Revealed: the TRUTH behind the moon landing and 9/11 conspiracies

In a world of alternative facts, Victoria James explores the truths and almost truths behind why humans are so susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

Rational observation versus conspiracy theorising

So where does rational observation end and conspiracy theorising begin? If only it were that simple. “We think there’s ‘conspiracy theory’ and then there’s acceptable political discourse,” says political scientist, Professor David Runciman. “But the difficulty is that there’s no clear dividing line where you can say, ‘We question it to this point, and beyond that questions are crazy’.”

“There’s no clear dividing line where you can say, ‘We question it to this point, and beyond that questions are crazy’”

Such sceptical mindsets are currently grabbing headlines, with narratives around ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. “There’s a conspiracy-theory scare right now,” says Runciman. “But you can’t blame digital technology for this. For people who want to bypass conventional sources of information, it’s easier to do it. But the propensity of people to believe these things isn’t a modern phenomenon.”

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

Emergence of conspiracy theories

Historian Dr Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, one of the Conspiracy and Democracy project’s researchers, is examining when we first started to notice conspiracy theories. When these theories emerged is a contentious question: “Some say antiquity, others the Renaissance. Others say the French Revolution, when we see the first modern conspiracy theories, around the Illuminati.” Whatever the answer might be, it was only in relatively modern times that conditions arose that made possible the observation of the phenomenon. As McKenzie-McHarg points out, “The concept ‘conspiracy theory’ itself is from the 19th century, when it’s used in a forensic context at a time of increasingly scientific approaches to crime.”

“There are those who claim that the words ‘conspiracy theory’ were introduced by the CIA to discredit people who were promoting these sorts of ideas”

In the 20th century the concept itself, fittingly enough, became the subject of a conspiracy theory. “There are those who claim that the words ‘conspiracy theory’ were introduced by the CIA to discredit people who were promoting these sorts of ideas,” says McKenzie-McHarg. “All my work is about demonstrating that the conspiracy theory about the concept ‘conspiracy theory’… is not true.”

Brains and beliefs

Neuroscientist Professor Paul Fletcher traces conspiracy theorising behaviour back to an even more fundamental origin: the brain. His work on delusion and hallucination points to a conclusion both startling and persuasive: that conspiracy theories, like other forms of belief, arise from the natural function of the mind.

“Beliefs are not the logical workings-out of evidence that we assume them to be — they are based on our own biases and assumptions”

In other words, conspiracy theories, like more sanctioned forms of belief, are our attempts to craft an explanation of the world around us. And what’s crucial in determining whether those explanations are acceptable or not, is context. In many cultures, Fletcher says, it might be “perfectly reasonable” to believe that you were being communicated with by a godlike entity. Not so in Western society today.

Illustration: Sébastien Thibault

Bias, assumption and Patient Zero

And sometimes, those assumptions lead us astray. One striking example has been analysed by Dr Richard McKay, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, whose co-authored study of the Patient Zero narrative of the AIDS epidemic received global attention last year and appears in monograph later this year.

Post-truth, post-factual and fake news

Understanding — and disseminating — how evidence can be used better is the task of one of Cambridge’s newest bodies, the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, based in the Faculty of Mathematics. Executive Director, Dr Alexandra Freeman, says the centre is tasked with aiding key decision-makers and communicators, such as civil servants, doctors and journalists, to better grasp the evidence they use, and present it more effectively to their audience.

“There will always be those who don’t trust anyone, even the University of Cambridge’s Maths Department”

This could not be more relevant in 2017. It is a truism of the past year in politics that those responsible for clearly communicating evidence have failed to do so — or failed to cut through when they did. The 2016 EU referendum saw Michael Gove declare that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, while in the US presidential race, both the media and the public were fascinated by Donald Trump’s fluid use of fact. And in the wake of that acrimonious race, terms such as ‘post-truth’, ‘postfactual’ and ‘fake news’ have entered the mainstream. The need for a centre such as the Winton has never been clearer.

Conspiracy theories as critical commentaries

Which is why Dr Nayanika Mathur’s fieldwork at CRASSH is so intriguing — she is studying the contrasting attempts to introduce biometric ID in Britain and India. In the UK, the proposals were scrapped in 2010; in India, the UID (Unique Identification project) is proceeding despite opposition.



Research from the University of Cambridge

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