In 1935, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger conceived a famous thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat to express a paradox that exists between unverified states in quantum mechanics. The basic idea Schrödinger wished to ridicule was that with two unobserved possibilities – in this case a cat in a box that was either dead or alive – both exist until the box is opened.
This thought experiment with its element of the absurd is rather similar to the case we have today of whether Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad or not, especially as the process by which this was ‘perceived’ by the outside world is so suspect. While some people believe the story, others subscribe to a growing number of conspiracy theories. Just like Schrödinger’s unobserved cat therefore, the murky news from Abbottabad is helping to generate alternative Bin Ladens – some walking around, some already long dead, some even chuckling away with their CIA controllers.
Despite being boxed up in a ‘safe house’ for what some people claim were days, months, or years, Bin Laden is a lot more complex than a theoretical cat in a box. For instance, his death is not an isolated event, but is the latest instalment in a long narrative that starts with America’s relationship with Israel, runs through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Neo-Con invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the assassination of Bin Laden, and beyond; a narrative that has been opened to widely different interpretations according to what people believe.
In the West, under the incessant crush of media stories all based on the assumption that the US government can’t be lying about something this big, most but not all people go along with the official story of Bin Laden’s death as they do with the official account of 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism.” Elsewhere, especially in the Islamic world, scepticism flourishes.
Just like with the unanswered questions and oddities of 9/11, it could be said that the US hasn’t done itself any favours by its shoddy presentation of Bin Laden’s assassination. One account has been swiftly contradicted by another. For example, we were initially told that Bin Laden was shot down with an AK47 in his hands, hiding behind a wife who was used as a human shield and also killed. Then we were told he was unarmed and that his wife was only shot in the leg! Earlier stories had the President and his team watching the whole thing, including the actual kill, on a live link. This has now been replaced with an alternative version, where they only watched the helicopters landing and then presumably changed channels to see if there were any bargains on the Shopping Channel.
There are many other inconsistencies. The body of the most famous terrorist ever was quickly dumped in the sea with no pictures released to prove his death. And what about the quiescence of the Pakistan military during a 40-minute operation right next to some of their most sensitive military installations? These can almost be seen as thrown in to stir up disbelief, doubt, and alternative takes on reality.
But despite its shaky credibility and failure to present things in clear, unmistakable terms, the US is not necessarily losing the great epistemological battle. This is because of the way in which knowledge works even when it doesn’t work, something we can only appreciate by switching to philosophical jargon.
We construct our knowledge of the world in various ways, basically through experience and belief, two things which, rather like Schrödinger’s cats, get smeared together. Of these, belief is far more important, because, in a situation where our picture of the wider world depends on our selective consumption of the media, belief often shapes experience.
Indeed, our beliefs interact with experience through a process called Coherentism, whereby our understanding of the world is based on the coherence of different ideas and pieces of evidence that strike us.
The trouble with Coherentism is that once a certain coherence of knowledge and a world view has been painstaking built up, any empirical data or knowledge that can’t easily be accommodated within the web of coherence will be ditched. It is only when there is a massive build up of data that can’t be slotted into the system that it will collapse and lead to a paradigm shift, with the creation of an entirely new world view.
In the case of Bin Laden’s assassination and its aftermath, there are not enough blatant inconsistencies to lead to this. Plus most of them can be accommodated in the web of coherence through adding additional propositions such as “The Fog of War,” poor presentation skills of US intelligence staff, confusion/ sensitivity about how to present Bin Laden’s death to the Islamic world, etc.
For those who have already made up their mind to distrust the government, the same inconsistencies are consistencies in their own webs of coherence, while any evidence that the government did do what it said it did can be filtered through concepts of a global conspiracy and a subservient media. For hardened Islamists – assuming they have no special insider knowledge of Osama’s supposed earlier death or present whereabouts – all the inconsistencies in the case merely provide additional fuel for their total distrust of America as they are already alienated from the mainstream views of the West.
The strong emotions of certain Islamists and anti-globalists ensure there will be plenty of hard cases who will continue to stick by their a priori beliefs no matter what evidence the US government presents. But there are far greater numbers of people who are susceptible to coherence arguments. This is where the real ideological battle of truth will be fought, except that it is not essentially about truth but about who can impose the greatest amount of coherence. Ultimately, this is a question of power and unthinking consensus.
If enough newspapers, TV channels, blogs, Facebook comments, and governments seem to concur in the official US version of events, then it becomes very difficult on a Coherentist basis to deny the story, not so much because the story itself is convincing but because denying the story seems to imply that you must come up with a way to explain why so many others support the story and to do it without violating the coherence of your world view. As a result, people who deny such stories tend to believe in heavy duty conspiracy theories, such as the idea that all governments and all media outlets are puppets of an international conspiracy, or something that David Icke (whose motto is “Exposing the dream world we live in”) would approve of.
On the other hand, people who support the consensus story have an easy time of it. They need not engage in micromanaging the facts to be perfectly respectable. Hence, controlling the narrative surrounding the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the Holocaust becomes quite easy. The story flies on auto-pilot, so much so that naysayers are immediately stigmatized as unfit for polite society.
David Cameron in his statement to Parliament, for example, merely repeats what the Americans say without really going to the trouble of finding out for himself the facts of the case; while one newspaper will echo another on a shared bed of unquestioned assumptions. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that knowledge often spreads without much real ‘knowing.’ So, just because everybody seems to be saying the same thing doesn’t mean a conspiracy is involved. The general ‘truth’ in this sense is more an expression of the social and political relations between the parties involved, with true coherence an illusion. This relational and political aspect of ‘coherence’ can be referred to as “Coherence Power,” the power to impose coherence on things that may or not be intrinsically coherent.
America’s Power of Truth Creation
Because of its position as the biggest economy and leading superpower, America has greater “Coherence Power” than its rivals, like Iran, China, or Russia. It is more able to project its truth, lies, or message around the world, rather in the same way that it can put cruise missiles into Tripoli or helicopters into Abbottabad, but of course this does not mean that its truth-lies-message will be accepted any more than its military interventions will. In fact, the message, whether true or not, will garner growing resentment simply because it is so far from home and so redolent of totalitarian universalism. And America’s enemies will be even less inclined to accept their version of events.
The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message” and his concept of “hot” and “cool” media can also be adapted and applied here. McLuhan’s work emphasized that content is less important than the medium by which it is delivered. This has obvious applications to how America ‘communicates’ with the rest of the world.
One possible explanation for the US not providing the body and not showing any pictures of the dead Bin Laden – essentially making the news vacuous – is because they want to ‘de-message’ the message and therefore emphasize the medium, namely their ability to say whatever they want whenever they want and have it readily accepted by most of the rest of the world regardless of inconsistencies and lack of data. By doing this, the vacuous announcement of Bin Laden’s death becomes a totemic act of US power designed to communicate how powerful America is, just as much as thundering its jets around the world or setting up military bases thousands of miles from home. This may also explain why several days later Al Qaeda has gone to the trouble of officially admitting Bin Laden’s death – an attempt to remessage the message and emphasize their power and intention for revenge.
McLuhan’s notion of “hot” media included things like movies, where no effort of the imagination was required to fill in the scene. His notion of “cool” media included TV, comics, and jazz, media where visual, informational, or musical elements are missing or incoherent, thus requiring a high degree of effort by the viewer to extract value or impose coherence. According to McLuhan, “hot” media were enjoyed more passively, while “cool” media required more participation.
Arguable though McLuhan’s examples may be, his general concept is ideally designed to deal with the consumption of news. We can talk about “hot” news and “cool” news, with the former being easily explicable news, where there is plenty of coherent information and unambiguous visual and informational data, and the latter news with lots of inconsistencies, ambiguities, and missing information.
“Cool” news forces people to participate, either affirmatively or rejectively in completing the picture. For example, the discrepancies of 9/11 forced some people to switch to the belief in conspiracy theories, but most people took the easier path, recognizing the US government’s greater Coherence Power, and willingly filling in the blanks and papering over the cracks in the US government’s story themselves. Something similar is going on with Bin Laden’s death. The absence of a body and the refusal to produce pictures, along with all the other stories and rumours undercutting the dominant narrative, push the story very firmly into the “cool” zone, forcing people to either participate affirmatively or rejectively in its completion. Faced by the US government’s greater Coherence Power, most will do so affirmatively.
The “cooler” the story is and the more it depends on consumer participation, the more likely it is to polarize, creating two opposite camps, with the minority status of rejective participators – i.e. conspiracy theorists or sceptics of the US government – emphasized. This too is a totemic tool of asserting power. The question remains whether the US government is “cooling” this news on purpose or not.
Colin Liddell is a journalist living in Japan.