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“Conspiracy theorists are dangerous”

Interview: Bernd Harder. The Skeptiker spokesperson and conspiracy theory expert has published a range of books dealing with conspiracy theories and other parascientific topics.

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EXPERT 2: Bernd Harder

PROFESSION: Skeptiker / Conspiracy Theory Debunker

If anyone knows something about whacko beliefs, urban legends, quackery and conspiracy theories, it’s the ‘Skeptics’. A global movement of slightly eccentric rational thinkers with science backgrounds who, driven by their frustration with public gullibility, occupy themselves with the investigation of seemingly unexplainable phenomena.

In Germany, the group operates under the name, ‘Die Skeptiker – GWUP’ (a German acronym for ‘Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences’). Each member specialises in solving a different mystery, meaning that the GWUP has an expert on virtually everything supernatural – from UFOs to fortune telling, you name it. We caught up with dedicated Skeptiker spokesperson and conspiracy theory expert Bernd Harder, a popular science journalist by trade, who has published a range of books dealing with conspiracy theories as well as various other parascientific topics.

Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories?

The main reasons are fear and uncertainty. Our world is perceived as increasingly complex and opaque – which makes simple answers to complicated questions very attractive. We do not like the idea of living with contradictions and ambiguity. And we’re even less capable of putting up with blind chance.

What is your definition of a conspiracy theory?

Conspiracy theories deal with imaginary conspiracies. They can be instrumentalised for the purpose of propaganda, but they are not the same as propaganda. The difference: the purpose of propaganda is to promote a political ideology – and as a general rule, the propagandist is aware that he is deliberately propagating nonsense.

A conspiracy theorist, however, devoutly believes that his assumptions are the ‘truth’. And he does not want to make policies with it, but rather to express his individual discomfort with the ‘official’ view of the world. Mostly, conspiracy theorists regard the ‘official’ version as propaganda, while their own conspiracy theory, which they knocked together, is ‘the truth’.

So how does it work?

The mindset of conspiracy theorists can be described as such: things do not just happen like that – they must have been caused by someone, or some evil group of people.

Take last month’s earthquake disaster in Japan: to be able to understand such a monstrous, terrifying event you would have to know a lot about complex scientific disciplines such as seismology or geology. Hardly anyone has this knowledge, and thus they deal with the frightening aspects of a disaster differently, in order to restore their mental comfort and intellectual certainty. So it’s no longer an abstract force – such as nature – that is responsible for the consequences of tsunamis and earthquakes, but concrete and identifiable ‘causers’. For instance: an earthquake weapon that the US used in order to do away with competitor Japan. Or an alternative version: ‘the sea’, taking revenge on Japan for the slaughter of whales.

Are some people more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others?

Followers of conspiracy theories tend to be people who permanently feel disadvantaged and marginalised. Searching for anonymous powers and conspirers that hold you at their mercy is a convenient way to not look at your own mistakes and omissions. During individual as well as collective times of crisis, this desire to simplify everything grows.

At the same time this ‘secret knowledge’ about the causes of crises and the people pulling the strings strengthens the self-esteem, because you feel as if you were ‘one of those in the know’. On this account, conspiracy theorists like to be referred to as ‘info combatants’ or a ‘movement of truth’.

The problem is that they do not just point out mistakes; they link all their observations, interpretations and points of critique to an alternative and self-immunising explanatory model, which is tantamount to a world order that may neither be criticised nor disproved.

But isn’t it possible that a theory at first labelled a ‘conspiracy theory’ could turn out to be true?

Sure. Let’s keep looking at 9/11. Certainly, bit by bit it will turn out that many people made crucial individual mistakes back then – for instance, in terms of aerial surveillance or terror prevention. And surely these individuals are still trying to cover up their personal mistakes.

However, this does not mean that behind these mistakes there is a greater system of mutual arrangements, as the conspiracy theorists claim.

How do you view the influence of new media and social networks?

What used to take place in backrooms and through leaflets now takes place in chat rooms or on Facebook. Due to the anonymity of cyberspace, both the sense of shame and the inhibition threshold decline, you don’t have to explain yourself anymore. There are no identifiable dialogue partners – thus, you feel free to publish even the most absurd opinions without further consideration.

On the websites of big newspapers and magazines I see ‘opinions’ that fulfil all criteria of conspiracy theories – which the author probably would not have expressed in a public event or under a real name.

Is there a certain need for the irrational in our very rational capitalistic world that conspiracy theories fulfil?

A number of conspiracy theories undoubtedly fulfil our need for myths and fairy tales, like the idea that the earth is ruled by reptilian humans [or reptoids] who came from space and have taken a human shape and are thus living secretly among us. According to surveys, the best-known conspiracy theory is the tale of the Bermuda Triangle, where it is alleged that ships and planes mysteriously disappear. Here we are dealing with classical fairy tale motifs.

Are conspiracy theories dangerous?

Their focus on foreign groups, preferably minorities, is never quite harmless, which brings us back to the issue of propaganda. Hitler partly justified the persecution of Jews with a genuine conspiracy theory, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in which it was stated that the Jewish people were after world supremacy. Today, it’s well established that the Protocols were a fake.

As Skeptics, we consider every form of irrationalism dangerous. Even if the conspiracy theorists confine themselves to fantasising about reptoids, UFOs, Martians or Illuminati, they are no longer open to the rational dialogue that is constitutive of democratic states.

What is your favourite conspiracy theory these days?

Currently, I am following – with interest and amusement – the debate about the excesses of Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen. What’s the connection with conspiracy theories? Well, one opinion is that Charlie Sheen is not responsible for his actions. No, since he made skeptical statements about the political aftermath of 9/11, he is now constantly drugged and publicly humiliated in a piecemeal fashion by secret societies such as the Illuminati.

Worse conspiracy theory of the month?

The disastrous earthquake in Japan has by now triggered as many conspiracy theories as there were in the aftermath of 9/11, which leaves you speechless and angry. There’s the earthquake weapon. Or that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and so on. This cynical instrumentalisation of human suffering is indecent. These conspiracy theorists should become aware of that and get off their ego trip.