When George Mikes (the humourist and author of How to be an Alien) was very young and not yet able to read, he formulated a theory to explain his experiences. It was that no one can read: older people were merely pretending to see meaning in random squiggles of ink on paper, and were secretly laughing at his gullibility.
This had all the formal attributes of a conspiracy theory: it alleged that significant events in Mikes’ life (adults reading to him, and trying to teach him to read) were part of a secret plan that involved the conspirators’ lying to him about facts and about their own motives, in order to benefit at his expense (in this case merely by being amused). It also explained away his own relative ineffectiveness (his inability to read, compared with other people's apparent ability to), in terms of his powerlessness and their power over him. This is another very common theme of conspiracy theories. His theory differed from a standard conspiracy theory mainly in the way he held it: in particular, in the way he abandoned it.
He did not say how he first came to doubt it, but we can guess what must have been involved: simply taking it seriously as an explanation of reality. Perhaps at some point he noticed that different adults were able to read the same story out of a given book. Such observations would not have proved anything, but they would have multiplied the invisible events that must have been happening if the no-one-can-read theory was true: now, instead of merely laughing at him behind his back, the adults must have been learning stories by heart, and coordinating which ones they were going to pretend were contained in which book. They must have been pretending to find their way to unfamiliar places by reading road signs, feigning frustration when they left the shopping list at home, pretending that mail contained information from distant relatives, and so on. To maintain all those pretences would have involved hidden processes of great complexity, centring on the young Mikes, and laboriously hidden from him.
So what? Nature is full of hidden processes of great complexity; people do often hide things laboriously from other people – not least from children. Mikes was not wrong to be sceptical: initially, he could not have distinguished what he was told about reading from what he was told about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. What was essential, though, was that he be just as sceptical of his own alternative explanation. And more: he needed to be seeking a true explanation, to care whether reality did or did not conform, even in unseen ways, to whatever explanation he adopted. Though his no-one-can-read explanation could never have been proved false, he was not looking for proof. He had not proposed it in order to create an unassailable dogma, but simply because he had a problem imagining a reality in which all those squiggles meant something. But then, given the role that he could see that alleged meaning playing in the lives of the people around him, he would soon have realised that postulating a further slew of apparently meaningless behaviour (the conspiracy) in the reality beyond his immediate perceptions did nothing to solve that problem. In effect it merely raised it again, but all the worse for being projected off the page and out into the wider world.
So, when he thought about the evidence available to him, though he would never have faced disproof, he would have faced a choice: try again to understand the hidden meanings in the squiggles – which might be difficult and, for all he knew, might never work – or attribute everything he saw to the hidden conspiracy. The latter option was guaranteed always to be available. Yet, at some point, he must have realised that the world could not be understood in those terms.
This is the choice which conspiracy theorists make differently and irrationally. They do care about some invisible events: the relatively small number that they love to think about, such as President Bush and his inner circle discussing their evil plan to seize the Iraqi oil fields. But they don't care enough to follow through the implications for the host of other invisible events that would also have to be happening if those were – such as how the conspiracy would recruit its members and how it would agree upon a new plan, and what exactly the conspirators’ reward is and how it gets to them. We shall say more about this in the next instalment, but in general terms: conspiracy theorists chronically fail to form a serious model of what reality would be like if their theory of it were true. They paint on a large canvas with only a tiny area of detail, always preferring the security of familiar patterns of thought that are guaranteed to provide the semblance of an explanation, to the uncertainty and difficulty of trying to understand what the facts really are.
Here’s a fairly classic conspiracy theory. It is that the Bush Administration's foreign policy is part of a plot to impose Fascism on America. We don't especially recommend reading it (unless you are entertained by that sort of thing) but look at this passage:
I will examine exactly what the Bush Administration in fact stands for, which is in stark contrast to the claims of Bush's mindless chorus of fawning acolytes.
This “stark contrast” between the conspirators’ purported motives and their real motives is at the heart of every political conspiracy theory. For if a conspiracy theory is to explain observed events in current affairs and history, the conspirators’ hidden actions must somehow be translated into something significant and visible – a war, a major change in the law, the enrichment of some group and the impoverishment of another – which requires visible actions and efforts by large numbers of people. If, for whatever reason, the real objective of those efforts cannot be acknowledged openly, then many of those people must believe that they are furthering some different objective.
Now, consider a person who favours that ostensible objective and works towards it, but opposes the conspirators’ true objective. Such a person is a dupe of the conspirators. Conspiracy theorists always believe in the existence of dupes because they see themselves as desperately warning them to open their eyes and see what would be “blinding … in its clarity” if they did; but also, the alleged conspiracy itself usually depends on the cooperation of many dupes, such as journalists and political commentators (“Bush's mindless chorus of fawning acolytes”) and soldiers and civil servants and of course ordinary voters.
It is in the interests of the conspirators to enlist as many dupes as possible. Every lie the conspirators tell, every secret meeting they hold, every secret decision they take and every secret message they share, incurs a risk of exposure. Therefore, the more dupes are willing to further the aims of the conspiracy without having to participate in the secret planning and without having to conceal their real reasons for supporting the plans, the safer the secret is. Also, the more dupes spontaneously work hard on the conspirators’ behalf without wanting a payoff, the fewer real conspirators are needed to achieve the objective. And if there are spoils (there usually are!) the larger the share each conspirator will receive.
So there are lots of dupes. But the question arises: are there any politicians among them?
It is in the nature of conspiracy theories that there is no immediate way of telling. Since the conspiracy depends on the conspirators behaving, in public, exactly as if they were dupes, it must be true that any duped politicians would be behaving in public exactly as if they were conspirators: arguing for the policy, voting for it, trying to discredit its opponents, cutting deals to promote it and so on.
You can see where this is going, can't you? How high are the dupes allowed to rise? For all we know, even some of the highest-ranking Neo-Cons are dupes. Even some members of the Cabinet might be outside the Conspiracy and genuinely be motivated by the arguments and objectives they advance in public.
Could the President himself be a dupe? If he was lying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction then he was a Conspirator, and of course nothing could ever prove that he wasn't. But there again, there is no evidence that he was lying.
The fact is, all supporters of the Administration's policy could be ‘dupes’ – or rather, honest holders of the opinions they purport to hold – and still behave exactly as we see them behave. In other words, if there were no conspiracy there at all, we'd never know.
And therefore, the conspiracy theory explains exactly nothing. Yet it appends layers of weirdness and complexity to the commonsense picture of the world. There is an unlimited supply of such (non‑)explanations, all postulating invisible complexity and all contradicting each other. Even if one of them were true, it would be vanishingly unlikely that anyone would happen to hit on it by a method that was impervious to evidence.
That is one reason why, in practice, conspiracy theories are always false.
But there is also another, more important reason.
According to the urban-legends analysis experts Snopes:
It is a common belief that the number of conceptions increases during natural disasters or crises that keep people confined within their homes for unexpectedly long periods of times. Nine months after such events — blackouts, blizzards, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, ice storms, and even strikes by professional football players — reports about "baby booms" in local hospitals invariably appear in the media. However, these "booms" always turn out to be nothing more than natural fluctuations in the birth rate (or, in many cases, no variation in the birth rate at all).
In particular, the story, widely believed and cited as fact, that there was a ‘baby boom’ nine months after the great blackout of 1965, is false:
Despite initial reports of New York City hospitals' seeing a dramatic increase in the number of births nine months after the 1965 blackout, later analyses showed the birth rate during that period to be well within the norm.
A series of three articles appearing in The New York Times from August 10-12 in 1966 reported larger-than-average numbers of births at several area hospitals, leading many to declare that the ten-hour overnight blackout the city experienced nine months earlier had led to an unusually high number of conceptions that evening. As often happens, however, people formed predetermined conclusions and then tried to fit the data to them. The birth rate nine months after the blackout did not show a statistically significant difference from the rate of birth recorded during the same period in any of the five previous years.
Earlier today a BBC journalist (if we were adopting the BBC's standards, we should say ‘journalist’), Nick Bryant, stated in a BBC News 24 report from New York:
The only talk of boom here is the baby variety. During the last blackout in the 1970s, there was a spike in the birth rate.
Should we believe him? Did he check the story with hospital records? Did he make it up? Did he confuse the 1977 blackout with the 1965 one and fail to check whether it was true?
Is it really true that no one in New York is talking of an economic boom ahead, but only a baby boom? Or is this just gratuitous, spiteful, anti-American wishful thinking?
We just don't know. This is what happens when a news organisation squanders its reputation for getting the facts right.
Presumably this is the same Nick Bryant who recently accused the US Government of “richly embroidering” the Jessica Lynch story.
And we know that this is the same BBC that is currently in disgrace with everyone who cares about standards in journalism and in public service.