Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, October 10, 2005

Help, lasagne's out to get me

Help, lasagne's out to get me
Ben Macintyre
The viral spread of conspiracy theories can have dangerous - or literally lethal - consequences

CLOSE THE DOOR while you read this, and block the keyhole to make sure we are not being watched. This is just between you and me, but I think there is something fishy going on: the conspiracy theorists are out to get us, and they are plotting to destroy common sense.

The signs are everywhere, if you look hard enough. I recently received a message from a Turkish academic claiming, in all seriousness, that the bombings in Iraq are the work of American agents seeking to foment civil war. On the same day, the new Muslim chaplain of the New York Fire Department said he did not believe the 9/11 attack was carried out by al-Qaeda hijackers, and must have been the result of a conspiracy.

Throughout the universe, everyone is still reading The Da Vinci Code, a book claiming that the Roman Catholic Church is complicit in a 2,000-year-old cover-up of Biblical proportions. There is a genuine mystery here: how does such an unspeakably bad book sell so many millions of copies? Are people actually reading it, or is someone hoarding this rubbish in secret landfill sites in a plot to eradicate the world’s trees, destroy the ozone layer, and thus boost the profits of a shadowy international consortium of sun cream manufacturers?

(Talking of ghostly patterns, I burnt a lasagne recently and when I washed the pan it left a profile silhouette of David Cameron. Spooky.)

The University of Derby has started a degree course, “Apocalyptic and Paranoid Cultures”, to study this avalanche of unrestrained theorising in a credulous age. All the world is now a grassy knoll. Were the moon landings faked? Did the White Star Line sink the Titanic for the insurance? And who killed Diana: Prince Philip, Opus Dei or Fungus the Bogeyman?

The spread of conspiracy theory arises from a combination of spectacular gullibility and corrosive scepticism. Watergate blew a fatal hole in official credibility, but the authority of major media has simultaneously eroded. The proliferation of alternative news sources on the web and the ubiquity of ever more sophisticated advertising have spread the belief that we are constantly being hoodwinked, that things are never what they seem.

Conspiracy theories follow distinct patterns. The obvious, messy answer is rejected in favour of the sinister but simple explanation; the culture of conspiracy salves disappointment and insecurity, since it blames failure and pain on the unseen, untraceable “other”. More than one fifth of all African-Americans, for example, believe that the CIA caused the Aids epidemic to destroy black communities. Almost all such theories are monological: anything that contradicts the theory can be absorbed and dismissed without undermining the basic conspiracy.

At the same time, tolerance of conspiracy theory allows fantastic speculation to occupy equal, and sometimes more space than the rational view. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the strange world of Shakespeare “authorship studies”, the pointless debate over whether the Bard was really someone else. This week saw a new candidate emerge: Sir Henry Neville now joins Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the supposed mystery author of the greatest works in English or any other literature.

The identity issue originated in Victorian intellectual snobbery, the assumption that a man educated at a provincial grammar school could never have amassed Shakespeare’s learning. Yet the evidence in Shakespeare’s favour remains overwhelming. Testimony from numerous contemporaries shows that the actor and playwright from Stratford wrote the plays; there is no direct evidence to suggest the authorship of anyone else. To accept that Shakespeare was an impostor requires belief in a cover-up of inconceivable complexity. There is no mystery author. Let’s get over it, and then get on with enjoying the fruits of genius.

The same lopsided debate exists in the battle between creationists and evolutionists in the US. As with Shakespeare’s authorship, most experts and scholars have reached a consensus on the origin of the species; those who believe something else challenge this and, more dangerously, insist that their views be accorded the same academic standing. On a more disturbing level, if we allow the denial of evolution in the classroom, should Holocaust-deniers be given a platform, rather than being dumped in the cesspit of pseudo-history where they belong?

Questioning accepted verities based on evidence is the mark of a healthy society; but to do so on the basis of wishful thinking, paranoia or the ingrained belief that what is self-evident cannot be true is not only a waste of time, but potentially lethal. Left unchecked, conspiracy grows viral.

The scourge of polio, for example, has revived due to a single, spreading conspiracy theory. The disease had been almost eradicated when, in 2003, a deadly rumour took root in Muslim northern Nigeria: the theory, inspired by a fundamentalist Islamic doctor, claimed that the Americans were lacing polio vaccinations with a sterilising agent that would render women infertile. Despite assurances from the World Health Organisation, some Muslims began refusing to administer the vaccine to their children. The falsehood spread to India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. This summer, 16 countries who werer thought to have stamped out polio reported fresh outbreaks of the devastating disease.

There is less to conspiracy theory than meets the eye. Shakespeare was Shakespeare; polio vaccine works; Elvis is gone; and a David Cameron-shaped stain on the pan is a sign from God to go out and buy more Fairy Liquid. Look at anything for long enough, and you detect a pattern. For months I have been searching for the hidden meaning — or, for that matter, any meaning at all — in The Da Vinci Code. And now I have found it. “The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown” is an anagram of “Odd cheat; now binned by vicar”. Which just goes to show . . . absolutely nothing.

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