Category Archives: Conspiracy theories


2017-09-03

Time to reflect on conspiracy theories, once again

by Neil Godfrey

Derek Arnold

Twenty years since Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, or is it the anniversary of her murder by British Intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family? The Royal Family certainly had motive enough to want her dead. She was destroying their reputation as a bastion of conventional morality and without that bastion the royal family could not survive. So — arrange for a drunken chauffeur, lots of paparazzi, a narrow tunnel on the route, a pre-positioned strobe-light and alert operator,  and plots to delay ambulances, and the deed is done.

Salon.com alerted me to a Conversation article by Derek Arnold, Why Princess Diana conspiracies refuse to die. Excerpts I find especially pertinent:

I’ve found that belief in conspiracy theories is more about a refusal to accept the randomness of life and tragedy than it is about the existence of evidence (or lack thereof).

Sounds like the same reason “we” believe in God, ghosts, angels, superstitions, fate, diets.

As political scientist Michael Barkun details in his book “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” conspiracy theories usually hinge on three core beliefs:

  • Nothing happens by accident. For this reason, the horrible machinations of “evil” conspirators become more believable than a fluke or an accident.
  • Nothing is as it seems. Successful conspirators hide their identities and actions; we must, therefore, always be wary, even when there’s little reason for suspicion.
  • Dots can always be connected. Though conspirators attempt to hide their actions, patterns exist everywhere.

Another book I would like to read.

Today’s 24-hour news cycle also cultivates an opening for conspiratorial thinking. Among journalists, the race to break a story can lead to gaps or errors in reporting. We also tend to forget that as readers, many stories, especially breaking ones, are a work in progress. It can take months – even years – to ever know the full story.

Oh yes. One really notices the differences among various media here. A few (less popular ones, unfortunately) conspicuously stress how little is known in the early days, and they do not broadcast speculative figures of “numbers dead” or “suspected identities” of perpetrators of atrocities in the first twenty-four hours of an event — which I suppose is why they are too boring for a wider audience.

But perhaps the biggest reason we tend to give credence to conspiracy theories is our own mortality.

Studies have shown that many of us feel that we have little control over our own lives. This leads to something called “anomie,” a type of weariness that makes us view the world as an adversary, with people and systems out to get us.

Return to the similar reasons for believing in god.

To simply think of Princess Diana’s death as a “tragic accident” gives us less control over own fate. No matter how logically messy the details of a conspiracy theory might be, they do, strangely, soothe our own sense of worth and place in our world.

Like asking Jesus or Mary or God, lords of the universe, to take time to interfere with a burst of rain to allow us to get to an important appointment on time.

(I bet the Queen really did order MI6 to get rid of Diana, though.)

 

 


2016-02-18

The Conspiracist Style

by Neil Godfrey

suspiciousAustralia’s national radio broadcaster, Radio National (RN), aired an interview with Rob Brotherton, Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, trying to explain to us why conspiracies are generally “all in the mind“. Obviously Brotherton and RN are controlled by the Illuminati and are being used to convince a gullible public that a secret cabal is not manipulating the world economy, the world’s governments, the events in the Middle East and major terrorist attacks in the West.

Sucker that I am I raced out and grabbed a copy of Brotherton’s book, Suspicious minds : why we believe conspiracy theories. I began serious reading at chapter 3, What Is a Conspiracy Theory? Early on I came across this interesting passage:

There’s no denying that the label has less-than-favorable connotations in some intellectual circles, at least. “If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words,” Noam Chomsky once said. “If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite— there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums. One of them is ‘conspiracy theory.’”

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 931-935). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Ah, so that’s why a handful of scholars sometimes toss out “conspiracy theory” at arguments they appear not to have seriously investigated and that for all the world seem to me to have nothing to do with “conspiracy theories” at all.

I just want to isolate and share one thought from chapter 3 in this post. Brotherton rightly points out that defining what we mean by conspiracy theory is problematic given that at some point “one person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact. . . . ” so “blithely asserting that conspiracy theories are bullshit doesn’t get us very far.” Instead, Brotherton speaks of a conspiratorial style:

Richard Hofstadter, an influential scholar of conspiracism, talked about conspiracy theories as a “style” of explanation. Much as a historian of art might speak of the motifs that collectively constitute the baroque style, or a music critic might parse the subtle differences between dubstep and grime, our task in distinguishing conspiracy theories from regular old theories about conspiracies is to identify some of the most important rhetorical themes, tropes, and flourishes that collectively constitute the conspiracist style.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 925-929). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Not that these style-points are foolproof rules, either. Think of them more as indicative guides, Brotherton says.

So we’ve laid out six crucial elements of the conspiracist style. Before we take stock and move on, however, a note of caution is required. Coming up with a checklist can give a false impression of objectivity . . . .  

Think of our six characteristics as useful rules of thumb, rather than immutable laws. . . . 

It’s worth reiterating that none of the features we’ve talked about, in and of themselves, distinguish conspiracy fact from conspiracy fiction. Just because a claim meets our six criteria doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1198-1215). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So what are those “six crucial elements”?  read more »