I take more than a passing interest in conspiracy theories and quackery if for no other reason that I know if read the Daily Mail too often or watch too much television I could well end up believing them myself.
But it seems I am not alone – according psychologist, Rob Brotherton, in his book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories we are all of us hard-wired to be drawn to the outlandish and improbable because that is the way our brains work as we try to make sense of a complicated world.
I should start by saying that the book does not set out to prove or disprove any particular theory, but uses them as examples to illustrate the various quirks in our thinking that make them attractive to us.
We tend to think of conspiracy theories as a relatively new phenomenon, but while it is true that 24 hour rolling news, social media and the internet can spread speculation on events far quicker than it ever did, it is something that has been with us throughout human history. Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned? Was the Great Fire of London a terrorist attack by Catholic conspirators? Just two contemporary theories that have persisted through time.
Brotherton argues that we are constantly looking for signs to explain the world around us. Seeing shapes in the clouds and patterns in flames is inherited from distant ancestors. As Brotherton puts it, the ancestor who saw a log and mistook it for a crocodile was most likely to pass on their genes than the one who saw a crocodile and believed that it was a log.
And so we continue to ‘join the dots’ today, looking for answers and reasons even when there aren’t any. For most of us that amounts to a vague feeling that ‘there is more to this than meets the eye’ when big events occur. For some though, vague feelings harden and grow into conspiracy theories and even into an all encompassing theory of everything at the extremes. David Icke springs to mind.
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was first used in 1909 in an article in The American Historical Review, but it didn’t take on its pejorative connotation until the mid-1960s after the assassination of JFK and today it seems we are awash with them.
Most are harmless, but some that stretch back many centuries can have a profound and devastating impact on the modern world. Perhaps the most extreme example is the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion that in turn can be traced back to the Blood Libel in 12th century Europe and even further to the antisemitic preaching of Saint John Chrystostom in the 4th century. The ultimate consequence was that The Protocols were used to justify genocide in both Russia and Germany.
Suspicious Minds is as entertaining as it is enlightening and while it won’t necessarily stop you believing that ‘the truth is out there’, at least you will know why you think that way.
I resisted ending this post with the obvious Elvis track and have plumped for Roland Giff and the Fine Young Cannibals version instead (with Jimmy Somerville on backing vocals). Read into that what you will…