I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but ...

BY MARK BROATCH
Last updated 05:00 20/09/2009
monroe
Photo: Reuters
Marilyn Monroe's death has driven a famous conspiracy theory.

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DIDN'T you hear? Novelist Michael Crichton was killed last November by eco-terrorists in revenge for writing a book, State of Fear, in which he ridiculed green protesters and doubted climate change. The death of the 66-year-old airport-thriller writer, who always looked the picture of health and had never been seen smoking, was unexpected by his family despite a long but unreported battle with throat cancer.

The truth sometimes is shocking. The real truth, of course, is that this whole story is completely made up. Yet it has many of the elements of a compelling conspiracy theory.

We all recognise them when we hear them. JFK was killed by the Mafia, Princess Diana was done in by the royal family, the moon landings were a hoax, Marilyn Monroe was poisoned by the Kennedys, 9/11 involved controlled explosions and, says novelist Dan Brown, the Freemasons have been engaged in nefarious activities.

Conspiracy theories share certain characteristics, says UK writer David Aaronovitch, in his recent book, Voodoo Histories. A power elite acting against the people; historical precedent it's happened before; the "just asking questions" defence of theorists; exaggeration of the expertise of those endorsing the theory and the search for academic credibility; and the fact that those proposing them often refer to themselves as under threat.

But, of course, one man's theory is another woman's conspiracy. But why do otherwise ruthlessly rational people reject out of hand most conspiracies, yet give time and angst to ideas others find quite wacky?

The problem, says University of Auckland philosophy lecturer Matthew Dentith, is two-fold. Schools don't teach critical thinking skills that might help us unravel our confusion and inconsistencies as adults. "It is actually unfair of us to demand that adults have critical thinking faculties if they haven't been taught them, how are they going to grasp them?"

Then there is the fact that humans are exceptional at compartmentalising our beliefs. "It's really easy to be absolutely staunch in, say, your adherence to evolutionary theory by natural selection. But when it comes to medical quackery..."

He says this is a problem because it leads to the "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but..." school of thinking. "It seems we're just not very good at applying standards to all of our beliefs." He cites otherwise first-class scientists who believe in intelligent design, people not wanting to offend others' cultural practices such as in the Janet Moses case, and sceptics who become rigidly dogmatic in their positions.

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Says UK writer Francis Wheen in Strange Days Indeed, a new book that anatomises the "paranoid style" that was the 1970s, from Watergate to Harold Wilson's resignation: "Irrationality is both cumulative and contagious. You start by reading your horoscope in the newspaper. Then you dabble in chakra balancing or feng shui, saying that it's important to keep an open mind; after a while your brain is so open that your brains fall out, and you read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion without noticing anything amiss and, more damagingly, you convince your friends and family that this is quite normal."

Conspiracy theories do harm in other ways. Quite apart from a probable insult to Crichton and his grieving family, conspiracy theories let the real culprits off, and some hardcore theorists chase the families of victims asking what really happened, says Dentith.

And Skeptics NZ chair Vicki Hyde says that if you believe that Jews are bad or that aliens are running the world or that the end of the world is due, the effect on your interaction with society is pernicious. Mistrust of the police force or politicians can lead to the kind of thinking that inspires terrorist acts.

Dentith, who is speaking at the Skeptics NZ conference on the subject in Wellington next weekend, says many theorists allege a mysterious group is acting in a particular way and have vague end goals a new world order "virtually anything satisfies that", he says, such as Bush invading Iraq.

Australian philosopher Steve Clarke believes conspiracy theorists are also becoming vaguer and broader in their claims because sceptics now mass-attack a new theory as soon as it is put up online.

What's the ongoing appeal of conspiracy theories? Hyde suggests the human need to explain and put meaning to the universe. Which is fine, except that some people are more prone to selectively cull evidence that confirms belief. "It's just as important to look for disproof as proof," she says.

Plus we love them in our fiction. Chris Carter, creator of The X Files ("Trust no one") and trailblazer for the likes of Millennium, Men in Black, Lost and Fringe, has acknowledged the resignation of Richard Nixon as a seminal moment.

Conspiracy theories are a useful checklist of the kinds of things people are concerned about, says Dentith.

"There's a low level sort of conspiracy theory that most people have in regards to their political orientation, that if you're left wing, then the right are out to get you. If you're right wing, the left are out to control every aspect of your life. [But] there's such a diversity of opinions amongst these conspiracy theories that there isn't one right wing that's engaged in a vast right-wing conspiracy to get you, and there's no left wing that's engaged in a vast left-wing conspiracy to get you. It is lots and lots of different competing intuitions, and that sort of reflects the day-to-day values or priorities or judgements people have upon the world."

Arch-sceptic Noam Chomsky suggests the very process of business looks conspiratorial because of the nature of large institutions and government they are large, faceless and their reasons are not particularly clear. Theorists say, of course, that he's simply a disinformation agent.

Dentith's talk will include hardcore climate change denial as a conspiracy theory.

Hyde says the problem was that early global-warming claims were not well supported by the evidence. "Part of the problem some people have is in recognising that science is contingent. We might have a completely different explanation tomorrow. That's a strength of science but it's also a weakness, because people want completely definitive answers."

It's that contingency that lets in doubt. Roseanne Hawarden, a proponent of the theory that the Chinese discovered New Zealand (see sidebar, below), told The Press in June that because scientific knowledge advances, alternative theories should not be automatically pooh-poohed. "You know the tectonic plate theory? It took 20 years for that to be established."

The American Michael Shermer once a climate change sceptic admitted the evidence was now compelling. The response to his magazine, Skeptic, says Dentith, ranged from bellows of betrayal to people saying, "The evidence is not now in, the evidence has been clear since the 1960s. You cannot say the evidence is now in; the science has been clear for so long, and all you're actually doing is trying to excuse the fact that you were not obeying the principles you claim you are an adherent to."

Apart from the contingency, due to scientists' need to qualify claims, media demand precision and make unnecessary attempts at providing balance. Many scientists regard quoting an anti-immunisation spokesperson as like quoting a flat-earther or doubter of gravity.

And yet, conspiracies do occur. Dentith says criminal conspiracies happen "all the time", though there are almost certainly a lot more conspiracy theories than conspiracies. He notes that in the Trotsky trials Stalin did conspire against the Russian people. But Wheen concludes the fundamental problem for the conspiracy theorist is that there is no such thing as coincidence.

"Scientists test their hypotheses, whereas conspiracists know the truth already, and skip nimbly around any facts that might refute it. [US historian] Richard Hofstadter said in his famous lecture that the paranoid mentality is coherent, far more coherent than the real world, since it has no room for mistakes, failures or ambiguities `leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overarching, consistent theory'."

Michael Crichton's potboilers usually contained a strong whiff of conspiracy the takeover of science by the Japanese, climate change, dodgy aircraft manufacturers, the sexual hypocrisy of women in business. But did he in fact know too much? Or is he dead at all? After all, two "posthumous" Crichton novels will be published in coming months. Fiction sometimes is stranger than truth.

Skeptics Conference 2009, September 25-27, Kingsgate Hotel, Wellington, www.skeptics.org.nz

Voodoo Histories, David Aaronovitch, Random House, $39.99

Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen, HarperCollins, $34.99

- Sunday Star Times

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