A lot remains to be done in researching the history, structure and dynamics of conspiracy theories, their relationship with real conspiracies, and the changes they have undergone through time.
It's easy to be alarmist and suggest they are a threat to democracy and to confidence and trust in democratic political systems, but there have been relatively few times in democratic countries where this has really been the case: the McCarthy period in post-war America, which arguably reduced the possibility of democratic dissent and restricted the range of political opinions it was legitimate to express, could be said to have been one. But the mere proliferation of such theories is surely not a threat in itself. The fact that some people believe that men never landed on the Moon isn't going to undermine the American political system or any other. And the widespread belief among Republicans that President Obama is not American is an expression rather than a cause of the divisions now affecting America's public life and political institutions.
Few people in the end believe that we are ruled by alien lizards in disguise. It's only where conspiracy theories are directed at long-term trends rather than specific incidents or single observable phenomena, as in the case of global warming, that there seems to be no easily obtainable resolution to the clash of opinion; and even here, the overwhelming consensus of scientists and experts is solidly behind the conclusion that global warming is happening and is the product of man-made climate change. The debate goes on, but it's not a case of conspiracy theories threatening democracy, whatever else it might be. By themselves, such theories may reinforce political suspicion and prejudice, but they're not the origin of it.
To learn more about the Conspiracy and Democracy project, visit the website conspiracyanddemocracy.org
Wednesday, 18 June 2014
Conspiracies and conspiracy theories
In 9/11, Moon Landing, JFK assassination: conspiracy theories follow a deep pattern Richard Evans looks at conspiracies and conspiracy theories.