One afternoon a few years back, I was relaxing in a Sri Lankan bar with my parents, sipping beers in the sunshine, listening to the ambient backtrack of pipping tuk-tuks and market sellers, and having a jolly good time. After about an hour, the fellow at next table, the one who'd spent this same amount of time scribbling down notes on napkins, comes and sits with us. He had unwashed hair but seemed otherwise clean, was Caucasian but was sporting the kind of extreme tan you can only get by busking around Asia for 3 months, and wore a long sleeved shirt but kept it completely unbuttoned. I hate that. Put your nipples away mate!
He was chatty and affable, but with me being the socially awkward guy I am, I mostly just let my mum do the talking. Inevitably, Mum did what mums do, and turned the conversation with Napkins & Nipples onto my studies - I was a 3rd year undergrad studying physics with astrophysics at the time - and a strange expression, somewhere between excitement and curiosity, crossed his face. Something had switched in his brain, and no longer was this just a casual meeting with friendly tourists over a few drinks. No. For him, this was suddenly far more important. This was an opportunity to get out THE LIST.
THE LIST was basically an even bigger napkin with what looked like song lyrics and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics scrawled all over it. He looked at the list, looked at me, and began ... "So, what do you think of the Moon landing hoax?". I distinctly remember an involuntary face-palm taking place - though perhaps this is a false memory owing to looking back on this event in exasperation so many times - as I immediately knew my next hour was going to be painful.
Now and then and the all the time, people like to grill me about things vaguely physicsy, expecting me to be simultaneously an expert in supermassive black holes, 11-dimensional Brane theory, and the entirely implausible Alcubierre warp drives. It's mildly annoying - Stephen Hawking has spent the better part of his life working on black holes and he keeps disagreeing with himself - but I know enough bits and pieces to blag my way through most conversations. To Napkins & Nipples though all I could do was say "Well, errr ... I haven't ... I mean ... I don't know really know all the details, but I am pretty confident that if it were a hoax, the media would be all over it."
In hindsight, I should have known to spend a few days revising on Wikipedia before this meeting. He took my uncertain answer as an opening, and reeled off a series of points about shadows, footprints, and a flapping flag. Ah, ha! The flapping flag thing I've actually heard before, and I know it's a red herring - the flag isn't flapping in the wind, it's just wrinkled and the lowered gravity means they're not flattening themselves out, and it's vibrating from being hammered into the ground. Simple! I started to gain confidence, and bit by bit, I gave reasonable explanations for his every objection.
As I struggled on, I noticed something interesting: he wasn't really listening to a word I said. He would make a point, and then if my tone showed that I didn't agree, he glazed over, waited until I stopped speaking, and then went onto the next bullet point on THE LIST. He quizzed me on my opinion on 9/11, made some vague remarks about Big Pharma, asked if I know about Chemtrails, and finished off by asking "How can you be absolutely sure that the Earth isn't a centrally bulged flat disk covered by a crystal dome?". I could tell he was a tad angry that I wasn't just nodding along in agreement with his arguments, but my mum was there, and he wasn't about to shout at an undergrad student in front of his mum!
Napkins & Nipples was equal parts frustrating and fascinating to me. People far more dedicated than I have gone through the more popular conspiracy theories out there, and piece by piece torn them apart (see bottom of blog for extensive set of links), and yet they endure. This is why I know I'd be wasting my figurative breath if I made this blog on proving that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, or that a government incapable of covering up a blow-job in the white house could definitely not cover up an orchestrated attack on the World Trade Center and murder thousands.
The futility of having a rational debate with conspiracy theorists (particularly online) reminds me of the frustration in trying to talk sense into the superstitious. It's kind of dogmatic, but also, I think it offers people reassurance in the same way religious belief systems do. Hear me out ...
Some anthropologists argue that we developed as a race of story tellers. We lived in this great big world filled with hidden dangers, and our trick for teaching our offspring about that area over the horizon where hyenas live or tasty fruit can be found was to tell fables (and in fact aboriginal tribes of Australia still pass on geographical information down through the generations through stories and songs). Far away landmarks weren't just named as things, but detailed as part of a story narrative as if they were alive. These stories were there to give children an idea of far away geographical locations before we developed tools for drawing maps (which would have been important for avoiding getting lost, given our apparent long distance running approach to hunting).
The celestial bodies were also a huge part of this as we learned that we could navigate by the stars, sun and moon, and even predict the seasons. Stories of a daily battle between a personified night god fighting a personified day god can be traced back thousands of years, and tales used to predict the changing of the seasons followed similar myths. These tales weren't just invented to explain away the mysterious, they were in fact useful!
But for all the good that storytelling could inform us on the nature of night and day, the changing of seasons, navigating and mapping far away terrain, there remained uncertainty. Volcanoes erupt. Rivers flood. Storms ... storm. A race of storytellers, with only basic understanding of the world, would naturally start to see these as signs that the celestial and terrestrial "gods" they've been telling each other about must be fickle and prone to fits of anger. The gods must be getting angry about things we have done (because we're also egocentric, of course). And so, we started noticing patterns where none existed.
Imagine one day, out of the blue, you start a fire at a different time of day than usual, and lo and behold, an overnight storm hits. You'll look for an explanation, and if you can't blame your neighbour, you'll believe that you are at fault - starting a fire at noon angered the storm god(s) somehow. The next day you apologize to thin air, and go back to your old routine, hoping for a return to normal. That night, there is no storm. Confirmation bias tells you you did the right thing, and a superstition is born. The next day we are sacrificing cows and scalping our enemies. People are stupid.
Superstition evolved as a way of attempting to control the elements, by appeasing the gods. Have you ever given a thought to why you touch wood for good luck, or why you avoid walking under ladders? In a nutshell, superstitions are all designed to try and bring order, calm and fortune to a world that in reality you have very little control over. We don't like accepting that we have no control over the world, and to be honest, I still don't like that even though we understand what drives weather patterns, chaos theory means it remains somewhat unpredictable! Unpredictability is scary, so superstitions must have brought comfort to a lot of people (and death to others).
Fast forward to today. We now know that weather is quantifiable, we can test whether touching wood will bring us luck (surprisingly, it actually will! ... But only if you believe it will. It doesn't affect people from cultures where this isn't a superstition, or people with memory loss), and many of us have cast off the shackles of religion as just a story told by a regime that has spent the better part of 2000 years oppressing those who think differently. But crucially, we still recoil from the idea that things just happen.
This is where I believe conspiracy theorists come in. In my admittedly small sample size of encounters, I've generally found these people to be fairly intelligent - intelligent enough not to be superstitious - but they have an unfortunate combination of two other attributes: they seriously distrust authority figures, and they take great comfort from the idea that all the seemingly random things that happen are actually cleverly orchestrated by the manipulative and deceitful powers-that-be (granted, it doesn't help when governments actually do do some really shady things behind closed doors).
And so they band together and tell each other fanciful and fantastical stories about the all-powerful Illuminati that controls the world, and they shut their ears off from evidence to the contrary. Unlike the superstitious, they don't claim to have any control over the future, but by believing everything is being controlled by someone else, they lessen some of the terror that comes with living in a world as random and indiscriminately harsh as ours. They probably also think that, by rallying against the conspirators, they're slowly but surely bringing down the powers-that-be, and helping to bring the world back from randomness and into order.
If I were as eloquent in real life as I can be after 3 hours of blog editing, I'd have said this to Napkins & Nipples before walking off into the sunset: Yes, it does terrify me that bad things like cancer or Alzheimer's just happen, and I can see why believing in chemtrails helps bring sense to all the senselessness. But I'm sorry, I can't ignore evidence, and I don't need to believe that I'm being lied to about the shape of the Earth to feel better about all the chaos.
... Or maybe he was right and I'm just a corporate shill.
The debunkings ...
- The 2001 September 11th attacks (commonly referred to as 9/11): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. (There are of course many more, and probably thousands of links to people who claim the opposite, but a thorough read of these 6 should convince anyone rational. Links 5 and 6 are basically scientifically sound explanations for what Truthers say don't make sense about the collapse mode of the twin towers and the fires that brought down WT7. 4 is hashing out of every claim made by the CTs, 2 and 3 are news articles, and 1 is of course the Wikipedia page which cites dozens more.
- The moon landing: 1, 2, 3, 4.
- Chemtrails: 1, 2 (two links are all you need really. For more, go to Wikipedia, as usual!)
- Flat Earth theory: (...*sigh*...) 1, 2.
- The Queen is a lizard: (One of David Icke's pet theories, and one I can't believe anyone bothered to examine) 1, 2.
- Nicholas Cage is a vampire: (Not even really a conspiracy, but a hilarious joke theory that was passed around until someone just had to start taking it seriously enough for Nicky C himself to make a response) 1.
I created this list just for completeness, not because I think anyone, conspiracy theorist or otherwise, will click on a single link.
Note: if you just happen to believe in a single conspiracy, such as the JFK assassination, for example, you're not the type of person this blog is about, so don't be offended by me psychoanalyzing you. This is about career conspiracy "nuts" that latch onto a million ideas at once and scrutinize none. I think you've probably been duped, and you need to go away and really examine all the evidence before coming back and making a case for your idea ... but no, I don't think you're using the death of a president to make you feel better about the world.
Moon landing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2695056366 - no changes made.
Contrails: Arpingstone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Black cat: By Nino Barbieri (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Illuminati: By US Government (https://www.flickr.com/photos/3dphoto/3596096989) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.