It’s why we are able to make out familiar shapes in the clouds or religious icons in the mundane, like pieces of toast, and also why we are innately superstitious, repeating actions we believe to be lucky and avoiding those that ‘experience’ tells us always lead to ‘bad things’ happening.
You could argue that this natural urge to find reasons for the reasonless was the bedrock for the development of religion. If the earth quaked or crops failed or armies were routed, then perhaps the ‘reason’ was an invisible deity expressing his or her displeasure.
Dan Gardner in his book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, talked about how such early thought processes affect us still. We have our modern sophisticated mind that can rationalise and analyse, but it is all too easily overridden by our older, superstitious thinking that relies upon fear and irrational intuition.
I wonder if this is also why we fall prey so easily to conspiracy theories? Recently we saw Wendi Deng leap to defend her husband from the mad foam pie man and soon after there were those who saw this as an organised conspiracy to take the spotlight off Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to parliament.
Timely then that I have been re-reading Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History by David Aaronovitch that looks at the worldwide explosion of conspiracy theories over the last hundred years and why otherwise rational people are so eager to believe in the most unlikely explanation of events.
From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion through to Pearl Harbour, political assassinations, the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Diana, 9/11, the ‘black-ops murders’ of David Kelly and Hilda Murrell, The Da Vinci Code and whether Obama is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya. All are covered by Aaronovitch and while he debunks the theories, his central question is: why are we so ready to believe?
And why are we selective in the conspiracies we subscribe to? Florida law professor, Mark Fenster compared the many conspiracy theories about the Clinton and Bush administrations and while he dismissed them all as wild and fanciful, he reflected that the Bush accusations seemed ‘more grounded in logic and fact than those about Clinton’.
As Aaronovitch observes: ‘It is difficult to see why the idea that Bush should have connived at the 9/11 attacks is more grounded in logic than the notion that Bill Clinton used murder to cover up a series of financial scandals.’
Personally I enjoy a good conspiracy in works of fiction, but like to think that I’m rational enough to see through those found in real life. And I found that easy to do as Aaronovitch examines the conspiracies of yesteryear, but there was a nagging doubt of, “Ah yes, but what if…” even as he debunks those of a more recent vintage.
Having read the book twice, I thoroughly recommend it and if there is a moral to the tale, it is surely: Honi soit qui mal y pense.