Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Conspiracy Junkies

A while back I was party to a 9/11 conspiracy discussion with a chap who had a Doctorate in Grassy Knoll Philosophy.

For the record, I'm of the camp who thinks that:
(1) The airplanes flown into the twin towers brought them down;
(2) The Pentagon was hit by a plane and not a missile;
(3) War planes did not shoot down the fourth plane in Pennsylvania.

Very official story of me, I know. And anyone who thinks I'm a news media groupie had better take another look at my posts on this blog over the past few years.

Anyway, as the exchanges with the individuals who were half a bubble off plum were winding down, I was reminded of another conspiracy discussion I'd been involved in.

Once I was dining with a friend's out of town guest who offered as a lunch-time conversation topic the idea that not everything we've heard about the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust can be trusted, and that the persons murdered were far fewer than is commonly believed. In support of this point he cited the work of one Fred Leuchter. Curiously, my fellow diner couldn't recall Leuchter's name; I had to provide that detail.

Which tips my hand: I'd already read up on Leuchter's activities, and I replied that the report had been thoroughly discredited as fraudulent. I added that Leuchter had collected his samples for the cyanide tests from reconstructed buildings and not the original gas chambers.

My rebuttal was greeted with a dull, pod-person stare and a slight nod; the matter was dropped without further comment, and we moved on to other subjects.

The Leuchter report was written in 1988 for the legal defense in the Canadian trial of one Ernst Zündel, Holocaust Denier (or, as his ilk prefers, "Revisionist"). Leuchter himself was an opportunist and professional witness who would say just about anything his employer required of him -- in this instance, for the grand sum of $38,000.

For the Zündel case Leuchter traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Lublin-Majdanek to conduct a study on the presence of cyanide in the death chambers. Leuchter spent four days at the death camps scraping and stealing bricks and cement fragments. He then had the samples tested for the presence of cyanide. When what Leuchter arbitrarily deemed was only insignificant traces of cyanide were found, he declared that no gas chambers had been used to exterminate the Nazi's inmates.

Leuchter was entirely uncredentialed for the task he attempted:
* He was a history major, not an engineer;
* He had no formal training in toxicology, biology, or chemistry;
* He fraudulently represented himself as an expert in gas chambers.

The methodology of Leuchter's study was gravely flawed on several points:
* His collection method diluted his samples, making it impossible to gather accurate data about the presence of cyanide;
* He did not advise the chemist who analyzed the material as to where it originated or how it was collected, which further compromised the tests;
* He was unaware that the chambers from which took his samples had been rebuilt using a good many bricks that were not in the original buildings, thus skewing his findings;
* He did not consult any of the large documentation archive readily available at Auschwitz.

For the record, subsequent tests using methods to account for the variables Leuchter ignored or was unaware of refuted his conclusions. The cyanide was there.

Leuchter's testimony as an expert witness was accepted by the court, but his accompanying Leuchter report was excluded because of his lack of engineering credentials -- thus, the court accepted the report only as evidentiary display and not as direct evidence. Leuchter testified to the veracity of his findings under oath in the trial, yet on cross-examination he failed to provide satisfactory answers about rudimentary matters touching on his supposed field of expertise.

After hearing Leuchter's testimony, the presiding judge dismissed the report as "ridiculous" and "preposterous." The court ruled unequivocally that Leuchter's testimony was without merit on the grounds that he had no expertise whatsoever. Leuchter had also failed to demonstrate any concern for the truth, even while under oath.

An aside: Zündel's case was thrown out because the law under which he was being prosecuted was deemed unconstitutional. Zündel promptly declared that the courts had ruled he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He was later deported to Germany, where he served prison time for inciting racial hatred.

I suppose conspiracy theories superficially simplify things. A conspiracy notion might make for a false or bad remedy when dealing with subjects outside one's area of expertise, but it is a readily grasped remedy, particularly for the intellectually challenged.

It also brings closure, which can be reassuring: people endure prolonged turmoil and uncertainty only with great difficulty. And our age excels in producing prolonged turmoil and uncertainty.

There's also the appeal to pride in having an insider's knowledge that most other people are not privy to -- sort of a modern day gnosticism. What smugness there is in knowing what everyone else has missed!

Some people, of course, could just be confused.

Others, meanwhile, are simply bigots.

Whatever the root cause, the modus operandi of the conspiracists is to neglect chronology, treat rumor as history, and use citations fraudulently; hypothesis morphs into fact, authorities that don't bolster a thesis are maligned, and the absence of proof becomes evidence of a cover-up. Dogged repetition is key to winning the day.

For my part, I tend to simply avoid that crowd. If I encounter them and they persist, however, I have few qualms about setting the record in order. Aside from the fact that bearing false witness is a violation of Commandment #8, I don't want to be complicit in their assault on reality by remaining silent.

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