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Bin Laden’s Death: Conspiracy Theories Edition

September 27, 2011

Last night a student journalist sent me an inquiry about Osama bin Laden’s death — inquiring whether I “really believe Osama Bin Laden is dead.” Blake Hounshell quipped, probably correctly, that I “should have just written, ‘Yes.'” But, being me, that isn’t what I did. Instead I spent what was quite likely far too much time going through the data points that caused him to question bin Laden’s death, and explaining why I thought he was misreading the relevant information. I am posting an only slightly cleaned-up version of my e-mail below (but keeping the journalist’s identity secret) because I think it illustrates a few relevant points concerning conspiracy theories within my field.

The first thing it illustrates is how much time it takes to debunk rather baseless conspiracy theories. The e-mail sent to me basically strung together a number of disparate data points that didn’t amount to much — but going through and actually explaining why I disagreed with his reading of each of these points was a rather time-consuming task.

The second relevant thing this exchange illustrates is one of the harms of baseless conspiracy theories: actually debunking them requires a great deal of time that could be better spent on more productive matters. And this is one reason that a lot of intelligent people tend not to spend their time refuting conspiracy theories: it requires time and mental energy that could be more productively used. Unfortunately, the fact that intelligent people don’t spend their time debunking these matters is one thing that helps them to fester. There is also another, more sinister, reason that intelligent people sometimes steer clear of debating conspiracy theories: the proponents of these theories can recklessly hurl accusations, potentially endangering your work, or your life. Read this entry concerning Andrew Exum’s experience with a German conspiracy theorist that illustrates the point.

And note that when one starts with the position that they want to believe in a grand conspiracy, decisively refuting it can be near impossible. The below e-mail demonstrates that my interlocutor misinterpreted or misunderstood every data point that caused him to question whether bin Laden is dead — but at the end of the day, what I have written doesn’t prove that bin Laden is in fact dead. Someone committed to believing in a conspiracy can easily, proceeding from a baseline of radical skepticism, simply shift the basis for his skepticism and impose new burdens of proof.

Both the left and the right have their own conspiracy theories. There are of course some actual conspiracies in this world, so I wouldn’t argue that they are never correct. Rather, I’d simply counsel that if you find yourself being persuaded by a conspiracy theory, do some serious due diligence at the front end to make sure that you won’t simply end up wasting various people’s time on it — including your own.

My third and final point concerns collegiality, a topic that garnered some attention when Andrew Exum and I discussed it in a Q&A I did for his Abu Muqawama blog. When Exum asked me about the collegiality I tend to display in my exchanges on Twitter and elsewhere, I explained that among other things there is a strategic reason for this. “I find that if I’m civil, I can actually (sometimes) persuade people I’m arguing against that they’re wrong about an issue. In contrast, if I begin a debate by insulting someone, it only further entrenches him in his initial position, thus making it more difficult to talk sense into him,” I noted. Now, I have no idea if I will persuade this journalist that this idea for a non-story isn’t worth writing about, or that his conspiratorial view of bin Laden’s death is wrong. But I do know that if I have any chance of persuading him on this point, it is by assuming his good faith when answering his questions, and addressing them directly, rather than belittling him. Moreover, I think this exchange underscores one other point I made in my discussion with Exum: being polite does not mean holding back in your arguments.

What follows is my e-mail to the journalist, slightly edited for publication.

Thank you for your e-mail. To answer your question: yes, Osama bin Laden is dead. The U.S. possessed his body, and thus had every opportunity to verify his death. Moreover, al Qaeda has conceded that bin Laden was killed, and has elected a new emir (Ayman al Zawahiri) to replace him. Let me answer the various threads of argument that you use to question whether he is in fact dead, and then conclude with my thoughts on your proposed story.

First, you write:

Saddam Hussein, a criminal of war was trialed, and executed also been a “sunny Muslim” and they were pictures confirming his death, whereas Bin Laden’s death cannot be proven, and the video footage shown by the U.S secret service is to say the least shady, as it only shows one side of Bin Laden’s face.

Saddam Hussein was in fact a Sunni Muslim, not a “sunny Muslim.” Saddam was executed by the Iraqis (not by the U.S.) following a trial. This is different from bin Laden’s death in several ways, the most important being that the U.S. and Iraq chose to handle these deaths in different ways. In contrast to Iraq, the U.S. government made the decision not to release pictures of a dead Osama bin Laden. As President Obama told CBS News, “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool. That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” So the decision not to release the photos was quite deliberate. While deciding not to release the photos inevitably gave rise to some conspiracy theories, graphic photos of a dead bin Laden being released really could have reflected poorly on the U.S. President Obama’s statement that this could be used “as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool” is eminently reasonable.

Second, the Secret Service did not make video of a dead bin Laden public. (When you consider what the Secret Service is charged with, there’s little reason to think the decision to release the photo would be theirs, nor that they would be the agency making it public.) I think you are referring not to a video but rather to an alleged photo of a dead bin Laden. But that photo was a fake that wasn’t released by the U.S. government. MSNBC traces the photo to the Middle East online newspaper themedialine.org, which published it on April 29, 2009, with the caveat that it was “unable to ascertain whether the photo is genuine or not.” Some people circulated that picture when bin Laden was killed and a few media outlets, hungry for any information, circulated the photo as genuine before they could really fact-check the matter. But this picture was not put forward by the U.S. government.

You write:

Also the U.S government credibility is seriously flack in the last decade, and its hard to be convinced by the evidence they claim is the “truth”. There is a reason why their credibility is questioned, and Iraq’s WMD’s could be one of them.

This situation is quite different from that involving estimates of Iraqi WMDs. Intelligence is more an art than a science, and the estimates concerning Iraqi WMDs were based on reading disparate data points to draw a conclusion about something that was half a world away and shrouded in secrecy. In such situations, the intelligence community sometimes gets its conclusions wrong. (This is not to excuse the intelligence failures that led us into Iraq, but rather to explain that intelligence is most uncertain when it deals with a distant object with a relatively limited amount of data available concerning it.) In contrast, bin Laden’s death is not based on an intelligence estimate of a distant land. The U.S. had the body in its possession, and the fact that bin Laden was in fact dead was confirmed through several methods, including DNA testing. When the U.S. has a body in hand, I am pretty confident in the government’s ability to confirm who was killed.

You write:

Bengazi Bhutto Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2007 claimed Osama Bin Laden died in 07, and the Turkish intelligence service confirmed his death back in 2007. She died assassinated not long after her quote.

If you’re challenging conventional wisdom on something like bin Laden’s death, you need to make sure you have all your facts right. In this case, you don’t have Bhutto’s first name right (she was named Benazir, not Bengazi). Nor was she the prime minister of Pakistan in 2007, so her views did not represent those of Pakistan’s government; nor was she an intelligence analyst. Nor did Turkish intelligence “confirm” bin Laden’s death in 2007. Assuming that your information is correct that they thought he was dead in 2007, it can’t be a confirmation since they had no body, and thus no way to confirm. Rather, it is simply an estimate based on the data points they’re looking at — and that estimate could be completely wrong, just as the U.S.’s estimate about Iraqi WMDs was wrong.

When no bodies have been recovered from strikes against jihadi leaders, several governments have in the past wrongly concluded that major terror kingpins were killed when this wasn’t the case. These incorrect conclusions are attributable not to conspiracy, but to something that I pointed to before: the degree to which intelligence is uncertain when evaluating a distant object. Given the secrecy that surrounds bin Laden, and his international prominence, it’s not surprising that in the past analysts and others have believed some false things about him. (One example is the idea that bin Laden was on dialysis: he wasn’t.) Conspiracy is generally a poor explanation for conflicting information and conflicting conclusions: rather, this is what happens when people try to make sense of a confusing world. If conflicting conclusions were evidence of a conspiracy, then baseball analysts’ differing predictions about who will win the upcoming World Series surely demonstrates that something nefarious will be afoot in October.

Also, you imply that Bhutto may have been assassinated because she claimed that bin Laden was dead. There is literally not a shred of evidence suggesting that this was the force motivating her killers.

Finally, you write with respect to my response: “I would appreciate your response and time Mr Gartenstein, I am sure your a busy man. I just need to get a good story, and have a tight deadline.” I appreciate deadlines, and while I’m happy to help you, I strongly advise that you reconsider writing this piece. I would suggest that it won’t make a good story, for a couple of reasons. First, as I said, if you’re challenging the conventional wisdom on any point, you need to make sure that you have a mastery of your facts. It’s clear that you’re not at that point with respect to bin Laden’s death; and you will be doing your readers a disservice if you accuse the U.S. of a grand conspiracy without even knowing all the information that’s publicly available on the matter. And second, this isn’t really a “story.” There’s no news hook, nothing that has broken recently that might make us conclude that bin Laden is alive. Instead, the angle you seem to be embracing is poking holes in the story of bin Laden’s death — but many of those “holes” are caused by your own misinterpretation of facts (i.e. the belief that the Secret Service released a video of bin Laden’s death).

I do not mean to seem harsh in my verdict on the piece. Instead of being harsh, I am trying to be helpful by suggesting flaws in the proposed story, and suggesting other ways to think about these issues. While we’re blessed to live in a country where people can believe whatever they’d like about matters like this, from my perspective the vast majority of conspiracy theories waste people’s time. They make some people believe things that are false (and the idea that bin Laden wasn’t killed in Abbottabad is false), and make others waste their time debunking false information.

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11 Comments
  1. September 27, 2011 5:45 pm

    It is not exactly entertaining to read the quotes from this student journalist, but it does bring a smile to the face. Given how the student makes mistakes on names, identifies Saddam as a “sunny” Muslim, and says “…is seriously flack” I can only assume he is qualified to work for a major news outlet. I wonder where the flack he goes to college.

    • Dave permalink
      October 17, 2011 10:45 pm

      Exactly. Is this an example of the supposed decline in journalistic standards or simple an isolated case? Surely the latter….

      • Dave permalink
        October 17, 2011 10:48 pm

        Sigh… the perils of a keyboard too small for my fingers…. to read: …simply…”

  2. bix permalink
    September 28, 2011 4:29 am

    Any reply to your comments?

  3. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross permalink
    September 28, 2011 4:37 am

    Bix:

    No, as of now the student journalist has not replied to my e-mail. It’s possible that he’ll register his disagreement by just going ahead and publishing the piece.

  4. September 28, 2011 11:41 am

    Daveed, thanks for writing this. To your point about collegiality and civility, I think you’ve hit on something really important. People don’t change their minds easily – it’s uncomfortable and creates a cognitive dissonance, regardless of the validity of contrary evidence. As writers and thinkers, it’s imperative that we do more than preach to our own choirs, and doing that means getting past those barriers, and that’s best done by being polite.

    Of course, not everything and everybody deserves a response, and as you said, there’s only so much time in the day. But when something is worth responding to, it’s worth doing effectively. Thanks for providing a model.

  5. September 28, 2011 12:06 pm

    I think you are right in recognizing that the conspiracy theory is most likely going to remain alive and well.

    The main reason I see for this is that every conspiracist that I know – and this might just be the ones that I know, mind you – seems to cling onto conspiracy theories more dearly than any other explanation for crises that have deeply affected them, their loved ones, their immediate geographical area or their country of origin.

    Also, every conspiracist that I know lacks the ability to take anyone else’s opinion more seriously than their own. Yet, when you question them about the very conspiracy theory that they believe in, you’ll find that they even lack critical understanding of the conspiracy theory that they believe in – forget the actual facts about the issue.

    So the image of the conspiracist that I have in my head is of a caring, yet uninformed individual who suffers from cognitive dissonance.

    To me, that is _NOT_ an individual I can ‘reason’ with. Although if it were ever possible to ‘reason’ with such an individual, I think you’ve done the best job I’ve seen so far.

  6. September 29, 2011 3:19 am

    Bengazi Bhutto? This shows he has been on pro Arab Spring mode, in a sunny place, wearing a flack jacket.

  7. bix permalink
    September 29, 2011 10:11 am

    Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll keep my eyes open. Nice effort though.

Trackbacks

  1. Bin Laden's Death: Conspiracy Theories Edition « Gunpowder and … | Where Is Osama Bin Laden's Dead Body
  2. Conspiracy Theories and the Intelligence Community | RationalPolitics.Net

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