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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: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1084585

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?

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.

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.

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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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