Home >Opinion >Umberto Eco | A theory of conspiracies

Massimo Polidoro, one of the most active members of CICAP—the Italian Committee for the Investigation of the Claims on the Paranormal—recently published Revelations: The Book of Secrets and Conspiracies, the latest addition to his vast body of work devoted to cock and bull stories that circulate in the mass media and among the public. With such a tantalizing title, it would seem that Polidoro hoped to attract enthusiasts of all kinds of secrets. As John Chadwick, who deciphered the ancient Greek writings known as Linear B, wrote, “The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature; even the least curious mind is roused by the promise of sharing knowledge withheld from others."

Of course, there’s a big difference between demystifying a secret script that was intelligible to people long ago, and believing “secrets" such as the Americans never landed on the moon, the 9/11 attacks were plotted by then-president George W. Bush or The Da Vinci Code is really a work of nonfiction. But it is precisely to the members of this latter sect that Polidoro addresses his work. His affable writing style may at first make readers hold out hope that their every conspiracy itch will be scratched. But in the end Polidoro says that the supposed conspiracies behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Adolf Hitler’s true demise and Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene are no more than canards.

Why are hoaxes successful? Because they purport to offer explanations in ways that appeal to people who feel they’ve been denied important information. In his latest book, Polidoro cites the work of Karl Popper, a philosopher of science who studied the social theory of conspiracy—the idea that many conspiracies are actually social constructs. Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1962) that some conspiracies do exist, of course, but that “the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproves the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy".

Polidoro also points to the work of Richard Hofstadter, a historian who looked at conspiracy theorists through the lens of psychiatry. In a 1964 article in Harper’s magazine, Hofstadter used the term “paranoid" to underscore how the conspiracist “sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values". Hofstadter went on: “He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point."

Now, Hofstadter used the word “paranoid" not in a clinical sense, but as a rhetorical device. The clinically paranoid person thinks that others are plotting against him personally, whereas the socially paranoid person believes that occult powers are persecuting his class, his nation, his religion. I would argue that the latter is more dangerous, because he sees his plight as one that’s shared—perhaps by millions of other people. This validates his paranoia and seems to him to explain current as well as historical events.

In theory, the idea that the world is full of conspiracists might not bother us: If, for instance, some number of people believe that the Americans never landed on the moon, then it’s just too bad for them. But it turns out that such misinformation may have farther-reaching consequences. In a study published last year in the British Journal of Psychology, Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas found that exposure to conspiracy theories decreases the likelihood that a person will engage in the political process, as compared with someone who is exposed to information that refutes conspiracy theories.

In practice, if I encounter someone who is convinced that world affairs are run by the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers or some other secret society, what do I do about it? I give up—and I worry. Every conspiracy theory steers the public psyche toward imaginary perils, thereby distracting it from genuine threats. As Noam Chomsky once suggested, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of a wild conspiracy theory is the very person or institution that the theory intended to strike in the first place. Imagine, for instance, that in 2003, the theory that Bush had engineered the collapse of the twin towers to justify invading Iraq was enough to distract some number of people from stopping to wonder about the real reasons for the war.

All this might lead us to suspect that it was Bush himself who started the rumours about his own supposed involvement in the 9/11 attacks. But we couldn’t possibly be that conspiracy-minded. ©2014/NYT SYNDICATE

Umberto Eco is the author of the international best-sellers Baudolino, The Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s Pendulum, among others. Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen.

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