This Coast to Coast AM write-up, below these comments, of an interview with David Aaronovitch on conspiracy theories is really very interesting. And it certainly touches on some issues that have bothered me.
Being a person who subscribes to many “conspiracy theories,” when I look at Aaronovitch’s points, in the interests of truth, I have to agree with some of them.
Not all, but some.
Not like I think he’ll get many of us to listen while we’re in the heat of battle against, say, HAARP or pandemic vaccines, but some of what he says is still a useful corrective.
Don’t forget that what he calls “the elite” have conspiracy theories as well as whistleblowers. George Bush’s theory that 9/11 was caused by 19 Muslim hijackers is a conspiracy theory and, in my eyes, has been proven to be a cover-up.
Here are some points I do agree with. As Aaronovitch says, some conspiracy theories do not allow for accident, incompetence or coincidence. I think that’s true. But I also think that’s potentially true about any theory.
Another point: theorists often exaggerate the credentials of their proponents. Everyone – on all sides – often seems to do that. I think it’s a routine thing, I’m tempted to say, in many cases, almost irresistible.
I can think of a personal example. Twice online I’ve been called enlightened. But I’m actually and truly not enlightened. Perhaps this is the right place to say this: That word means something and cannot be applied to me in truth. If you do, you’re doing just what Aaronovitch says – you’re exaggerating my credentials.
Oh, how difficult it is to get those words out. How embarrassing to say that. And I think it illustrates why much exaggeration is left alone. To correct the information runs one the risk of placing oneself in a bad light – for instance, looking contrary, like a miserable grumbler or a loose cannon.
How easy it would be, on the contrary, to just let a flattering misrepresentation be.
Aaronovitch also points to a too-ready acceptance of anti-elitist theories. We may accept them too readily because people feel frustrated at their impotence and want to strike out at elites. I’ve seen this operate a few times and have felt a mite queezy about it as a move which appeals to people’s potentially darker sides. (At its worst, it’s demagoguery.)
It also may be, as he says, that we sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater. For instance, some vaccines may be needed and do rid us of conditions like measles. But vaccines as a whole become suspect as a result of our activism. So Aaronovitch shows that the picture is not all cut and dried.
Whether or not anyone listens to him doesn’t detract from the fact that some of what he says has merit.
After 2012, we won’t have to battle dark forces and we’ll be more open to discussing the shortcomings of our approach as conspiracy theorists. Right now, he may find that he is talking to people who are busy with life-and-death issues and may not want to listen.
Behind Conspiracy Theories
Coast to Coast AM
On Sunday night’s program, George Knapp welcomed author David Aaronovitch for an examination of the origins of conspiracy theories, why people believe them, and also to make an argument for a true skepticism based on a thorough knowledge of history and a strong dose of common sense.
Based on his research, Aaronovitch defined a conspiracy theory as “an explanation for something which is far more complicated and removes responsibility from the obvious people to the not obvious people, in situations where the more obvious explanation is more likely.”
Aaronovitch detailed a number of problematic attributes which he feels “attach themselves” to conspiracy theories and those who subscribe to them:
- Conspiracy theories do not allow for accident, incompetence, or coincidence.
- The official version of events “almost always, at its heart” has anomalies that cannot be reconciled.
Scholars, usually with exaggerated credentials, are named as proponents of the theory.
- The theory is anti-elite and, thus, the theorist becomes “kind of a minuteman” warning the populace about the “powers that be.”
On why there needs to be skepticism about conspiracy theories, Aaronovitch used the example of recent developments in the UK which arose as a result of rumors that vaccines cause autism. He explained that this theory became so pervasive that people began to stop having their children vaccinated. In turn, Aaronovitch lamented, the measles virus re-emerged back into the population after it had been eradicated in previous years.
“This stuff has to be combated because it does have consequences for people,” he declared. On a far larger scale, he noted that the widespread belief in the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Nazi Germany acted as a proverbial “warrant for genocide” for many misguided players in WWII.
Aaronovich also looked at a number of suspect issues surrounding a variety of conspiracy theories. With regards to the Moon Landing hoax, he observed that to complete such a fabrication would require far more manpower than the actual lunar landing itself. In addition to that, he pointed out that lunar conspiracy theorists often focus solely on the Apollo 11 landing and ignore the many other trips made to the moon.
Regarding 9/11, Aaronovich conceded that the official version of events is also a conspiracy theory, but that its very simplicity is what makes this theory much more plausible than a grand overarching plan by nefarious forces inside the US government. To that end, he noted that if the government was truly clever enough to “organize conspiracies,” then they would have planted WMDs in Iraq rather than invade the country and find none. “It would have been a much simpler thing to do,” he mused, “and yet they didn’t.”