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Conspiracy Weary: The Boston tragedy and the fallacy of ‘false flags’

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A jarring and nauseating twinge bubbled through my brain when I read the first inevitable torrent of tweets and Facebook posts declaring the Boston Marathon bombings a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the Shadow Government. In truth, it was a kind of cognitive dissonance, because while I wanted to feel angry at those peddling this offensive twaddle (and did block of few of them from my newsfeed), I also felt a sickening kind of empathy… because if this tragedy had happened ten years ago, I’m afraid —and a bit embarrassed to admit— that my first thought would also probably have been to label it a “false flag”.

For me, this November will mark ten years of sobriety as a recovering conspiracy theorist. Yes, my name is Paul S. and I was once one of these people. I was someone who read every book by David Icke and Jim Marrs. I watched every documentary by Alex Jones, listened to his radio show and visited InfoWars and PrisonPlanet every day. I thought the CIA assassinated JFK, that world policy was being dictated in smoky backrooms by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Bilderbergers, that the Global Elites were performing black magick rituals at Bohemia Grove, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that Freemasons were elbow-deep in doing some sorta, uh, thing with stuff that was, like, totally not good, man.

I know what it’s like to view the world from such a perspective. And, luckily, I also know what it’s like to snap out of that nonsense. So, I write this as a former conspiracy kook and with as much empathy as I can muster to plead with those who still hold such views to… just… stop. Seriously, just fucking stop. You’ll thank me for it someday. Granted, we don’t yet know who was behind the bombings or why they did it, but, I can assure you, dollars to donuts, you know what the most unlikely explanation is? That it is was an inside job “false flag” operation. I’d more readily believe it was perpetrated by some secret sect of Quakers than the work of the government.

While I would love to spend several hundred words parsing through the nonsensical logic for why “false flag” theories are better relegated to the mouth-breathing delusions of paranoid schizophrenics, I see little point in doing so. Instead, I’d like to briefly share my own experience of how I made the conversion from conspiracy kook to proper researcher.

The most essential impetus on my journey to recovery was happening upon the book Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson on my nineteenth birthday, at a time when I still resided deeply in the viscera of Conspiracy Land. No single piece of writing has made a greater impact on coloring my perspective of the universe than the preface to that book (for those who haven’t read it, I highly recommend digesting it immediately). Wilson instilled in me, as I explored the wacky world of conspiracies and the occult, that it was better to approach such topics with an agnostic sense of humor, lest you emerge a “stone cold paranoid”. So, even though I was stuck in the full throes of conspiracy-theorism, after reading Wilson, I began to view conspiracy theories as the most likely explanation for many events, rather than believing in them dogmatically as the only explanation. This subtle shift in perspective would prove to have profound implications in nearly every facet of my life to come.

Besides Wilson, the other person I have to thank for my conversion is, strangely enough, the recently passed Roger Ebert. It was November of 2003, and to mark the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released as a special edition DVD. Ebert made it his “pick of the week”, saying he thought it was a brilliant film but agreed with Walter Cronkite’s assessment that it was also, unfortunately, absolute historical garbage. Being a huge fan of JFK and Oliver Stone (this was years before he did World Trade Center, mind you), I decided I was tired of hearing people disparage the film and wanted to know specifically what the critics and historians claimed Stone got wrong. What started with me browsing through a couple of JFK conspiracy criticism websites soon ballooned into a two-month-long research project whereby I devoured a dozen books and scores of articles presenting counter arguments to the conspiracy claims.

I resisted what I read at first, willing to acknowledge that the conspiracy critics made a handful of interesting points but unwilling to let go of the conspiracy altogether. But slowly and begrudgingly, I realized I had to accept that the evidence overwhelmingly suggested Lee Harvey Oswald was guilty and acted alone. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I was crestfallen to learn that almost everything in Stone’s film was either inaccurate or just plain wrong and that most of the claims about the assassination by conspiracy theorists did not stand up under scrutiny. It felt like being socked in the gut. Everything I had put so much stock in for years unraveled before me.

And as the years went by and I continued my research, the rest of Conspiracy Land’s greatest hits unraveled as well. My world was suddenly less interesting. No more black helicopters and “false flags.” No more sinister plots by the Illuminati. And, frankly, it seemed like no more fun. But there was also something incredibly liberating about the experience. I had spent so much time living in the insular world of the conspiracy community I forgot what it meant to do proper research and apply real analytical thinking. I realized I had been doing the very thing I accused of others: uncritically swallowing a narrow version of events just because it comported with my worldview. Making this realization was like Dorothy opening the door to see the world in its full Technicolor glory. It not only made me a better researcher, but it made me a better person.

I know those in the conspiracy crowd think they have a highly-tuned bullshit detector, but I’m here to tell you: I’m sorry, but your bullshit detector is fucking broken, stuck perpetually in the red. You’ve lost the ability to discern the rational from the irrational and are left jumping at shadows. It’s classic confirmation bias: You see what you want to see without realizing it. And I know because I was once just as guilty of it—and I still catch myself doing it on occasion. As a friend once said to me, if you look at a brick wall through a giraffe-shaped telescope you’re bound to think you’ve found a giraffe made of bricks.

This is not to say that there have never been conspiracies (Iran-Contra, for example), that there are no unanswered questions about the Kennedy assassination (Oswald’s trip to Mexico was pretty weird), or that there have never been “false flag” operations (the Reichstag fire comes to mind). What I ask of the conspiracy-inclined is this: Clear your mind’s slate and drop any preconceived notions about “false flags”, the New World Order or black helicopters, and, then, carefully reexamine the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical of the official story. Logical skepticism is healthy and necessary for research. But don’t just read the articles on conspiracy websites; also read the conspiracy criticism articles. Hell, read everything you can find. Wait for the evidence to creep in and work through the scenario logically. And, for fuck’s sake, have some humility and concede that you don’t have all the answers. So, when the inevitable next tragedy like Boston occurs, realize that when you immediately howl about “false flags” on social media before the facts are in, not only are you exhibiting an offensive form of confirmation bias… but you’re just wrong… I should know; I was once just like you.

*Note – There’s a follow-up to this piece here

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12 thoughts on “Conspiracy Weary: The Boston tragedy and the fallacy of ‘false flags’

  1. I agree, I don’t believe in False Flags, I think terrorists did 9-11, and I do believe Oswald acted alone. What I do beleive though is that the Government and media jump on these events to further agenda’s and it makes me sick that hours after Sandy Hook all the talk is about legislation! Same here, right after the Boston Bombing I hear about how the TSA is going to be doing full searches of people and I am sure new legislation is in the works to take a few more rights from us.

    • Thanks for the comment. Sure, everyone tends to have an agenda. And major events tend to act as excuses for people to trot out their pet projects. And there’s nothing wrong with being disgusted by the opportunism and perhaps exploitation of those who jump on tragedies to begin furthering what they already wanted to do. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t sincere in their convictions. Maybe they should wait until the bodies are cold. But whether you agree with the legislation or are sickened by the apparent opportunism, politicians like Sen. Feinstein began discussing gun control after Sandy Hook because she doesn’t want to see any more Sandy Hooks. I can totally understand that … Also, I’m not sure what agenda the media has in any of this kinda stuff other than ratings.

  2. While many of those mainstays of conspiracy such as JFK and the moon landing are disparaged by decades of amassed “evidence” against them, you can’t take those as proof that the government is not willing or able to engage in just that kind of behavior. Operation Northwoods shows that people in power will often to anything, including kill, to maintain or progress it. By attacking conspiracy theory via the common ad-hominem tangent, it makes your argument seem less valid. Allowing the word schizophrenic come into any conversation about conspiracy theory makes your analysis seem to be based in the same sort of knee-jerk automatic condemnation that you are accusing them of. I came here hoping for some real insight but got nothing meaningful. Want to make a compelling case against conspiracy theory? How about listing some compelling facts that directly address the one your title claims to be about?

    False flags are a historical and political reality. They have been known of since Roman times. The “fallacy” you just spoke of was backed up by far less hard information than the average conspiracy theorist’s ramblings. Congratulations on the switch from conspiracy nut to anti-conspiracy nut. Does it feel like progress?

    • I appreciate the comment. I was anticipating a comment of this sort. Yes, my piece was more anecdotal, philosophical and rhetorical than attempting to be a list of evidence debunking whatever conspiracy theory de jour you had in mind. However, the current “theories” about the Boston tragedy are also rhetorical and pure conjecture. There’s nothing in them worth debunking, much less worthy of even cursory intellectual consideration. Please feel free to offer some hard evidence of “false flag” implications in relation to the Boston bombings, but so far, all I’ve seen is absolute twaddle.

      It was not intended to be a piece debunking conspiracy theories. I’m willing to engage in such discussions, and have written extensively about such in the past. But that was not the point of the piece. The piece was an anecdotal examination of my own conversion from kookery to serious researcher.

      You bring up Operation Northwoods, which, sure, were wacky false flag proposals made in the heyday of the Cold War, but none of them were actually implemented. They were nothing more than planning stage ideas that were rejected and never came to fruition. And guess what? We know everything about those proposals. Not exactly sure how that’s evidence of anything other than some advisors and military folks have occasionally proposed some really stupid ideas that were rejected and got them demoted.

      But by all means, feel free to offer some “compelling facts” or hard evidence for current false flaginess if you feel so inclined.

      • Anti-conspiracy nut indeed. As Mike says, false flags are a historical and political reality.

        In the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a false-flag “attack” was used to start the Vietnam war.

        It’s necessary to distinguish between conspiracy theories backed by evidence from those that aren’t. You haven’t done that.

        You dismiss the notion that 9/11 was an inside job as “nonsense”, which is the kind of fact-free ridicule we’ve become used to in the corporate media. It flies in the face of hard evidence for controlled demolition we see, for example, in a peer-reviewed physics journal, which found military-grade nano-thermate (used in demolition) in the debris of all three WTC buildings (http://www.benthamscience.com/open/tocpj/articles/V002/7TOCPJ.htm?TOCPJ/2009/00000002/00000001/7TOCPJ.SGM )

        Evidence doesn’t get any harder than this!

        IN REALITY our government is corrupt and even breaks its own laws publicly. It has the means, motive, and opportunity for false-flag attacks to advance its agenda. You can’t dismiss credible allegations with hand waving. The evidence needs to be examined.

      • The Gulf of Tonkin incident was absolutely NOT a false flag event. This is another common myth that most people seem to get wrong. The Maddox WAS attacked on August 2, 1964 by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. No Americans were injured, but torpedoes were fired at the Maddox. The confusion comes from the incident on August 4, where they THOUGHT they were being fired on again by misreading radar signals and began “returning” fire at targets that weren’t there. But the attack two days before absolutely did occur.

        Now, did the Johnson administration exploit the minor incident as justification for escalating the war? Of course. And they even went out claiming that the August 4 incident was another attack before the facts were in. It’s also worth noting that perhaps the DESOTO operation patrols by the U.S. Navy were intentionally provocative, maybe hoping to get some sorta response from the North. However, the incident is not anything close to a false flag. The Maddox WAS attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese forces.

        To call Bentham Open a peer-reviewed journal is to call Fox News “fair and balanced”. It’s a for-profit journal that will essentially print anything if you pay the $800 fee. The Charleston Advisor is a peer-reviewed publication that reviews other peer-reviewed publications, and they said of the Bentham Open, “Bentham Open journals publish articles that no legitimate peer-review journal would accept, and unconventional and nonconformist ideas are being presented in some of them as legitimate science.” And, “the site has exploited the Open Access model for its own financial motives and flooded scholarly communication with a flurry of low quality and questionable research.” Read it here: http://eprints.rclis.org/13538/1/s8.pdf

        This subject is too dense for a quick response, but, besides the fact that thermite has never been used in a controlled demolition and any explosives and demolition expert worth his salt who has looked at this has said that thermite could not do what conspiracy theorists claim it did, the paper you reference hypothesizes that thermite was used because he found trace elements of iron oxides and pure aluminum in the WTC dust. Basically rust and aluminum. But these chemical compositions could’ve been found in any number of substances and items found in the debris. I recommend reading the CSICOP article on this. Also, to quote the CSICOP article on this matter, “Furthermore, the authors admit that their “differential scanning calorimeter” measurements of the supposed thermitic material showed results at about 450 degrees C below the temperature at which normal thermite reacts (Fana 2006). Finally, the scan of the red side of the “thermitic material” of Harrit/Jones is a dead-on match to material Jones himself identified as “WTC Steel Primer Paint” in his Hard
        Evidence Down Under Tour in November of 2009 (“Sunstealer” 2011).” http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_9_11_truth_movement_the_top_conspiracy_theory_a_decade_later/

        You can find some scholarly articles on the subject here:

        http://www.nist.gov/el/disasterstudies/wtc/

        http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/debunking-9-11-bomb-theories.html

        http://www.civil.northwestern.edu/people/bazant/PDFs/Papers/405.pdf

        http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/0112/eagar/eagar-0112.html

        Yes, the evidence always needs to be examined. But it needs to be examined without any preconceived notions. I have no dog in this hunt other than what the evidence suggests. But it’s not enough just to read the conspiracy sites, man. Go read the conspiracy criticism sites, scholarly articles and everything else you can find. Proper research takes time and analytic thinking, but it can be very satisfying.

  3. Pingback: Debunking the Pointless: Further adventures in the nonsense of false-flaginess | Contrivia

  4. You might think that you have “grown out” out a temporary phase of believing in conspiracy theories. You might think that you are some sort of incredible critical thinker, who, just because he has spent a large amount of time “researching” certain subjects, has had the insight to see above the rest that conspiracies are all to be juxptaposed in the file of “senseless drivel.” The problem is, though you have some understanding of logic, your epistemological justifications are invalid. There IS an ultimate truth to what happens in everyday reality.
    It does not help that cointelpro and other provacetuers purposefully post misinformation, and/or true relevant information combined with subtle lies, in order to confuse the already bewildered and drugged-up/hypnotised public. So this requires that we examine evidence for things that could not possible be refuted, as to save our time arguing whether or not this person shot Kennedy or how it happened.
    What isn’t a conspiracy theory, though, is that Kennedy issued executive order 11110 in June, 1963, an order whose purpose was to created a silver-backed United States Note, as opposed to Federal REserve note. The thing about a currency backed by an actual commodity is that if circulated widely enough, it will drive the demand for worthless Federal reserve dollars to 0, circumventing the Federal Reserves system of USERY. They charge interest on every dollar that is ever created, and your/my income tax pays for that interest. That is a fact.
    Then you have world bankers coming out saying we should have world government. Then you have Governments of old like Nazi Germany, where Hitler firebombed his own Reichtag to instigate war. Its called problem/reaction/solution. It’s called history. It’s called the New World Order.
    To pretend that you are some kindn of intellectual talent, who “saw through the fallacies and pitfalls,’ while simultaneously disregarding a myriad of factual direct evidence that there is in fact an enormous conspiracy taking place, and the logical explanation of certain events in the world, is mere cowardice. Yes, it is annoying when people automatically cry “false flag” before the bomb stops exploding, but when you understand that the cia and other entities are expert misinformers with a scientific and tactical method to propogandize information and skew news and thus change opinion, you really start to wonder EVERY time a tragedy happens if it wasn’t perpetrated by these same men with a mind to do it and means for amnesty.
    Sorry you lack the intellectual courage and moral integrity to continue toseek the truth, despite your apparent shortcomings and confusion

    • Thanks for your comment… And here we have an absolutely perfect example of exactly what I’m talking about. You clearly read that stuff about executive order 11,110 in some conspiracy book and didn’t bother to check whether it was true or not. Well, guess what? It’s a total MYTH, and this nonsense been covered many times. You say the goal of the order was to create a silver-backed currency note to undercut the power of the Fed (and are obviously making the ridiculous insinuation that this is why the Shadow Government or whomever assassinated JFK). But actually the order had an effect which was the exact OPPOSITE of that.

      The history of this is a bit complicated. But it was actually a slight modification to an ALREADY EXISTING order signed by Truman in 1951 (http://web.archive.org/web/20020210005214/http://www.nara.gov/fedreg/codific/eos/e10289.html). While Kennedy’s order did allow him the power to delegate to the Sec. of the Treasury to issue silver certificates only if any were needed, it was also only to be implemented during a transitional period until Kennedy executed his plan to ELIMINATE silver certificates altogether. The entire purpose of the order was to help facilitate the REDUCTION of such certificates. This had to do with the rise in demand for small denomination currency in the 50s and 60s. The rise in the price of silver made minting silver-backed coins too expensive. The Fed notes WERE backed by silver at this time. The point was to give the Fed the power to mint small denomination bills that were no longer backed by silver. So, in point of fact, the order had the effect of giving the Fed MORE power, not less. All this order did was allow the president to delegate already existing executive powers to the Sec. of the Treasury to help facilitate this transition.

      So, I’m afraid this “conspiracy theory” that you state is a “fact” is absolute hogwash, and your interpretation of the order is 100 percent dead fucking wrong.

      Do you see how this completely illustrates my point in the article? You read something in a conspiracy book and didn’t bother to fact-check whether it was true or not. And then go spouting how it’s an undeniable fact. So, please spare me your lectures on lacking the integrity and courage to seek the truth when you’re out there peddling this already debunked bullshit. In all seriousness, please take this as a lesson in ideology and dogmatism. I empathize with wanting to believe in conspiracies. But I promise you being a proper researcher is much more satisfying… take care

      • I hear you fairly loud and clear and I do agree that not every event is ultimately tied to the Illuminati, the Bilderberg group or any such shadowy organization. Having said that and having read your article I do wonder what leap of faith you must take in order to accept that the laws of physical reality can or must be suspended in order to provide a basis that allows you to accept the given explanation of events. While attempting to provide a definitive answer that is contrary to the government issued one such as the Warren Report or the 9/11 Commission Report is speculative folly the same cannot be said for refusing to deny that the laws of physics must apply in every circumstance. There are very few things one can say with certainty but (a) the buildings that fell on 9/11 did not fall because the towers were each hit with one airplane and fires raged in building 7; (b) no matter what else is true, one bullet did not penetrate JFK’s back, exit his throat take a sharp downward turn to the right and crush John Connelly’s ribs, injure his leg and fall in a pristine state on the strecther in Parkland Hospital to applicably be named the ‘Magic Bullet’. The truth of those events has not been ascertained and only an investigation, a real investigation without prejudice, bias or vested interest in the outcome, will provide that truth.

      • This comment section is quickly turning into people basically saying, “Hey, can you do my research for me?” We absolutely CANNOT say either of those things you mentioned with certainty.

        Look, I completely understand people who are skeptical of the single bullet theory. Even LBJ doubted it. But a careful examination of the evidence suggests that the only plausible explanation for those injuries is a single bullet fired from behind. And much of the so-called “magic” properties of the bullet trajectory that conspiracy theorists claim occurred are just dead wrong. For example, the bullet did not move downward and to the right (it moved down because it was fired from above, but not magically to the right). These mistakes were made by assuming that Kennedy and Connally were seated exactly perfectly aligned in front of each other and at the exact same height from the car floor. But this simply wasn’t the case. Not only can we tell from pictures that day and the Zapruder film that Kennedy was seated to Connally’s right, but you can see with your own eyes that the limo’s seats were not the same height (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/sbt3.jpg). And the bullet was NOT in a pristine state, but when viewed from the side, it is very obvious it had been fired (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ce399.gif). This is a great website for exploring more on the single bullet theory: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/sbt.htm

        …sigh… And do we really have to go through the truther controlled demolition shit again? I haven’t the strength to go through this nonsense again. I’ve been covering this subject for years, and it never gets any easier. You state as a blanket fact with the strangely structured sentence that “the buildings that fell on 9/11 did not fall because the towers were each hit with one airplane and fires raged in building 7.” You absolutely do NOT know this for a fact. This topic is too dense for a quick response. But here’s some scholarly studies on this subject:

        http://www.nist.gov/el/disasterstudies/wtc/

        http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/debunking-9-11-bomb-theories.html

        http://www.civil.northwestern.edu/people/bazant/PDFs/Papers/405.pdf

        http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/0112/eagar/eagar-0112.html

        If you read and digest those and still have lingering questions or doubts, then please respond to the specific points made in the articles you find troubling.

        And let me just throw this analytical thinking exercise out there for a moment regarding WTC 7. In my opinion, there’s no better evidence AGAINST the controlled-demolition theory than the collapse of WTC 7.

        So, the notion is that the Shadow Government wanted to create the elaborate, meticulous illusion that terrorists hijacking planes were responsible for the towers falling, but in reality, they would secretly plant explosives in the buildings, right?

        Well, why in the holy hell would they just blatantly take out WTC 7 when everyone knows damn well that no planes hit the building? Why even use the illusion of planes at all if you’re just going to blow up another building in front of everyone without the use of planes? Why not just say terrorists bombed the buildings? Do you really think that they assumed no one would notice a 49-story building collapsing in the middle of Manhattan’s financial district? Seems like a lot of work to create an elaborate red herring and then just blatantly decide not to use the red herring in the case of WTC 7. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever

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