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Critique of an apologia for Santa Claus

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The analysis referred to in this critique can be found at:

I don't remember the day my parents informed me that there was no Santa Claus. It seems to me that, like many childhood ideas, it gradually slipped away over time with experience. Each year there was one significant piece of evidence that Santa Claus was real: a present under the tree from him. However, each year also brought new difficulties as I thought over the other aspects of the story. Was it really possible that magic reindeer could enable a sleigh to fly so fast so as to cover the whole world? Was it possible that Santa Claus could demarcate the relative goodness and badness of every child throughout the year? And why did Herr Claus's handwriting so closely match that of Mom's?

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Eventually, over time and with the accretion of evidence, the former idea passed into history and I came to terms with a world devoid of Santa Claus. Later on, a similar process led me to question religious institutions. Still later, that process led to a questioning of governmental institutions and indeed, as John Searle so aptly put it, the social construction of reality itself. At every stage, however, there was no place for revelation, but rather a continual comparison study between the ideas at hand and the empirical evidence of the world.


Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar from the University of Chicago and Barack Obama's Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, together with Adrian Vermeule, former University of Chicago law professor and current Harvard law professor, collaborated on a paper entitled "Conspiracy Theories," in which they attempt to identify several key features of conspiracies. They specifically invoke the Santa Claus conspiracy in reference to how parents provide information to children. Parents routinely lie to their children, of course, with the justification that either they cannot understand reality or because reality is too harsh for them to experience until they are older. Sunstein-Vermeule (as I will refer to them throughout) seem to view the state in this parental mold, albeit with an additional active element in that they propose the state try to actively crush the precocious questioning of its children.

As they declare in the abstract, their goals include identifying how conspiracy theories "prosper" and how best to "undermine" them. They further identify these conspiracy theorists as bearers of what they term a "crippled epistemology" and suggest groups that investigate such matters be infiltrated by the government for their own good.

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The authors first admit that some conspiracies are true. They list Watergate, the use of LSD under the MK-ULTRA program (with "mind control" written in scare quotes), and Operation Northwoods, which they describe as a "rumored plan," despite the fact that the documentary evidence is a matter of public record. The rest of them, presumably, are false, and included in the "false" category are the JFK assassination, the MLK assassination, and several other incidents. They provide no rationale for this whatsoever.

Of course, here the authors engage, in a large-scale form, in the logical fallacy known as "begging the question.' That is, they assume the point which is to be first proven. In addition, their account also lacks any proposal for how one distinguishes a "true" conspiracy from a "false" conspiracy. One might counter that this lies outside the scope of their treatment, and of course one cannot generate such a program within the context of a 29-page academic paper. Unfortunately for the authors, their failure to address this basic question renders much of their paper useless. If I say Willie Mays was the greatest centerfielder in history because of his superb defensive ability, and you respond that Mickey Mantle was the greatest centerfielder ever because his teams won more pennants, we are using different criteria to evaluate the thing in question. Without working out specific criteria, our argument will never be anything other than a statement of preference precisely what Sunstein-Vermeule offer here.

Whether one is investigating the JFK assassination or 9/11 or any other such incident, this is essentially an epistemological journey; that is, the pursuit of these questions leads to broader questions about how we acquire knowledge and ultimately to the nature of reality itself. Unfortunately, after first correctly invoking the framework, Sunstein-Vermeule go on to reveal that they do not understand the implications of their own work. The first and most important element in any epistemological discussion is precisely what is true and what is false. The authors should have first given a proposal about how one comes to such conclusions. Failing to do this, they instead go on to a muddled description of justification and truth. Once again, they don't seem to understand how this process works. As an example, they state the following: "Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue. I may believe, correctly, that there are fires within the earth's core, but if I believe that because the god Vulcan revealed it to me in a dream, my belief is unwarranted." The authors here seem to think that mystical revelation is an improper means for discovering truth; in this respect, millions around the world would disagree with them, including George W. Bush, who talked openly about his daily discussions with the Lord. I am not arguing for or against mystical revelation, but only pointing out that since the authors have not given us a program for distinguishing what they think is true or false, all that is left for them is pronouncement. In this respect, the authors are Cartesians, declaring truth to be equivalent with all that they perceive clearly and distinctly. This is all well and good but ineffective for convincing others.


As is frequently the case in such discussions, the authors also smear political researchers by comparing them with Holocaust deniers. They also equate JFK research with UFO research and the like. This is the rhetorical equivalent of saying that all science is invalid because of Piltdown Man. Scientific research is a continuing process that involves the examination of evidence in specific cases, not generalizing from a list of tenuous assumptions.

In extending this argument they also describe Karl Popper's work on conspiracies, which is essentially a psychological discussion. People like to attribute purpose to the world, goes this line, and therefore people make mistakes by attributing every effect to an intentional cause. Sometimes things just happen, such as the Great Depression, and people feel that someone must be responsible. However, note again how weak these statements are precisely because they do not deal in factual reference. I could just as easily define into existence a mental disorder that involves the pathological denial of obvious conspiracies, regardless of evidence. (Indeed, one might propose John McAdams as a key example.) In a world that recognizes such dubious notions as "generalized anxiety disorder" simply due to the imprimatur of a doctor's assessment, this hardly seems an outrageous notion. But this is all bloviating without details, and so leads us to our next point.


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Absent in all of this psychological discussion is one very important point: what is the evidence? Sunstein-Vermeule do not at any point actually address the evidence, or lack thereof, for one "conspiracy theory" or another. Instead, they suggest that these theorists mistakenly attribute immense power to institutions, and distrust what they call "knowledge-producing institutions," once again begging the question, since whether these institutions produce knowledge is precisely what is in question here. In systematically avoiding any discussion of the evidence for any specific case, the authors can produce what might be superficially plausible statements (not arguments, because in each case the authors simply assert what is "true" or "false"). They then advise us that while people might be justified in their paranoia if they lived in a closed state, this is irrational and indicative of pathology in an open state such as our own. Needless to say, whether our society is all that open or not is in question. The authors also fail to realize that in an open society, propaganda is more important, because the state lacks the ability (at least theoretically) to simply imprison or kill its internal dissenters. Noam Chomsky has made this critical point many times over the years in noting that the American population is actually exposed to more propaganda than several other countries around the world:[i]

So the British had the Ministry of Information. The U.S. had the Committee on Public Information, which was known as the Creel Commission - the propaganda was very effective. It should be expected that it's in the democracies that these ideas should develop. Because in a democracy you have to control people's minds. You can't control them by force. [ii]

Michael Parenti observes that corporate advertisers also exercise degrees of control that find their way onto television programming. He describes how, in 1973 and 1974, the automobile industry induced the New York Times' publisher Arthur Ochs Schulzberger, into publishing articles promoting the repeal of seatbelt and airbag laws, because of the advertising revenue generated by the industry. [iii] Indeed, advertisers would not spend billions of dollars a year if they did not think television to be an effective means of pushing people in one direction or another.

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Joseph E. Green is currently a story and research consultant to an upcoming film Dallas in Wonderland. He has been a private investigator, an independent researcher, a writer, an editor, and a film critic. He is the author of the books Dissenting (more...)

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