New Internationalist

Challenging the politics of paranoia

Share this: ShareThis Facebook Twitter
Issue 440

Overwrought conspiracy theories are gaining popularity amongst the peace and social justice counterculture. Political cartoonist Polyp wonders what’s driving this strange witches’ brew of irrationality and paranoia, and reveals disturbing links with far-right holocaust deniers.

9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB!
VACCINATIONS ARE A BIG PHARMA PLOT!
OBAMA WAS BORN IN KENYA, NOT HAWAII!’

These are just a few of the many, very vocal conspiracy theories peppered across the internet.1 I am not going to attempt to ‘debunk’ the more superficially credible of them – that’s a lengthy, point-by-point process, and there’s already a wealth of websites robustly dismantling each claim.

Nor am I claiming that no conspiracies exist. A conspiracy theory suggesting Abu Ghraib was the site of systematic prisoner abuse by the US military would have been completely true. The only distinguishing factor between a real and false claim is the quality of the evidence.

Conspiracy theories are usually hallmarked by their reliance on ambiguous, hotly disputed ‘facts’, their use of vague and blurry ‘anomalies’ that allegedly reveal the shocking truth, and, usually, the lack of a coherent, logical, internal narrative. They focus exclusively on those facts that appear to support the claim, and studiously ignore large quantities of well-substantiated and expert contrary evidence. They thrive in areas of factual ambiguity, and derive their strength from a feeble appeal to our ‘it just might be true’ suspicions.

What concerns me are the political implications of this ‘counterculture within the counterculture’. The ‘anything goes, regardless of the quality of the proof’ attitude represents a dangerous growth in the politics of paranoia, irrationality and despair, threatening to damage the credibility of all those whose political dissent is founded upon hard fact. The opponents of social change love nothing better than when radical campaigners get their facts wrong, and end up voluntarily handing over a stick with which they can then be beaten in public. This is the reason why mainstream campaign groups invest so much time and effort in checking their facts before going ‘on the attack’.

The Bush administration, or a secret cabal above and beyond it, deliberately destroyed the World Trade Center twin towers in an “inside job” controlled demolition to further their geopolitical New World Order agenda.

Conspiracy theories fly in the face of this basic principle, and actively promote and defend the adoption of dogmatic, politically explosive theories on the basis of spurious, soundly refuted or scientifically unsound anecdotal evidence. (For example, ‘the twin towers fell at free-fall speed, which is only possible via a controlled demolition’. They didn’t, as a simple calculation and stopwatch timing of any footage of the event will reveal. Debris ejected from either side of the towers as they collapsed did fall at free-fall speed, but not the towers themselves.) Those who then attempt to refute these claims are dismissed as being narrow-minded or, in a spectacular example of circular reasoning, being somehow part of the conspiracy, as has happened to the New Internationalist – ironically enough in a dispute over a cartoon about conspiracy theories…

Threatening the credibility of dissent

This is lazy and self-fulfilling reasoning. When asked why the scientific community (which alerted the public to ozone depletion, the link between smoking and cancer, climate change etc) would simply ignore the alleged evidence for these astonishing claims, conspiracy advocates immediately accuse them all of collective ethical cowardice, conformist narrow-mindedness, and a craven self-abasement to corporate or political power. The pernicious effect of corporate or political influence on scientific research and priorities isn’t in dispute here – but the arrogant, blanket slandering of an entire community is. Scientists simply don’t behave like that.

Because conspiracy theorists often occupy such similar ideological territory to mainstream campaigners, they can act as an enormous threat to the credibility of those in political dissent from the mainstream: ‘Look at the crazy anti-war, anti-GM, anti-consumerist tree-huggers – they think George Bush is a lizard, that there’s a secret plot to spray mind-control chemicals out of the back of jet engines, and that HIV was created in a CIA lab to kill Africans! Why should we take anything they say seriously?’

David Icke, a former UK soccer player, TV personality and then Green Party spokesperson, is the man who created the bizarre alien lizards theory described above. When he began ‘preaching’ his theories on national TV, he resigned his Green Party position. Nevertheless, the Green Party still saw its membership levels plummet, a result, according to executive member Gayle O’Donovan, of the association with Icke and his widely ridiculed ideas. Icke continues to mix his lizard conspiracy/new age claims with the kind of green and social justice rhetoric that would sound familiar and sensible to NI readers.

The Bush family, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Kris Kristofferson and American country singer Boxcar Willie are all members of an élite of illuminati – shape-shifting, multi-dimensional, blood-drinking alien reptiles, who have been controlling humanity for centuries.

If this was just an amusing internet freakshow, perhaps it could be ignored. And of course, it’s worth remembering that the internet has a strange ‘amplifying’ effect on the wildest of religious, supernatural or political ideas. But activists, or potential ones at least, are being sidetracked into protesting against imaginary, fictional injustices. A spectacular amount of time has been absorbed by the claim that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’, representing a resource that could have confronted real issues like the arms trade or sweatshop labour. There’s no surplus of campaigners out there – what a tragedy that an under-resourced movement is being sidetracked in this way…

Even more seriously, factions of the ‘anti-New World Order’ conspiracy movement frequently claim that climate change is fraudulent, and is actually part of a sinister global plot to introduce a dictatorial world government. This represents an attack from ‘within’, from a growing minority whose other political passions we might easily identify with.

Holohoaxers and the far right

Darkest of all, there’s a branch of the New World Order conspiracy movement that seamlessly slides from hinting about how disproportionate an influence Jewish people have within this alleged global cabal, to the promotion of blatant holocaust denial propaganda. This is often done behind a smokescreen of legitimate anger about Israel and Palestine, or via the squeamish plea that ‘truth does not fear investigation’. The anti-holocaust denial laws of many countries are also cited as proof that ‘holohoax’ activists are in fact martyrs to the unbiased truth.

Illustrations by David Dees, a conspiracy theory artist, including one of his explicit Holocaust denial pieces. His work, which also covers corporate power, 9/11, 'chemtrails' and GMO foods, regularly appears on conspiracy websites and videos. The majority of these users promote him without being aware of his 'Holohoax' and climate change denial views.

Perhaps holocaust denial should be ignored with contempt. But here we come to the central problem with conspiracy theories. By encouraging people to accept claims based on very low standards of proof, and to view all critical appraisals of the evidence as narrow-mindedness or, in the paranoid mode, as being part of the conspiracy itself, they open the mental floodgates to believing any claim, no matter how vile it is.

Is this a factor that the far right is looking to use to its advantage? It’s no secret that neo-Nazi groups constantly reinvent themselves to try to gain respectability and attract new support – and that they’ve correctly identified the Holocaust as a major block to their unfettered rise. Are they now choosing yet another ‘entry point’ for their ideas? Have they identified gullible ‘radical’ activists who believe in multiple conspiracies as being ripe recruits for believing in the ‘holohoax’?

There are striking similarities in the structure of the ‘holohoax’ claim and other conspiracy theories – a disproportionate focus on the alleged anomalies in the mainstream account, paranoid suggestions of a gigantic cover-up perpetrated by a secret cabal, and a consistent refusal to acknowledge or refute contrary evidence. Is the conspiracy theory mindset the ideal template upon which such neo-Nazi ideas can easily be printed?

A deep emotional appeal

What might be driving this rise in ‘political irrationality’? Is it a symptom of something else?

After decades of campaigning, CO2 levels continue to rise. After the débâcle of the 2000 US presidential elections, the blatant ignoring of the majority opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the continuing and very visible consolidation of corporate power and the subsequent dilution of democracy, it’s understandable that people are choosing to express their despair by constructing what are perhaps metaphors for our lack of political control. What better way to vent your contempt for the system than by loudly accusing it of having orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and butchered its own citizens? This has a deep emotional appeal, regardless of whether or not the facts hold water.

Airplane contrails in the sky are in fact secret ‘chemtrail’ tests, spraying mind control (or population reduction) drugs into the atmosphere, or conducting illicit geoengineering climate change mitigation strategies, or providing a transmission medium for the alleged HAARP2 earthquake-inducing superweapon programme.

A conspiracy-based worldview can be very comforting in a complex and chaotic world. Many of us struggle to come to terms with the disillusioning realization that the callous and apparently self-destructive tendencies of our species do in fact indicate that people are a maddening and heartbreaking mixture of selfish and altruistic behaviour.

Believing that a sinister, ultra-powerful cabal is to blame for it all opens up the possibility that ‘human nature’ is in fact an innately benevolent thing, capable of flourishing into utopia overnight – if only, if only we could prove that the establishment was involved in a malignant conspiracy of such intense moral repugnance that everyone would find it utterly repulsive. Then the status quo would fall overnight, leading to real, profound and rapid social change. Hence the popularity of the ‘waking up the brainwashed masses’ theme within conspiracy thinking: ‘sheeple’ is the patronizing term that’s most often used. What a glittering apple, dangling just beyond our reach!

This is deeply appealing for someone whose political optimism is founded upon a simple black and white moral view of the world. It reassures us that shocking, cruel and random tragedies do in fact have an organized plan behind them, and are therefore not outside of our prediction or control. If the price of believing this is to abandon our scepticism and logical thinking, does that, for some people, make it a price worth paying?

Finally, conspiracy theory activism has psychological rewards for the advocate. It offers an easy and egotistical route to a heroic self-image, without actually having to do anything in the way of risky protest or original, painstaking research. After all, if you do become convinced that 9/11 was an inside job, what obligations does that knowledge place upon you, other than to try to create more ‘truthers’, and post yet more videos on YouTube?

Perhaps it would be an ironic touch of paranoia on our part to take the conspiracy movement too seriously. But if we refuse to be vigilant about the erosion of logic and reason, are we ignoring what might be the start of a disturbing slide into a grotesque and damaging era of naive political irrationality?

  1. One prominent conspiracy website is www.rense.com
  2. HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program is a genuine ionospheric research tool in Alaska, funded by the military for its weapons detection potential.

You can see more of Polyp's work at http://www.polyp.org.uk/

A Conspiracy Scepticism Toolkit

Most conspiracy theories are superficially convincing, and at first glance resemble scientific or journalistic observation. Here are some ‘watermarks’ that can help distinguish between what’s a valid claim and what isn’t.

1 Responding to critics. The majority of internet conspiracy theories have mirror ‘debunking’ sites. Do the conspiracy theorists actually engage with their critics, and respond to counter-claims and critiques?

2 Does the conspiracy claim to be based on scientific evidence? Is it peer-reviewed and published in an accredited journal? Many conspiracy theorists are woefully ignorant of the formal scientific process.

3 Professor who? Most conspiracies will boast several scientists supporting their case – even the holocaust denial ones. But are they experts in the relevant field? A microbiologist’s opinion about the structural engineering of the twin towers means very little. Science works through expert consensus, developed via a long process of sceptical scrutiny. Accepting the word of just a few ‘lone wolf’ scientists implies those individuals are infallible and unbiased – simply because they’re scientists – which is an absurd assumption.

4 Count the cover-ups. All conspiracy theories imply a large-scale refusal of those in the know to blow the whistle. It’s worth calculating roughly how many people would have been involved, and asking how likely is it that all of them could be kept silent – particularly after the ‘story’ has been broken, and in the era of Wikileaks.

5 Where are all the dead bodies? An agency willing to ‘fake’ 9/11 wouldn’t hesitate to assassinate anyone who got remotely near the truth. Why are the initial breakers of the conspiracy story still alive, and minor celebrities?

6 Is it worth the risk? Democratic governments murdering thousands of their own citizens will be extremely anxious to get away with it. If 9/11 was revealed to be an ‘inside job’, it would inflict massive and permanent damage on the US political system, and sweep the neocons out of power forever. Would a sinister all-powerful cabal leave behind an incompetent trail of screamingly obvious tell-tale signs?

7 Watch for circular reasoning. If someone states that the facts needed to verify their claim are being kept hidden by the government, and so therefore the absence of these facts is actually proof of a conspiracy – run away!

8 Are they evoking past cover-ups as proof of a new cover-up? Citing previous instances is a logical fallacy. They simply prove how difficult it is to conceal real political scandals like Watergate, or the testing of nuclear fallout on US army troops.

9 Falsifiability. Is the theory constructed in such a way that it can actually be demonstrated to be false? Do its advocates state what kind of evidence would actually make them change their minds?

10 Why the silence? Other than ‘they’re all in on it/they’re too narrow-minded’, what explanation is offered as to why the majority of experts don’t support the conspiracy? For example, if contrails are so easily proved to be ‘chemtrails’, why would groups like Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace not speak out?

Debunking resources

www.debunking911.com

Contains numerous links to other 9/11 debunking sites

www.skeptic.com

Publishes a US-based quarterly magazine.

www.skeptic.org.uk

The UK equivalent of the above.

The late Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World (1995) is an excellent guide to the dangers of irrational thinking.

Web-only postscript

Here’s a few extra thoughts that didn’t make it into the article, but we hope will stimulate further debate…

It’s worth noting that the creationist movement, so beloved of the American right wing, uses almost identical patterns of reasoning and debating tactics to many within the conspiracy theory movement. It cites not hard nosed, peer reviewed scientific evidence, but cherry picks alleged inconsistencies in the mainstream account articulated by evolutionary biologists, and attempts to blow these inconsistencies out of all proportion.

It habitually ignores and refuses to engage with the refutations offered in response, and as a last (or sometimes first) resort claims that all those who disagree with their point of view have a hidden motivation, are in denial, or are deliberately conspiring to suppress the truth in order to promote atheistic materialism. This is crying wolf. To suggest that everyone in the opposing camp has contempt for the truth, low standards of honesty, or is somehow an intellectual, political or moral coward is a huge sweeping assumption to make, and smacks of clutching-at-straws desperation.

If the only way a conspiracy theory can hold itself together is by suggesting that everyone who debunks it is somehow part of the conspiracy, is that not papering over the cracks in the theory? I’ve yet to hear from any given conspiracy theory a coherent explanation as to why 95% of the scientific experts in the relevant field, who know what they’re talking about, DON’T agree that anything is amiss with the mainstream account… other than the peevish, insulting implication that they’re all somehow blind to the truth or ‘in on it’. What arrogance!

More disturbingly, climate change deniers often use the same tactic, and imply corruption on the part of the pro man-made-climate-change consensus as the motivating factor- hinting that there’s now a funds rich ‘gravy train / trough’ available to bribe scientists into agreement. Coming from the anti green, pro unrestricted economic growth, neo liberal free market right, such a tactic isn’t that surprising. But when it comes from a camp that considers itself pro democracy, pro freedom, anti establishment and anti tyranny, it’s somehow quite shocking.

If, as a political movement composed of those who wish to see a fairer world, we refuse to insist on high standards of evidence, evidence that can survive skeptical scrutiny, as the basis for what we choose to believe or not believe, are we inadvertently responsible for the growth of these conspiracy theories? And if such slack thinking becomes more and more prevalent, what will stop it sliding in the direction of holocaust denial, as it appears to be doing already…

Illustration by David Dees

Comments on Challenging the politics of paranoia

Leave your comment