Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Talk : Conspiracy Theories

A recent talk in the Café Sci series was given by Dr Jovan Byford, senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and entitled “Differentiating *conspiracy theories* from analyses of real conspiracies”.

It is often suggested that critics of conspiracy theories do not adequately acknowledge that plots, secretive collusion and cover-ups are a regular feature of contemporary politics, and therefore that a conspiracy-based explanation might in fact be a perfectly reasonable view to hold.

Dr Byford began by mentioning that there are real conspiracies (collusions between states, companies and individuals) that are happening right now. Some of these conspiracies will be revealed by whistleblowers, some will be revealed by the release of information years or decades later, and some may never be revealed. But these conspiracies are all limited in time and in scope and are individual conspiracies.

In contrast, the narrative of conspiracy theorists is that there is a continuum between conspiracies that are proven with a great deal of information in the public domain (e.g Watergate, Iran Contra) and those that are obviously ridiculous (e.g Protocols of Zion, David Icke’s lizards). The theoriststs will seek to place themselves somewhere on that continuum, effectively saying “unlike the David Icke nonsense, THIS is a real conspiracy, just like Watergate”. In this way, real conspiracies are used as a springboard for conspiracy arguments. For example, the fact that the US Public Health Service experimented on blacks in the 1960s is used as evidence that they, or other government organisations, could be guilty of any other specific crime, such as being the source of the AIDS virus

Dr Byford commented that conspiracy theories are a relatively new phenomena, with the first being Augustine Barruel, who had escaped the French Revolution to England and there published a book entitled “Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism” which alleged that the French Revolution was the result of a deliberate conspiracy or plot to overthrow the throne, altar and aristocratic society in Europe. The plot was allegedly hatched by a coalition of philosophers, Freemasons, and the Order of the Illuminati.

The first organised conspiracy theory : Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism

It is worth noting that many leading figures of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in France were also anti-religion, so any reaction against the excesses or ant-religious aspects of the French Revolution was also likely to rail against the Enlightenment.

Barruel’s ideas were taken up by, amongst other, John Robison, who published a book entitled “Proofs of a Conspiracy against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of the Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies”, which is perhaps the most comprehensively entitled work of the last 300years.

Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all the Religions and Governments of Europe

These ideas of a long term conspiracy controlled by secret societies was also picked up in the US and gained ground there in the early 20th century. In the case of the US, the “enemy” was the government and that is why many of the conspiracy theories around the world focus on the US government, or US institutions, as being the controlling forces behind conspiracies.

As the term “conspiracy theorist” is a term of abuse, writers of conspiracy theories will seek to frame their arguments so that they appear legitimate, often using academic language to imply that their research is accepted by the academic community.

Critically, conspiracy theorists assume that there is a link between a series of conspiracies and that this link implies there is a sinister controlling force behind them all.

It is also worth noting that the things which the very aspects of conspiracy theories that sceptics scoff at (e.g controlled demolition of the twin towers) are the aspects that appeal to conspiracy theorists, because they imply the presence of a hugely powerful controlling force.

In essence, it is the very absence of hard evidence that conspiracy theorists use as evidence that there must be a powerful controlling force.

In addition, conspiracy theorists draw on other conspiracy theories for their “evidence”. An example of this is the book “The New Pearl Harbour” that uses conspiracy theories of the 1940s to bolster 9/11 arguments.

And it also worth noting that conspiracy theorists are not interested in “real world” conspiracies. When conspiracies are incovered, it is never by conspiracy theorists.

The Sandy Hook School killings. A Conspiracy?

The first question came someone from a newcomer to Café Sci, and she asked whether the speaker was saying that the 1000 engineers )who said that the Twin Towers could not have fallen due to the effects of the crashed aircraft ) were wrong?

Dr Byford suggested that many of the 1,000 “engineers” might have had doctorates and other qualifications, but not often in structural engineering and added that a contrast could be made with the investigations undertaken by the official enquiry and by the likes of Popular Mechanics which were undertaken by engineers.

The questioner insisted that it was wrong to dismiss the views of the 1000 engineers, said that it the speaker and audience wanted to live in their “unicorn world” then they “were welcome to it” and then she walked out.

Dr Byford commented that it was part of the psychology of conspiracy theorists that they felt good about being part of the select few who really understand how the world works and it was noteworthy that the questioner had left absolutely certain that she was right and that the speaker and audience was wrong.

Another questioner asked how Dr Byford had become involved in this area of investigation. He responded that he had grown up in Serbia during the times of conflict there and had seen man strange stories in the media that suggested outside forces were against Serbia, for example that NATO was using secret weapons that sent messages into your mind. This had made Dr Byford curious about what made societies that were under stress so susceptible to conspiracy theories

The next question asked whether Dr Byford had ever known of any conspiracy theorists who had changed their minds. Dr Byford replied that he had not - but he did know of sceptics who had become convinced by conspiracy theories.

Related links:
Third party evidence for conspiracy theories
Mythbusters debunks moon landing conspiracy theories
Sandy Hook School Killings Conspiracies
The MMR "conspiracy"

Memoirs, Proofs