This is probably an article that would better suit my own personal blog, as it isn’t an opinion piece, expert analysis, and certainly wouldn’t be considered special operations or intel. It’s simply a rant about society and the plague of conspiracy theories we’re faced with daily, coming from a soldier who has simply had enough.
First of all, visiting a website where SOF and IC guys are authors, you might be tempted to ask about the validity of one conspiracy or another you may have found somewhere in the vast, lawless expanse of the Internet. I advise you against it. If these guys tell you anything, they will have to kill you.
I am amazed by the number of people who sincerely believe in conspiracies: the use of HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) as a weapon, chemtrails, Moon-landing denial, Area 51, the list goes on. Does it mean that all those people are idiots or uneducated? The answer is not that simple, even though I, too, am very often tempted to make such assumptions of character when asked ridiculous questions relating to conspiracies.
The thing is, the human brain is wired to promote such thinking. Kind of ironically, thanks to this specific trait, we have managed to adapt to our environment throughout the evolution of our species, and eventually create a technologically advanced civilization that has helped us escape the very mechanism that led us here: the survival of the fittest. That does not mean we have lost all connection with our primitive past, however.
One of the most amazing and essential functions of the human brain is pattern recognition. The change of seasons or the color of clouds before a rainstorm, for instance. In ancient times, these things were of vital importance in order to determine the right time to start farming, or if it was a good idea to hide from a forthcoming storm. This mechanism is the main drive behind the rise in popularity of conspiracy theories. We are now living in an age of information, when one is subjected to a bombardment of news from every part of the globe in a matter of minutes, every day.
Our brain is struggling to find order or meaning in all that chaos, and that is why we see some people connecting the most inconceivable dots in the form of conspiracy theories. One fine example of that is the notion of chemtrails. Supposedly there are planes that spray substances into the air for mind control, weather control, earthquake control with the help of HAARP, etc. Despite the fact that these can be disproven with high-school-level physics, the theory is pervasive throughout a global audience that connects dots between physical phenomena, personal health, and world domination in one crazy package.
Now, you may ask yourself what any of this has to do with SOFREP. Despite the myth of soldiers being mindless drones, we get a healthy dose of skepticism injected into our brains. (For all those conspiracy theorists out there, no, we do not actually get anything injected into our brains.) That is because we need to recognize how the enemy is thinking and see through all their smoke and mirrors. What follows is a small toolkit of skepticism, useful for checking any idea or media announcement for credibility. Said toolkit was “created” by Carl Sagan, a great scientist of our time, and is called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.”
By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against guile and deliberate manipulation. Of course, this toolkit is merely a guideline, as his original purpose was to weed out pseudoscience claims, but it can be used in a wide variety of matters where critical thinking is needed. He suggested the following:
- Seek independent confirmation of the alleged facts.
- Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
- In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts. That can be extended to any subject as the argument from authority is a logical fallacy.
- Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
- Don’t get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
- Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses’ relative explanatory power.
- Every step in an argument must be logically sound; a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
- When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam’s Razor to discriminate between hypotheses. This means that out of two or more explanations, the simplest is usually closest to the truth.
- Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions. That one of course is a little bit more applicable to scientific fields and not in political arguments.
What follows is a list of logical fallacies, committed by politicians, reporters in mainstream media, or everyday people in everyday conversations. They are not always intentional of course, but show the need to train our brain in the art of skepticism. The great physicist Richard P. Feynman used to say, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
- Ad hominem is the attack on the character traits of the person making the claim, and not on the claim itself. For example, John Doe says the new policy will help employment. John doesn’t even have a job, so his opinion is invalid.
- Argument from authority. For example, “Well, Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, do you think you know more than Isaac Newton?”
- Argument from adverse consequences. For example, X is false because if people did not accept X as being false, then there would be negative consequences.
- Appeal to ignorance. For example, “You cannot say that there are no aliens in Area 51, therefore there are aliens in Area 51.”
- Special pleading. For example, John claimed to be a psychic, but when tested, his claims were not validated. Then John said that his powers only work if people believe in him.
- Confirmation bias is when you disregard any facts or sources that are against your held beliefs. For example, in the States, if you are a conservative, you only watch Fox News, and if you are a liberal, only MSNBC.
- Statistics of small numbers. For example, “Two soldiers I know are idiots, therefore all soldiers are idiots.”
- Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics. For example, astonishment when confronted with the fact that half of all people have an IQ below 100, a value that was defined as the median score in the first place.
- Inconsistency. Being inconsistent in any way, especially as in holding double standards.
- Non sequitur, or as the famous Internet memes say, “Here’s Batman riding a raptor; your argument is invalid.”
- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase for “After this, therefore, because of this.” For example, “The rooster crows before sunrise, therefore the crowing rooster causes the sun to rise.” Correlation does not imply causation.
- Excluded middle, or false dichotomy. For example, “You are with us or against us, there is no middle ground.”
- Short-term vs. long-term. Assuming a current trend has remained constant throughout its history and will continue to do so in the future, even though no evidence suggests such an extrapolation is justified.
- Slippery slope, related to excluded middle. For example, “If we allow gay marriages, next thing we know, people will marry their dogs.”
- Straw man. This is the creation of a stereotype and attacking it. An example is assuming a politician believes in all the ideologies associated with their general political leaning. For instance, assuming a fiscal conservative is also socially conservative, or assuming a pro-choice politician is also in favor of extreme wealth redistribution.
- Suppressed evidence and half-truths. When only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.
- Weasel words. The use of vague, non-specific references. For example, any political speech of the last 50 years.
Although this was a brief guide, I hope it helps you sift through all the information you receive on a daily basis and ignore the bias and the simply insane.
Author Vasilis Chronopoulos is a 5 year veteran of Greek SOF having served in 35th Mountain raiders battalion and in the Zeta amphibious raiders battalion. Now he is a freelance security contractor primarily working in the maritime security industry. Follow him on Twitter @billxronopoulos