When Believing Isn’t Seeing

Detail of Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate, released last week

Detail of Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate, released last week

There’s no body. The body was hastily dumped. The photos are too inflammatory to be released. He resisted. He was unarmed. The death of Osama bin Laden is proving as fertile a ground for conspiracy theorists as the 9/11 tragedy. No longer can conspiracy theories be easily dismissed as white noise on the fringes of political debate - in fact, they play an increasingly central role in public discourse. There are dozens of them. Most of them are harmless, but some can fuel the flames of hatred. Two conspiracy theories in particular have loomed large in recent times.

Some climate change sceptics see a conspiracy theory lurking behind global warming. This conspiracy theory sees a cabal of researchers overplaying the causes and effects of climate change, angling for more grants, while government apparatuses hungry for more control seize the opportunity presented by the scientific cabal to extend the tentacles of their power. Of course, this conspiracy theory cuts both ways.

And recently, US property tycoon Donald Trump launched a high-profile presidential bid by weighing into the birther controversy that has plagued President Obama since his election. Trump’s bid proved short-lived after the White House finally released Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. President Obama took the opportunity at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner to roast Trump: “No-one is happier - no-one is prouder - to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focussing on the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Trump responded to the certificate’s release by moving the focus of his attention to President Obama’s academic record, suggesting he got into Harvard University on the grounds of skin colour rather than merit. This led various celebrities to accuse Trump of racism - a Hollywood version, perhaps, of dog-whistle politics.

University of New South Wales mathematician James Franklin yesterday asked why the human mind is such fertile ground for the seed of conspiracy. Powerlessness and the joy of revealing ‘hidden’ truths are chief among his reasons. Another is the ultimate unprovability of conspiracy theories, which sometimes turn out to be no less fanciful than actual conspiracies - like Castro’s exploding cigars or MKULTRA. If, in the words of David Foster Wallace, truth and fiction are equally strange, then we are plunged into a world where they are indistinguishable - the paranoid world, in psychoanalytic terms, of psychosis.

Psychologists have tried to explain the phenomenon. Belief in a conspiracy theory may well be a desperate attempt to escape the logical cul-de-sac triggered by cognitive dissonance, when the gap between what we want to believe and the evidence before us can no longer be spanned. Or maybe it’s just a normal part of trying to understand an increasingly complex world: “humans remain hard-wired to look for patterns in a chaotic universe”, according to political commentator Daniel Drezner.

Ultimately, a conspiracy theory survives for as long as it is useful - and the best conspiracy theories survive because they’re useful to everyone. They cast a spell on adepts and sceptics alike. The scorn of non-believers is just grist to the mill for the believers, reinforcing rather than corroding their certainty. And sceptics find them useful too, using them to marginalise dissent and prop up their own world-view.

But here’s a conspiracy theory for you, the biggest one of all: in this one, we’re all conspiracy theorists. You want proof? Here’s proof: our insatiable hunger for stories, for narratives and fables, for theatre, literature and cinema. There are countless books and films that feed on conspiracies, from The Thirty-Nine Steps to Foucault’s Pendulum - but we’re talking about something bigger. Much bigger. Something so big, the government doesn’t want you to know about it. Maybe, just maybe, the part of the human brain that knows that seeing isn’t always believing, that power is corrupting, and that categories like history, facts and even knowledge itself are fluid and manipulable, is the same part of the brain that we use to build stories - stories that have us always wanting to know what happens next, turning the next page and the one after that, ever deeper into the infinite night.

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