Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, co-wrote an academic article entitled "Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures," in which he argued that the government should stealthily infiltrate groups that pose alternative theories on historical events via "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine" those groups.
As head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Sunstein is in charge of "overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs," according to the White House Web site.
Sunstein's article, published in the Journal of Political Philosphy in 2008 and recently uncovered by blogger Marc Estrin, states that "our primary claim is that conspiracy theories typically stem not from irrationality or mental illness of any kind but from a 'crippled epistemology,' in the form of a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational sources."
By "crippled epistemology" Sunstein means that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust. Therefore, Sunstein argued in the article, it would not work to simply refute the conspiracy theories in public -- the very sources that conspiracy theorists believe would have to be infiltrated.
Sunstein, whose article focuses largely on the 9/11 conspiracy theories, suggests that the government "enlist nongovernmental officials in the effort to rebut the theories. It might ensure that credible independent experts offer the rebuttal, rather than government officials themselves. There is a tradeoff between credibility and control, however. The price of credibility is that government cannot be seen to control the independent experts."
Sunstein argued that "government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories." He suggested that "government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action."
"We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI," Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that "a high-level presidential advisor" would support such a strategy.
Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of "extremist" groups so that it undermines the groups' confidence to the extent that "new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group's
Center for Progressive Reform - Barack Obama [has] selected Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein to direct the White House Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The job is perhaps better known by its informal title: "regulatory czar," so named because the holder is charged with signing off on all major proposed regulations. In the recent past, the OIRA has been a place where regulations to protect health, safety and the environment go to die, or at the very least be weakened.
In a report, a group of CPR member scholars expressed serious concern about Professor Sunstein's support for the very methods used to weaken and defeat badly needed regulations. Among the concerns:
- Sunstein is a stout supporter of cost-benefit analysis as a primary tool for assessing regulations, despite its imprecision and the ease with which it is manipulated to achieve preferred policy outcomes;
- He supports such cost-benefit approaches as the widely condemned "senior discount" method for undervaluing the lives of seniors in cost-benefit analyses, an approach even the Bush Administration was forced to disown;
- He rejects the "precautionary principle" as a basis for regulating, thus ensuring that dangerous pollutants and products will be given the "benefit of the doubt," rather than well-grounded concerns about health and safety;
- He supports the centralization of authority over regulatory decisions in the White House - OIRA in particular, even though Congress delegated the exercise of expert judgment to the regulatory agencies, not to OIRA's staff economists in the White House.
- He has written that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration might be unconstitutional.
CPR President Rena Steinzor, one of seven co-authors of the report, warned that "Unless he turns over a new leaf, or unless President Obama keeps a careful eye on OIRA, we fear that Cass Sunstein's reliance on cost-benefit analysis will create a regulatory fiefdom in the White House that will deal with needed regulations in very much the same way that the Bush Administration did."