Main Site         

This week’s conspiracy theories – from Dr David Kelly to Wayne Rooney

2010 October 23
by Paul Vallely

Scholastic philosophy is always a good place to start. The 14th century English thinker William of Ockham is best known for his insistence on a bias towards simplicity in the construction of theories. His technique is known as Ockham’s Razor, for its insistence on shaving away superfluous ideas. Go for simplest explanation first, he counselled.

It is not advice that has been widely followed with regard to the death of Dr David Kelly, the British weapons inspector whose body was found in woods in Oxfordshire in 2003 – after it was revealed he was the source for a BBC story suggesting that Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” the case for the invasion of Iraq. Despite the official verdict by the Hutton Inquiry that the scientist committed suicide, theories have abounded that he may have been murdered by agents of the state.

A group of prominent doctors, disquieted by the officially reported causes of death, have repeatedly campaigned for a formal inquest into Dr Kelly’s demise. Last week the government responded by publishing the pathologist’s report which Lord Hutton had decreed should be classified for 70 years out of sensitivity to the dead man’s family.  Now we have seen it there seem even fewer grounds for disputing that the scientist died after slashing his left wrist and taking an overdose whose effect was exacerbated by an undiagnosed heart condition. The new report was “convincing” said one of the campaigning doctors, Julian Bion, a professor of intensive care medicine . He was “certainly satisfied” that the cause of death given was the correct one.

Not everyone agreed. If Dr Kelly’s death was consistent with a verdict of suicide, “then it must also be consistent with murder made to look like suicide,” one conspiracist swiftly proclaimed. And off the bloggers went: not enough blood, no fingerprints on knife, aversion to swallowing pills, missing dental records, mysterious man in black and boat seen in area, and all the rest.

Any reasonable person would concede that there are a number of loose ends in the case. But to jump from that to the existence of death squads in the employ of the British prime minister is another matter. Ockham’s law of logical parsimony recommends that, faced with a mystery, we select the hypothesis that introduces the fewest external assumptions and factors. But survey modern culture and you will find a consistent reluctance to believe the obvious.

The US government was behind 9/11 as a pretext for invading Afghanistan. The moon landings were codded up by Nasa in a studio. Princess Diana was murdered by the royal family. The Mafia shot John F Kennedy. Another US president quietly killed off 50 of his associates in what became known as the Clinton Body Count. Global warming is all got up by scientists to get themselves extra research funds.  Aids came from a virus genetically engineered by the US government to kill off blacks and homosexuals.

Then there are all the non-specific conspiracies involving the Jews, Freemasons and the Catholic Church taking over the world. Or the wild fantasies like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code theory that for 2,000 years the Church has been hiding the fact that Jesus secretly married and has a line of descendents. Or David Icke’s lurid phantasmagoria  that humanity is controlled by a secret group of shape-shifting reptilian aliens who include George Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie – all of whom regularly drink human blood to maintain their humanoid appearance.

It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as the baggage of the freakish fringe. But polls suggest otherwise. A BBC survey showed that 22 per cent of Britons do not think Kelly killed himself. Some 43 percent of Americans believe in UFOs. In our over-stimulated information age conspiracy theories are what Christopher Hitchens has called “the exhaust fumes of democracy”. Indeed some go further; the American political scientist Michael Barkun has suggested that conspiracy is replacing democracy for many as the dominant political paradigm.

There are a number of reasons for the rise and rise of contemporary conspiracy. The age of political deference is dead. Those in authority are no longer automatically trusted by virtue of their position. People are creating their own patterns of meaning.

In one sense we have always done this. The human mind is programmed to make shapes out of chaos, and create significance from the random. That is the origin of myth and human story. Just because conspiracy theories are factually inaccurate does not mean that they are not reaching after a different kind of truth. It is like the story of the man who wakes to find his wife hitting him because she has dreamt he has had an affair. “But I haven’t done anything; it was your dream,” he protests. “No,” she replies, “but it’s the kind of thing you would do”. A conspiracy theory can tell us something about how modern men and women see the world and what alarms, and gives them comfort, in it.

The world is largely moulded by impersonal economic and institutional forces. But the ordinary human instinct is to see events shaped by individuals and their acts.  And that tendency is amplified when it comes to the forces we feel are ranged against us, most particularly in those, like The Establishment, we feel more powerful than us.

So we personify it.  “The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman – sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving,” wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics.  And such enemies act in consort. They conspire to start runs on banks, cause depressions, create disasters, and then enjoy and profit from the misery they have produced. “The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will,” Hofstadter writes. Just because they’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get them, and it turns politics into an arena for angry minds. Karl Popper saw the totalitarianism of fascism and communism as rooted in the paranoid tribalism of conspiracy theory.

But it is manifest at far more trivial levels. The Rooney saga, one Man Utd fan, opined yesterday at Old Trafford, was “a conspiracy by Fergie to force the club’s owners to buy some more top players”. Conspiracy is fed by the powerlessness of the theorist.  But real history is driven more by cock-up than conspiracy. Cartels are unnecessary when prices can be fixed by congruence of interests – which is why every chip van near Old Trafford charges an outrageous £2.50 for a small tray. Have the chip men got together to fix the price? We shall never know. But conspiracy is the lazy way out.

The poet Keats offers a more interesting option. What we need, he said is “negative capability – that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Keats, it is generally reported, died from tuberculosis. So why does his tombstone talk about “the Malicious Power of his Enemies”?  Eh? I’ve got a bit of a theory about that.

Comments are closed.