At the Latitude Festival last weekend, I listened to David Aaronovitch talking about conspiracy theories, to promote his book Voodoo Histories. I haven't read the book, so I'm just reviewing his talk. I didn't like it at all. He began by introducing the audience to the history of the Protocols, and about how it was shown to be a forgery; then he segued into post-9/11 conspiracy theories, and then on to the death of Diana. There was a bit of good-natured joshing at Dan Brown (particularly since half the audience admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code), and Brown's "source" Henry Lincoln.
As I said, I haven't read the book, so I don't know to what extent Aaronovitch engages with the preceding academic literature on this subject - for example, Norman Cohn's book on the Protocols, "Warrant for Genocide", or Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". In the talk, though, he warmed to his main themes - having a good laugh at the stupidity of people who believe the wilder conspiracy theories (like David Icke's theory that the world's elites, including the British royal family, are really giant blood-drinking lizards), and offering psychological explanations as to why people believe in conspiracies.
For me, the worst part of the talk was that Aaronovitch did not address the main reason that people believe this stuff -- because it's enough like the way the real world works. For example: Henry Lincoln's idea that the French royal family are the lineal descendants of Jesus, who escaped to the South of France and had children, and that most of the history of the Church is about how this has been covered up, does not stand up to much examination by an informed critical reader. But the Church has engaged in forgeries and cover-ups over much of its history. Consider the 'donation of Constantine', for example - a forged document which purported to show that the Roman emperor had transferred authority to the Pope. Or the forging of a paragraph in the writings of Josephus, which the Church claimed as a contemporary account of Jesus' life - subsequently shown to have been inserted by a later Christian writer. Lincoln's and even Brown's work has caught the imagination because it draws attention to something that many people suspect to be true but do not have the time or the resources to investigate for themselves - that theologians and the inner circles of the Church know that the ideas that they foist on others are not true.
The same might be said about the more contemporary and political conspiracy theories. Aaronovitch went on at some length about the (fictional) TV series Edge of Darkness, and about the widespread belief that the anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell had been murdered by the security services.
Aaronovitch laughed at the way conspiracy theorists believe both governments and corporations carry out secret medical experiments on unwilling subjects; but there are lots of well documented cases of them doing just that - experiments on British servicemen at Porton Down, mustard gas experiments on Indian soldiers at Rawalpindi, the CIA's K-ULTRA program of mind control experiments using drugs and hypnosis. The fact that this stuff has happened before, and that it was indeed widely denied and covered up, makes claims that other similar stuff is happening and is being covered up seem eminently plausible.
Similarly with the big claims about secret political arrangements, or government organisation of terrorism. Think about the way that Britain and France colluded with Israel in the Suez campaign, pretending to intervene "to separate combatants" in a war that they had themselves sponsored and arranged. Aaronovitch's claim that the real world is not as complicated at the conspiracy theorists make it out to be sits ill with the realities of the Iran-Contra affair, in which the CIA sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The weapon sales were secret and illegal, the Israelis were involved in shipping the missiles, the Nicaraguan rebels were known to be using the weapons runs to ship drugs into the US - could you make this up?
In argument against the conspiracy theorists, Aaronovitch says that real conspiracies are less effective than the theorists would have us believe - it's not possible to cover up anything big and important for very long because too many people would have to be involved. But surely this is just the equally implausible obverse of the argument style of the conspiracy theorists, who faced with apparent evidence that their theories are wrong, say that this in fact proves that they are right. Aaronovitch is claiming that because we know that cover-ups have been exposed in the past, they must all have been exposed - there can't have been any successful cover-ups.
And this points to the real problem, both with Aaronovitch's account and with those of other meta-theorists of conspiracy theorists; they don't offer any way of distinguishing between a 'conspiracy theory' and a genuine expose of a conspiracy or a cover-up. This is made worse by the fact that, as with other kinds of 'rejected knowledge', the people who espouse are often a bit special - only people like that are prepared to carry on in the face of widespread hostility. The old joke about intellectual presumption goes: "They laughed at Galileo, they laughed at Einstein, and they laughed at Punch and Judy." Being rejected doesn't mean that you are a genius, just because some other geniuses were at some stage rejected.
But it's important to remind ourselves that science, are inherently and necessarily conservative most of the time. It's useful to hold on to an existing paradigm and continue to work out its ramifications and puzzles; we can't afford to have scientific revolutions every time a bit of contradictory evidence turns up. As with science, so with political and social discourse. On the one hand, we can't pay equal attention to every nutter who walks through the door claiming to have evidence that the moon landings were faked; on the other hand, it's equally important to realise someone's claims to have uncovered a government or corporate cover-up aren't necessarily invalid because they have an unfortunate manner or smelly beard.
What I liked least about Aaronovitch's talk, then, was that it seemed to be essentially a plug for the conventional wisdom and the establishment view. Everything is what it seems to be. People who question this are all nutters. If an idea about events or political realities seems implausible, then it is.
Aaronovitch is a good writer who also talks well. Yet he is heading towards Melanie Phillips-land as a professional ex-leftist (this week he is on Radio Four talking about how Joseph McCarthy's fears of Soviet infiltration of the US were justified). Really, he ought to pull himself together and think about whether his obvious talents should be aimed at helping the weak and poor, or whether he'd rather be a tame clown who exposes the foibles of radicals for the amusement of the rich and powerful.