 truth” movement.
  • Everything you could possibly want to know about the ridiculous notion that you don’t have to pay taxes is here. And here. And also here.
  • Updated, 6/24/09: A full critical analysis of the movie as a whole is here.

Future questions about Zeitgeist or any individual component of the claims in Zeitgeist will be directed to this post.

Wildmon is simply freaking!

Donald Wildmon, patriarch of the American “Family” Association, is really really upset that McCain/Palin are flailin’ in the polls, you betcha, and he’s sent out one of the AFA’s typically histrionic “Action Alert” e-mails in the hopes of rallying the Hate+Fear Brigade to save America from the scary libruls.

After the usual whining, blaming the ascent of Obama to obviously slanted reportage from the “liberal media” — as if they were the ones responsible for Palin’s inability to answer a direct question from a journalist with anything resembling a coherent sentence or displaying even passing knowledge of the topic at hand; as if they were the ones responsible for ramping up the hate rhetoric at recent McCain/Palin rallies, prompting those stalwart supporters of the far right to shout things like “Kill him [Obama, that is]!” within earshot of TV crews; as if they were the ones responsible for McCain’s failing to articulate any kind of platform to support the idea that his administration would be anything more than a continuance of the neocon string of disasters that Bush is leaving behind — Wildmon goes into full-on “end of days” Armageddon mode.

If the liberals win the upcoming election, America as we have known it will no longer exist. This country that we love, founded on Judeo-Christian values, will cease to exist and will be replaced by a secular state hostile to Christianity. This “city set on a hill” which our forefathers founded, will go dark. The damage will be deep and long lasting. It cannot be turned around in the next election, or the one after that, or by any election in the future. The damage will be permanent. That is why it is so important for you to vote and to encourage friends and family to vote. This is one election where your vote really counts.

Slippery slope much, Don? Well, this is all grist for the mill, after all. Getting people worked up into a lather of fear is fundamentalism’s stock in trade, and it’s a rhetorical tactic understood by many an ideological zealot in the political realm since time immemorial. Such as…

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

No, I’m not Godwinning by bringing up Goering’s famous remarks about war. I’m merely pointing out that Wildmon’s principle here is the same. “We’re being attacked! [by evil secular libruls who want to take our Bibles away] Vote now, or we’ll be exposed to danger!” An appeal to fear, with no basis in reality, in order to get his followers to vote his way.

So yes, everyone should vote, and do it early. Because what Wildmon means when he talks about the “Christianity” he says is threatened is his own, particular brand of homophobic, xenophobic, anti-science, anti-progress, anti-equality arch-fundamentalism. It doesn’t even include liberal Christians, those millions of believers who don’t think that “get the fags!” was part of Jesus’s message. To Wildmon, those kinds of Christians doubtless hold pride of place on his “Not True Christians™” list.

So vote, all you secular liberals! And won’t Wildmon be surprised when, in a liberal secular America, religious freedom is allowed to flourish? Sure, there will be some things you aren’t allowed to do. Such as use the government to promote your beliefs over others, or to impose your beliefs as “alternative theories” in science classrooms. But prohibitions like that are all in keeping with supporting religious freedom. After all, if you make Christian prayer mandatory in public schools again, what does that mean for all those non-Christian students? The Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans and otherwise? (The typical AFA answer to that question, I suspect, would be “Screw ‘em, they’re going to hell anyway,” which is not exactly productive. But dealing with fundie ideologues rarely is.)

Anyway, those are examples of conditions our Constitution already covers. That’s another difference between secular liberals and fundie neocons. We respect the Constitution, while they only ever treat it like a list of technicalities to be gotten around.

America as Wildmon thinks he has known it — a thoroughly fascistic, totalitarian Christian theocracy — has never existed. And though the neocons have been doing all they can to bring it about over the last eight years, a vote for the sane ticket — the one Wildmon fears to the core of his pitiful, benighted little black heart — will ensure that America remains the country it was in truth founded to be.

So vote! After all, we all want to read the despair-laden blatherings that will issue from Wildmon’s pen on November 5, after Obama has won, don’t we?

Why yes, the bad reviews are all part of the [echo]Conspiracy-iracy-cy![/echo]

Via Expelled‘s site:

“Big Science Academy” is proud to have the support of the “Mainstream Press” in stifling the rise of freedom of speech in our science classrooms. In so many ways, “Big Science” and “Big Media” are on exactly the same page, when it comes to making sure that dissenters and troublemakers are properly expelled.

Well, what can I say? It’s been a busy week for us here at the Nazi Darwinist Conspiracy Headquarters (I could tell you our secret handshake and door-knock, but then I’d have to expel you) over at Area 51. I myself have had to wash and wax half a dozen black helicopters all by myself! That hasn’t left me much time to suppress anyone, but Obergrüppenführer Dawkins tells me he’ll let me have some overtime on Tuesday.