Skeptics of the World, Unite!

We're awash in conspiracy theories -- and that's not a good thing. A plea for a genuine culture of skepticism.

Birther Billboard Sparks Controversy In Colorado
Birther Billboard Sparks Controversy In Colorado
<> on November 21, 2009 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

Please, stop the madness. It's time to wake up, to take a stand against the lies of the elites. Don't you see? The devastating earthquake in Haiti. The volcanic eruption in Iceland. America's imperialist designs on Iran. There's a pattern. It's all connected.

Please, stop the madness. It’s time to wake up, to take a stand against the lies of the elites. Don’t you see? The devastating earthquake in Haiti. The volcanic eruption in Iceland. America’s imperialist designs on Iran. There’s a pattern. It’s all connected.

You see, it turns out that the U.S. military has been experimenting for years on this thing called HAARP, a mysterious installation in the wilds of Alaska. They say they’re just conducting experiments on the ionosphere as a way of improving satellite communications. Sounds reasonable, right? But there’s something they’re not telling you. Luckily a few brave souls like U.S. talk radio guru Alex Jones and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez are prepared to blow the lid off this thing. It turns out, they tell us, that HAARP is actually a “tectonic weapon” — a system developed by Pentagon planners to cause earthquakes on cue. According to Chávez, the Haiti earthquake was just a “drill,” a not-so-dry run for a planned geophysical attack on Iran. (Apparently, in a nice twist, even Sarah Palin’s in on the whole thing. The original HAARP site is in Alaska, after all, and she used to be governor there.)


Yes, I’m being sarcastic. I don’t believe a word of it. As a matter of fact, I cling to the unfashionable belief that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions cannot be summoned at will and generally don’t follow anyone’s political agenda. Let me go even farther. I do not believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, engaged in a covert effort to weaken America’s national defenses against terrorism. Nor do I believe the 9/11 attacks were part of George W. Bush’s nefarious master plan to take over the Middle East. To quite a few people in today’s world, that makes me nothing less than a sap. One recent poll, for example, showed that 41 percent of the members of America’s Republican Party (and 23 percent of the population at large) believe that Obama is prepared “to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.”

Some well-informed readers might wonder why I should be spending so much time on such obvious silliness. After all, aren’t Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert already doing a perfectly good job of ridiculing wingnuts on Comedy Central? Sure. But that’s not enough. It’s my contention that we need to take conspiracy theories seriously (which is not at all the same thing as “at face value”). Over and over again, history has shown that people’s willingness to believe in make-believe plots can get them into big trouble. In March, for example, FBI agents arrested members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group that was allegedly planning to kill police officers — whom they regarded as the tools of a U.S. government in league with the forces of the Antichrist (identified in one position paper as former NATO secretary-general Javier Solana). Such theories may look comical to those on the outside, but we dismiss them at our peril.

I’ve found an ally of sorts in a new book by British author (and London Times columnist) David Aaronovitch. His new book is called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. Aaronovitch sets out to analyze some of the most powerful conspiracy theories that have grafted themselves onto political thought in the West over the past century or so. He’s especially good when it comes to describing the tenacious hold such thinking has on so many minds. The appeal, he says, is rooted in the “superior narrative” that conspiracy theories offer to their initiates. We can’t help but suspect that somewhere, somehow, there’s a privileged inside story that answers all those lingering questions no one has ever answered to our satisfaction. Figuring out the “code” that offers access to this hidden knowledge makes us feel heroic and strong — and perhaps even a bit superior to the deluded masses, the “sheeple,” who can’t summon up the courage to challenge the official version of events. One might add that this desire to be on the “inside” also feeds our lust for gossip, a big factor driving today’s frenzied celebrity culture. (Sometimes the two impulses merge: Just take the death of Marilyn Monroe.)


There’s another lure as well. In conspiracy theories, catastrophes don’t occur because government officials screw up; volcanoes don’t erupt simply because of plate geology. “The one thing conspiracy theories have in common is that they banish the idea of accident and contingency,” says Aaronovitch. “Everything that happens, happens because someone’s decided it should.” Consider World War I. Among its myriad causes were burgeoning jingoism, pre-war arms races, economic competition, and the inherent instability of Europe’s rivalrous monarchies in an age of rapid modernization. Yet these explanations weren’t terribly satisfying to the traumatized and starving populations that emerged at the end of the war. Surely they hadn’t brought this upon themselves? Much more tempting were theories that attributed all the war’s ills to specific groups — the scheming Jews (for right-wingers), or the imperialist plutocrats (for Marxists).

So, you might object, what’s new? Surely, in light of this history, no one can claim that there’s anything unusual about our own era. Voodoo Histories disagrees: “We in the West are currently going through a period of fashionable conspiracism.” Something seems to be different these days — whether it be the dogged zealotry of America’s “birthers” or the shocking ubiquity of revisionist views on 9/11. (A 2007 Zogby poll found that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed believed that the U.S. government either allowed the attacks to happen or actively participated in them.) Walking through a bookstore, Aaronovitch notes how works of scholarly history are jumbled together with some of the more outlandish conspiracy tracts. (As he puts it, “Little distinction is made between a painstakingly constructed biography of John F. Kennedy and an expensive new tome arguing — forty-three years after the event — that the president was killed by the Mafia.”) Standards have slipped, he contends — in some cases aided by the very same new media we had hoped would empower the forces of reason and democracy.

Note the example of a Guardian journalist named Mark Honigsbaum, who covered the July 7 terrorist attacks in London back in 2005. In the first minutes after the blasts, Honigsbaum phoned in a report to his editors citing witnesses who claimed that the explosions had “raised up” the floor of their train car — which isn’t what would have happened if the attackers had exploded bombs they had carried onto the train in their baggage. As he continued his reporting, though, Honigsbaum soon realized that most witnesses had seen the explosions inside their cars, and that his initial reporting was “flawed.” (Most journalists — not to mention policemen or soldiers — who have reported under similar conditions can probably attest to similar experiences.) Yet Honigsbaum’s initial report had already taken on a “life of its own,” as he told Aaronovitch, and would be endlessly replicated in countless conspiracy theories that presumed to take issue with the “official version” of an act perpetrated by young terrorists toting bombs in their backpacks.

I might add that, in his zeal to deflate the conspiracy poseurs, there’s a key point that Aaronovitch has unduly neglected: Conspiracy theories can be fun. Just witness the success of J.J. Abrams, who, in hit TV shows like Lost and Fringe, has transformed conspiracy kitsch into seductively raucous entertainment. (To his credit, Aaronovitch does note that the more elaborate variations on the Templar-Holy Grail-Da Vinci Code theme are capable of inspiring the same puzzle-solving passions familiar to Sudoku fans — and have ended up creating a vastly profitable sub-branch of the international publishing industry as a result.) The argument that awe-inspiring bureaucracies like the CIA often turn out to be comically inept just can’t compete. And don’t even try pointing out that randomness and caprice probably shape world affairs more powerfully than any politicians.


There is, of course, a more substantive response to be made to Voodoo Histories. Governments do sometimes lie, and the “official theories” often turn out to be wrong. So where do we draw the line between healthy critical oversight and corrosive conspiracism? That’s a false choice, Aaronovitch argues: “If we say to ourselves that the government is always lying, that’s actually anti-skeptic. That’s a series of a priori judgments. The problem with most conspiracy theories is that they are a mixture of faith-based cynicism and exceptional credulity when it comes to the theories themselves. They don’t judge the theories by the same standards by which they ask you to judge the official version.” He recalls that Mohammed al-Fayed, who accused the British government of causing the Paris car crash that killed Princess Diana and his own son Dodi back in 1997, vowed to prove his case in court — but resoundingly failed to produce any convincing evidence in the inquest that ensued. Similarly, you can inspect a copy of Obama’s birth certificate on the Web, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred “birthers” from insisting that a credible document hasn’t been produced.

Aaronovitch sees some hope in the rise of a new culture of fact-based skepticism — from fact-checking websites to high-profile anti-conspiracists like the Canadian-American James Randi to a growing British movement that calls itself “Skeptics in the Pub.” (It’s basically a drink-fueled debating society with a strong anti-conspiracy bent.) And he concedes that his book doesn’t quite tell the whole story. “I could have written a completely different book about the rest of the world,” he notes wryly. Countries like Russia, Pakistan, or Iran are rife with conspiratorial mindsets — not least because they have often been on the receiving end of complex intrigues by colonial powers or their own scheming leaders. Understanding that, though, isn’t the same as excusing it. “Believing in conspiracy theories is believing that things happen in a way they absolutely don’t,” he says. “It’s delusional — and if a larger number of people are delusional then that becomes a problem.”

He’s right about that. What’s harder to figure out is how to cut those delusions down to size. Tougher libel laws, as some have suggested, sound like just the sort of thing calculated to reinforce the general paranoia. Surely the right path is to go on pushing for the truth — verifiable, transparent, fact-based truth. Let’s just hope that someone’s still willing to listen.

Image: John Moore / Getty Images

Twitter: @ccaryl

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