Monday, June 1, 2020

A Cold Case Detective Evaluates COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

J. Warner Wallace is a cold case detective. He became a Christian when, as an atheist, he applied his cold case skills to the resurrection – and determined that Jesus really rose from the dead. He has since become a well-known Christian apologist. I highly recommend his book (and website) Cold Case Christianity. 

He recently sat in for Frank Turek on Turek’s podcast to discuss conspiracy theories, since he investigates criminal conspiracies all the time. Click on this link to listen to the entirety of  "PRINCIPLES TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN EVALUATING COVID-19 CONSPIRACY THEORIES."  This presentation is timely: not only have these theories permeated the discussion of the coronavirus, but as of several days ago lots of conspiracy theories are popping up in reference to the protests and riots.

I am condensing and paraphrasing his presentation and points. From this point on, everything is based on Wallace's presentation. A lot of it is directly quoted (thanks, google speech to text!); some is paraphrased/summarized. 


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#1. There's a difference between what is possible and what is reasonable. Anything and everything is possible.It's possible you're not even awake today and you are dreaming this entire day so far. It's possible the entire universe is nothing more than a computer simulation. This does not make it reasonable. The standard is not “beyond anypossible doubt”; it is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Reasonable doubts are the doubts that are grounded in evidence. Possible doubts are really a product of our imagination. If someone sends me a video of a conspiracy and asked me if it is possible, I'm going to say, “Yeah, but it doesn't matter. What matters is if it is reasonable.”  

You are going to discover the difference by digging through the evidence as thoroughly as you can. You have to own the investigative process.  If information is not in the context of the overall circumstantial case with all the one hundred and fifty pieces of evidence, it can sometimes take a rabbit trail. You have to be careful with information, especially when it comes to you vetted by way of a video.

Stop posting stuff that's in the ‘possible’ category; only post stuff in the ‘reasonable’ category. You have to do a pretty decent investigation on your own before you could ever move something from possible to reasonable. That means that when you see something and you go, “Wow!” and 15 seconds later you're posting it on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, you haven't done any of the work that has moved it from possible to reasonable. 

Investigation is going to slow you down quite a bit, but until you've done that work you shouldn’t be posting. If someone's being interviewed on a video, have you investigated who that person is who is being interviewed? What is the personal history of that person being interviewed? Have you done as much research as you can to see who the person doing the interview is? If you haven’t, you shouldn’t post it. You haven't even discovered if it's evidentially reasonable yet. 

One video I was shows a SWAT team making an arrest of the main character; to the best of my knowledge, that is not from the actual arrest. That is a SWAT team making an arrest at a different location. They grabbed it as what we call “B-roll.” It's just there to explain as you're talking, but it's not evidence. It is not actually a video from the actual events far as I can tell. If that's the case, I'm already suspicious.

If they've got a video, have you gone back and found the entire newsreel so you can sort this stuff personally? If not, why would you share it with anybody? 

#2. There are only three motives for misbehavior: sex, money and power. I worked enough homicides, burglaries, robberies, sex crimes, larceny, whatever  - I've worked those cases, and they are only driven by the same three motives that drive sin: sexual desire, financial greed, and the pursuit of power. if somebody has something to gain in one of those three areas, I think it's fair for you to be suspicious. Does this video bring financial gain to the person making a claim? (will an author’s sales increase?) Is it a matter of having a huge response? How many times do these conspiracy theories get shared online? (That's a power issue.) Before you start sharing some things, ask yourself what the people behind it gain. If you think there's a way that somebody might gain, hesitate before you share it. 

#3. Five attributes of conspiracies that are necessary in order for it to be successful.

·       First, it has the smallest possible number of co-conspirators. It's a lot easier for two people to tell a lie and keep a secret than it is for 22 or 222 or some huge sector of the federal government plus the CDC and a bunch of other agencies involved in public health. The number of people matter, and the smaller number of people, the more successful you are going to be. The best conspiracy is committed by two people, and as soon as it's committed one kills the other.
·       Second, it is held for the shortest possible amount of time. If  a conspiracy to commit a crime takes about two weeks to unwrap, that's a lot better than if it's a two-year plan.
·       Third, you need excellent communication between co-conspirators. If you get separated and one of you guys gets jammed up by the police, your stories have to line up. That's why the first thing we do as detectives is to separate co-conspirators.  The more details we get into, the less chance they had of lining up their story. 
·       Fourth, successful conspiracies usually involve people who have a deep emotional relationship. Mom is not going to rat on her son as often as she would a stranger. If you have deep relationships with each other, then there's a good chance you will not rat on each other. 
·       Fifth, try to avoid pressure altogether. If no one's asking questions, if no one's really paying attention, you’ve got a good chance of pulling off a conspiracy.

If you think a conspiracy involves vast sectors of the government for many years, how do you make this successful? 

#4. Time is your friend when you're working conspiracies. Remember, the shorter the conspiracy is being held, the more likely it is to be successful. I learned early on as a cold case detective that time can help you. Somebody who didn't want to talk thirty years ago because they were married to the suspect’s best friend is no longer married to that person, and they're actually willing to tell you more than they were going to tell you 30 years ago. Why would you arrive at a conclusion five minutes after reading something when you need to let time do what it does? Time is our friend. We have to be patient. 

An early proclamation or decision or verdict ruins your credibility if you are wrong. I had this happen to me when I was on an investigative team. It was my very first homicide. I remember walking in, looking at the evidence, and, half an hour into it, I gave my verdict about who was guilty. I was flat-out wrong. It took about another week or two for us to unwrap how wrong I was.  Do you think the other investigators ever let me forget that? No. As matter fact, I didn't gain credibility until all those guys had retired off the team and I was the senior guy on a new team.  Nobody was left who remembered what an idiot I was in proclaiming within a half an hour that I thought I knew who the suspect was.  

Early proclamation simply ruins your credibility, and it's awfully hard to get that back. So I don't want to be the one who is reposting conspiracy theories.  It will cause me to lose all credibility. 

# 5. In criminal investigations, opportunistic is always a better explanation than diabolical. Bad guys aren’t Bond villains with a diabolical plot to overthrow the world while working to undermine the good guys. Every time I've tried to out-clever the bad guy, I’ve had a tendency to give the suspect more credit that he or she is worth. In the end, we are generally lazy. We default to the easiest, quickest thing that involves the least amount of commitment and effort. That's why, when I see that someone is an actor at the end of a bunch of chaos, it's more than likely that person just stepped up and saw the chaos and said, “How can I gain something from this?” 

#6. Be wary of simply quoting any expert. I work in criminal trials where I will bring in scientific experts to interpret a piece of evidence that otherwise could be tricky. Meanwhile, the defense is going to bring in a different expert who's probably better paid than my guy. The defense has money, so they're going to hire the best experts who will take the exact same evidence yet offer a completely opposite opinion. Two experts looking at the exact same data coming to two separate inferences. Knowing the difference between good and bad experts takes work, but it’s important. 

Final thoughts from J. Warner Wallace.  

First, I'm one of those few people who can actually tell you that it was the evidence for Christianity that persuaded me to even look seriously at what the Bible said. If we aren't the kind of kind of group that assesses evidence to make decisions even about God, even about Christianity, then why would anyone expect us to be that kind of group that assesses things evidentialy when they're presented to us?  I think the time is now for us to become a much more thoughtful church.

Second, remember what I call the art of “changing something you can.” If we get a domestic violence call, our goal is to change something so that we won't get called back in 15 minutes. If we don't change anything and we just walk away, something bad's going to happen; in 15 minutes, we're going to go back. Maybe somebody needs to go to jail. Maybe it's just some advice needs to be given. Something's got to change in that chaos or you're going to get called back. 

We’ve got a situation facing us as a country. We will change after we lock things down to flatten the curve, but we have to do it in such a way that we can reopen and won't be called back in 30 minutes with the same thing. We understand what the social distancing and masks are going to do, so now we're going to reopen carefully so we can actually leave the call and they're not going to call us again in 15 minutes. Responding to a crisis is like responding to a call. It's all about the art of changing something so we won’t get called back. 


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