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The Daily Need

Taking conspiracy theories seriously

A police explosives expert prepares a controlled blast of a suspected parcel bomb in Athens on Nov. 1, 2010. Photo: AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

Every now and then, I come across a publication conferring incisive analytic heft to cultural phenomena that society usually considers undeserving of serious consideration. The last great one I read, for example, was Harry Frankfurt’s treatise, On Bullsh*t. When deftly executed, such writing can start with a knowing wink, but quickly plunge the reader into the unexpected depths of seemingly shallow waters. I recently found a paper from U.K. think tank Demos that provided just such a dunking.

The Power of Unreason: Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Counter-terrorism is a discourse on how many extremist groups use conspiracy theories as a “radicalizing multiplier” of their ideologies; in some cases, even as a spur to violent behavior. The topic has certainly been explored before, but the Demos paper is a more thoughtful wake-up call to the real life impact that conspiracy theories may have on the rest of us sheep-like masses.

The authors analyzed literature from more than 50 extremist groups, including the KKK, Al Qaeda, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, eco-radicals and anarchic collectives and found that conspiracy theories are present across the ideological spectrum. While there are differences in the details of who’s pulling the levers behind the curtain, “the consequences, however, are often the same: pointing to forces beyond our control, articulating an enemy to hate, sharply dividing the group from the non-group and, sometimes, legitimizing violence.”

One of the intriguing ideas presented is conspiracy theory as a form of empowerment. These theories are “alluring because they offer a grand, complete, unified explanation that can account for everything as human intention” and they’re “premised on the rejection of mainstream producers of knowledge.” In other words., experts are part of the conspiracy and I, as the common man, can better place my trust in personal reason and experience.

There are concrete recommendations here for governments and civil society to consider. And they are timely — the report’s publication preceded the wave of parcel bombs from Greek anarchists that shut down the country’s mail system in early November. An analysis from a former Athens-based Foreign Services Officer suggests that the group’s anti-authority ideology, aimed at the collapse of consumer society, rubber stamps their violence against willing, “petty-bourgeois drones.” Whether or not there is an explicit conspiracy outlined in the mail bombers’ ideology, their construct of passive collaboration as an excuse for violent behavior echoes in Demos’s analysis of the conspiracy theory as a “rhetorical device to justify the killing of innocents.” It’s OK to hurt these people because they’re complicit with the opposition.

The Demos authors suggest that if we are to effectively counter extremist groups, society must address the conspiracy theories that are part of their mythos. Ironically, it’s often difficult for government institutions themselves to refute conspiracy theories because their attempts at debunking are often seen as further proof of their collusion. It can also be a hard sell because — as the Demos authors rightly point out — some conspiracies have turned out to be true.

Ultimately, the paper pushes for an investment in critical thinking. We should teach our citizens not what to think, but how to critically consider the world around them. A valuable lesson and a great read.

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  • Pearlinearl

    I might also point out that the “conspiracy” is used to quell the investigating of and designed to make the accusser of look nutty.
    I have documented proof of my social security files being purged,medical evidence being ommited and a Judges ruling being changed to stop the benefits to me in which taxes were taken with assurences.
    Now for these kind of actions to be used in the falsely denying me my rights had to be done by no fewer than five people in the social security administration,so that would be a conspiracy right?

  • Ryan/manchester

    It’s a shame the authors obviously haven’t actually looked into much of the evidence available that documents there ARE people that openly admit they are working together to create a world government and do not care whether people want one or not.

    Take this one for example from one of the most powerful people in the world…

    “Some even believe we (the Rockefeller family) are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as ‘internationalists’ and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure – one world, if you will. If that’s the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it.”
    - David Rockefeller, Memoirs, page 405

  • Ryan/manchester

    “We are on the verge of a global transformation. All we need is the right major crisis and the nations will accept the New World Order.”
    - David Rockefeller

  • Ryan/manchester

    “In the next century, nations as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single, global authority. National sovereignty wasn’t such a great idea after all.”
    - Strobe Talbot, President Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State, Time Magazine, July 20th, l992

  • Pearlinearl

    I like to look at names in history,neat hobby.
    There was a general gates in our revolutionary war,a sir general clinton(british).In a town in Texas,I used to own property in the tax assesor had the same last name from the begining of the town 100 yrs+ only one time was the last name not the same.It really is about whose who;)C?

  • Michelle J. Brewer

    I believe Obama is president because Oprah initiated it, and we know her following is huge! Look at all of her guests that now have shows of their own. Had anyone heard of Obama before the election? If people had been aware of who he was, would he be president?

    Unfortunately, like the picture blantantly displaying a bomb threat, we need to tie areas off because the curiosity of people outweigh intelligence–and a “sheep reaction” is inevitable. Remember the twin towers falling? People were actually drawn to the catastrophe rather than running from it.

  • Harvey S Cohen

    Delicious that that all 6 comments on this article are by conspiracy theorists. Do these people actually watch PBS, or do they get alerts from some organization of conspiracy theorists and then just come here to comment?

  • Ryan

    I think it’s great that people can be curious enough to listen to the information / documentation that is available that is based on fact and not beliefs but it’s pretty damn unfortunate that kids brain development is being slowed down by all the chemicals added to our food and water nowadays. People are becoming lazy minded and dosile when presented with evidence they should be jumping out of their seats to do something about.

    Maybe if children were “educated” to become true critical thinkers and open minded without just absorbing beliefs like they are taught to do by their “authorities”, more people nowadays would be intelligent enough to decypher the facts that are evidence to REAL conspiracies that really are a danger to everyone and every nation in the world.

    As they say in the 911 Truth Movement.. people need to WAKE UP!!

  • Anonymous

    Look, If people are creating these “theories”, on the kind of scale we are seeing then maybe, just maybe there is something to it. It is our job as citizens to remind our politicians and the like that they work for us. I don’t know much about the rest of the world living in America, but in my country this government is making BIG decisions without the vote of the people. and anyone opposed or has the brain power to think about ALL possibilities is a “nut job”. I’m not saying they are indefinitely true, however, things line up and that’s all I’m saying.

    If these theories prove to be true then it is our duty as citizens to take back our government. Preferably through peaceful means, but when all legal paths have been exhausted… Unfortunately, violence is the only option left.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry if I don’t have the exact beliefs as you do. Perhaps we “conspiracy theorists” are wrong, I can absolutely say it is possible, but just as possible is we are right. There are many sources of information on this topic and they seem just as sound as the crap from mainstream media. Entertaining an idea or a possibility is not a bad idea, because if you see a problem then you know what to look for. If we find that down the road our theories fail, then likely you will see abandonment of said theories. But if they become more and more true then we can act before shit hits the fan so to speak. The problem is that both sides often use logical fallacies and name calling to make their point heard. Cut all that crap out and you’re left with straight information, and what were saying is that things don’t look good so keep your eyes open. Nothing more and nothing less.

  • Anonymous

    To believe the now fully debunked official 9/11 conspiracy myth, debunked by the commissioners themselves, is a sign of mental illness. Why would you believe what Cheney and Chertoff told you? When they told you not to look into it you said OK. Now you’re trapped agreeing with a suspension of the laws of physics.

    Please consider the victims’ family members request at

  • Guest 5

    The article hits the nail on the head except the Demos idea does not seem to add the deleterious effect of poor Journalistic standards on conspiracy theories. They get published irrespective of whether they are apparently outlandish or apparently realistic.
    That is a function of 24 hour news and the more egregious/unlikely the conspiracy the more air time it gets because its dramatic and can provoke hours of punditry!!
    Guest 5