Occam’s razor

There’s a history of fear and paranoia in American politics, and the existence of both seems to have gotten even more exaggerated since 9/11.

It’s no wonder.

Combine the multiple forces that genuinely threaten the world today (from Islamic terrorism to global warming to American unilateralism to peak oil) with the ultra-secretive tendencies of the Bush administration—and what do you get?

Conspiracy theories aplenty.

Now, it is true that some theories start off sounding far-fetched and turn out, in the end, to be dead right. The best recent example is the one about how the CIA was really responsible for the introduction of crack cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles as part of an exchange for money to fund the Contra. People who first offered up this “theory” were thought to be insane and paranoid. As we all know, the theory was proved true.

But not all conspiracy theories turn out this way, of course. Plenty of them are just plain crazy. (Just Google around a bit on “conspiracy theories,” and you’ll see quick evidence to this effect.)

On this week’s cover, R.V. Scheide tells the story of a group of local 9/11 “truthers,” so-called because they believe they must get out the truth about the American government’s alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Some are willing to go further than others in this pursuit. See Scheide’s story, “To tell the truth,” for the full range of conspiratorial options.

UC Davis emeritus professor Tom Cahill, who spent lots of time at Ground Zero studying the pollutants that were loosed there on 9/11, is not much for such theories. Despite his anger at the government for its ineptitude in the aftermath of 9/11, Cahill told Scheide he believes that the simplest answer is usually the best one, i.e., in the case of 9/11 “lots of energy and very poor design were responsible for the collapse.”

His “Occam’s razor” version is how I tend to see most events, including those awful ones that occurred on 9/11. Still, it’s easy to see how incompetence plus secrecy breeds conspiracy theories. Don’t miss reading Scheide’s story and considering the spectrum of opinions for yourself.