This was originally posted in April 2018. I decided to re post it because the blight of conspiracy theories is worse now. Over the past few years, I have looked into conspiracy claims sent to me by friends. They were willing to believe; and sent me the claim because they thought I would be “interested” and share their concern, or alarm. But it took me rarely more than an hour to google enough information to render the original story at least suspect. And often bogus.
This kicked off a fascination for the nature of belief – a theme I arrogantly thought I could knock over in a few months. I am now 18 months into my quest, and the ‘answer’ still dances like an enticing mirage, in sight, but out of reach.
When we say “I know” something, we are stating a belief. It may be that the question we must ask is not whether the ‘belief’ is true, but whether it is gently held in service of what is good. And even so, the reader will instantly see that here, also, is a problem. This is the paradox we face.
What follows is a reflection on an investigation of a claim that offended my sense of being “in service of what is good.”
I have just spent a couple of months reluctantly becoming entranced by the claim that the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax construed by the US government. Actually, I became entranced by one Wolfgang Halbig, the man who kicked off the claim.
The public story is that on 14 December 2012 Adam Lanza went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Newtown, Connecticut and shot 20 students and teachers dead and wounded another 2. Halbig says this ‘shooting’ was in fact a hoax, an exercise concocted by the USA government as part of a campaign to control guns. Halbig collaborated with Professor emeritus Jim Fetzer in a book, published under Fetzer’s name entitled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. That book was apparently withdrawn from sale on Amazon, but can be had online in PDF form.
For this idea to be real the government would have had to have induced the families of around 500 kids at the school (based on post 2012 figures) and their extended families, friends, neighbors, workmates and others to play along with the cruel lie that children did not die. In fact a whole community would have had to be induced to play along. And the difficulty in making that happen is so vast it hurts my head just trying to imagine it.
My immediate response was that the claim was complete nonsense. Halbig’s assertions didn’t make any sense to me. But he was plainly believed by a lot of rational, intelligent and thoughtful people. So why didn’t they see what I thought I saw? Why were they disposed to believe? What was it about Halbig and his claims that triggered me to be deeply suspicious of his claims? I was told that nobody had disputed Halbig’s credentials. That wasn’t literally true, but I think the statement intended to mean that among those who believed Halbig there was no reason to doubt his credentials. In other words he seemed to be eminently plausible on face value.
Now I am not a stone hard conspiracy skeptic – or denier. I accept that 9/11 stinks like a dead sheep in the summer sun. We have been lied to or been subject to serial misrepresentation on many many things since Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. Just not everything. Some of my friends are default conspiracy theorists – that is their starting point. To be fair that’s probably a prudent safety strategy, so I respect folk who take that position.
But here is an upside-down conspiracy. Supposedly the government conspires to convince a nation that a shooting that did not actually take place did. Usually it is the other way round. Something did take place and the government denies it. Getting a community that knows an event did not take place to pretend that it did just lifts the order of complexity into the stratosphere.
To me the very idea that this was a government conspiracy is just so ludicrous I struggle to understand why anyone who paid it any attention could sustain belief in the proposition.
We are supposed to accept that some bloke watching telly on the other side of the country sees evidence in news reports that it is all a hoax. We are asked to believe that he has the insight and acuteness of perception to discern this so readily via a television report. This one was so acutely aware that he alone knew what was really going on.
The Problem With Conspiracies
If you pay attention to the conspiracy theorists this was the one time the government went all squeamish and decided not to use its tried and true method of actually setting up a mass shooting and framing some poor sucker as the lone wolf crazy. This time it decided to engage a whole community in an elaborate fraud to only pretend that the shooting took place. Parents and grandparents would have to pretend that their child had died. The child would have to pretend to be dead, agree to a new identity and be separated from their family. Even if we could imagine a government conceiving such a lunatic scheme what would motivate the families? Halbig suggests money would. Really?
My background – personal and professional – compels me to reject this proposition as ludicrous and preposterous. For most of my working life I have been in federal, state or local government roles, and operating on a conspiracy first basis would be suicidal in terms of professional conduct and career.
My model is assume incompetence (normal) first, then unorganized low-level corruption before considering conspiracy as an option. I have to say that by taking this approach I have still ended up at conspiracy, but relatively rarely. In my roles presuming conspiracy first is a denial of natural justice. You may think that assuming incompetence is just as unjust but reality is a fusion of natural mess (complexity which conceals evident order) and natural mild human incompetence (we are mostly wrong and we don’t do things particularly well naturally– which is why we need so many rules and management experts). Once that natural incompetence was just considered normal. Now management theories demand ongoing improvement, which is usually lost on public servants who sincerely do not get what the problem is. But that’s a whole essay or two in itself as a topic.
My point is that in any kind of role, if you want to survive, the incompetence/corruption/ conspiracy model works very well. If you are a complete outsider, a mere spectator or recipient of information on a matter about which you know squat, maybe having conspiracy as a default response is a useful and prudent reflex.
If you are in the forest and you see something that looks like it could be a bear it is better to act as if it is a bear – if you are not a forest dweller. That will improve your chances of not getting eaten by a bear – provided you know how to behave. If you are a forest dweller, and you know how bears behave, you can start off thinking that that bush looks like a bear – but it’s only a bush.
For a whole bunch of reasons mostly associated with my now many public service roles, it seemed to me that Halbig was operating in a forest I knew pretty well, but he did not – and neither did those who believe and support him. He saw something that looked like a bear to him and went hollering to the whole world that it was bear. But it wasn’t.
At various times I have inspected aged and disability accommodation for compliance with licensing conditions, conducted field audits against contract compliance requirements, investigated allegations of serious misconduct, conducted program evaluations, prepared evidence of prosecution of tax offences, prepared evidence for medical tribunal assessments of claims for military disability pensions, reviewed and remediated service systems, assessed tender submissions, conducted contract performance reviews. In essence I have a very strong background in assessing people, situations, systems, performance. I also spent over 3 years in recruitment – interviewing people, assessing their backgrounds, skills and character. I have also conducted a number of community strategic plan consultations, so I have a sense of the complexities of a community at a social and economic level.
I have also been involved in bush search and rescue in a very direct way. I have been in floods and fire crises as a volunteer. So, I have some small appreciation of how things can go in critical incidents. I have never been involved in anything to do with shootings.
In 1997 I worked with the Tasman Council in Tasmania in a position associated with the shootings at Port Arthur the previous year. So I have some sense of personal and community responses to a shooting tragedy.
Apart from going to 4 primary (elementary schools) a high school and a matriculation college, my experience of schools has been limited to dating a primary school teacher and later marrying a high school teacher – and selling books and teaching aids to around 30 rural and regional schools during a brief and unhappy foray into private enterprise.
And I have Masters and Masters Honors degrees in Social Ecology, which I hope conferred on my some capacity for research and analysis.
I have gone through this background because Halbig claims to have a background in law enforcement and in school safety and security. I can’t assess him on those things because I don’t know enough about either. But I can say that on the basis of the information I was able to review I doubt either claim would stand up to scrutiny by people who know these fields well.
What Happens When You Ask Informed Questions?
I have been involved in a bunch of community-based organizations incorporated under state legislation and funded by state and federal departments. At various times I have been an ordinary board member, a secretary, a deputy chair, and a chair. I was a co-founder of one organization, and I set up the board, wrote the funding proposal, gained community and business sponsorship. In short I know how to set up and run an NGO. In a professional capacity I have assessed NGOs to ensure compliance with legislation, which is a condition funding.
So, when I read that Halbig had founded two institutes, and had conferred upon himself impressive titles (Education Director, Chief Investigator, Executive Director and National School Safety Consultant). I knew to ask key questions – how substantial were these institutes? What was their revenue? What did they do? So, were they just paper exercises that gave legal legitimacy to claims of impressive positions?
Halbig and another person set up a security company (some sources say he set up several companies). Did it trade? To what degree? Was it more than a basis for Halbig to claim to be a security consultant, or a school safety consultant?
I found nothing on Google to convince me that the institutes had any standing in their claimed field. Likewise, I could find no confirmation that his security company had ever operated in any substantial manner, or at all.
This is evidence of nothing in particular, other than that neither institute nor the security company had any enduring presence on the web. They could have flowered brightly and briefly.
Halbig claims he is or is claimed as (it is unclear exactly which) a nationally recognised expert in school security and safety. He claims he has investigated school mass shootings, including Columbine. But this claim came late, and, if true, should have been a key element of his claimed credentials. However.
, nobody has been able, apparently, to verify this claim. When interviewed by mainstream media his qualifications were far more modest. This is interesting because the media was supposed to be a part of this establishment plot. Indeed, far from sustaining the conspiracy claim, mainstream media dealt harshly with Halbig’s claims.
I am an Australian in a nation of 24 million, and not in the USA with a population of just under 327 million. The population size matters because here in Australia getting recognised as a national expert generally means you have a substantial, visible and credible profile with evident expertise and standing in your business area. But in a much vaster population maybe the bar is set much lower because, comparatively, visibility is much lower and the relative need to demonstrate merit is lower. One could become a ‘nationally recognised’ expert via a narrow community of people. The term could actually be meaningless, but can imply a great deal. The claim could be true, but the implication misleading.
How many people does take for one to become a ‘nationally recognised’ authority? If I had one person in each state and territory in Australia willing to say I was an expert in X does that mean I could say I was nationally recognised?
I haven’t seen Halbig’s CV. I have seen a document put out by the SandyHookFacts.com website (a site created by members of the Sandy Hook community) which tracks significant recorded evidence, and which provides a timeline of aspects of his career. Halbig, or his supporters, claim he has presented before many school boards across the country on the subject of school security. This may be true, but was that on the basis of his self-styled positions in his own self-created institutes?
Halbig claims a credible background in law enforcement. Others, who claim to know, dispute his claims. When he makes public claims related to law enforcement actual law enforcement agencies seem to disagree with him. While he may have been a Florida State Trooper, the extent and length of his service is not evident. I am used to hearing law enforcement officers being quite precise about the nature and length of their service. I have seen no evidence that Halbig is as precise.
Halbig claims to be an expert in school safety and security. I’d expect this to be confirmed in explicit ways. When interviewed by the BBC Halbig is described as an administrator and safety advisor only – a very modest rendition of his claims. There is clear evidence he served in an administrative capacity with Lake County Schools as Director of Risk Management. This role, however, seems to have been concerned with employee WHS and insurance, not student safety and security. His apparent co-ownership of a security business (while being employed full time it seems) does give him the right to say he is a security consultant.
I have no doubt at all that his role as Director of Risk Management gave him the opportunity to visit many schools in his district (with 65,000 students apparently) and form opinions about school safety and security which may have been perfectly valid, insightful and valuable. But I saw no convincing evidence that any of his opinions or insights could be sustained on the grounds of professional expertise.
This brings me to another interesting aspect of Halbig’s character as recorded. He seems to be not well liked in many of the recorded perceptions of him. There are a number of recorded comments about him, and to him, saying he is a know it all who knows nothing, and claiming that he is aggressive and offensive in public forums. There are records of his attempts to win elected office and he seems to consistently perform very poorly compared to those who are successful – he loses by very significant margins.
Again, perhaps this is an Australian perspective, because of the small population; people who win national standing tend to be likable folk. Credible national experts tend to be able to manage their public images – are able to ‘sell’ themselves to people in authority consistently.
Now it could be that my assessment of Halbig is flawed in a major way – the information about him, and upon which I rely, is incomplete and insufficient. I would acknowledge this as a risk, but then would object that there is a pattern of probability here exposing three key weaknesses, in terms of what I can confirm readily:
- Halbig’s claim of expertise cannot be readily verified, and is, in some instances specifically refuted.
- Halbig’s apparent standing and credentials are almost wholly dependent on legal entities in which he has a personal stake as founder. It is easy to form the impression that he created them and the titles he later relies upon – and these entities did no other work.
- Halbig doesn’t appear to be a likable person in general. This matters because being liked is a big factor. Being likable is a major factor in personal success, and especially professional success. Now and then there are people who deliver great professional value, but are not liked by clients and that does not matter. This could account for Halbig, but I doubt it.
I do not know how a person with these adverse indicators could make it to the degree that he is genuinely considered a national expert; and be employed in projects run by the US Department of Justice. I am assuming that the Department conducts proper background checks. If they do and they can confirm that Halbig met their requirements I am happy to rescind my adverse provisional opinions.
This isn’t a take down of Halbig as a person. I have heard him speak and I have no personal issues with him at all. What I am trying to do here is trace my efforts to satisfy myself that I should accept this guy’s claims.
This is an account of how I have responded to a hugely serious allegation in tune with my natural personal and professional reflexes – relative to somebody who has no experience or knowledge that can help them break down a situation.
There are real and important conspiracies to manipulate what we know and think about the world and reality we live in. People in positions of power conspire routinely to retain that power or to gain more. Their motives are grubby and shameful enough. If we are induced to give them credit for deeply elaborate and complex plots, we are handing to them a power they should not have, and we are surrendering a power we must retain.
We must obtain and retain the capacity to distinguish between a genuine conspiracy and a fake one. Halbig’s claim that the Sandy Hook shootings were a fraud invokes a level of complexity that, for me, cannot seriously be executed and a motive that cannot be comprehended against the sacrifice the complicit community must make, let alone at an individual level. And the fact that members of the community are resisting Halbig’s claims just demonstrates how hard it is to induce a whole community to play along with an insanely elaborate fraud.
I believe that aspects of 9/11 point to a conspiracy by some elements of the American government and power elite. Perhaps because I have had an enduring interest in community development, and personal and professional involvement in community engagement, as well as an active interest in sociology I think any 9/11 fraud would be a walk in the park compared to setting up a Sandy Hook massacre hoax. Imagining the motive defeats me. Imagining the methodology just sends me into shock.
I get that these days we are constantly induced to offer our opinions, and many take up those invitations with relish even though they are devoid of any actual knowledge, experience, or insight.
I get that the level of trust is now so low that presumption of conspiracy is prudent. But that does not mean that you employ the conspiracy reflex as an actual response – just keep it as a provisional response. If you don’t have the time or means to check out a claimed situation, do try to be a genuine skeptic – one who suspends formation of opinion because they have insufficient evidence to arrive at an informed conclusion.
Finding a Balance
I have been, and will remain, an enduring fan of Phillip Adams, the immortal host of the ABC Radio National program Late Night Live. Phillip has long and loudly declared himself an atheist. His listeners do not care. But one evening not so long ago he was indulging himself with a bit of a homey chat with a fellow atheist. They carelessly opined that being an agnostic was kinda gutless. Not knowing was, they were saying, a lack of courage. You had, in their mind, to elect Yes or No. Saying I don’t know was not acceptable.
This was and is a bullshit materialist trick. In fact, any deeply critical examination of what we think we know will appal us by demonstrating that most of what we think we know is rubbish and most of what we think we can know is illusion. We ultimately guess. Mostly we engage in acts of social affirmation and not philosophy. We are more concerned to be accepted and liked than demonstrate a capacity for deep critical thought. It’s not a nice thing to know about oneself, but it is necessary.
I like to think that I say “I don’t know.” a lot. I do say “I don’t care.” a lot. I like to think I care whether I can genuinely evaluate claims within my capacity to assess and confirm claims. I do work hard to watch, listen to, and read what quality stuff I can. But in the end I live in a community in which being loved is more important than being a smart arse.
Maybe the Nazis really did contact Reptilians who gave them access to anti-gravity technology so they could get to the Moon and Mars and have a ‘secret base’ in the Antarctic. But, you know, I really don’t give a shit. If this has been going on since the 1940s it hasn’t impinged on our reality to an extent that it is completely unworkable (this is another huge topic). The Halbig thing is more important to me.
It is the phenomenon of acceptance of, and belief in, conspiracies that seriously has me intrigued. The reflex to believe conspiracy is something I get and respect. But like any defensive reflex it must be only provisional, pending further evidence. You cannot build a successful defence strategy on inflexibility – the Maginot Line is the famous case in point. My personal motto seems to have become ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.
Assuming conspiracy and then locking it in sans evidence is, well, self-indulgent. It means arriving at a fixed position in advance of evidence and then being unable to adapt to actual evidence.
I have been asked why I got so wound up about Sandy Hook and Wolfgang Halbig. Outside natural compassion, I do not much care about Halbig the man. I care more that families in Sandy Hook have been subjected to the awful allegation that they participated in a lie that their children died. It is the willingness to believe that Halbig had a case that concerns me. From the very outset the idea that a mass shooting had been staged should have been treated with the deepest suspicion, and the most compelling evidence demanded. Instead, the claims that supported the hoax hypothesis were just risible. But I am being unkind. They were risible to me because I have a deep sense of how governments work, and what they can and cannot do – and what they will and will not do.
They will do terrible things in our name. But some things they cannot do – and running a hoax as alleged at Sandy Hook is one such thing.
My default was not conspiracy, but doubt and curiosity. I have less investment in whether Halbig is right or wrong – but how his claims were assessed, and why some people elected to follow his conspiracy theory and others did not.
The Halbig situation embraces a number of issues. He appears credible to those who do not know enough to think otherwise. It seems to me that this was his intent. I suspect that he set out to deceive and misrepresent who and what he is. I think he was intimidated by the BBC journalists who visited him in his home, and he contracted his misrepresentations to a safe degree.
Halbig is supported by allies, who respond to the fact that his details were allegedly removed from Wikipedia. The inference is that Wikipedia or some other agency was responsible. But the reality is that personal bio data on Wikipedia is frequently changed by people who have personal or ideological motives. I could well imagine that Halbig took down his own information. You can write your own bio on Wikipedia, and others can amend it.
Halbig’s Wikipedia data was supposedly transferred to another site but it is, in my view, doubtful that Halbig is the author or that he authorized the content, because of the inconsistencies. For example, this new posting claims Halbig assessed or provided training in over 8,000 school districts nationwide. On the basis of published information it does seem that Halbig could not have done this until 2009. So, if this information were to be considered credible he would have had to visit 3-4 schools per day every week from 2009 to 2017. That is, in my view, not plausible.
I do not believe that Halbig authored or approved this information. I also do not believe that if you are a nationally respected and recognised expert in the field of school security and safety you would be abandoned to the support of idiots or be careless of what is published about you.
I have tried to apply a genuinely critical assessment of Halbig’s attributes with no interest at all in his claims about Sandy Hook Elementary. Is he a credible agent?
I have been working from Australia using only my computer and acting in comparative haste. I have not done an in-depth analysis, only a quick and dirty indicative one. The impression I have formed is that I do not think that Halbig is either a credible person in the fields of expertise he claims or in relation to his claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Pending closer and better research, I am not persuaded Halbig is a credible actor on the basis of the evidence I have had access to. I do not have evidence to prove my case, but I am satisfied that it is reasonable for me to assert that there is no compelling evidence that Halbig’s opinion on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting should carry any weight.
I have done my homework on this matter. I think I am entitled to express an informed opinion. What about you?
There are real conspiracies we should attend to. If we cannot tell truth from fiction because we have not bothered to go beyond our comfortable prejudices and biases, we risk losing the right and power to know what is true and what is not.
Defaulting to conspiracy mode is justifiable as a remote defensive reflex. It is not a foundation on which to build policy or commit to action, and you cannot hope to have a culture of justice and truth if your first reflex is conspiracy.
I was watching one of those Marvel movies in which a deranged officer of the US military recites his duty to defend his country against “enemies foreign and domestic” as he kills a superior officer. Yes, that was a fiction, but the alt right guest on the podcast Unslaveddescribing left progressives as “enemies” was not.
The internal fault lines between groups of people in our cultures are becoming magnified as our means to communicate ideas and emotions become more sophisticated and accessible. It is easier to make allegations without evidence and gain a support base. It is easier for disinformation and misinformation to be not only spread, but targeted. Fake news is not new. Calling it that is.
There are many possible conspiracies afoot these days, and it can be tempting to become a passive consumer led by one’s prejudices and suspicions – and accept accusations as true. But, in reality, that is to risk causing damage and harm to institutions and people who do not deserve it.
I don’t have time to investigate every conspiracy to which my attention is drawn, and I am not prepared to take other people’s words on them. Long experience has taught me that doing so is perilous. I have made poor professional decisions because I trusted information given to me by colleagues who sincerely believed the information was true. It was not. Somebody assumed and nobody checked. These days I apply the carpenter’s rule of ‘measure twice and cut once’.
If defaulting to conspiracy mode is moving to an attitude that is vigilant and sceptical, I have no concern with that. But we live in an age when we are encouraged to have opinions expressed confidently and assertively. It is easy to be seduced into belief, and whether we like it or not, belief is not a neutral state – it is an action that has consequences.
Yes, we are lied to routinely by governments, commercial interests, and religions. Misrepresenting truth is the norm and has always been the case. Maybe it would be nice to return to days when we did not know this was the case – and we could innocently believe. No chance, sadly. Here we are, and here we will stay.
This imposes upon us a critical duty to manage our perceptions and conceptions of truth by taking personal responsibility to evaluate what we elect to believe. If we abdicate that personal responsibility for critical assessment, we are abdicating a vital element of our liberty.
Technology has not eradicated the need for hard work. It has simply shifted the demand for effort from the physical to the metaphysical (intellectual, emotional and spiritual). Our access to the sophisticated information technology means that we now have unfamiliar chores to perform – developing the intellectual and moral fitness to engage with what we encounter online.
Our biases are where we are weakest, and most vulnerable. Conspiracy theorists believe they are strengthening their liberty by identifying plots. But if they fail in their due diligence, they are also revealing how they can be exploited, manipulated and preyed upon.
In a substantial population of 327 million you need only a tiny proportion of that population to generate a sustainable marketplace – in terms of credibility and income. A conspiracy theory can be a source of income. Believers will give you money. Even if you do not give money you need to know that what seems to you like a plausible proposition could be no more than a scam that has been finely marketed to trigger your biases.
Richard D Hall’s investigation into the claimed abduction of Madeleine McCann (on YouTube) is not just an example of how an investigation of a suspected conspiracy should be undertaken, It also reveals what happens to money donated by people sympathetic to what turns out to more probably be an elaborate lie. Not a lot of it actually, or usefully, supported the core proposition – that Madeleine could be found.
Halbig raised money that enabled him to go places and do things he could not have otherwise done. While not accusing him of misappropriation I simply observe that there seems to have been no form of independent governance over the funds received. If funds are applied to travel, for example, there is no way of knowing the class of a plane ticket, the standard of a hotel, the cost of a meal. It seems to be easy to be funded to live well, and not tax one’s own funds. There is, in short, no code of conduct for recipients of unregulated public funds given freely to informal requests for aid.
Halbig didn’t survive because his claim had merit, but because his claim had fans who were not interested in any factuality. They bought the conspiracy/hoax story. That is what they want, and it is what they pay for.
Of course, Halbig could have a personality disorder. Intelligent and sophisticated people experience personality disorders and that could drive their behaviors in certain circumstances. I found reading up on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder particularly instructive in the context of those who instigate and propagate conspiracy theories.
In an article in the New York Magazine article Halbig is quoted as saying. “I feel good, because I really feel deep inside my heart that no children died that day,” … But then on the other side, what if I’m wrong?” https://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Sandy-Hook-parent-hoaxer-continue-their-9213399.php)
Elsewhere Halbig is quoted as saying “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “if I’m wrong, I need to be institutionalised.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-39194035)
So these are the words of a bona fide nationally recognised and respected expert on school safety? I don’t think so.