Conspiracy: A History of Bollocks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them By Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge Wildfire, UK ISBN: 978-1472283382 384pp.

We are living in the golden age of conspiracy theories.

Long relegated to the fringes, 20 years ago this amusing, quirky phenomenon started its slow and sure ascent toward the mainstream with roughly edited, hard-hitting online videos interrogating 9/11 narratives. Other communities followed suit.

Things kicked into overdrive with Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States and reality itself seemed to bifurcate into parallel universes, each with its own set of partisan narratives, facts and logic.

Conspiracy thinking now dominates. Facts and reason are secondary. News stories are ruthlessly dismantled a dozen different ways. Misinformation — weaponisation of the conspiracy-thinking impulse — has reached alarming proportions. The real-world consequences are chilling.

Conspiracy theories now dominate the mainstream. Two British journalists provide a quick and entertaining primer to this topsy-turvy world, but only as a superficial first step

Multiple polls find that many Americans don’t believe the official 9/11 story. Confidence in vaccines has dipped in the last two years. Trust in government, politicians and media is plummeting. A fine layer of distrust clouds everything, dividing citizens, friends and even families. Cynicism prevails.

On the other hand, it is no secret, especially for us in Pakistan nowadays, that big plans are routinely hatched in shadowy rooms. It is much harder to keep things under wraps — thank you, technology — and barely a week goes by without some grand reveal to trigger our paranoiac instinct.

Case in point: as I write this review, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published a piece describing how the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US navy took down the Nord Stream pipeline — that supplies cheap Russian gas to much of Western Europe — last September. To quote a popular meme: I need new conspiracy theories; all my old ones are coming true.

In such a world, what is a rational person to do?

A new book, Conspiracy: A History of Bollocks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them, tries to make sense of these topsy-turvy times. Authors Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge hail from British journalism, but this isn’t a heavyweight, intellectual tome — the cover features blurbs by comedian Mark Watson, and Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame.

The zippy read is filled to the brim with cheeky and irreverent takedowns of popular conspiracy theories and frequent illuminating diversions into history and research. We see that conspiracy theories are as old as human history, reaching back millennia. Distinctly recognisable patterns repeat: perennial suspicion of ethnic groups and outsiders, marked wariness of transformative technologies, morbid fascination with secret societies, a distrust of the rich and powerful.

Various human tendencies may account for such trends. There is a charm to novel esoteric explanations — a ‘secret’ knowledge — that makes us feel special, different from others, like being in a secret club or a clique. Conspiracy theories can also help believers cope with public events that may be highly traumatic, such as American presidential election outcomes. Or Brexit.

Conspiracy theories that pack an emotional punch, or ones that feed on fear, are primed to go viral because they cloud our rational instinct — perhaps one reason why we often picture secret villains behind wars, financial crises and pandemics. Celebrities are easily co-opted because conspiracy narratives need recognisable faces, big powerful puppet masters such as a Bill Gates, or a George Soros.

Moreover, momentous world-shaking events take a heavy toll, as one commentator speculates about the assassination of former US president John F. Kennedy: “Caught up in the press and stress of a catastrophe, we grope for a significance that’s proportionate to the gravity of the events … Even years later, long after the dust has settled, the impulse perseveres.”

In such cases, any gaps in narratives, even entirely innocent ones — a lack of information, coincidence, even pure randomness — is easily ascribed to diabolical behaviour behind the scenes.

Phillips and Elledge provide a useful checklist to pre-empt conspiracy thinking. We should spell out falsifiability criteria for our pet theories and it can be helpful to strip away the emotional content of a theory with a simple question: how does it make me feel?

Does our theory accommodate contradictory evidence? If we question official narratives to death, should we not apply the same level of rigour to alternative accounts? Various theories envision complex plots with super competent actors, moving in perfect coordination like a ballet; how realistic are these scenarios? Does the motivation for such grand plots match up with the effort involved?

A personal disclaimer: I myself tumbled down the conspiracy rabbit hole decades ago thanks to Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. It works very well for me, because I work in information security and, here, paranoid thinking is not only ‘not’ a negative, it is a significant asset. The entire history of our field is replete with documented accounts of secret government agencies doing what they do best. And, out of interest, I put in some time browsing the published literature on conspiracy thinking.

What’s fascinating about the research literature — some of which is covered in the book — is how little there really is of it. What exactly constitutes a ‘conspiracy theory’? We have no clear-cut definitions. There’s no consensus on whether conspiracy thinking is good or bad. Who gets to decide? What’s the criteria?

Contradictions abound. As per Phillips and Elledge: “Getting embroiled in a conspiracy theory seems to require an openness to new ideas, while sticking with it seems to involve a rejection of such things. Some research suggests people with higher levels of education are less likely to fall into conspiracism; some shows that intelligent people may actually be more susceptible because they’re better at rationalising their beliefs.”

Moreover, many of our conceptions about this phenomenon seem to be political instead of rational. Indeed, some scholars acknowledge conspiracy thinking as upholding the great freethinking tradition of the Enlightenment. Let a thousand conspiracy theories bloom and so on.

Books on this topic generally fall in three distinct categories. First and most common is the polemic: proselytising efforts by the left and the right to convince their crowd that the other side is packed with crazies and lunatics.

The second category is exposés: detailed investigations of conspiracy theories. Good examples are Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK and the recent examination on financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in the television programme 60 Minutes.

The rarest category is books that genuinely engage with conspiracy thinking itself. These are thoughtful, intelligent efforts that explain certain psychological tendencies or modern trends and include works by French philosopher Jacques Ellul, American social critic Edward Herman, American linguist Noam Chomsky, etc.

Elledge and Phillips’s book fits neatly into the first lot. It’s a quick introduction to this domain, but doesn’t really dig into the meat. Overall, it reinforces negative stereotypes about conspiracy theories: coverage is slanted, the conspiracies addressed overwhelmingly from the right and the critique too superficial to really change the mind of a believer.

This is most evident when Phillips and Elledge write about current conspiracy theories: the mRNA vaccine scepticism, Russiagate, origins of Covid-19 and the January 6 insurrection in the US, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building. These are domains where new, emerging information is tilting the balance of evidence squarely in favour of the conspiracy theorists.

No doubt, Conspiracy is entertaining and keeps the reader chuckling. It’s a decent first book to read on the topic, but should certainly not be the last. For those who’d like a follow-up option, try Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid by Emma Jane and Chris Fleming, for a highly readable mix of rigour, sensitivity, depth and humour.

The reviewer teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Islamabad. He can be reached at taha.ali@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 2nd, 2023

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