The biggest conspiracy has always been the fact that there is no conspiracy. Nobody’s out to get you. Nobody gives a shit whether you live or die. There, you feel better now? Dennis Miller
A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, it means they screwed up somewhere along the line. Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) in Conspiracy Theory.
You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time. Abraham Lincoln (Attributed)
Earlier this year The Economist published a list of the conspiracy theories which received most hits. The results were:
- 603, 000 The American government was behind the September 11th terrorist attacks.
- 453, 000 The U.S government has evidence of alien visits hidden at Area 51.
- 403, 000 Elvis faked his own death.
There are certainly some wild stories out there. Other gems you can find include:
The Apollo landing was a hoax.
Diana and Dodi were murdered.
The Illuminati secret society and masons are trying to take over the world.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise is owned by the Ku Klux Klan, and the chicken is laced with a drug that makes only black men impotent.
The world is run by dinosaur-like reptiles.
What is the attraction of these theories? I feel there are a number of reasons. Firstly we live in a very complex and bewildering world where things are changing at an increasingly rapid rate. We try to find explanations for what is going on. We are a pattern-seeking species – we look for agents, causes etc. Conspiracy theories provide a comforting vision that can tie in with our weltanschaung. Those on the left can talk about how Big Corporations control everything and those on the right will cite Big Government exerting a tyrannical power over the citizens. Conspiracy theories appeal to our sense of rebellion, our distrust of authority our desire to see the world in a binary way.
There are, though, a lot of weaknesses with theses theories. They don’t survive a simple test in science known as Ockham’s razor. Put simply it means that all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best. Many of these theories seem to rely on incredibly Byzantine plots. Then there is the falsifiability theory. All good theories should have the possibility of being falsified, but conspiracy theories don’t work that way. If evidence exists against them, then it has been planted by the government. If there is no evidence, then it’s because it’s being hushed up.
But one has to admit that throughout history there have been numerous examples of conspiracies. Julius Caesar was the victim of one. The Renaissance saw The Pazzi conspiracy to murder the Medici, which included the participation of a Pope. In the UK we had The Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. More recently The Cold War was a fruitful period for clandestine conspiracies. One needs only to think of the MK-ULTRA mind control program run by the CIA. The American government has been known to organise the odd overseas coup. And what about some of those comical attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro? The Soviet Union also got in on the act too. They engaged in a lot of disinformation. And it appears they wanted to heighten racial tensions in the USA by discrediting Martin Luther King and even planting bombs in black neighbourhoods. In March 2006 an Italian parliamentary commission concluded beyond “any reasonable doubt” that the leaders of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate the pope Karol Wojtyla, in retaliation for his support to the dissident Solidarity movement in Poland.
We also face another problem, which is that of evidence. Photoshop and Hollywood special effects have made us aware of how reality can be fabricated. We also face an overdose of information. Just to sift through all this and make some kind of sense of it is a Herculean task. You read stories about the way the towers collapsed vertically. According to those who see the hand of the government in all this, jet fuel wouldn’t generate enough heat to melt steel. There had to have been controlled explosions to do that . I am not an architect or engineer. Nor do I know if Lee Harvey Oswald was a brilliant shot. I am a big fan of science but I would be the first to admit that I have a rather poor grasp of how it works.
I suppose that the popularity of conspiracy theories is worrying sign along with our predilection for alternative medicine, pseudoscience and dodgy history – what writer Damian Thompson has called “counterknowledge”. In an age when science is able to provide a rational explanation for so much there is nevertheless a pandemic of credulous thinking. I think all of this is true. However, although I consider myself a sceptic, I do rather enjoy a good old conspiracy. I think that’s what makes our world such a fascinating place. We interpret things in such different ways. Knowledge is never quite 100% certain and these gaps allow so many outlandish ideas to flourish.
As comedian Jasper Carrot once commented when referring to the famous Abraham Lincoln quote. If they were fooling all of us all of the time, how would we know?
For those of you not familiar with the quote alluded to in the title it is:
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you