Conspiracy theorists’ weak logic alive and well on Earth

Many people favour artificially complicated and incorrect explanations for world events

You could view the recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a respected US organisation, as one of those proverbial glasses that is either half-full or half-empty.

The pessimist, noting that one in four of the American public thinks Barack Obama might be the antichrist, will wonder how the human ape – apparently thicker than most cattle – ever managed to escape the plains and gain dominion over the planet.

The optimist will shake it off. Heck, a full 75 per cent of the world's most powerful nation accept that killer lizards have not taken over the White House.

Keep hold of that comfort blanket and you will get through the rest of the results without too much trauma. Most Americans do not think that aliens visited Roswell in 1947 (though 21 per cent do).


Beware of power elites
Most Americans do not believe that a "secretive power elite" is seeking to take over the world (though 28 per cent do). Most Americans do not believe that global warning is a hoax (though 37 per cent do). Everything is still in order. The lunatics may have occupied the lunch hall and surged into the table-tennis room, but control of the asylum as a whole still rests with the warders. For now.

No. That won’t do.

The continued popularity of insecure, barely coherent conspiracy theories communicates unhappy truths about the human psyche.

Look closer at the results of the poll and you will discern that certain, hugely unreliable myths have now hardened into mundane orthodoxy. Newspapers have had great fun with the Public Policy’s findings on antichrist Obama and the New World Order.

Few reports have, by way of contrast, bothered to comment on the results concerning the assassination of John F Kennedy: 51 per cent think a larger conspiracy was at work; just 25 per cent think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Harbouring some vague notion that Oswald had help does not, of course, land you in the same camp as the black-helicopter mob, but something peculiar is up. So many people seem happy to cast away Occam’s razor (essentially the principle that the hypothesis employing the fewest assumptions is the best) and complicate the uncomplicated.

Allow me one further example. A few years ago, I hosted a question-and-answer session with Duncan Jones, director of Moon , following a Dublin screening of that fine science fiction film.

In such affairs, the first question from the floor is invariably the most eccentric. Somebody always has some beef about Palestine, the rise of Scientology or fluoride in drinking water.

Sure enough, after the credits rolled, a lady stood up to ask what Duncan thought about Nasa faking the moon landings. A polite fellow, he merely mentioned that he had met Buzz Aldrin and that the second man on the moon didn't seem like a liar.

She was just one person. But this is the sort of notion that, if leaked to the authorities, should bring white-coated men with butterfly nets to your front door. Yet, according to an earlier poll, over 6 per cent of Americans hold to the theory. It is faintly astonishing that society functions at all.

How and why do increasing number of people believe so much nonsense? The “how” is relatively easy to explain. Humans have always managed to invent patterns where no patterns exist.

History's magical patterns
The ancients' selective grouping of stars into constellations is a perfect example. Leave out the celestial bodies that don't – sort of, kind of, just about – appear to mark out Orion's Belt and you are halfway to creating a magical pattern for the ages.

A class of confirmation bias allows conspiracy theorists to ask the questions that suit them and ignore the ones that don’t.

Those who believed that Nasa faked the moon landing will, for instance, often attempt to flummox sceptics with a supposedly withering inquiry. Why did the US so suddenly stop going into space? Huh? Huh?

The same people rarely ask themselves why – accepting their lunatic theories as fact for an instant – the folk at Nasa stopped faking the moon landings. Given that it’s cheaper to stage a moon shot than actually travel to that satellite, the second question is a great deal more difficult to dismiss than the first.

If the observer engages with patternicity or confirmation bias he or she must – either consciously or unconsciously – desperately want to believe in the unreliable concept. Why would this be so?

For the same reason some of us cling to religion or astrology or the teachings of this or that bearded guru.

Apparently complex structures
When, confronted with a single-shooter theorist, the JFK conspiracy nut may argue that "it can't be that simple". In fact, the philosophy of conspiracy conjures up a much simpler, less random universe than the one we actually inhabit. There's a pattern behind every disaster. There's a structure around every political outrage.

There is, for the right-wing apocalypticist , a simple explanation as to why a communist sits in the White House. He had help from the devil.

Order is so much more comforting than chaos.