Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Fringe Communities - Part Two: "The Conspiracy Files"

Interested parties can now view "The Conspiracy Files" on BBC iPlayer, a program concerning the small but disturbing amount of people who spend their time speculating that the London 7/7 terrorist bombings were a government conspiracy, that 9/11 was a plot by the Jews, that Zoidberg the Great will return in his intergalactic hamburger to judge the living and the dead. World without end. Amen.

It highlights how impressionable people may use DVDs and the Web to associate freely with other impressionable people and form minor conspiracy circles of credulous devotees. The BBC documentary does not enter into the psychology of conspiracy theories but rather goes through the standard evidence, and points out how the official report shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the perpetrators made no attempt to hide their identity whatsoever, and indeed wished to be remembered as martyrs. Then, interviewing each primary conspiracy theorist in turn, the programme notes how each of these people are also prone to believe in many other conspiracy theories ranging from the mildly bizarre to the outright ridiculous.

South Park: Episode 1009 - where Cartman implicates Kyle in the 9/11 attacks

For the most part, these people appear to be harmless sorts, with rather odd pastimes. But, of course, the worrying aspect is that these very same odd characters are also dedicating this time to share their "knowledge" with all who will lend them their ears and eyes. Indeed, I have met many people who profess to all sorts of bizarre conspiracy beliefs and it makes me wonder what is it about such people that differentiates them from regular people, so to speak. Many of these individuals, like some of those interviewed in the program, have received a university education, and surely have been assisted to develop rational arguments during their studies.

While remarking that John Hill, author of "The Ripple Effect", also claimed to be a messianic figure and claimed "that George Lucas wrote Star Wars after being told telepathically what to write, by the very "Force" to which the films refer" (BBC News), may amount to simple ad hominem arguments that lack substance in reasoned debate, there is nevertheless a set of circumstances and psychological makeup that have 'conspired' to make him who he is. Similarly, you and I have undergone particular histories, and have particular biological and psychological structures that make us who we are in this moment.

There are a number of scientific papers in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science which focus on how belief systems may work in terms of information deficit, deference to third-parties, limited information-seeking skills, and a weak capacity for logical thought. I may return to this topic in a future post, but this is already quite lengthy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that of a "crippled epistemology", or faulty knowledge evaluation system. What a person may know is very little, and the better part of it, incorrect. Given new information from a conspiracy theorist, there is nothing in this person's existing belief system that contradicts this new information.

Who in their lifetime, and I include childhood, has not entertained notions such as that JFK was assassinated by the CIA, that extra-terrestrials are among us but that it is being kept under wraps, that the moon-landing was faked? If you are among these lucky few, then you will have at your disposal the mechanisms to judge why you previously, I hope, entertained these rather daft notions, much as we might have given credence to fairy tales once upon a time, and many a hidden demon.