As someone who has studied a host of conspiracy theories for nearly half my life, and as someone who will be featured on the Discovery Channel this week because I practice what might be called responsible conspiracy theory, I want to both agree and disagree with some of the thoughts expressed here.
Let's start with the key point - and one I heartily support: Sourcing. Armando is absolutely right to point out that some sources are more credible than others. (More below the fold...)
But on the other hand, the New York Times is guilty of the same, and with far more devastating consequences. After seeing how the paper's management stood by Judy Miller's shoddy reporting, I don't know why anyone would look up to them. Good writing is not the same thing as honest writing. There's plenty of good writing in the New York Times. But if I had to choose between bad writing but honest reporting, or good writing and dishonest reporting, it would be an easy choice for the former.
So how can you know whom to believe? The notion that high people in our government would trade arms for hostages in Iran to fund the Contra effort was deemed a "wild conspiracy theory" for a few years until the evidence came out which proved it undeniably. Not many people know that evidence surfaced entirely by accident when Eugene Hasenfus was shot from the sky. Not many people know that the story leaked out by chance, through a story by Robert Parry and Brian Barger released originally through a foreign AP bureau. The Contra war was being funded by the US for almost five years before our involvement was exposed. That was a very large conspiracy, and few believed it until it was forced by chance into the open.
The notion that President Nixon ordered a team of anti-Castro Cuban operatives to raid the headquarters of the DNC at the Watergate complex instead of the headquarters of his opponent George McGovern was originally deemed an equally wild conspiracy theory. Funny thing about that. Those who pursued that theory brought down the president.
The point I'm trying to make is, there are genuine conspiracies, and all of them were originally suspected and discussed long before they were proved. The inability to "prove" something does not necessarily make it untrue.
But what's irresponsible is to assert proof where there is only evidence, to say this IS what happened as absolute fact when all you have is a theory.
I think asking questions is great. Saying, hey, I saw this story in Wayne Madsen - does anyone know more about this? Is there a way to prove this or disprove this? That's great. That's open. That gets discussion going and encourages further review. To simply repeat bold claims that have no basis is not really useful, and should rightfully be discouraged.
That said, some conspiracy theories are well-founded, based on mountains of evidence. Some may eventually be proven true. Others may never be "proven" satisfactorily and yet may still be true.
Other theories which may sound convincing now will undoubtedly be proven false over time. And while others may be false, we may never be able to convince everyone they are false. There's a quality of religious fundamentalism about some conspiracy theorists that no logic can penetrate.
Just because it was in a book or an article in some newspaper or magazine does NOT make something true. There are better and worse sources. There's a hiearchy of evidence. I would believe sworn testimony sooner than I'd believe unsworn testimony. But I'd also believe unsworn testimony from a normal person over sworn testimony from a CIA agent, whose pension depends on his or her ability to keep secrets, meaning, ability to lie, even when under oath.
Finding the truth in a conspiratorial matter is necessarily difficult because the perpetrators will lie to protect their involvement. The concept of "plausible deniability" comes into play. And Occams Razor utterly fails us, because a conspiracy is necessarily going to be more complex than the cover story that is often planned with the conspiracy. In such a case, the simplest explanation may simply be the one they want you to believe, and the wildly implausible one (on the face of it, Iran-Contra was wildly implausbile) may be the true answer.
So yes. QUESTION EVERYTHING. Try to figure out which sources are more credible and less. Remember that's not an absolute rule. I find Wikipedia an incredibly flawed source. But not on every story. I find the New York Times overall a pretty good source. But not on every story. I find Wayne Madsen a pretty useless source. But not on every story. And I don't object to someone wanting to discuss something they read there.
Most people don't look at bylines. They should. Absolutely. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And some "great" reporters - Sy Hersh, for example - can be right most of the time and flat out wrong on specific cases.
I want to end on the point of the CIA's role in the media. The CIA has for years sought to protect its position in government by controlling the media. This is not a conspiracy theory. This has been well documented in their own files, released to the public over the years. Consider this bold statement from their ironically titled "Openness Report" from 1991:
PAO [the CIA's Public Affairs Office] now has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network in the nation. This has helped us turn some "intelligence failure" stories into "intelligence success" stories, and it has contributed to the accuracy of countless others. In many instances, we have persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could have adversely affected national security interests or jeopardized sources and methods.
So I would argue that one of the ways a source becomes "credible" in our media world is by the sanction of the CIA-controlled media assets, and that truthtellers are sometimes painted as wild-eyed conspiracy theorists because the truth threatens centers of power in our country.
So just because a theory is not in the mainstream doesn't make it worthy of ridicule. HOWEVER. Not all conspiracy theories are equal. It's as ridiculous to discount them all as it is to believe them all.
Update [2006-5-22 11:4:17 by Real History Lisa]:
Armando requested that I update this with a comment I posted below. I'm happy of course to oblige.
I don't think CT's are well-suited for blogs in any case, because extraordinary claims DO require extraordinary evidence, meaning lots of text. People don't stop to read a book length blog while browsing, and often a book-length argument is needed to defend a CT.
That said, I think we endanger our nation if we become conspiracy deniers. That's what allowed Hitler to turn Germany into a horror story. "It couldn't happen here" was the general belief, and it couldn't have been more wrong. CT's in some cases tell a far more accurate version of history, and we can't avoid the errors of the past if we refuse to learn what really happened.