January 21, 2013
Dear Florida Atlantic University administrators:
I am writing to express support for Dr. Tracy’s right to express his views and pose his questions. Indeed, as an associate professor, he has a professional responsibility to do so. Sadly, voicing unpopular views is a responsibility that is largely neglected in the academy. And even if Dr. Tracy has made some misjudgments regarding the present case (about which I reserve judgment), at least he has demonstrated an uncommon degree of courage in voicing opinions that risk engendering personal troubles. We would be better off with more professors willing to do that, even if it occasionally causes discomfort. For sometimes troubling views are both true and important.
Although I don’t have any special knowledge or insight into the particulars of the Sandy Hook shooting, those who criticize Dr. Tracy don’t seem to be basing their criticism on such specifics anyway. Rather, they view his questions and suspicions as absurd on their face (though it seems that Dr. Tracy’s positions have been exaggerated1). In other words, critics seem to regard the prior probability of Dr. Tracy’s claims as being so low that they can be dismissed without even considering his evidence. I take his general claims to be (1) that the story of what took place at Sandy Hook was not adequately vetted, and (2) that what actually took place may have been significantly different from the story that is being propagated. Regarding these, I disagree with the view that they are so implausible that they can be dismissed without consideration of evidence.
Like Dr. Tracy, I am an associate professor, teach at a state university, and have publically taken controversial positions. For example, I have publicly questioned the official account of September 11, 2001—to which most of my colleagues responded with polite dismissal, and apparently no interest in fact checking.2 Also, in a spirited public exchange with then-congressman John McHugh, I stated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tortured, to which McHugh replied indignantly, “He was not tortured!”—as if what I had said was beyond the pale. That was about two weeks before the fact that KSM was repeatedly waterboarded was finally acknowledged.
In addition to having reasons to sympathize with Dr. Tracy’s predicament, I have some relevant expertise. One of my areas of research is applied epistemology, and the philosophy of conspiracy theories in particular. I have taught courses that include the assessment of conspiracy theories, and State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs), as well as corruption and propaganda. And I have carefully studied the philosophical literature on conspiracy theories. And I have even published two articles, in peer-reviewed journals, criticizing Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s analysis of the causes of conspiracy theories as well as their proposed cure—“cognitive infiltration.”3 While it is common for academics to treat so-called “conspiracy theories” dismissively, most academics are not aware that there have been several published attempts to explain exactly why this attitude is warranted—and that they have all failed. Thus, a dismissive attitude toward “conspiracy theories,” far from being the more sophisticated position, it is actually based on ignorance of the most relevant literature. I recommend especially the work of David Coady and Charles Pigden.4
The bottom line is this: Outrageous conspiracies do occur. Propaganda and epistemic corruption is real, and more serious than many suppose. And, one cannot determine prior to looking at the specific evidence which conspiracy theories are true, or at least have merit, and which are truly unwarranted. There simply is no short cut. Just saying that something is a “conspiracy theory” or “nutty” or “outrageous” or “offensive” or “hurtful” will not suffice. If everything is on the up-and-up with the explanation of what happened at Sandy Hook, it shouldn’t be too hard to for defenders of the official story to win that argument. But the evidence should be adjudicated fairly, not denounced dogmatically. Unfortunately, challenges to orthodoxy are rarely treated fairly.
Finally, even if Dr. Tracy’s suspicion that something is seriously wrong with the official story is not born out, that does not mean his critique of the media is entirely without merit. And, in any case, it is important for someone to independently evaluate events and critique their portrayal in the media. As a professor of communication studies, Dr. Tracy was doing his job, even if he is wrong. (Let’s not forget that most theories about anything are wrong.) And, importantly, my studies of so-called “conspiracy theories,” propaganda, and epistemic corruption generally suggest that his actual claims—as distinct from the exaggerated and simplistic caricatures of them—are not as implausible as many assume.
Please don’t bow to emotion-based political or financial pressure. Do the right thing as a matter of principle. Respect Dr. Tracy right and duty to make his case.
Kurtis Hagen, Chair
1. Dr. Tracy has written, “While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place—at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.” This has been characterized as suggesting that no children died, and that the whole thing was a complete fabrication. But, the principle of charity requires a less extreme interpretation, taking the last part seriously: “at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.” So, we should assume, what Dr. Tracy is really suggesting is that the event may be in some significant way different from what is being portrayed. This is not totally implausible or nor would it be unprecedented. For there are examples of historical events that have been misleadingly presented in the media, to one degree or another (the killing of Fred Hampton, to mention just one example). It is possible that Dr. Tracy is only wrong in the degree of misrepresentation he implies. And if that is the case, his critique may still have some value.
2. If one is has neither read any of the scholarship on 9/11 by David Ray Griffin, Peter Dale Scott, or Nafeez Ahmed, nor has even bothered to watch a lecture by them or by Graeme MacQueen, Steven Jones, David Chandler, Jonathan Cole or other competent critics of the official story, I dare say one has not done minimal due diligence on the issue. See http://torontohearings.org for links to various such lectures given at the 2011 Toronto Hearings on 9/11.
3. Kurtis Hagen, “Is Infiltration of ‘Extremist Groups’ Justified?” The International Journal of Applied Philosophy 24.2 (Fall 2010) 153-168, and “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts,” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 21.2 (Fall 2011) 3-22. See also my review of David Ray Griffin’s book, Cognitive Infiltration, published in Florida Philosophical Review, which can be found at http://philosophy.cah.ucf.edu/fpr/files/11_1/hagen.pdf.
4. Much of the relevant work can be found in David Coady (ed.), Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2006) and in Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 4.2 (2007, Special Issue: Conspiracy Theories). For a short and easily accessible summary of Pigden’s position, see his “Wilt Thou Conceal This Dark Conspiracy?”