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Hindsight and its drawbacks (updated)

This entry was posted in Controversies, Current conspiracy theories on 25 August 2013 by

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is the only exact science. It can also be a liability, because it enables us to view events of the past – and contemporary theories about them – with an unwarranted degree of condescension. That was one of the most useful insights provided by Thomas Kuhn’s work on the history of science. Because the history of science was conventionally written with the benefit of hindsight — a kind of Whig interpretation, as it were — it produced a misleading picture of how science is actually done. Aristotle’s concept of motion, for example, looks idiotic to someone who knows Newton’s Laws. But that doesn’t mean that Aristotle was an idiot, just that we know stuff that he didn’t. Kuhn argued that to understand why Aristotle thought as he did we first have to understand the intellectual framework (the paradigm) in which he was operating; otherwise we wind up underestimating him.

If we accept (as I do) that many conspiracy theories are attempts to make sense of a puzzling world, then it follows that a fuller understanding of them obliges us to interpret them in their temporal and other contexts. Generally, hindsight makes that hard to do. Which is why the current controversy over Internet surveillance gives us an interesting opportunity to experience the kind of context in which conspiracy theories arise.

The revelations of the former NSA operative Edward Snowden have given rise to a ferment of outrage, speculation, fear, concern and cynicism. The extent and scale of governmental surveillance of electronic communications has shocked most non-technical observers. Official reassurances about the extent and effectiveness of legislative oversight of these secret activities are widely seen as patronising and implausible and have failed to calm fears, especially given the fact that many of these oversight mechanisms (for example the workings of the FISA Court in the US) are themselves cloaked in impenetrable secrecy. The notion that there is real “democratic accountability” in such arrangements seems far-fetched.

In addition, many people have been shocked by news of the (willing or unwilling) connivance of all of the major Internet companies in official surveillance. The attempts by the US — and apparently other states (Austria and Portugal) — to curtail the freedom of movement of the NSA whistleblower (attempts which extended to grounding the plane of the Bolivian President on suspicion that it was carrying Snowden), the (possibly illegal) detention at Heathrow of the partner of the journalist who has broken most of the NSA stories, and the threats to the newspaper which has done most to highlight the surveillance have given rise to a perception of overreach by the ‘National Security State’.

As I write, none of us has the benefit of hindsight in relation to any of this. It’s impossible to ascertain the truth of many of the suspicions and conjectures that are currently buzzing round the blogosphere. Are Western governments really in control of their security agencies, as they claim? How can we trust ‘oversight’ arrangements that are entirely secret? Why did the UK’s GCHQ accept upwards of £100m in funding from the NSA? Are we really “this far from a turnkey totalitarian state”? Why did the UK Border Agency detain and allegedly harass David Miranda as he transited through Heathrow using anti-terrorism legislation as the ostensible legal rationale? What can be inferred from the fact that the US authorities were notified of Miranda’s impending detention while his flight to the UK was still in the air? Was the UK government — as its critics claim — bent on intimidating journalists by equating investigative journalism with aiding terrorism? Why did the UK Prime Minister instruct the Cabinet Secretary to apply such pressure to the Guardian as to make the paper destroy a laptop computer under the supervision of GCHQ employees? And so on. We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Is it surprising, then, that in trying to make sense of what’s going on, people come up with conspiracy theories?

And just to add icing to the cake, we learn that President Obama has established a four-person independent panel to “step back and review our capabilities – particularly our surveillance technologies” to ensure there is “absolutely no abuse” in government spying programs, with the aim of gaining “the trust of the people”. Although we are still awaiting confirmation of the final composition of this ‘independent’ panel**, authoritative reports claim that it will be chaired by Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA until just three months ago and that the other members will be three former White House officials: Richard Clarke, Cass Sunstein and Peter Swire.

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, a panel of four government insiders, however eminent, is not likely to assuage public scepticism about surveillance, and so it prepares the ground for a new round of conspiracy theorising. Secondly, there is the delicious irony that Sunstein has form, as the bookmakers say, in this area. In 2008 he and Adrian Vermeule published an interesting paper on conspiracy theories and how to combat them. In the paper, the authors propose that the U.S. Government should employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which propound “false conspiracy theories” about the Government. The aim would be to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. Truly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

**UPDATE (August 28): We now have confirmation of the composition of the review panel. It includes the four named above, plus Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser in the Clinton and Bush White Houses who became very unpopular with Dubya because of his criticism of US laxity towards Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 and because he opposed the Iraq war.