A professor from the University of Kentucky recently contacted me with the intent of gathering information for her upcoming course: “(UKC 381) Deliberation, Persuasion, and Bullshit in the Public Sphere.” Here are her questions and my answers.
“As a scholar of public discourse and argumentation, my research is all about how people conduct their own research into complicated issues. I am also interested in what you find persuasive and what you find unbelievable. These questions aren’t so much about the specific topics you research. Instead, I’m more interested in hearing all about your habits as a researcher. I follow your 9/11 research, and I’ve seen the extensive work you’ve done, so I wanted to follow up with you.”
(1) How long have you been participating in conversations about “alternative knowledge” or skepticism?
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by alternative knowledge. For that reason, I’ll answer using a variation of a definition for another term I’ve used recently. Alternative knowledge would then be facts that are “systematically ignored or falsified in the mainstream media and public consciousness.” If that is the definition, I have been involved in discussing such things, particularly related to the crimes of 9/11, since 2003.
(2) How important is it to organize the research you find about the topics you care about? Why? Do you have any kind of system to keep track of the information you find?
The information I learn about 9/11 is organized in a number of ways. One way is through the articles and blog entries that I write, and another is through the Journal of 9/11 Studies where I’m co-editor. When doing research for an article or a book, I use a number of tools to preserve the information. It is important to document and save what is learned, so that it can be referred to in the future.
(3) If you do have a system for organizing this information, can you describe it?
I don’t use a formal system to save information but I do use different techniques depending on where I am and the nature of the source material. When reading books, I’ll flag or dog ear pages and sometimes take detailed notes on paper which are kept with the book. With articles, I’ll sometimes print them out and highlight the important points and save them as hard copies. Other times, I’ll take notes electronically and save them as Word docs or draft emails. When interviewing people, I try to record the conversation.
(4) Can you tell me about any writers or speakers whose work you admire? This might be someone you find very persuasive. What makes these people (or this person) persuasive or appealing to you? (These could be current people or historical writers.)
With regard to 9/11 and other deep state events, I admire the work of people like Peter Dale Scott, David Ray Griffin, and Joseph Trento. Professor Scott is good because he is careful and uses many good references. He will make inferences from data but not inferences from inferences. Trento is a journalist and bases a lot of his work on personal interviews.
(5) When talking or writing about 9/11 issues, how would you describe your own argumentative style? Do you argue differently with people you agree with than with people you disagree with?
I don’t argue directly with others much but I have been involved in a few debates on the topic of 9/11. These were with people who practiced bullshit. That is, they “systematically ignored or falsified” the facts as they argued in support of the current official account of 9/11 (i.e. those accounts changed over the years) no matter what was said. One example was a debate on Air America radio with alleged skeptic Michael Shermer. I wrote about that experience in this article. Another instance was on NPR for a show about 9/11 skeptics. As the only 9/11 skeptic on the show, I was given 5 minutes to answer leading questions. The remaining 45 minutes were taken up by the substitute host and two bullshitters who used some variant of the term “conspiracy theorist” every 30 seconds. I was able to get a more fair treatment with one of those people on Pacifica (KPFA) radio a month later.
I’m not certain what you mean by arguing with people you agree with. With honest people who disagree, my approach is to stick with facts and try to find common ground. An example is Noam Chomsky, who I’ve found through email exchanges to be open-minded and very intelligent. We seem to have similar long-term goals yet we have different viewpoints on 9/11. I believe that part of the reason for the difference is that Noam has already made too many public claims about 9/11 to rethink much of it in any significant way. That leaves us with an inability to agree completely. For example, he agrees that explosives might have been used at the WTC but that, if so, it would have had to be Saddam Hussein or OBL who made it so.
(6) What do you think is the key to being persuasive in conversations about complicated issues, such as 9/11 events?
When writing or talking about 9/11, it is important to maintain a sense of compassion and speak to all those listening, many of whom are often silent but still attentive. In order to reach people on 9/11, we must remember that the facts are the easy part. The emotional barriers are what require work to overcome. It’s important to remind listeners and readers that 9/11 was the origin of the War on Terror. People are still dying every day because of the false official accounts of 9/11. What else have we invested in those false accounts? By examining the answers to that question honestly, it is possible to appeal to what can be called enlightened self-interest.
(7) Have you had any exchanges online or in person that question your own claims on this topic? How do you respond?
Yes, of course. Both online and in person. The response depends on the situation.
(8) Do you remember how you’ve learned how to make claims and arguments? What do you remember from school? Did those lessons seem to be helpful when participating in this alternative knowledge community?
I was never on the debate team. For me, arguments are only worthwhile if there is something important that needs to be done, like learning about what happened on 9/11 so that the knowledge can drive positive change in society. My last English composition class was at Purdue in 1981. I found that helpful in terms of framing ideas and maybe a little helpful in learning to persuade. Also useful has been a book by William Zinsser called On Writing Well. When dealing with bullshitters, I’ve found it helpful to understand Schopenhauer’s techniques for debate. I don’t use those (bullshit) techniques, but it is good to understand when they are being used.
(9) What makes other people’s arguments sound persuasive or unpersuasive to you?
Anger, ad-hominem attacks, appeals to authority, and baseless speculation make arguments poor. Facts backed by references given in a logical sequence, and a thoughtful, compassionate approach, make for good listening and open minds.
(10) Have you ever heard someone make an argument that sound convincing, even though you disagree with him/her? If you can think of an example, can you describe it?
With regard to 9/11, I can imagine the convincing argument that I would disagree with. And although I have not heard it uttered publicly yet, I expect that argument to be used and accepted in the future. That argument is that the geopolitical and economic environment at the time of 9/11 required Western leaders to make a choice between a) killing a few thousand people in order to provide a pretext for the seizure of resources, or b) allowing events to take their course without those resources being seized. In other words, kill a few thousand now or watch millions suffer through changes of unprecedented scope. I disagree with that argument because I think there were other alternatives. But maybe I’m just an idealist.
(11) Have you always enjoyed researching, even before you became involved in the “alternative knowledge” community? Why or why not?
I’ve always enjoyed reading, writing, and critical thinking but did not become involved in any significant research until after I began studying the events of 9/11.
I’ll be interested to see how she uses this kind of input for her course.