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Michel Jacques Gagné: On the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, conspiracy theories still dominate our public discourse

Commentary

On November 22, 1963, an emotionally unstable young Marxist and ex-Marine with few friends or job prospects, little respect from organized leftists, and an estranged wife who finally lost patience with his violent outbursts and political fantasies took his rifle to work at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. It was there, from a sixth-floor window, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot U.S. President John F. Kennedy as his open-top motorcade drove by in Dealey Plaza.   

The Dallas police, the FBI, and the Warren Commission (the presidential panel set up by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, to investigate the assassination) all concluded that 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Yet from the moment of Kennedy’s death and to this day, and despite dozens of other investigations that arrived at the same conclusion as the Warren Commission, it was and is widely believed by a majority of Americans that a broader conspiracy, i.e., that others in addition to Oswald, were involved in the JFK assassination.  

How should we understand this entrenched belief and the attraction to conspiracy theories more generally? As a start, conspiracy theories are always and everywhere part of human society. Stories about secret plots shock and fascinate us, confirm our deepest fears, nourish our moral outrage, and provide us with scapegoats to blame.  

One might hope that, in the age of the internet, the spread of conspiracy theories would be impeded by the widespread availability of scientific and historical evidence. Alas, precisely the opposite appears to be happening.  

From the QAnon-inspired allegation that the world is controlled by a conspiracy of powerful pedophiles, to the claims that Catholic nuns murdered hundreds of Indigenous Canadian children in the middle of the night, to the belief that COVID-19 is a bioweapon engineered by China (or the United States), the influence of facts and reason upon Western public discourse seems perilously low. 

Sensationalism sells and fear and anger make it attractive. While there exists an ocean of scholarship debunking these and countless other conspiracy stories, few people have the time, will, or energy to conduct a thorough examination of all the claims competing for their attention. They have even less time to study the mounds of countervailing research about conspiracy thinking in psychology, sociology, political science, and philosophy texts.   

We cannot ignore the wealth of evidence proving that real conspiracies occur. From organized criminal rackets to politically-motivated subterfuge (think of Watergate as an example), and even state-sponsored assassinations, conspiracies do exist. The useful question is how can we know if a conspiracy claim is likely to be true?   

A conspiracy is a secret arrangement between two or more people with the intention of taking advantage of others, such as a plot to hide or distort information, gain or maintain power under false pretenses, or circumvent legal, financial, or political rules for personal gain.   

Given the number of criminal convictions that occur every year for coordinated acts of fraud, theft, violence, criminal rackets, and murder, we can conclusively say that conspiracies are a fact of life. However, the ones we can prove rarely resemble the diabolical schemes perpetrated by the villains in crime thriller books and films.   

According to British philosopher Quassim Cassam, the sort of conspiracy theories that are most likely to be alluring and false usually serve as a type of political propaganda. They carelessly, if not malevolently, combine facts, unsubstantiated rumours, and discredited nonsense to stir up people’s moral indignation against a specific person, group, or institution.   

Unlike the work of responsible historians, scientists, and forensic investigators whose institutions and traditions insist on a high level of evidence-based reasoning, conspiracy peddlers fabricate theories that are deliberately shaped to ignite our outrage and discourage us from practicing careful inquiry and reflection. Those conspiracy theories are “implausible by design”, Cassam argues, precisely because they resemble a Hollywood script, not the haphazard and incongruent chains of events that make up the real flow of history. 

The more we know about history, science, and logic, the better equipped we become to separate fact from fiction. Conspiracy myths would gain less traction if our political parties and leaders, the news media, and educational organizations were more devoted to this ideal.  

Instead, when our leading institutions fail to place thoughtful reflection ahead of emotivist dogma and activism, it falls to the unaided individual to strive for knowledge and understanding while maintaining humility, a healthy skepticism, a deep tolerance for uncertainty, and a rigorous commitment to reason over emotion. When these values are in ascendance, the foundations of civilization are strong. In their absence, the foundations are vulnerable to erosion by divisive and self-serving myths. 

Michael Gullo and Theo Argitis: An oil and gas cap is no solution to Canada’s slow climate progress 

Commentary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate policy is at a watershed. 

As concerns mount over the pace of progress toward Canada’s aggressive emissions reduction targets—most recently from the country’s environment commissioner—there are growing worries the government will resort to a full-on charge against the oil and gas sector to regain some of the momentum. 

The government appears to be committed to an emissions cap for the industry, possibly in the form of more stringent carbon pricing for oil and gas firms or through an industry-specific cap-and-trade system. Just last week, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault reiterated on multiple occasions the plan is to move ahead by the end of this year. 

It all seems punitive and short-sighted. 

Singling out the industry will hurt the pocketbooks of all Canadians and suffocate revenue from government, companies, and Indigenous communities. It will stoke regional tensions with Alberta and other provinces, undermining public support for lowering emissions. 

And, as others have written, an emissions cap would weaken the very foundation of the government’s signature climate policy—its carbon pricing regime—that it worked so hard to create. 

The end result would be to make Canada’s climate policy landscape even more incoherent after a series of setbacks in recent weeks, leaving the country with an expensive piecemeal approach to climate, subject to political whims and reversals and the prospect of years of legal battles. 

Companies will be deprived of the policy certainty and political consensus needed to proceed with the historic energy transformation estimated to require a $2 trillion investment by 2050. 

Should it proceed with the cap, the federal government will claim it is targeting carbon emissions and is agnostic about production, but that’s semantics. To work, a cap would ultimately need to be severe enough to curtail production if needed, and that would have significant economic consequences. 

It would be a direct and immediate loss of income for Canada’s economy and a hit on federal government revenues. There would be significant indirect costs as well, incurred by every household and business across the nation because Canada relies on income generated by oil and gas companies—totaling $270 billion in 2022 alone—to support social programs like health care, education, and infrastructure. 

Without those receipts, our dollar could weaken to rebalance our merchandise trade, and we’d all be poorer. A weaker currency also implies higher interest rates as rising prices for imports would force the Bank of Canada to keep borrowing costs higher than what would otherwise be needed. The nation’s debtors and homeowners, in other words, also have skin in the game. 

Christopher Ragan, Paul Rochon, and Mark Jaccard—in a paper for The Hub in June—estimated that a production phase-out would cost the economy between 1 and 7 percentage points of GDP by 2050—a major loss of income to all Canadians. 

To be sure, the federal government is in an unenviable position. 

There’s no credible climate change plan for Canada that doesn’t include a significant contribution from the oil and gas sector. 

But there are better options than an emissions cap. 

For starters, the government can turn its focus to delivering what’s already been promised. 

The federal government has yet to put into law any of the investment tax credits it’s announced over the last two budget cycles or deliver on a pledge to streamline its much-maligned regulatory approval procedures—a necessary condition to hit the climate targets. 

Meanwhile, signature programs offered by Canada’s innovation department, the Canada Infrastructure Bank, and the newly created Canada Growth Fund are undoubtedly important for de-risking investments. But big questions remain about how these programs can work together—and with other government incentives—to address Canada’s most pressing emissions challenges. 

There’s also the unanswered matter of how the government plans to deliver so-called contracts for differences—effectively a commitment by the state to compensate businesses that invest in green technology should the carbon pricing schedule be removed or delayed. This certainty is critical for businesses to proceed with massive investments. 

Decisions the federal government will make in the next few weeks and months will determine—to various degrees—Canada’s growth potential over the next decade, the pace at which incomes for workers will be able to grow, fiscal capacity at the federal and provincial levels to pay for social programs, and our ability to curtail inflationary pressures and bring rates down. 

That makes shutting down parts of the country’s biggest export-earning industry an ill-advised move for any credible and sustainable climate plan.