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“There’s a conspiracy theory about everything and they’re almost the modern equivalent of ghost stories”, said Mark Gatiss, writing for the BBC’s Sherlock. Rather than stories of flickering lights, creaking floorboards and lingering spirits, we now weave tales of invisible demolitions, clandestine councils and labyrinthine plots. A conspiracy theory is the attribution to secretive action where far more plausible and public explanations exist. Political scientist Michael Barkun identified three categories: event conspiracy theories, systemic conspiracy theories and super-conspiracy theories. Conspiracies are no longer cultivated like mould in cold, dark basements, but find shelter with journalists, academics and parliamentarians.
The first category concerns theories about events, where hidden forces are said to have instigated that event. The archetypal event conspiracy theory surrounds the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It is asserted that Oswald’s second shot had an impossible trajectory – the so-called ‘magic bullet’. For the conspiracist, this ‘magic bullet’ immolates the official version, so darker explanations may rise from the ashes. Later forensic analysis found Oswald’s shots were certainly possible.
The September 11th terrorist attacks have attracted a phenomenal number of conspiracies. The hail of magic bullets centres on four supposed impossibilities: the calls from the hijacked aircraft, the hole in the Pentagon was too small, the collapse of the Twin Towers could not be caused by fire, and the fate of Building 7.
Dylan Avery in Loose Change believes that the phone calls from the hijacked aircraft must have been manufactured. Loose Change demonstrates how many people believe something as long as it’s backed by sinister music. Many of the calls were from the airplane’s Airfone service, and a 2004 study by Bill Strauss on mobile calls showed they were “regularly made from commercial aircraft.”
American academic David Ray Griffin asked poignantly: “Is it not absurd to suggest that a Boeing 757 created and then disappeared into such a small hole?” David Aaronovitch, in his book Voodoo Histories, argues that this thinking is informed by Tom & Jerry cartoons, where Tom breaks through a wall, leaving his profile – complete with whiskers – in the brick. There is overwhelming evidence that Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon: almost all of its passengers were identified and large parts of the plane were found.
The demolition theory would necessitate the Twin Towers were filled with an explosive powerful enough to collapse the buildings, but inert enough to not be activated by the impact of an airliner or burning aviation fuel. Their collapse, rather than being an ‘unanswered question’, has been greatly studied by structural engineers.
Comedian Bill Maher’s show was once interrupted by shouts of “What happened to Building 7, Bill?” My name isn’t Bill, but debris from the North Tower’s collapse started a fire in Building 7. There was little water available to its sprinkler system, due to the fire-fighter’s focus on the Twin Towers, so it burned unrestrained for about seven hours. The east penthouse crumbled, dragging the rest of Building 7 down.
There are even stranger conspiracies: former MI5 desk operative David Shayler believes no planes were involved, “they were missiles surrounded by holograms made to look like planes”. The technology to produce near-perfect photographable holograms does not exist. If it did, it would be used to project a women saying “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”.
There are event conspiracy theories come from the deaths of Princess Diana and weapons expert Dr David Kelly. An obsession of the Daily Express, it is purported that Princess Diana was assassinated. This is an ineffective way to assassinate someone: slightly drunk chauffeurs don’t always crash, crash victims don’t always die – it’s hardly a watertight hit.
Dr Kelly was apparently killed by an Iraqi hit squad via a surreptitious succinylcholine poisoning. There was no evidence of such poisoning, but it is the plot of Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of The Tiger. The favourite suspicion for conspiracists is that none of Dr Kelly’s belongings near his body held his undistorted fingerprints. The Met Office confirms that it rained in Oxfordshire the night Dr Kelly’s corpse was in the woodland. There is joy to be reaped from undermining conspiracies with mundane explanations.
When there are no magic bullets in their ammunition, conspiracists will often ask ‘qui bono?’ Who benefits? Merely benefitting from an event doesn’t mean the beneficiaries instigated it, nor could they have known they would be beneficiaries beforehand.
Systemic conspiracy theories argue that a secretive organisation infiltrates existing institutions to gain control. These theories are often similar, regardless of whether it is the Illuminati, the Freemasons, international communists or capitalists. The whole media is usually assumed under control. As an Illumanti agent, the pay is non-existent and the life insurance policy doesn’t cover tinfoil strangulation or succinylcholine poisoning. I’ll see what the Brotherhood of Evil Hedge-Fund Managers is offering.
Super-conspiracy theories believe many conspiracies are all true and are meshed together. Prominent super-conspiracy theorists include radio-host Alex Jones and David Icke. According to Icke, world events are shaped by a species of inter-dimensional shape-shifting reptilians, which are controlling the human race using the Moon.
The conspiracist’s final vestige is that some theories were discovered to be true. This does not validate the conspiratorial method – the search for impossibilities, the inversion of probabilities, and the insinuations – since it fails so regularly. The fact that Richard Nixon bugged the Watergate Hotel does not lend credence to the idea the Queen is a lizard.
The question is: why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories? It partly arises from apophenia, identifying patterns even when there are none. It may come from an epistemic bias to believe major events must have major causes. Conspiracies often centre upon a divide between the ‘elites’ who carve history and the rest of us who meekly follow the shaped paths. Psychologists consider that conspiracy theorists may prefer believing that the world is sculpted by demonic cabals than the alternative: we are spinning and gliding through space on a planet with seven billion other people in the most wondrous chaos.
Note: This article was originally written for bite, the pull-out section of bathimpact.