The Appeal Of Pseudo-science

Comment to Radical Philosophy Association mailing-list

David Mertz
April, 2004

Obviously, it has been very disturbing to me to see so many folks on this list discovering long-discredited fantasies about CIA/Bush/etc planning of the September 11 attacks (e.g. the various Pentagon stories are several years old; conspiracy fans can always spin new variants, of course, so something is always trivially novel).

Part of my distress is just the matter that this is time and mental effort wasted; and also that it tends to discredit actual leftist analyses when the same people and groups engage in weird fantasies rather than analysis. I know you're supposed to refuse ad hominem arguments--maybe nut cases are right about other things. But still, it hardly helps when critiquing, say, real-life US involvement in the Haitian coup, to have the very same people spouting Area 51-style stuff in their next breath.

Another part of what bothers me personally is this peculiar, but characteristic, use of pseudo-science as bolster for the various silly arguments. The scientistic discourse (always coming from non-scientists who don't begin to understand the stuff) is a kind of ideological mask for the fantasy. More than that, however, I think that somehow the scientistic words must serve some kind of internal, psychological role, in the identificatory mechanisms of the conspiracy enthusiasts. For example, we get here on this list (and elsewhere) various pontification about the melting points of metals, the potential energy in fuels, the stress fatigue of concrete and steel, and so on. The fact google rapidly refutes an individual claim just means that that claim had not been considered with sufficient precision and specificity.

Somehow an evocation of the right necromancy around these magic engineering concepts proves... I don't know what, it's always a little murky what it's actually supposed to show. But the underlying point is that things aren't really as we have "been told," some nefarious forces are deceiving us about very many things, and through great cleverness and attention to "these certain facts" we can see through the plots. For nominal-leftists, I guess it means the CIA planted bombs in the WTC and Pentagon rather than planes crashing into them; for those of a different (e.g. Globalcirclenet) sort, I guess it means Israel had something to do with it, and "all the Jews" were told not to show up at the WTC. Whatever, there is surely something hidden than needs to be discerned.

For fans of South Park, I guess it's always worth mentioning Johnny Cochran's "Chewbacca Defense" featured on the Chef Aid episode.

Along these lines, in a way, I watched an enormously interesting film two nights ago. Errol Morris is the wonderful documentarian (and erstwhile philosophy Ph.D. candidate) who directed such brilliant films as Thin Blue Line and Fog of War. He also did one called Mr. Death. This latter is the story of Fred Leuchter, an oddly fascinating--though disturbing--character.

Leuchter's first career was in building execution machinery, first electric chairs, then lethal injection machines and gas chambers. There was something ethereal about Leuchter's detached, mechanical characterization of the requirements for ending human life. At the same time, Leuchter was a bit like his forerunners Dr. Guillotine and Dr. Antoine Louis (who first constructed it): he favors capital punishment, but thinks it should be carried out "humanely." Electric chairs are good, but only if they meet the qualifications of instrumental rationality.

After some moderate success in creating the machinery of death, Leuchter was recruited for the trial of German-Canadian holocaust denier Ernst Zuendel. Leuchter went off to Auschwitz (I think Treblinka too), and kinda haphazardly collected bits of brick and stone in ruins in the general vicinity of the former death camps. Then he sent the stone off to a lab to check for the presence of cyanide-and found none. Leuchter's "reasoning" was that if the buildings had been used for gassing, there would be trace cyanide in the walls. The upshot of this pseudo-scientific endeavor was the infamous Leuchter Report. The thing is that the analysis has a sort of surface similarity to science: you get to talk about chemical decay products, parts per million, gas permeation, and so on. The scientistic language provides a kind of identificatory "cover" for the (foregone) conclusion.

I think for Leuchter there was also another mechanism of identification with narrow instrumental reason. In the interviews, it was striking that Leuchter felt that if your goal was to kill millions of people, the best way to do it would be such-and-such. He even remarks (roughly), "If you wanted to design gas chambers to kill thousands, no one would do a better job with the design than I (Leuchter)." Now I must confess that I myself have a certain excess of instrumentalism in my brain--I actually thought momentarily about the technical disadvantages of Leuchter's various alternative methods of shooting, burying, blowing-up, etc. In any case, it seems like Leuchter's conclusion was, in part, based (unconsciously) on his different ideas about death camps as a DESIGN PROBLEM.

What's perhaps most disturbing is that I think Leuchter actually is not an anti-semite. I don't think he even went to Poland wanting a specific result. He's someone who "doesn't see the forest for the trees"... somehow drawn in by an apparent rationality of his own too-clever-by-half "experimental" design, he became ego-attached to its results. Enough attached that he vociferously defended the conclusion, to the point of touring the "neo-Nazi lecture circuit" (where he could receive adoring praise of his "brilliant" scientific analysis).

This mode of thought would be merely pathetic if it were not (externally) so profoundly evil!

Mutatis mutandis.

Yours, Lulu...